A little over 10 years ago, one of the most high-octane, adrenaline-pumping, flat-out fun anime films of all time raced onto the screen.
Set in a galaxy far, far away, “Redline” first roared its way into Japanese theaters on Oct. 9, 2010. It starred a cast of scrappy aliens competing in a series of anything-goes races in bizarre, over-the-top vehicles. Imagine if the pod race in “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” were its own film, and you’ll start to get the idea.
Despite the vocal talents of stars Takuya Kimura, Yu Aoi and Tadanobu Asano, the film barely made a dent at the box office — I saw it opening weekend at a cinema outside Nagoya with about five other people in the theater. But through word of mouth and robust home video sales, in the intervening decade, “Redline” has become something of a cult classic. That was obvious during a series of screenings in Tokyo in late 2020 to celebrate the film’s 10th anniversary — fans braved the pandemic and packed theaters to see the film in all its glory on the big screen. The first of those screenings, held in Shinjuku, was attended by the film’s creator and co-screenwriter, Katsuhito Ishii, and its director, Takeshi Koike.
“It was great to see so many fans there,” Ishii tells me a few weeks later. “They’re always so passionate.”
In the far-flung future world of “Redline,” aliens in souped-up supercars compete in a series of increasingly intense races that culminate in the Redline, the most intense race of them all, which takes place once every five years. Our hero is J.P. (Kimura), a greaser whose best friend Frisbee (Asano) has links to the mob and wants J.P. to throw the race. Also among the racers is J.P.’s crush, Sonoshee McLaren (Aoi), and a host of other unforgettable competitors, like the sexy twins whose vehicle is also a giant robot, and Machine Head, a cyborg racer whose body transforms into a car. Oh, I almost forgot to mention — the current Redline is set on Roboworld, a planet populated by militarists who have definitely not given permission for the race to take place there and plan to defend it with extreme prejudice. That’s the setup, but it’s basically an excuse for cars to go really fast and occasionally blow each other up.
“I once visited an aunt of a friend in Sedona, Arizona,” Ishii says. “Her son was obsessed with tinkering with cars, and wouldn’t even talk to me. I thought, ‘If I make an anime about cars, maybe kids like this will watch it.’”
For anime fans like me, who grew up on VHS tapes of 1980s and ’90s anime such as “Akira” and “Cyber City Oedo 808,” “Redline” felt like a return to the halcyon days of hand-drawn sci-fi action. By 2010, the industry had changed in some significant ways, with an almost fetishistic emphasis on cute young girls (a phenomenon known as “moe“) and a growing reliance on computer graphics. To us old-school fans, “Redline” almost felt like a declaration of war against both. But was that intentional?
Ishuu says that, as for moe, “Yes, I think there was a definite feeling of ‘We can’t let all anime be like that!’”
The lack of computer graphics, on the other hand, was as much by chance as by design.
“The film came out in 2010, but it had been in production for a long time,” says Ishii. “When we started, CG wasn’t actually that commonplace. But because we took so long, it was by the time we finished.”
Moreover, Ishii says, animating the entire film in traditional hand-drawn fashion emphasized the style of director Takeshi Koike, whose skills he compares to those of master director Hayao Miyazaki.
“Koike is great at designing both characters and things like vehicles,” Ishii says. “I wanted to make a film that really showed off what he could do.”
Despite its old-school tenets, however, “Redline” is very much its own film and has an originality rarely seen before or since. For evidence, look no further than its cast of bizarre but lovable racers, richly detailed world, pop art visual style and mile-a-minute pace. (Incredibly, Ishii tells me the film was actually supposed to have one more big action scene, but it’s probably better for our collective blood pressure that it didn’t.)
That sense of originality came from the unique minds behind the camera. Ishii, while not an unfamiliar face in the anime industry, was mainly known as the director of quirky live-action films like “The Taste of Tea” (2004) and “Funky Forest: The First Contact” (2005). Koike was a top animator, but also a motorcycle maniac who had ridden from Aomori to Tokyo after finishing high school to start his first job in anime.
“I felt Koike was the only director who could do it,” Ishii says.
The pair brought a host of disparate influences to “Redline,” including classic anime like “Galaxy Express 999” and “Machine Hayabusa,” the ’60s Hanna-Barbera cartoon “Wacky Races,” and the 1982 novel “Flanagan’s Run,” which is about a footrace from Los Angeles to New York City. Meanwhile, the look of the film took cues from American comic books.
“In anime, the moving elements in the foreground usually have a different look than the backgrounds,” Ishii says. “I wanted to animate the foregrounds and backgrounds in the same style. I also wanted to make the shadows completely black. That would give it a more American comic-type look, make it really pop.”
The genesis of the film began in the early 2000s, when Ishii and Koike teamed up for an animated sci-fi series called “Trava Fist Planet” that tells the tale of two spaced-out planetary surveyors. “Trava” only lasted one episode, but the pair felt its world was worth revisiting.
Meanwhile, Ishii helped supervise the Japan-animated sequence in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill: Volume 1” (2003), which further spurred his interest in working in the anime world.
All this inspired Ishii and Koike to put together a story about a wild, illegal race set in the world of “Trava Fist Planet.” The rest is history.
Well, almost. First, someone had to actually agree to produce the film. Easier said than done: Most studios are reluctant to green light anime films that aren’t based on established properties. Ishii and Koike pitched the film to Madhouse, the studio where Koike had started his career.
“Projects like that are usually a no-go,” Ishii says. “But the president of Madhouse at the time, Masao Maruyama, really valued Koike’s opinion, and Koike really wanted to do it.”
The pair put together an action-packed pilot film, after which Maruyama gave them the OK. But unlike the film’s racers, the production team wasn’t particularly speedy.
“We totally deviated from the original schedule,” Ishii says with a laugh. “Madhouse gave us about two years, but we ended up taking seven.”
But he credits the time spent — and Koike’s perseverance — for the film’s ultimate quality.
“The box-office returns weren’t huge, but the people who liked it really liked it,” says Ishii. And that still holds true a decade later.
These days, Ishii and Koike are still making anime together — since 2014, they’ve been creating a series of films set in the long-running “Lupin the Third” franchise. The “Lupin” films (there are three so far) share much of the creative staff of “Redline.” And, like “Redline,” they eschew the cuteness of modern anime, aiming for a more hard-boiled aesthetic.
But what about J.P. and Sonoshee? Will we ever see more from the world of “Redline”?
“Every so often, we do get inquiries from producers abroad, but those inquiries get filtered through anime studios here, who usually want to take it in a kind of a moe direction,” Ishii says. “They say they want to do another ‘Redline,’ but it ends up turning into something else entirely.”
“But,” he adds, “I would love to make something.”
Hear that, producers?
”Redline” is available to stream in Japan on Hulu and Docomo Anime Store for Amazon Prime.
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