Everyone knows that person. The one person that complains about a movie they barely paid attention to, and when you ask them why they hated it so much, they retort, “oh, it was all style and no substance.” Then they’ll walk away thinking they’re best movie critic around but in reality, they’re Jay Sherman from The Critic.
Like any critique, it’s valid when it actually applies to the thing we’re talking about and not valid if it doesn’t. Yet, we hear this criticism constantly for all kinds of movies, TV shows, video games (a dude spent FIVE HOURS trying to spin zone how Persona 5 had more style over substance), even cars or sports teams. But what does it really mean? Usually, in the minds of these people, it simply means a movie or something else looks really pretty and snazzy but at the cost of something crucial. For a movie or TV show, it’s the plot or character development. For a car, back seats or trunk space. For a sports team, wins. But let’s focus on movies, that’s the whole point of this article.
There have been many critically acclaimed films (and equally underrated films) that have had fingers pointed at them for supposedly prioritizing high octane action sequences or lavish special effects AKA style, for the story. Baby Driver and Blade Runner (one of the main reasons why critics initially hated it back in ‘82) are some notable films that experienced this. One certain review for The Man From U.N.C.L.E (great movie by the way) helped shed some necessary light on this whole debacle.
Some people think that style doesn’t include substance, but that’s because they mistake prettiness for style. Style is what happens when people deftly enjoy their own eccentricities — and it is plenty substantive. It means being creative, confident, surprising, and attentive to detail.
Blade Runner was creative in its ability to create the iconic cyberpunk atmosphere using revolutionary special effects and had attentive to detail in its complex themes, from film noir to Biblical elements. Baby Driver was confident in its banging music selection that complemented its high-speed car chases and paid close attention to certain character quirks such as Baby’s tinnitus. The Man From U.N.C.L.E goes all-in with its suave nature with its music and allows people to enjoy being cool like a spy, which is supported by the film’s unique camera angles and jump cuts. These movies’ styles uplifted the substance they had, which was the whole point all along. There are movies that are undeveloped in some departments, which can help support the stigma of style being not as important as substance. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a prime example, courtesy of Barstool Sports’ Kenjac. Fun movie with plenty of enthralling Kaiju action, but the plot didn’t go hand in hand with the style. It took an obvious backseat and the movie suffered for it. An example of imposing style onto flimsy subject material.
So that brings finally us to Redline. What does Redline do to infuse its style into the plot and show creativity, confidence, and attention to detail? I’ll show you.
Judging by this animation, take a wild guess when this came out. Before I tell you when it came out (unless you Google it now like a nark) watch this for like a minute or two.
It's obvious the animation on the second one is a bit rougher and static-like but not horrible by any means. What if I told you these two were made by the same animators? You’d probably say I’m bullshitting you but it’s true. Trava Fist Planet is a roughly 40 minute OVA that was created and directed by Takeshi Koike and released part by part from 2001–2002. Koike would make his directorial debut on the silver screen with, guess what, Redline in 2009. Despite it coming out 11 years ago (sheesh has it been that long?), it still looks brand new. That’s a direct result of all the time that was put into this movie. The moment Trava Fist Planet was done, Koike and his animators began to work on Redline. With pretty much a blank check from Madhouse (the animation studio), they went to town for SEVEN YEARS.
This included over 100,000 hand-made drawings solely for the animation. In an age where animation is relying on CGI like a crutch, it's truly jaw-dropping to see hand-drawn animation coupled with the speed and ferocity seen in Redline. When looking through the Wikipedia list of longest production times, most of the films listed limped to the finish line besides the documentary Hoop Dreams and Sleeping Beauty, which also took seven years. Redline took its sweet time, even with a couple of delays. It was all worth it in the end.
Watching that clip of Redline felt like sensory overload at times with the speed and just how shit much is going on at a time, right? That was the whole point (which some people hated). Koike has years of experience as a key animator, working on animes like Darkside Blues and Fighting Spirit. One element that is featured in all of his work? Speed and ferocity.
Explosions are bright and destructive. The cars skip, rattle, and lose balance when someone uses nitrous, almost as if the cars don’t know what to do with themselves with all this speed. The camera depth changes too, almost like how the laws of physics as we know it are breaking during these races. The hurricane-like winds generated by the vehicles tear apart buildings like butter. The upbeat techno-rock music (with even hints of funk and disco) maintains the energy of the race. Yet, the music disappears when it needs to. Cutaways are rapid and frequent to keep up with the pace and show how every driver is utilizing their vehicle (a risk knowing how jarring it can be if done wrong). Speaking of, that leads us into the various racers shown in Redline and the plot non-anime lovers hated.
One of the main complaints of Redline is that the other racers aren’t explored into as much as the main characters Sweet JP, his agent and mafia indebted best friend Frisbee, and love interest/rival Sonoshee McLaren. It's no secret we learn about these main characters (such as JP’s pure love for racing, Sonoshee’s Michael Jordan like competitiveness, why Frisbee is indebted to the Mafia, etc) but the other racers are given their own time to show their backstory, even if it is brief. In a Hanna Barbera Wacky Races type montage, they go over every racer in Redline and showcase their unique personalities. Knowing this is set over various planets, we see a wide variety of people/aliens. both as racers and spectators. You got the ape-like Gori Rider (who was voiced by the late Daisuke Gōri in the Japanese version, known as the voice of Mr. Satan in DBZ) a dirty cop who coldly shrugs off rumors that he’s in a relationship with a fellow female officer, yet gently kisses her photo before the Redline race. You have the seven-time Redline champion Machinehead (basically the Redline equivalent of Tom Brady), a mechanical monstrosity who is literally a part of his race car, interviewing in front of all of his big ass trophies talking shit to the other racers while petting his cute little Shih Tzu.
You then have familiar faces in Trava and Shinkai (if you saw Trava Fist Planet that is), and even if you didn’t, they get introduced during a conversation between JP and Sonoshee. You’ll learn their backstory without having to watch Fist Planet, such as their past connection to the military.
Speaking of the military, because Redline takes place on a corrupt planet filled with dictators and illegal bio-weapons, the story takes a grand turn where suddenly the whole universe hinges on one race. So the movie can feel like F-Zero, Fast and The Furious, and Star Wars all at the same time. Personal goals collide with huge implicating circumstances like, oh I don’t know. galactic destruction. Overall, is the plot super complex and have any larger meaning besides the racers wanting to win and spoiling some regime hellbent on domination? Absolutely not. Is there anything wrong with that? Again, no, knowing how well the style was infused with the substance. But that was a problem with “top” critics.
Despite its jaw-dropping animation, high octane action, and clever dialogue, the movie wasn’t well-received, at least initially.
If you’re looking for something calm and measured this film is not for you. It makes Pokemon look like a Sofia Coppola film.
The characters are dead on arrival and the techno soundtrack during the action sequences made us want to flee their funeral.
This look may be eyelid-peelingly edgy, but the hand-drawn, 2-D technology used to achieve it [the designs of the women and the villains] is defiantly old-school.
Those were all quotes from Rotton Tomatoes’ various top critics. Seven long years of work for this. All for someone to compare Pokemon to Sofia Coppola? Many did not appreciate the constant, senses testing action Takeshi Koike was going for. The women depicted were criticized as well (ok, you got me there, there is some nudity and some elements of the Male Gaze but not much. Sue me) but criticized almost to the point of it being front and center of every review. And then we get the same complaint. “Style over substance.” “Nonexistent plot.” To quote the late Andrew Sarris…
The art of cinema is the art of an attitude, the style of a gesture. It is not so much what as how. The what is some aspect of reality rendered mechanically by the camera. The how is what the French critics designate somewhat mystically as mise-en-scene. Auteur criticism is a reaction against sociological criticism that enthroned the what against the how. However, it would be equally fallacious to enthrone the how against the what. The whole point of meaningful style is that it unifies the what and the how into a personal statement.
- Notes on the Auteur Theory
Redline’s attitude is in your face, as established by Koike. Non-stop speed. No holds barred fun. Music that makes you wanna bob your head to as you see the cars zoom on by. A plot that's easy to follow but plenty of details that are shown in the animation to showcase character personality. And there is a shred of defiance in this attitude as well. Hand-drawn animation is becoming rarer and rarer in the age of CGI. JP’s character is even an analogy of this. He still drives a ’70s Trans AM with zero weapons, in the midst of all of these hover jets and three-wheeled cars that are armed to the teeth with missiles and chain guns. JP’s pure love for racing translates into Koike’s pure love for animation. And you get that in spades. A movie that was painstakingly made with love for seven long years. So in this case and many others, its okay to have style over substance.
Please check out Redline on Amazon Video, you can rent it in HD for cheap. Or even better, buy the Blu-Ray version. Make sure to grab a beer, the butteriest popcorn you can find and enjoy this animation masterpiece.