From Barefoot Gen and Ninja Scroll to Paprika and Summer Wars, the animation studio Madhouse has been responsible for tons of classic anime films. Picking out the best film in Madhouse's library is a hopeless task. Picking out the best-animated Madhouse film, however, is surprisingly easy -- and it happens to be a film almost no one actually saw. The anime movie in question is Redline, directed by Takeshi Koike.
Redline is about a futuristic car race in space. The protagonist, Sweet JP, has been competing in rigged races in the Yellowline competition, needing to come in second to get bail money from the mafia. However, when two racers drop out of this year's Redline, which is taking place illegally on the fascist planet Roboworld, JP suddenly finds himself qualified for the big league. Now he's not just competing against the galaxy's best racers (including Yellowline victor and possible love interest Sonoshee MacLaren), but trying to survive the hostile environment of Roboworld itself.
Madhouse spent seven years animating Redline using over 100,000 drawings, and the resulting film is a celebration of just how cool it is such a project could even exist. It's easy to draw parallels between Sweet JP pushing his old-school TransAm to the absolute limit against cyborgs and hovercars and the Madhouse animators themselves making the absolute most of hand-drawn craft in an increasingly digital industry.
2D animation isn't anywhere as close to extinct in Japanese theaters as it is in American theaters, but even mostly hand-drawn anime will still rely on CGI for vehicles and other effects. Redline's production didn't entirely forgo computers (as with almost every anime made after 2000 or so, the coloring was done digitally), but all of the car races are animated by hand, with a thrilling sense of exaggeration that not even the best CGI could pull off effectively.
Unfortunately, Redline was not a commercial hit in either Japan or the United States. Despite its popularity at international film festivals in 2009, the movie barely made a dent in the Japanese box office in 2010 -- no hard stats are available, but Matt Schley of The Japan Times notes anecdotally, "I saw it opening weekend at a cinema outside Nagoya with about five other people in the theater." The American theatrical release was almost non-existent and Redline became the last new anime sold on DVD by Manga Entertainment.
In many ways, Redline is comparable to another sci-fi car racing film made around the same time: the Wachowski sisters' 2008 live-action adaptation of Speed Racer. Both movies expand the simplest of plots into the most lavish eye candy to the point of overstimulation. Both movies received some downright savage reviews upon initial release from critics who dismissed them as style over substance, but in both cases, the style is the substance, with racing serving as a heartfelt metaphor for the art and struggles of filmmaking.
Just as Speed Racer's reputation among American cinephiles has risen considerably over the past decade, Redline's risen to cult classic status in Japan, receiving a 10th-anniversary theatrical rerelease last year. The seventh episode of Space Dandy, another hyper-imaginative cult anime with a pompadoured protagonist, is a direct homage to Redline. Takeshi Koike has continued to find good work in the anime industry, directing a trilogy of darker-and-edgier Lupin III films and doing the character designs for Yasuke (premiering on Netflix April 29). Madhouse, however, has not made a movie anywhere near as ambitious since.