The Influences of The Matrix
If you have ever watched any anime in the past then you know how deep, powerful and political they can be. Their messages are hidden inside crazy animated spectacles of martial arts and action. Anime reels you in through spectacle and action while underneath all of it is a plethora of powerful messages.
The Wachowskis have always been drawn to the anime aesthetic, wanting to replicate the feel and give the impression of experiencing a live-action Japanese animation without just making an adaptation.
In comes their first breakout success- The Matrix. The influences of anime on The Matrix are clear, with a big question circulating since its release, being- when we'll get a good live-action anime? Despite the fact, the answer has been in front of us for over 20 years.
When the Wachowskis first pitched The Matrix to their producer Joel Silver, they showed a screening of another film, the 1995 anime classic Ghost in the Shell.
From the iconic green text to the framing, action, and central themes, so many of the things that made The Matrix so iconic were love letters to the then-obscure anime.
The DNA of The Matrix can be seen from a host of sources, from comics, eastern cinema and sci-fi literature, all contributing to the film’s fantastic singular vision. By exploring these influences, what can we learn that made it so revolutionary? What might that say about what to expect from the upcoming 2021 sequel?
The Wachowskis have described the job of directing The Matrix as being like "fancy fusion chefs, we’re taking a lot of things that are out there and sort of mixing them in a way that hasn’t been done before”. If the two can be seen as fusion chefs, one of the main ingredients would have to be Japanese animation, also known as anime.
The DNA of Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell is everywhere, most noticeably apparent in the designs of The Matrix. From lighting to set designs, we have a tangled, re-used feel. The Matrix and Ghost in the Shell revolve around plugging in and out of a cybernetic world, with both movies using incredible spectacle as a vehicle to explore philosophical ideas about reality, technology, consciousness and the individual agency in society.
In ideology, these two carry a lot of the same sensibilities but when it comes to side-by-side visual comparisons, they become a mirror image of each other.
Beyond this, the influence is also particularly felt in the action scenes. The Matrix's street chase which ends in an explosion of blood-like watermelons or the climactic shootout, which sees our protagonist dodging behind crumbling pillars to avoid bullets.
Shots aside, it’s in the rhythms of the action scenes that the Wachowskis really learn their lessons from anime. As they put it “a juxtaposition of time and space in action beats” particularly influenced their work.
The speed of the camera and the action varies hugely. The technique of seeing the same action from various angles and the usual perspectives used to frame each shot, all gave the action of The Matrix a unique feel, proving to be perhaps the biggest legacy of the film on cinema today.
There’s also touches of Akira in the key moment when Neo stops bullets with a raised hand and the design of the robots looks like a loving nod to Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The incredible spin-off The Animatrix only confirms and re-pays their love and depth to anime as a medium.
Hollywood adaptations of anime will never work with the current mindset of straight-up adapting, therefore missing out the themes and philosophies that can differ from eastern to western cultures. Instead, The Matrix remixed these ideas to create something completely new, unique and fresh and why to this day it remains the best live-action anime film.
But of course, it is not just anime that inspired The Matrix. Let’s delve a little deeper down the rabbit hole…
One of the clearest reference points for the Wachowskis was William Gibson’s 1995 novel Neuromancer. This is the story of a 24-year-old hacker, whose world is transformed when he meets a woman who is described suspiciously, a lot like Trinity. The book, a seminal piece of cyberpunk literature, revolves around characters jacking into a cyberspace called the matrix. Gibson’s influence on the culture was huge, the genius move by the Wachowskis was taking our reality and making it virtual.
Beyond that, the Wachowskis began their careers in comic books. There are tons of similarities to the comic The Invisibles by Grant Morrison, in which the main character is rescued from government droids obsessed with the smell of humans and awakened to a new reality by taking a leap of faith off a skyscraper and into a resistance cell.
There’s also the aesthetics of Geoff Darrow, whose work was noticed by the Wachowskis on Frank Miller’s Hard Boiled graphic novel. Their love of his work caused them to bring him on board to help build the world through concept art, citing him as “the largest influence on the world of The Matrix”. It’s also worth noting Geoff Darrow will also be returning to the upcoming sequel.
Aside from comics, there’s a huge influence from eastern action cinema. Particularly the slow-motion gunplay of John Woo and the martial arts choreography from the era of Kung Fu classics. There’s also a touch of old westerns, from the face-off between Neo and Agent Smith to their long black trench coats.
Another massive influence of ‘The Matrix’ was the philosophies of Jean Baudrillard, where Keanu Reeves states “I had to read Baudrillard before I even opened up the script.”
It’s easy to look at all of these references, framing or storylines and call plagiarism, but inspiration has always been interwoven with evolution, particularly evident between eastern and western cinema. Rewatching The Matrix, it's striking how well the film stands up on its own as a singular work of art, asserting its own distinct tone and with tricked boxes of innovation on top of the borrowed elements.
The Matrix really differentiates itself from its inspirations by situating itself in our world, it truly is a film of its very specific time. The movie works because it is rooted in, and a response to capitalist life at the end of the 20th century. Coming at the end of a 90s era of movies that explored false realities, a time of benignity and a search for meaning admits the context of economic asperity and peaking the web bubble. A very specific moment in time that proved to be short-lived, right before the knock-on effect of 911 and the recession.
It was also the right time for the film industry, being the first major blockbuster to amalgamate such diverse and interesting global elements. In the years since, a growing number of directors such as Darren Aronofsky, Christopher Nolan and Guillermo Del Toro, have taken inspiration from eastern cinema, from shots to thematic ideas.
On top of that, the aesthetics and ideas of The Matrix have been rehashed over and over, which the Wachowskis have described as a "hall of mirrors" effect. For these reasons the upcoming sequel can never really hope for the same level of impact as the original film but regardless it has a lot of potential to just be a great sci-fi movie. From the directorial pair that are fiercely intelligent and boldly ambitious in their work, The Matrix was a lifetime submerged in sci-fi culture and cinema, combined with a laser focus on the era that it was made.
The work from the Wachowskis since the original film, including ‘The Matrix’ sequels, has not been seen with such high praise and arguably diminished partly because it's moved away from the central focus of our world now, both in terms of context and the action.
Hopefully, the upcoming sequel will ground itself in what made the original so effective, taking inspiration unexplored by Hollywood today and using those aesthetics as a prism to explore ideas and anxieties based around technology, commercialism and the state of society as it is today in the 2020s.
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