Anthology films get a bad rap. Sure, they can give exciting new voices a chance at making a film, but they can also be wildly uneven. There’s usually one segment that stands out, making the rest disappointing by comparison. When a film comes out of the gate kicking with one of the greatest animated sci-fi short films of all time, it's hard for the rest of the movie to match that excitement. Thankfully, when the rest of the segments are this bizarre and well-made, the sum of its parts is still worth watching.
After blowing audiences away with his cyberpunk masterpiece Akira, Katsuhiro Otomo decided to follow it up with Memories, an anthology movie based on short manga stories by Otomo himself. He recruited some up-and-coming animators to write and direct the three segments in the film while taking the last one himself. Though the first segment, Magnetic Rose (written by acclaimed director Satoshi Kon), is by and far the best known and best received of the bunch, the other two segments offer something unique to the genre, making Memories one of the best sci-fi anthologies you can watch right now.
Memories packs everything you want out of a sci-fi story in a single film. To begin, Magnetic Rose blends Cowboy Bebop and Aliens for a terrifying, emotional, and poignant story about a group of spaceship salvagers responding to a distress signal, only to unleash unspeakable terror. Stink Bomb is a hilariously bleak spoof of kaiju movies where the military tries to stop an office worker who is unknowingly leaking deadly toxins from his skin. The final entry, Cannon Fodder, is a dystopian steampunk story where people live in a city made up almost entirely of cannons.
Though the segments aren't connected, they showcase what the sci-fi genre can do at its best. Even if he only wrote it, Magnetic Rose feels like an episode of Cowboy Bebop directed by the late filmmaker of Perfect Blue and Paprika. From its hauntingly beautiful and lively score composed by Bebop's Yoko Kanno, to its exploration of the dangers of nostalgia and how infectious is to get lost in the past, something that Spike Spiegel and his crew are very familiar with. Plus, given that Kon wrote this, there is a healthy dose of surreal imagery that blends reality and dreams until you don't really know what you're watching, creating a sense of tension and anxiety that amplifies the claustrophobia of the space station setting.
But don't stop at Magnetic Rose. The other two segments are much better than their lack of notoriety will have you believe. Stink Bomb may lack the sense of scale and artistry of the first segment, but it is still creative, weird, and a perfect companion to kaiju movies like Godzilla vs. Kong where the human characters are basically useless. Here, it's the opposite. The humans are incredibly competent, but the "monster" is so oblivious to everything that he continues to wreak havoc when the solution is right in front of him,
Then there's Cannon Fodder, the unsung hero of Memories. Written and directed by Otomo, this segment serves as a spiritual companion to Steamboy, a dystopian steampunk story that actually has something to say about the genre. What makes this notable is the craft at hand, as Otomo decides to stage the animation so it looks like it's shot in a single, long take. Like with Steamboy, Otomo recognizes the darker aspect of steampunk, and the actual horrors that follow when we start to revolve our lives and worth around machines. The segment also looks completely unique and distinct from the other two segments, and just about any other anime film, with a rough, dirty, raw look that emulates '70s Soviet art while reflecting the monotonous and dull lives of its characters. The concept of a city constantly firing cannonballs to an unseen enemy feels very Orwellian in its presentation, which is always fun.
Anthologies are a tricky thing because of how inconsistent they usually are. Whether the segments are truly interconnected or they have nothing in common, it's hard for a film to maintain any level of quality or relevance. Even if Memories doesn't recapture the instant brilliance of Magnetic Rose, this anthology proves over and over that sci-fi is an incredibly versatile genre capable of a multitude of stories worth telling, especially in animated form. And also, the story of a guy who stinks so much he kills everyone in his path is just too funny not to watch.