It's an anime film from Katsuhiro Otomo, the creator of the film that made anime movies an international phenomenon, Akira. It's now fifteen years old, but Japanese people still remember and recommend it. It's an artistic achievement. It was also a bigger hit in Japan than Ghost in the Shell. That's pretty good for an anthology film of three unconnected segments that's overall a bit dry, arty and lacking in entertainment value.
The first segment, Magnetic Rose, is perhaps the best-regarded. It's also the one that comes closest to being a normal story, although it's still weird and not something you'd necessarily go around showing to random fourteen-year-olds. We begin in space. It's very nuts-and-bolts hard SF, following a salvage team in 2092 who refer to themselves dismissively as garbage collectors. If NASA sent a salvage team up tomorrow to rescue the valuable bits off dead satellites, this is what they'd look like. They're not even remotely glamorous. When an SOS comes in, it's coming from an area of space with dangerous magnetic fields and so there's a discussion about whether they should leave whoever it is to die. However they do eventually go in and it's Miguel the love rat and Heintz the almost stereotypically German German who climb aboard the wreck to investigate.
What they find throws pretty much everything up in the air, including the story's genre. Is this a ghost story? Hard SF with cold sleep and Ghost in the Shell cyber-tech? An intellectual horror story about the way we can sometimes value nostalgia over reality, to the extent that might end up actively rejecting the latter and driving us into a world of fantasy and obsession? A tale of lost love? Actually it's all of those, or else perhaps none of them. This must be one of the most arty, intellectual exercises in SF ever to reach a cinema, either animated or live-action, although it never loses its realistic edge that comes from knowing Katsuhiro Otomo would happily at any time punch a meteor through these guys' spaceship and kill them all with explosive decompression. Heintz and Miguel are also carrying machine-guns. You know, just saying. That's what keeps the segment grounded and stops it feeling entirely like an intellectual exercise, as does the emotional content of the backstory of what's on the space wreck. It still feels like something you engage with with your head rather than your heart, but there's definitely a lot here to chew on.
The second segment, Stink Bomb, is weird. Imagine a Japanese version of Dr Strangelove, except that they don't go quite so far and it's being done with bio-weapons instead of nukes. Technically it's a black comedy, except that it's being done in a deadpan way that means you'll probably be near the end before you realise that it's meant to be a comedy in the first place. That's certainly the only reasonable explanation of our protagonist's stupidity, which would otherwise be indefensible. The story begins with him catching a cold. Not so dangerous, you might think. Unfortunately he works at a pharmacology lab and someone's told him that the red capsule in the blue jar is a new experimental cold remedy. You can work out the rest for yourself. Did I laugh? Not as such, I'm afraid. You couldn't accuse the story of being in a hurry to get on with it, but after a while it does go a little bit nuts and I was passably entertained. It almost turns into a Japanese monster film, but with an unusual kind of monster.
It's got annoying Americans, by the way. American and Japanese accents do not go together.
Finally the third segment, Cannon Fodder, manages to dispense with a plot altogether. Instead it's simply a view of life in a repressive state that's been at war for so long that it's become simply the way they live their lives. The population look as if they've escaped from the Addams Family, with fat pasty faces and scary eye sockets. A working man's life involves building and firing cannons. Shells are fired. The end.
This probably doesn't sound appealing, but oddly it's almost the most interesting segment of the film. It helps a lot that it's by far the shortest (15 minutes as opposed to 40-45), but more importantly we're getting the point of view of a child. It begins with him getting up in the morning, then ends after he's gone to bed that night. What's important here is that he's just a regular kid. He's bratty like any other boy. He's what separates Cannon Fodder from totalitarian dystopias like Orwell's 1984, despite interesting touches like the fact that we have no evidence that the city's enemy even exists or that they've ever even fired back, despite all the radio reports of the war's glorious progress. No one here's interested in thought-crime. Everyone's just getting on with their lives, with all the wartime propaganda simply being the way things are. The boy's school lessons involve calculating cannon trajectories and when he grows up he wants to be the man who fires the cannon. That's it.
If you're in the right mood for it, this is fascinating. It's borrowing heavily from Soviet and Nazi iconography, but the mix it's creating is richer and stranger than a mere historical pastiche. Signs are written in English, but with Cyrillic-looking characters or else the word "STEP" being spelled with a jagged double-S like the SS's lightning flashes. Furthermore the art is in the style of wartime propaganda posters, especially Soviet, with a crude energy that doesn't look inked so much as carved with a bayonet.
The other two segments are just as lusciously animated, mind you. Stink Bomb has some gorgeous destructive chaos, while the alienation and wrongness of Magnetic Rose is being conveyed to a large extent through its visuals.
This isn't really a film you enjoy as such. Instead it's something to think about and admire. If you've ever been heard regretting the fact that SF and animated films today often seem to be all about kiddie-oriented flashes and bangs, then this film is for you. Each segment is a different sub-genre of SF, although I'm arguably stretching a point there with Stink Bomb, and if you want you can take each one entirely on its own. The DVD even goes so far as to say "Play all episodes" instead of "Play all". I've said that this film isn't particularly entertaining and I'd stand by that, but it's still rich enough that I watched it all with interest and would say it was time well spent.