(What you are about to read is a contribution to For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon, the details of which can be found at post's end. I have made a donation to the Film Noir Foundation, and hope you will do the same - link's at the end.)
When the brothers Wachowski commissioned some of Japan's finest animators to add short films to their ever-expanding Matrix franchise, director Shinichiro Watanabe was an ideal collaborator. Watanabe's landmark anime series Cowboy Bebop quickly found a devout cult audience for its story of planet-hopping bounty hunters, leavening its stylized anime action with a strident musical score and a generous dose of film noir style and fatalism. Watanabe's noir influences move front and center for his tight, nine-minute Matrix prequel, A Detective Story...
A Detective Story's protagonist is Ash, a put-upon private eye to whom we are introduced near the end of "the case to end all cases..."
But first things first: we go to the beginning of the case as Ash fields a client's call in a P.I.'s office straight out of Noir City:
Though fearing another domestic case, Ash finds that his generous client wants him to track down a mysterious computer hacker known as Trinity. Familiar as we are with Matrix lore, we know immediately that Ash is being set up as a pawn to pursue an agent of freedom by a conspiracy larger than he could possibly imagine. But like so many noir heroes before him, Ash takes the money and goes to work, unaware of the bad, bad hand fate has dealt him.
Ash's tools of the trade are both classic...
...and downright avant-garde, including a weirdly high-tech rig with multiple flatscreens and phone tech from some alternate universe's 1930s...
Ash soon finds out that other investigators seeking Trinity have wound up either dead or, in the case of one poor bastard, insane. A visit to the latter man's home does yield a disturbing, if visually striking, clue:
Several online, Lewis Carroll-coded communications later, Ash finds himself on a train to nowhere and, finally, face to face with Trinity:
Ash quickly realizes that there's much, much more to Trinity than he could have imagined. Just as, in The Matrix, Keanu Reeves' Neo was awakened to the world underneath his perceived reality, Ash finds the world he knew slipping from his grasp, and having made the trip through the looking glass finds himself in the grip of a reality that is simply beyond his comprehension. Ash is forced to make a crucial decision when several of their fellow passengers turn into Agents that move to eliminate them both.
As the agents draw nearer, Ash feels himself being physically transformed into one of them. Trinity must defend herself, and thus executes the function of femmes fatale from across the years.
Like other noir heroes before him, Ash seems to find a kind of comfort in the shadow of death's oncoming embrace, though he remains bewildered by his too-short life beyond the looking glass.
And Watanabe again engages our familiarity with the Matrix's overall story to give Ash what many noir creators refused their heroes, a simple moment of grace as Trinity confides in him her highest compliment: "For what it's worth, I think you could have handled the truth."
And so Trinity leaves, and even as the agents encroach on Ash, Watanabe's streak of generosity leaves him a final burst of energy to buy Trinity some time, to look death in the eye, and to enjoy one last cigarette.
Watanabe's most distinctive gift is his talent for combining disparate genres and cultures into bizarre but effective hybrids. That he would reach across decades to bring the high-tech, colorful, and action packed world of The Matrix into the lower tech, black-and-white, and somber world of film noir in A Detective Story only seems perverse in retrospect. In fully embracing the noir aesthetic Watanabe has crafted a lovely Matrix miniature, both a fine self-contained prelude to that sprawling (some would argue over-extended) franchise and a dark little gem in its own right. Pleasingly mind-bending, and simply noir as hell.
For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon is hosted by Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films and the Self-Styled Siren. You can go here to read more about the Film Noir Foundation, here to read a cogent interview with FNF head Eddie Muller about its preservation projects and why they matter, and you can go here to make a donation.)