Mighty quiffed space racer Sweet J.P. (voiced by Takuya Kimura) finishes a close second in the qualifying heat, barely securing his chance to compete at Redline, an intergalactic race watched by billions across the universe. First across the finish line was Sonoshee McLaren (Yuu Aoi), a gutsy, rising star in the racing world whose glamorous good looks have J.P. suitably smitten. As a rare racer who values style and skill above hi-tech gadgetry, all J.P. wants is a clean shot at the title but he and his blue-skinned childhood friend-turned-agent Frisbee (Tadanobu Asano) are under pressure from alien mobsters to throw the race. Every five years, Redline is staged at a mystery location unveiled only shortly before the race begins. This year the organisers have chosen Roboworld, whose militant government are less than happy and unleash their war arsenal to ensure none of the competitors live long enough to cross the finish line.
Almost a decade in the making, this adrenalin-charged, eye-poppingly opulent thrill-ride emerged to near universal acclaim among anime fans as the finest Japanese animated film of the past ten years. Which is surprising given there have been several anime every bit as stimulating on a visual level and arguably stronger when it came down to crafting a compelling, emotionally engaging cinematic experience. Redline marks the directorial debut of feted animator Takeshi Koike, working from a script penned by live action director Katsuhito Ishii who started out as a Quentin Tarantino imitator with his quirky manga adaptation Sharkskin Man and Peach Hip Girl (1998) but gradually blossomed into a genuinely intriguing, idiosyncratic filmmaker via the likes of The Taste of Tea (2004) and Funky Forest: The First Contact (2005). No expense has been spared with this Madhouse production. The studio that bestowed fan favourites like Ninja Scroll (1993) assembles an all-star voice cast, a pulse pounding score and dazzles viewers with dynamic neon space punk imagery. There are cool alien beings, mind-blowing machinery and a richly detailed space-age environment sure to make techno-heads salivate, while the action is never less than arresting. It’s brash, colourful and energetic yet surprisingly shallow given the plaudits bestowed upon the wafer thin story.
Sporting one of anime’s greatest rock and roll haircuts, Sweet J.P. is one cool cat but so laid back he is horizontal. Aside from briefly mentioning his belief that Redline should remain foremost a race and not a war, there really isn’t a whole lot to our defiantly one-dimensional hero or indeed any of his colourful competitors whose motivations border on unfathomable. Among the racers are a pair of sexy pop princesses who pilot an equally voluptuous fembot and hail from a planet ruled a seemingly omnipotent flying moppet, some bounty hunters and a hairy blue space cop who enters the race solely so he can arrest his speeding competitors (huh?) Characters who at first seem to be major antagonists, such as Machine Head (Koji Ishii) the past Redline champion who fused his cyborg body into his vehicle and maniacal Roboworld dictator Colonel Volton (Unshou Ishizuka) disappear from the narrative for lengthy periods. As director, Koike seems more interested in crafting flashy set-pieces than making sense of the nonsensical narrative that goes completely bonkers once Colonel Volton morphs into a hideous giant mutant for an old-fashioned large scale Japanese monster bash against a colossal bio-weapon nicknamed Funky Boy. Flashbacks struggle to sketch in characters’ past lives while the film’s romance of racing ethos skirts perilously close to the empty bombast of Days of Thunder (1990).
What Redline does have in its favour is an infectious exuberance and good-natured spirit capable of seducing the most curmudgeonly viewer. Rejecting the dystopian satire common to most examples of the death race sub-genre, the film stays defiantly upbeat and dedicated to upholding the spirit of friendly competition. Despite numerous explosions and earth-shaking space battles there are no fatalities among the racers, all of whom grow to have a healthy respect for one another and smile benevolently as the lovers share their climactic kiss. It is undeniably charming.