Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s Running Man (Liquid Television)

Have you seen Running Man? Not The Running Man, the action film starring ARRGHNOLD Schwarzenegger. Although, the piece I’m referring to also made its theatrical debut in 1987. This anime short appears as one of three animated shorts in the film Neo Tokyo – or at least that was one way to watch this piece.

I’ll expand on that later, but for now you can watch Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s short anime film, Running Man:

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I’ve always wanted to share this piece of animation. For one, it’s incredibly intense and quiet. You’re alone with your thoughts, watching what’s going on just like the reporter watching Zack losing his shit. Also, for being an anime short (just under 15 minutes), it gets the story across in a way so subtle that it may take a few times to watch it again for everything to sink in.

Running Man also helps mark Liquid Television’s 25th anniversary (June 2, 1991). A.V. Club listed the program in its ‘best animated series‘ list, describing it as a “druggy fever dream.” I was only about 5 years old when it aired, but yeah, I guess I would have described it like that!

Liquid Television was a smorgasbord of animated shorts. I suppose it can be described as KaBlam!’s older and eccentric brother who trades mail-order videos. Each generation has has a “face” of animation, or a style of personality. Disney, Looney Tunes, Hanna-Barbera and so on. It’s a bit unfair when great animated works fall into the cracks, but something like Liquid Television showcases different talents of not only styles, but mediums. At the time it was cool to watch just the weird and creative ideas people came up with, but now it’s short of a time capsule of, well, the weird and cool idea artists were coming up with in the 90s. Have a look at this trailer MTV put together themselves highlighting some shorts they aired:

Being so young and watching Liquid Television felt like I was doing something naughty. Aeon Flux was its own bag of… Whatever the fuck you’d call this. Everyone looks so sick and evil. Even now, it’s something I don’t want to mess with. Bill Plympton was one of my favorites using colored pencil artwork for his animation, but even he could make me cover my own eyes during his ‘how to kiss‘ segments (why can’t characters in this show tongue each other without something dangerous happening?).
Liquid Television is a time capsule, and Running Man is the relic. I love today’s anime, but anime back in the day were a different beast, at least when you get something like Running Man. Just look at the setting; a future where people are entertained by seeing racers not only outrace each other, but also outlive. The racers don’t just crash and explode, either. They’re literally stripped from their seats and thrown at other racers. Unless I’m not watching the right series, anime doesn’t make a spectacle of gore and violence like they used to. Action with battles and duels with swords, sure, but the only series I think that comes close as of recent is Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress where death is violent and chaotic. Running Man isn’t heavy on the gore but, hoo boy, the look on faces of the characters just seconds before their exit is almost haunting. Eventually, even the spectators who cheered on for these deaths realize that it’s become too much.

Yoshiaki Kawajiri is a director behind films such as Ninja Scroll, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust and, for those who can brave spider …vaginas, Wicked City. Kawajiri isn’t a name I hear too often in anime circles, but his handful of films have built quite a cult following and seems to steadily attract an audience. I can certainly mention all sorts of things that makes Kawajiri a fantastic director, but it’s quite fitting that much of his signature style is all right here in Running Man.

The carefully placed foreground objects and how each scene is connected by a constant movement makes this cold-blooded race track appear ethereal. Kawajiri isn’t shy about having objects taking a corner of a screen or even front and center. Amazingly, it adds another layer of perspective that isn’t just placing the characters in the scene, but also the audience. My favorite shot in Running Man is when the vehicles are shown racing through half of the track and the perspective pans across with them, all the while seeing the antennas, billboards and neon signs, then the racers approaching towards us again. To me, with knowing what this race is about, this shot alone tells me that this world is perhaps as misguided as the drivers.
It took me over a dozen views to notice, but once I did I’ll never forget it: each scene has something moving. Often rapidly. The vehicles are always racing, but also what surrounds them – or even inside them. Lights flashing on the control panels and along the tracks, fire from the explosions, water to extinguish the fire, the contorting faces on the characters, the panning and zooming shots – everything is in constant motion. There is almost no time for calmness. Even when it’s quiet, something is flashing or approaching in the distance. It’s also worth noting that flames and the specter’s form have similar motions that wave as if to draw a parallel the wind and incredible speed, or an uncontrollable force. I thing the reason why Kawajiri uses this method is to connect the viewer in some way with Zack Hugh’s constant stress of staying in the race. His hand shakes violently at times and it’s not just from the force of speed. The veins on his body starts bulging as if they’re about to burst – and they eventually do in a spectacular way.
See more sketches of Running Man on Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s official website.
Each time I watch Running Man I feel as though I’m peeling another layer I hadn’t seen before. I read a few comments from people thinking what the story is about. What I think it is: As the reporter notes, Zack Hugh’s drive to win (i.e. survive) became too much for him bear on his body and mind. He just got tired. Whether it was to keep entertaining the spectators or to uphold his own ambition, Zack used his telekinetic abilities to kill to become the champion and kept that up for ten years. I don’t think it was just to be the champion, as one could retire before stress takes its toll. But he kept running. Was the real thrill in getting away with murder? Entertaining idea, but I don’t believe so. With abilities like telekinesis you can do so much more, for better or ill.
In any case, in his endeavor to beat his opponents, it came to a head when all that was left to outrace was himself, which ultimately lead him to commit suicide. I’m still not sure if killing himself was intentional or not, but I see it as nature taking its course, so to speak. While Zack was no hero, the tragedy came when, once he died, all the spectators lost interest in the barbaric races and the circuit permanently closed down. These people only watched and waited to see how long Zack would last before he became another casualty. Whatever reason Zack had to keep himself on the track didn’t matter anymore when he took himself out of racing. Damn.

You can pay beaucoup bucks on the third seller market for the DVD release of Neo Tokyo, but if you want to check out Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s other films for a decent price you can always check out Amazon. You can watch the full subtitled Running Man cut on YouTube. I wish I could read the original Running Man story that appears in the novel Meikyuu Monogatari (Labyrinth Tales, which is also the original title of Neo Tokyo) by Taku Mayumura, as I’m sure there are a few more nuances to be picked up and picked apart. Until then, keep runnng!