Producer Michael Arias (left), already working in Tokyo with Studio 4º C, served as the bridge between the Wachowskis and the anime directors. Yoshiaki Kawajiri (right) established a fan base in the anime world with his feature Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust.
In 1999, The Matrix immediately became one of the top films of the year. In May 2003, The Matrix Reloaded set new box-office records. Now has The Animatrix done the same for a direct-to-video/DVD release on its June 3, 2003 release?
From the moment of its release in 1999, the buzz about The Matrix acknowledged its inspirational debt to Japanese animation. Andy and Larry Wachowski, the film's young creators, were big fans of anime. This was no news to anime fans, who could clearly see the influence of its dark sci-fi story concepts and its directorial moves throughout.
Just how much the Wachowski Brothers were anime fans is now even more obvious with The Animatrix, an 89-minute movie released directly to DVD and video. The compilation feature consists of nine separate short animated films set in the live-action Matrix story-universe, tying the first two theatrical features together. The nine films are by seven different directors, five of whom are among the tops in the Japanese animation industry. The other two, both Americans, were already working with Japanese animators before joining The Animatrix project.
According to the "making of" information in the DVD's 78 minutes of special-feature documentaries, The Animatrix began as early as 1997 when the two Wachowskis and producer Joel Silver made a press tour to Tokyo to set up the Japanese theatrical release of The Matrix. The Wachowskis took the opportunity to meet many of their favorite anime directors. After the 1999 release of The Matrix (a major hit in Japan), they asked whether these directors (most of whom had loved The Matrix) would like to help create an animated version of it, showcasing their individual artistic and directorial styles.
Joel Silver picked Michael Arias, an American computer special effects and digital technology expert working with the anime industry, as their representative in Tokyo. Arias was already associated with Studio 4º C, which became one of the project's two main production studios. The first step was deciding that The Animatrix should be a feature consisting of several separate short films rather than a TV series. A TV series would require more episodes of longer stories (averaging 22 minutes each). That would stretch the budget so the quality of each episode would be less; and it would be harder for the styles of different directors to stand out. Arias invited the anime directors. Some could not accept because of prior professional commitments, but a "dream team" was soon assembled.
Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Program) was one of the founders of the Madhouse studio in the 1980s. His mature-themed anime features Wicked City (1987) and Ninja Scroll (1993) had already made him one of the most popular directors and character-design artists with American anime fans. Kawajiri's Madhouse became the second main production studio. He had ideas for two Animatrix stories that the Wachowskis liked, but he only had time to produce one of them himself. The second that Kawajiri outlined, World Record, was given to his protégé Takeshi Koike to fully develop and visualize.
Cowboy Bebop creator Shinichiro Watanabe wrote and directed the noirish Detective Story (left). He also directed Kid's Story (right), which the Wachowskis wrote.
Koji Morimoto was one of the founders of Studio 4º C, which also became the workshop for Shinichiro Watanabe and Mahiro Maeda. Morimoto (Beyond) was best known for his dark-humor sci-fi sequence "Franken's Gears" in the 1987 anthology feature Robot Carnival, but he was also an animation supervisor on 1987's mega-popular Akira. Watanabe was co-director of the 1994 Macross Plus, but he really established his name by directing the prestigious Cowboy Bebop TV series and theatrical feature, one of the biggest anime hits in America. Maeda had recently directed the OAV series Blue Submarine No. 6, which set fans and professionals alike talking about his bold mixture of computer graphics and traditional animation.
It was at this time that Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, being produced by a team of American and Japanese animators at the Square USA studio in Honolulu, was publicized. The Wachowskis wanted its CGI style of anime in The Animatrix, and its director Andy Jones was recruited for The Final Flight of the Osiris. The final director, American animator Peter Chung (Aeon Flux) was already working on projects with Madhouse and with the South Korean studio DNA when he learned about The Animatrix from Kawajiri. Chung sold his own story idea, Matriculated, to the Wachowskis. Chung produced it at DNA in Seoul.
The directors all worked by remote control through Arias, who sent their developments of the Wachowskis' story outlines (or their original stories) to the two Brothers who were in Australia directing both The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, and returned their comments to the directors. All agree that Andy and Larry supervised with an extremely light control, mainly making sure that each story remained consistent to their overall concept of the Matrix universe, since they wanted each short film to demonstrate its creator's own artistic personality, and the completed feature to display as many different anime styles as possible.
It has not hurt that a couple of these directors have become even more popular in America during the three years since work on The Animatrix began. Kawajiri's Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust got rave reviews in the fan community, while Watanabe's Cowboy Bebop gained new fans through its Cartoon Network screenings and the 2003 release of the theatrical feature. Watanabe also became personalized through his self-caricature as "Nabeshin" in the zany TV series Excel Saga, a popular DVD release.
Warner Home Video does not release sales figures, so it will be difficult to tell whether The Animatrix sets any new records or not. But a theatrical preview on May 14 at the 1st Annual Los Angeles Anime Festival in Hollywood (its only theatrical screening in America) was the only feature to sell out before the two-week festival opened. Among the DVD stores that report their sales online, on the day after The Animatrix's release, the Planet.DVD website listed it as #1 on its Top 10 sales chart, while allDVDprices.com listed it as #4 and dvdovernight.com placed it at #7 (and sold out). Whether or not The Animatrix sets any records, clearly it is already a hit — good enough that anime fans are encouraged to hope that other major sci-fi movie franchises will commission their own anime projects. An anime Spider-Man or X-Men? An anime X-Files or Jurassic Park? An anime Terminator?
Fred Patten has written on anime for fan and professional magazines since the late 1970s. He wrote the liner notes for Rhino Entertainment's The Best of Anime music CD (1998), and was a contributor to The World Encyclopedia of Cartoons, 2nd Edition, ed. by Maurice Horn (1999) and Animation in Asia and the Pacific, ed. by John A. Lent (2001).