Redline lands deep into an advanced future, though a profusion of starships and hoverspeeders hasn’t killed civilization’s fondness for cars. So there’s a circuit of combat racing that culminates in a cross-planet rally called the Redline (think Wacky Races, F-Zero, and Death Race 2000). Sweet JP, a heavily pompadoured young punk, wrecks his way into the big race after losing a qualifier to fellow human Sonoshee McLaren. The two plunge into the Redline alongside the simian cop Gori-Rider, his criminal rival Todoroki, the vicious superhero Lynchman, the odd team of the elfish Trava and the lobster-like Shinkai, the Superboins pop duo of Boiboi and Bosbos, and the previous Redline champion, a cyborg called Machinehead. Their racetrack is the whole of Roboworld, a bellicose and heavily armed planet that vows to throw its entire military at these high-speed trespassers.
That’s really all you need to know. Redline doesn’t waste your time with hard-science prattle or meaningless background. It’s too busy looking good. Strike that—it’s too busy looking fucking amazing. Director Takeshi Koike and co-creator Katsuhito Ishii hit on a strange style that recalls both Peter Chung and dark ‘90s anime, and they imbue every inch of the film with heavy shadows, beautifully animated detail, and enough sexual imagery to fill a hot-rod magazine. The backgrounds swarm with bizarre aliens to beggar Star Wars. Vehicles heave and rush. Explosions pulse and twist the air. Characters look gorgeously distinct without clashing. And it all meshes with a slick little soundtrack. Redline shows the seven years of work that went into it, and it begs to be paused and dissected frame by frame, just to properly appreciate every little touch.
Yet Redline has to slow down sometime, and that’s where it loses a little of its impact. The film opens with a stunning race and climaxes with an absolutely brilliant one, and in between lies a good 45 minutes of building things up. It’s a fairly routine story of betrayals, personal grudges, and mob conspiracies, but the stunning look brings it up to new standards. It’s a shame that the film isn’t even longer, as a few interesting points are lost in the big race. What’s the connection between Machinehead and Sonoshee, who both have high-powered Steamlight fuel? Is planet Supergrass, a pink-hued realm of sorceresses, backing Redline just to piss of the Roboworld elite? And who are those Roboworld revolutionaries, anyway?
And you know what? It doesn’t matter. JP and Sonoshee are a hero and heroine seen many times before, but they’re also cute as can be. There’s more to their little meeting than competitive sparks, and Redline shows it all instead of telling. Every character’s brought to life with great visual flourishes: Shinkai’s crustacean squawking, Machinehead’s polite menace, the tears streaming from super-sensitive Roboworld officer Deyzuna. And then you have the Super Boins and their transforming Go Nagai fem-roadster, such a preposterous sendup of sensual cartoon women that it’s hard to be offended.
In fact, Redline’s vision raises anime clichés to beautifully absurd pop-art. Highly personal animation is normally confined to short films, but Redline is a full-length indulgence of what Koike and Ishii want, whether it’s an enraged dog-man racer or a string of sexual metaphors that stretches all the way from a destructive infant-monster to a bright pink finish line. For someone who worked on director Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s Ninja Scroll and Wicked City, Koike emerged with surprisingly upbeat tastes. He shares none of Kawajiri’s trademark Issues With Women, and Sonoshee’s inevitable team-up with JP isn’t as sexist as it first appears. For that matter, the film’s overlying conflict sees the feminine Supergrass society vex, defeat, and literally shatter the edifice of a phallic, warlike, and comically male-dominated dictatorship.
It all turns Redline into a rapid-fire rebellion against the grim and brutish animation that Japan bred throughout the 1990s. For all of its explosive energy and manly overtures, it's a joyful rush that rarely dips into gruesome territory. The race even discards its air of macho, competitive techno-fetishism in the grand finale, when JP and Sonoshee stick to something more important. It nicely caps the film’s mockey of cynical, violent entertainment, thereby resisting mockery itself. Yes, the ending is silly. So is the rest of Redline, if you haven’t noticed.
Redline’s voicework diverges a bit between the Japanese and English tracks. Takuya Kimura’s a friendlier JP than Patrick Seitz, and Yuu Aoi puts in a little more energy than Michelle Ruff when it comes to Sonoshee. On the other hand, Liam O’Brien pulls off the better version of Frisbee, JP’s mechanic and co-conspirator. Special credit also goes to Derek Stephen Prince for making Deyzuna sound a lot like Brak from Adult Swim’s The Brak Show. The dub script does suffer from some strangely anachronistic profanities, though. It’s never on par with Angel Cop, but it’s jarring to hear racers of the distant future merrily call each other cocksuckers.
It’s sad to think that Redline might arrive too late. The film already flopped among Japanese audiences, and perhaps it won’t become a cult favorite in the West. It lacks the cynical bite of Akira or the existential tones of Ghost in the Shell, and it doesn’t enjoy the barren playing field that helped both films back in the 1990s. The average geek is no longer impressed by the simple idea of weird cartoons from Japan.
But there’s still hope. No matter the era, Redline is amazing to watch. It looks like nothing else ever animated, and its visual depths reject anime’s nastier elements. Koike and Ishii captured the right sort of excess with Redline. If enough people give the movie a chance, they just might capture it again.