The Animatrix is a 2003 animated portmanteau film set in the Matrix universe. Released directly to video to coincide with the theatrical release of The Matrix Reloaded, it is comprised of nine individual short stories, each running at about 10 minutes, four of which written by the Wachowskis themselves. The project was conceived when the duo were in Japan promoting the first film; whilst there, they visited several creators and animation directors of the anime films that heavily influenced the world of The Matrix, such as Akira, Cowboy Bebop, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust and Æon Flux. The Wachowskis left the direction and animation duties to these anime professionals, as they were busy working on the second film.
The vignettes take place in various different times in relation to the events of the films – the opening short, The Last Flight of the Osiris, directly sets up the events of The Matrix Reloaded and the Machine attack on Zion (Jada Pinkett-Smith’s character mentions reconnaissance images sent from the Osiris in the film), and Kid’s Story delves into the backstory of a minor character from the film. The two-part story The Second Renaissance, on the other hand, delves into the history and events that led to the rise of the Machines, the enslavement of humanity and the creation of The Matrix, centuries before the events of the films.
Most of the sections are anime-style animation, except for The Last Flight of the Osiris, which is 3D animation created by Square Pictures, the (now defunct) animation wing of Square, creators of the Final Fantasy video game franchise. Each has a distinctive style that sets it apart from the others though; Kid’s Story for example features highly realistic and detailed backgrounds, but the characters themselves look like pencil sketches, and move in an unnatural, jerky style during a chase scene. The two sections that really stand out visually, however, are Program and World Record, both written by Yoshiaki Kawajiri.
Program at first doesn’t appear to be part of the Matrix universe at all, as it’s set in feudal Japan. It’s not until the lone, ghostly pale warrior with the huge mountain of white hair slices through some horsemen with her spear that it becomes clear it’s a simulation; the iconic green code of The Matrix spills from their wounds, not blood. With thick, solid black shadows contrasting with bright and vivid colours, it’s the most instantly striking of the shorts. The narrative is simple yet sturdy, but it’s all about the visuals in this one; the two warriors rapidly flitting through starkly different landscapes, each with different, but always gorgeous, colour palettes.
Whilst Program lacks a little story-wise, Kawajiri hits the mark in World Record. Given to upcoming young animator Takeshi Koike to direct, the story follows a world-record-breaking 100 metre sprinter accused of drug use setting out to prove to the world wrong. The sheer willpower and energy he exerts in his attempts actually cause him to pull himself out of The Matrix and wake up in his pod, still sprinting, and pull all the wires out of his body. Even the Agents who were monitoring him seem impressed by the sheer force of will he displays.
Koike is clearly influenced by traditional anime style, but very much carves his own unique look, distinct from the more standard cookie-cutter anime visuals. Like Program it features strong colours contrasted with solid shadows, but Koiki ups the ante with the contrast and bold shadows, to the point that it often takes a second before you work out what you’re seeing. The linework on the muscles of the athletes is subtly unrealistic, with thick, straight lines making them appear jagged, almost deformed, their power surging from the frame as they race in slow motion (the inclusion of which was the only proviso given by Kawajiri). Koiki cleverly focuses on the arms of the sprinters thrusting forward as they run, rather than their legs, as their repeated slicing through the air makes more of an impact. The combination of distinct artistic style, bold direction and a solid little story makes World Record the best of the bunch.
Not that the other segments aren’t worth seeing – they all bring something unique to the table. The idea of a “haunted house” being caused by glitches in The Matrix as seen in Beyond is particularly rich, and the film-noir style section A Detective Story, by Shinichiro Watanabe (of Cowboy Bebop fame), is unlike anything else in Matrix canon, bearing more of a likeness to the world of Brazil than the Matrix universe. Matriculated, the closing section of the film by Peter Chung (Æon Flux) is his trademark hybrid mix of western/anime style, with some 3D digital animation thrown into the mix, and is one of the most psychedelic, vivid and colourful shorts you’re ever likely to see.
Whilst nothing can fully redeem the nonsensical, overwrought, bloated shitfest that is the Matrix sequels, The Animatrix at least reminds us why the first film was so successful, and deserved to be. The collection of short, simple stories showcase the wide variety of possibilities that the Matrix universe affords writers, and though interest has dwindled recently, a Matrix reboot sometime in the future would undoubtedly be welcomed by many.