June 21, 2006
In 1987, two movies happened to come out with the same title: The Running Man. One was a masterfully directed, stylish vision of the future that presented entertainment we currently know, only with the stakes raised in order to satisfy the audience's bloodlust. The other was a movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

A fifteen-minute short, The Running Man was part of an anime anthology titled Labyrinth Tales, aka Manie Manie (released in North America as Neo-Tokyo). The director was Yoshiaki Kawajiri, who had worked on such significant anime titles as Cleopatra: Queen of Sex, Future Boy Conan, Barefoot Gen and Dagger of Kamui. His directorial debut was 1984's Lensman, a (very) loose adaptation of E.E. "Doc" Smith's classic space opera stories, and incidentally the first anime to make extensive use of CGI. Lensman was sort of a transitional moment for Kawajiri, with some characters designed atypically for anime: Particular attention was paid to details like facial wrinkles and hair, more intricate costume detailing for some characters, and sharper shading delineations.

Kawajiri fully embraced this style in his next two films, combining the look with moody backgrounds and lighting effects, more stylized animation, selective colour palettes and dramatic staging. These two films both came out in 1987: the feature-length supernatural noir thriller Wicked City and the future-noir racing spectacle The Running Man.

In true noir fashion, The Running Man's story is told in voiceovers by a reporter covering the story of Zack Hugh, a race car driver who has survived the Death Race for an unprecedented ten years. The Death Race is aptly named: racers tear around a track in high-tech hover cars, linked psychically to their vehicles. Spectacular flaming crashes are not only a regular occurrence, they're highly anticipated.

The first half of The Running Man jumps between a race and Zack in his home, demonstrating to the flabbergasted reporter how he's managed to survive for so long. He's been telekinetically sabotaging the other cars during races, killing the drivers so grotesquely that the ones that crash and burn can be considered lucky. But using this ability is hardship for Zack: his face contorts in agony, and his muscles become unnaturally tense.

The rest of the film is Zack's final race. As he pushes himself harder and harder, eliminating opponents all around him one at a time, the strain to his body begins to take its toll. His death is as spectacular as the race that immediately precedes it; in fact, it's only when he continues driving after crossing the finish line that we realize he's already dead, his sheer malevolence keeping him going. It's only when the car, under as much strain as his body, begins to come apart and eventually consume itself and Zack in a slow-motion fireball that the race finally ends.

Like Wicked City and the next few films Kawajiri went on to make over the years (including Ninja Scroll and the the Program segment of The Animatrix) The Running Man amplifies anime's use of limited animation, by making creative use of cycles and held images panned across the frame. Everything is given extra detail; enough to give the scenes a certain richness, but not so much that it becomes impossible for the animator to draw or the viewer to take in. What this means is that there's less actual animation, but what's there looks so spectacular—though sometimes mathematically precise to an unnerving degree—you don't mind. Couple that with careful use of audio (including silence) and a soundtrack that only steps in when it needs to, and The Running Man is as captivating as anything Kawajiri has ever made.

Haruki Kadokawa Films
50 minutes
Buy Neo-Tokyo from Amazon.com or Amazon.ca

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