What makes Takeshi Koike's Redline a work of sheer, unalloyed genius is that when you get down to it, it's simply a daft science fiction cartoon about racing cars very, very fast. Seriously, the simple premise is less a compromise of any kind than purity of vision. Koike, a longtime industry veteran is still probably best known in the West for Ninja Scroll, the hyper-stylised, ultra-violent paean to juvenile action fantasies that introduced many a child of the eighties to what anime was capable of, and in several ways Redline is an extension of that. It's an animator's film, not Vanishing Point: Koike doesn't really do depth or subtext per se.
In some far distant future a group of dedicated mavericks still race souped-up, customised autos in lengthy cross-country races on planets the length and breadth of the galaxy, where anything goes if it gets you across the finish line before everyone else. JP (Takuya Kimura) nurses a childhood dream to win the Redline, the last, most prestigious and dangerous of all these cannonball runs. The pretty girl he wants to impress and the ludicrous obstacles along the way are window-dressing, in some respects - we're here to see the hero point the wheel towards the horizon and floor the gas.
But Ninja Scroll was a surprisingly subtle experience beneath the gleefully excessive violence and self-indulgent excess. It wasn't a masterpiece by any lights but for such a juvenile film there was still a real sense of artistry and emotive power to the setpieces, and for such a simple idea it had more effective character development than most blockbusters do today. Redline has that same kind of self-awareness, the feeling of an auteur in control.
Koike and writing partner Katsuhito Ishii (The Taste of Tea, Funky Forest, Sharkskin Man and Peachhip Girl) know precisely what kind of story they're telling, but they're determined to get every last bit of mileage out of that narrow framework. Redline has none of Ninja Scroll's darker elements, its misogyny or exploitation; Koike and Ishii are having fun here, and the result is one of the most purely exhilarating films of any kind in years, both for the pleasure of seeing awesome cars doing impossible, demented things at breakneck speed and for a simple Hero's Journey simultaneously treated with sly, knowing humour and played utterly straight-faced.
The stupefying opening race sets up just how loud and colourful and inventive and breathlessly, thrillingly fast Redline is, but also how thoughtful. JP's a fallen hero whose unflagging loyalty finds him dragging a heavy ball and chain. His longtime partner, engineer Frisbee (Asano Tadanobu) has landed them in hock to a powerful crime syndicate that has the pair continually throwing pole position at the last possible moment for a big payday - enough that Frisbee's prepared to risk killing JP if it looks as if he's about to try to actually win. When a lucky break of sorts means JP ends up qualifying for Redline regardless, his childhood dream seems to be within his grasp.
At the same time this is a film where the final race takes on a planet ruled by fascist, trigger-happy cyborgs determined to crush the intruders with ludicrous, pyrotechnic weaponry like Akira on speed; where racers are introduced with giggling spoofs on every aspect of Japanese pop culture from idol videos to sentai shows and cheesy V-cinema; where studio Madhouse's animators stretch and distort drivers and their vehicles to the point every frame pops with more energy than Lichtenstein's fevered dreams.
And you realise all of it's equally, joyfully entertaining. When JP pops the nitrous and (cartoon) reality fisheyes to a ridiculous degree before he blasts away on a cone of rocket flames, it's fun. Yet so are the moments when his childhood admiration for pretty rival Sonoshee (Aoi Yuu) develops into something more romantic, or where he and Frisbee rediscover their bond through getting JP's Trans Am the power it'll need to win, or even where everyone, good guys and bad, are united by the pull of victory at any cost. Redline's climax is so staggeringly over-the-top as to glue you to your seat, caught between open-mouthed amazement and hysterical laughter, and Koike and Ishii are clearly aware of that.
But for all they're sending themselves up they're plainly caught up with the potential of their story, the drama as much as the sheer spectacle of it. Redline is a daft science fiction cartoon about racing cars very fast, but it treats every aspect of this with so much love, craftsmanship and passion it ends up every bit as fantastically cinematic (arguably more so) than films from Ghibli, Pixar et al with far more polish or budget. Far and away one of the most exciting animated movies of the decade at the very least and a blast of joyful pop-art adrenaline with a heart, Redline comes unhesitatingly recommended.
(Redline was screened as part of the 17th Etrange Film Festival in Paris from 2nd-11th September 2011. There's one more showing at the time of writing - if you're near the Forum Des Images on the 7th, get down there now for a chance to catch this one on a cinema screen.)
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