"Appleseed": The Fantastic Tale of a Girl and Her Cyborg. And Lots of Bullets.
In contrast to American animated films, a large percentage of anime features are adaptations of popular Japanese comic books, or manga (and they say Hollywood has run out of ideas). Such adaptations make perfect sense, of course, because they supply a powerful brand name, loyal fan base and plenty of material for possible sequels. On the other hand, most manga series are so long and complex that film adaptations pose formidable challenges. In some cases the anime version turns out so incredibly condensed that only longtime followers of the manga are likely to understand it all. The more successful efforts include such legendary films as Akira and Ghost in the Shell. The latter is based on one of the many works of science fiction manga great Shirow Masamune. His second most famous franchise is Appleseed, which received a very abrupt anime translation in the late 80s. Now it has returned in a new version that is not only much more complete but also rendered in stunning CGI.
Ghost in the Shell fans will quickly find numerous similarities in this slightly more obscure cousin, although it’s worth noting that the Appleseed manga came before Shell‘s. Cool robots and man’s relationship with technology are still at the forefront, but this film is less concerned with mulling over the philosophical underpinnings than with crafting an exciting action epic. And it does so quite successfully. There’s more than enough dazzling pyrotechnics to put a smile on Michael Bay’s face. Audiences intimidated by the often puzzling, opaque intricacies of Japanese science fiction need not worry. Unlike the GITS films, the very accessible Appleseed does not require a PhD to follow. Which is not to say it isn’t still full of mystery and clever twists, it’s just that note-taking is optional for a change.
The film opens on deadly commando Deunan Knute fighting a group of ruthless cyborgs in an urban wasteland. Eventually overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers, she is saved at the last moment by an ESWAT police team who knocks her out and flies off to the utopian city state of Olympus. There Deunan discovers from her ESWAT recruiter Hitomi that the world war she has been fighting forever has in fact effectively ended, and the world is now ruled from Olympus. Even more shocking is the revelation that her new partner is her old comrade and lover Briareos, who has since been transformed into an unrecognizable cyborg due to injuries. As it turns out Olympus is not as peaceful as it seems, for a power struggle looms between General Uranus’s human military and Prime Minister Athena’s bioroid clone government and its ESWAT forces. Half the population of Olympus is bioroids. They control the city through a massive computer called Gaia, something the human residents naturally resent. The bioroids are unable to feel love or envy, and so act as a counterweight to the volatile humans. As a failsafe measure they cannot reproduce on their own and must periodically undergo a procedure to have their lives extended. When a mysterious guerrilla attack threatens the very existence of the bioroids the delicate balance is upset, and Deunan and Briareos soon find the fate of humanity rests in their hands.
The intended message of this contrast between bioroids and humans is intriguing. With the bioroids rational and peaceful and the humans impulsive and violent, the film has the makings of a modern political allegory. Perhaps the humans represent recent adventuresome American foreign policy and the bioroids the ever-pacifist Japanese. Then again, since the original Appleseed manga dates from the 80s, the cold war seems a more likely reference point. The usual man vs. machine sci-fi cliché (see The Matrix and I, Robot) is turned on its head here, with the bioroid characters generally heroic and the humans more sinister. This concept is nothing new in Japanese sci-fi, but one wonders how well it would play to western audiences accustomed to the opposite. Would American audiences pay to root for the clones? [[i]As it turns out, the answer is no. -Ed] In the end the film is a compelling plea for tolerance, certainly welcome in these troubled times.
Perhaps due to the constraints involved in compressing a long manga series into a 100-minute film, character development is a bit weak in Appleseed. Deunan is the latest in a long line of uber-tough female heroines who are more than a match for any and all contenders, and yet very human and vulnerable beneath her rough exterior. The largely robotic Briareos is stoically heroic and world-weary. The potential romance between the two is very intriguing, but the film only gives it a cursory look. Hitomi, the most visible bioroid character, gives them a very human and charming face, and we are briefly allowed to consider what it must be like to live without knowing love or desire. Too briefly, I’m afraid, to answer this fascinating question satisfactorily. The rest of the cast is mostly confined to advancing the plot as necessary.
If the human element of the film’s weighty philosophical quandaries is somewhat shortchanged, the action element is definitely not. Unlike the slightly staid Ghost in the Shell 2, Appleseed is jam-packed with thrilling combat scenes that can hold their own against live action counterparts like The Matrix. The beautiful but lethal slow motion ballet with which Deunan disposes of the cyborgs in the opening is certainly suggestive of that film. Equally inspired is the high-speed aerial chase between ESWAT and military motorized battle suits through the streets of Olympus, which should delight any Gundam or Macross fans in the audience.
Of course, what you really want to know is how good it all looks. Considering a budget that must be a tiny fraction of something like The Incredibles, Appleseed is very impressive. Obviously it isn’t quite as polished as Pixar’s work, and there is the occasional moment that screams “XBox cutscene,” but to be perfectly honest this is the first production to convince me that CGI is capable of realistic action animation. The very smooth and detailed combat scenes look fantastic, enhanced by the use of motion capture. It seems some shading has been used to give the film and in particular the characters a nice cell-animated feel. On the music side the orchestral score is a little flat, but an excellent collection of eclectic pop and rock songs makes up for it.
The special features are rather lacking for such an ambitious film. Thankfully there is a lively, interesting commentary from the director and producer that explores animation and plot decisions. Unfortunately there is no “making of” documentary, which would have been wonderful. You can select the scenes in which each song on the soundtrack plays, and read extensive biographies on the mostly European artists. It’s all a bit self-promotional really, but useful if you liked the music. Heavily featured Japanese duo Boom Boom Satellites’ cool rock/techno stylings are quite catchy. Finally, the Staff Profiles offer detailed biographies on the key production staff.
All memories of the previous half-baked adaptation can be safely laid to rest with the superb Appleseed. Action and sci-fi fans alike will be thrilled, and it’s a must see for Ghost in the Shell followers. No longer do I fear the evil scourge of CGI polluting the world of anime: Appleseed proves they can successfully coexist. Now if only something could do the same for the Star Wars prequels.