Tracking Down Film Noir In Anime – Part One: Cast in the Name of Noir, Ye Not Guilty

Yesterday afternoon, I found myself suddenly full of a desire to watch something extravagantly produced, and when it became apparent that the Mononoke files Funeral had on his hard drive were of shit quality, I set to the highly time-consuming task of downloading the years-old show and, in the meantime, decided to finally resume watching another show on the hard drive to which my sights had been turned for quite some time: The Big O. I already knew a good deal about The Big O from having seen bits and pieces of it on Cartoon Network ‘back in the day’, and likewise read a fair share of series commentary and reviews, but I had never managed to see enough of the show proper in the correct order to say with any certainty what, exactly, happens in it. It was as I began to watch that I became interested in just how much this series was utterly steeped in the tropage of film noir.

Oddly enough, film noir is a genre that I know almost entirely from the sidelines. The only real noir films I had seen before today were the likes of Sin City and bits and pieces of Bladerunner, in spite of the fact that I knew all of the genre’s tropes by heart and was a huge fan of many of those tropes as well. It was perhaps because my experience with whatever noir films I must have seen before lead me to believe that every noir film was criminally slow that I always considered the genre to be something I probably couldn’t handle. These days, though, I can handle a slow pace pretty well, and the more that I see and learn about the noir genre, the more that I realize it is truly the perfect genre for me.

Spurned by the excitement that I felt towards the noir influences in The Big O, I decided it was finally time I did some real research on the genre as well as started watching some of the films from it. I was a surprised to find that the genre is a bit more open-ended than I had thought, including some movies that I would have just thought of as regular pulp, but I also found that outside of the classic noir films, anything noir is pretty much considered sub-genre, no matter how closely it adheres to the original concepts. In any case, my first instinct was to finally finish Bladerunner, which I knew that Funeral owned on DVD, however the DVD was being loaned out. Luckily, the cross-pollination of my vast knowledge of Roger Ebert’s review catalog and Funeral’s DVD collection lead me to Dark City, another sci-fi noir flick which I’d wanted to see. I popped it in.

I found the movie incredible and would easily place it on a favorites list, but more importantly, I realized a specifically striking similarity to The Big O itself, in more ways than simply being a sci-fi noir film. The main theme in both of the works involves memories and the loss thereof. In The Big O, Paradigm City lost all of it’s memories one day forty years ago and has been trying to live on as a city that seems alien to it’s very inhabitants. Meanwhile, in Dark City, peoples’ memories turn out to actually be fabrications, and a point is made that even though people can remember the fact that things have happened, they can’t actually be asked to pinpoint when those things happened or prove them to be true. Throughout the film, the main character inquires to many people about the location of a certain beach which he used to visit that everyone claims to know about, yet no one knows the directions to.

The sense of people being lost in the very city they call home carries into the actual architecture of those cities in both works. In The Big O, the city is adorned with massive domes that don’t seem to have been stationed by any particular rhyme or rhythm (they are just there) and because the people have no memories, they do not understand most of the technology present in their world; Technology such as androids and giant robots, only understood by people who happen to have a loose memory that floated to the surface, though never enough to understand even why they remember to begin with.

Patrick Tatopoulos, the designer of the world from Dark City, described it thusly: “The movie takes place everywhere, and it takes place nowhere. It’s a city built of pieces of cities. A corner from one place, another from some place else. So, you don’t really know where you are. A piece will look like a street in London, but a portion of the architecture looks like New York, but the bottom of the architecture looks again like a European city. You’re there, but you don’t know where you are. It’s like every time you travel, you’ll be lost.”

The unease at these cities and the lack of knowledge as to why they are what they are is a huge theme in both series. The entire fourteenth episode of The Big O is actually dedicated to Roger Smith finding himself in some kind of strange alternate version of Paradigm city wherein everyone has a different personality and the design has entirely changed – STRONGLY resembling the way that Dark City’s landscape and the personalities of it’s inhabitants constantly played musical chairs each night.

Moreover, both works feature the theme of attempting to understand just what about memories and what about life causes a person to be ‘human.’ In The Big O, this is heavily represented through Dorothy, an android who acts spectacularly human and constantly has herself and those around her pondering just how much of her ‘personality’ is the fabrication created by her hodge-podge of memories belonging to the girls she was programmed to recreate, and how much of it has genuinely developed from her own experiences. What can you say is ‘real’ and what is programmed? And does being programmed make it any less real?

This question is the main theme in Dark City, wherein all of the humans are constantly remade through new memories. The question is called as to whether it is the memories that make them human, or if it is being human in itself that makes them human and nothing more. In one scene, the main character confronts his wife with the fact that all of their past is fabricated, and she replies that she can feel her love for him, and that this feeling could not be fabricated. To what extent is that true? If Dorothy feels love, is it less real because the emotion was programmed into her, even if that program still allows her to feel it to it’s fullest extent? In Dark City, one of the aliens that has been working to constantly replace human memories to try and find out ‘what makes a person human’ is actually injected with human memories himself. The memories he gets were meant to make him a lustful serial killer, and he becomes just that, getting swept up in emotions that his compatriots find illogical. Is that not a very human way of acting? At the end of the film, the human memories are causing the alien to die, and the main character tells him that ‘memories don’t make someone human’ and that he ‘looked in the wrong place’. By this logic, I feel that the only thing that truly separates a human from a non-human is just that – humans are homo-sapien. A non-homo-sapien just wouldn’t understand.

Interestingly, the first half of The Big O aired only a year and a half after Dark City was released in early 1998. The second half of The Big O aired almost 3 years later, due to it having originally been cancelled in Japan and then been brought back thanks to international success and the sponsorship of Cartoon Network (something they would never do again after the second season sold like crap.) As a result of this break, some people tried to attribute the change towards more trippy plot elements to influence from The Matrix, which had also aired in 1999 and bore very striking similarities to both the later parts of The Big O and to Dark City; however it is also true that The Big O was already fully written before the second season was created, since the series was originally meant to be 26 episodes anyway. It is far more likely that all three works shared similar influences that did not include one-another, and that they all came out at the same time through pure coincidence (however, it is also distinctly possible that The Matrix borrowed some ideas from Dark City, especially because it even used some of the same sets from that film).

So what were these influences that culminated into these two ever-so-similar works (as well as, to a lesser extent, The Matrix)? I was of course intent on digging up every possible influence, so I started with the big one – almost nothing has been written about Dark City without citing the influence of Metropolis (the 20s silent film, not the Tezuka-Otomo remake). The movies are seen as very similar, from their worldview to their very architecture, and the director of Dark City has not denied this influence. He also cites Metropolis director Fritz Lang’s other masterpiece, M, as an influence, which is hardly surprising, considering that Metropolis and M are practically credited with creating the standards of sci-fi and noir in film respectively. It is almost impossible to say that a sci-fi noir film would not have had some of that influence, even if it were secondary; however, I am more interested in direct influence. The answer to the question of whether or not The Big O was directly influenced by Metropolis was blatantly and rather spectacularly spelled out for me while watching the show itself:

Well hello there.

Sure, the book actually ties into the plot and is supposedly being written by one of the characters, but the damn thing is called Metropolis. That’s about as blatant of a nod as you can get. So we know Metropolis was an immediate influence, but what else? Both series could be said to share influence from writings by the likes of Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov, but those influences are so ubiquitous in science fiction that it’s practically pointless to mention them (albeit, the director of Dark City did also direct I, Robot, a film adaption of one of Asimov’s stories, meaning that he was probably a fan). More worth mentioning is the adaption of one of Dick’s novels, the 1980s sci-fi noir classic Bladerunner who also bears a decent resemblence to Dark City, however, once again, even Bladerunner’s influence on all modern sci-fi can’t really be overstated. While I’m sure these were influences, I don’t feel they are specific enough – even though Metropolis is also ubiquitous, it is also very specifically referenced as an influence in these two works rather than vaguely thought of.

Stylistically, The Big O owes a lot to the Batman animated series, as well as Giant Robo, both of which it’s staff was involved with and deliberately brought to the table in The Big O. It may have even been that Batman is what inspired the creators of The Big O to make the series in a film noir style, and that it was in researching the influences of Batman itself that they began to pull in elements of other noir and sci-fi stories. It actually wouldn’t be hard to tie a light Batman influence into Dark City, if just because Dark City’s director, Alex Proyas, also directed The Crow, another comic book adaption with similar tendencies towards dark metropolis settings, and which was heavily compared to the 1991 Batman film when it was released. This, however, may be an entirely superficial connection.

What I find most interesting, though, is the influence brought on by actual anime and manga, as well as by The Big O’s writer, That Bastard Chiaki J. Konaka (the only anime writer who makes Mamoru Oshii look like a pansy in terms of overbearing, psychotic plots.) The parts of The Big O’s plot that most resemble Dark City (questions of memories, identity, and reality, as well as the general concept of reshaping existence) are actually par for the course in Chiaki Konaka works both before and after The Big O. I have no doubt that Chiaki Konaka and Alex Proyas, as well as even the Wackowski brothers are, to an extent, just fans of the same shit.

I can’t say whether or not Konaka was directly influenced by the likes of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira or Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell which came before it (and both of which I’m sure were influenced by the likes of the aforementioned Asimov, Dick, Metropolis, and even Bladerunner), but it’s also once again hard to even understate the influence that those two works have on anime in general. More surprising, though, is the influence that those have on the Western movies in question here. It is pretty common knowledge that the Wackowski brothers decided to make The Matrix after Ghost in the Shell made them jizz in their pants, which is why it’s probably no surprise to find out that Akira is also on their list of influences for the film, but perhaps more surprising was that Proyas cited it as an influence on Dark City as well. He even went so far as to call the final battle in Dark City ‘an homage to Otomo’s Akira’ and apparently some of the movie’s final scenes bear an incredible resemblance to the final panels of the manga.

It becomes much more easy to imagine the strength of the connection in the influences of these different works when you see that culture boundaries may have been crossed in the process. Knowing that Proyas and the Wackowski’s are influenced by anime and manga makes it easier to see them as coming from the same place as an anime writer, and likewise, Chiaki Konaka is by no means a stranger to Western influence. If anything, his works contain some of the heaviest western influence you will find in anime, as his series do so much to break away from anime convention. Moreover, Konaka is also heavily influenced by H.P. Lovecraft, which I feel comes through to some extent in all of his works – Konaka has even written numerous stories in the Cthulu mythos, further proving his love of Lovecraft.

The most perplexing and astounding similarity between The Big O and Dark city is their endings, both of which directly involve the reshaping of the fabric of reality. The Matrix also features this, though it deals with reality as being a fabrication in comparison to a ‘real’ reality. I find it incredible that three works with so many similarities could even manage to come to such a specific conclusion, and not one that is necessarily common, even to the influences that I listed above. It leads me to wonder if maybe somewhere between the gaps is an influence left unconnected that drives them all. Maybe Proyas is actually influenced by Lovecraft too, and that inspired the ending – it wouldn’t be hard to imagine with his tastes being so seemingly similar to Konaka’s already. Maybe Konaka actually DID see Dark City or The Matrix or both in the gap between The Big O finishing and realized that he really could go all-out with this series. Maybe Cartoon Network, spurned by the success of The Matrix, even TOLD the Japanese producers to let Konaka go balls-out with the ending. It’s hard to say. What I can say is simply that I find it incredibly intersting to draw the lines of comparison and influence between these very specifically similar sci-fi noir stories.

I will be doing more posts on the noir influence in anime in the future~

15 thoughts on “Tracking Down Film Noir In Anime – Part One: Cast in the Name of Noir, Ye Not Guilty

  1. Christ, if I had known you hadn’t seen Big O yet, I would’ve screamed at you for days to go watch it. While much of the internet has mixed opinions on it (i still think the save big o crowd were dumb), I really enjoyed it both times I watched it (Adult Swim back in the day, earlier this year/late last year [sketchy on timeframe]) and heartily recommend it to ANYONE. Yes, the coveted statement of ANYONE. Very few anime I’ve seen I’ll whore out to anyone and everyone if given the chance.

  2. Excellent post. Dark City is one of my favorite films. I just love Jennifer Connelly doing Anita Kelsey’s cover of “Sway.” Gorgeous!

    If it’s a question of influence, you may want to reach a bit further back and look at the artistic movement that Fritz Lang was a part of: German Expressionism, that lovely avant-garde cinema that attempted to give form to the inner world of emotions (rarely the happy kind, though– it’s the same family of art that produced Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”). When you look at The Big O and Dark City that way, it’s not so surprising that the final product of all this anxiety and perpetual lostness is an explosive tearing-apart of everything.

    • I may check it out, and I do remember someone citing the Dark City metropolis as being ‘german expressionist’, but I wasn’t sure if they weren’t just referring back to Metropolis itself. As I mentioned to Shinmaru below, I am more likely to just research something like this than to actually experience it firsthand, because anything produced in the 1920s/30s sounds completely and totally boring to me, but I’ll see what happens as I plunge into my other noir posts.

  3. Great post. Film noir is a trick genre precisely because it is, as you write, open-ended. People can’t really agree on a specific set of standards in terms of style, plot and themes like they would, say, for sci-fi or fantasy. I’d go as far as to say it’s more of a mindset than a true, defined genre. Film noir is identified with high-contrast lighting, urban settings and crazy angles but not all noir movies have that; likewise, noir stories are also deeply connected with detectives and crime (or a good person who is forced to do Bad Things), but not all noir stories share those elements, either. It’s a “I know it when I see it, but I can’t really identify it” kind of genre.

    I like that you mention pulp because, along with German Expressionism (as 2DT points out), pulp stories — specifically hardboiled crime fiction — had a huge influence on the style and temperament of film noir. Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain (and others) had a HUGE influence on film noir (all of them had several of their novels adapted into noir movies). I haven’t read Cain, myself, but Chandler and Hammett’s style absolutely hold up today. They’re so sardonic and gritty and full of energy. I love them.

    If you want some classic noir movies, I’ve got some suggestions for you (and if you watch them, you’ll see just how wide a swath film noir cuts compared to how it’s always parodied in cartoons and whatnot):

    — The Maltese Falcon (1941) (the movie many generally accept as the first “real” film noir, even though it lacks the same style that people generally identify with noir)
    — This Gun for Hire (1942)
    — Double Indemnity (1944)
    — Laura (1944)
    — Murder, My Sweet (1944)
    — Scarlet Street (1945)
    — Gilda (1946)
    — The Big Sleep (1946)
    — Out of the Past (1947)
    — The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
    — The Third Man (1949)
    — Sunset Boulevard (1950)
    — The Big Heat (1953)
    — Touch of Evil (1958) (hilariously features Charlton fucking Heston as a Mexican but is still a great movie nonetheless)
    — The Hustler (1961) (representative of the amorphousness of noir because I don’t know how many people would accept this as noir … but it has a lot of the elements, and it’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, so whatever)
    — Point Blank (1967)
    — Mean Streets (1973)
    — The Long Goodbye (1973)
    — Chinatown (1974)
    — Night Moves (1975)
    — Taxi Driver (1976)
    — Body Heat (1981)
    — Blood Simple. (1984)
    — Blue Velvet (1986)
    — Tarantino in general (you KNOW he loves his noir)

    … OK, maybe that’s a bit more than “some”, haha.

    As far as noir’s influence on The Big O, I definitely see it a lot stylistically, and what’s interesting is that it shows the direction noir has plunged into the last 20-30 years — it’s not really the dominate element but more of a feel that enhances the main genre (sci-fi in this case). Dark City is not predominately a noir movie, but like Blade Runner, it’s more the overall feel of noir that pervades every inch of the movie and enhances the sci-fi base. In the past, you’ve shown a familiarity (at least) with cyberpunk — that’s basically what that genre does, take film noir and mix it with that sci-fi base.

    • Crikey, I hadn’t known you were such a noir buff :O this list is real work, hehe. Naturally except for Tarantino’s films, I haven’t seen any of those (except half of Blue Velvet) I want to watch these all I really do but, to be honest, I may not catch myself watching some of the really old ones. I know that makes it harder to genuinely trace influence, but I have a hard time watching really old movies. I’ll see what I can do though by watching a few and seeing how I take them. But I’d be much quicker just to research the films to see their place than watch them (I have no intention of ever watching metropolis or any silent film ever, for instance).

      • I can understand that, yeah. A lot of the great movies hold up pretty well (mostly because a lot of them were way ahead of their time), but there are elements that stand out because so many movies since then have learned from their mistakes and smoothed out the kinks. Every movie I listed from Touch of Evil on is fairly modern — at the very least, everything Point Blank on is VERY modern.

        • I’ll definitely check out all the modern ones, especially Taxi Driver which has long been near the top of my ‘must watch’ list.

  4. Not a whole lot to say just wanted to compliment ya on a sick post.

    I enjoy film noir but have not actively gone out searching for old noir films. I’m glad you liked Dark City. To this day if I’m watching TV and it comes on at 2am or 3am i will watch it to completion. It’s one of those movies I just can’t see enough and will watch no matter what time it is that it starts or even if it’s already started.

    • I’ve never seen Dark City on TV but I would certainly do the same. It’s one of those movies with such a rich world that i would love to continue to ‘inhabit it’ as it were.

  5. I feel most of what’s labeled Neo-Noir is more evoking the style of actual 40s Film Noir then the substance. Like Sin City, the K-Pop music video Poison by Secret, and most Noir episodes of TV shows. However the Pretty Little Liars season 4 episode Shadow Play I do feel captures both the style and the substance.

    However the reason I do consider the best Film Noir inspired Anime to be Noir, is that to me is the substance of Noir and not the style.

    As far as Pre 40s stuff that anticipated the Film Noir. You need to read the novels of Paul Feval, Eugene Sue and even a few Dumas novels. And then the Arsene Lupin novels and the Silent Series Les Vampires. I made a post on my BlogSpot blog called The Mysteries of Gotham about tracing the roots of Batman.

    It kind of annoys me how Lupin III fans of the English Speaking world are so different to actually reading the adventures of the original Lupin. A good one to start with is Countess Cagliostro, as translated by BlackCoatPress. For the short stories the PD versions you can find free online should do fine however.

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