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"Spriggan" Special Edition: Number One With a Bullet

It’s been ten years since the domestic release of cult favorites Akira and Ghost in the Shell, but mature anime films struggle for acceptance in the U.S. Although too violent or sophisticated for a young audience, the prime adult demographic generally dismisses them as juvenile cartoons. An effective cure for this perplexingly persistent disconnect remains undiscovered, but the answer may lie in blurring the line between animated and live action. Not a revolutionary strategy to be sure, but one that is rarely executed believably. Once in a while, though, an anime film will come along that looks so tangibly real one forgets it was drawn. A prime example is the sci-fi thriller Spriggan, supervised by Akira-creator Katsuhiro Otomo and available in a deluxe special edition.

Triangles are evilFor Akira fans longing for more of the same the similarly manga-derived, Spriggan isn’t quite the answer, but it’s close. The emphasis is much more on action than in the former, but there’s enough “mysteries of life” mumbo jumbo for Otomo groupies to again experience the bliss of total confusion. Which is a little disappointing, because the film was shaping up to be an exciting mix of Indiana Jones and The Matrix, when it suddenly leaps off into The Twilight Zone. Maybe Otomo makes money on the side by selling hint books to his films. It does somewhat undermine the taut realism of the earlier action to throw away the physics rulebook at the end. “What about the man whose heart is bloodlessly ripped out by hand in The Temple of Doom?” you ask. Just because you couldn’t do it wise guy… Not to worry though, Spriggan has more than enough frantic, bullet-riddled, and stunningly realized mayhem to keep action junkies happy.

Our hero Yu Ominae is a Japanese high school student who leads a double life as the number one agent, or Spriggan, for the secret organization ARCAM, which is dedicated to keeping secrets of ancient evil power locked away from mankind. One day at school, one of his classmates blows himself up with dynamite, the words “Noah will be your grave” scrawled on his chest. Yu survives the explosion and later learns from his boss that an ARCAM team discovered Noah’s Ark on Mt. Ararat in Turkey, only to be wiped out by mysterious paramilitary forces.

Taking these events as a personal challenge, Yu heads to Turkey to investigate. At the excavation site he meets up with old acquaintances Dr. Miesel and his assistant Margaret, who give Yu a cybernetic battle suit granting superhuman strength and speed. Here the audience pauses for a moment to wonder just who funds the seemingly private ARCAM, for the monstrous dig site carved out inside the mountain would have bankrupted a small nation. Just then enemy commandos, led by the ruthless cyborgs Fat Man and Little Boy, attack in search of Miesel. After a frantic and bloody battle Yu manages to slay Fat Man, and fellow Spriggan Jean captures Little Boy. They discover the rival organization is led by the sickly but omnipotent telekinetic teenager MacDougall, who is charged with capturing the secrets of the Ark for the United States military. It turns out he has his own sinister designs for the Ark’s climate control technology, and Yu is all that stands in his way.

American audiences may be surprised to find that the villains are not Russian or Chinese but American, although the real evil is MacDougall himself. Since the U.S. is by its own admission the only true superpower today, one supposes it’s the natural choice for fearsome villainy. Still it comes as a bit of a jolt since we’re so used to playing the good guys. Another repeated theme in anime is the contrast in the use of technology: minimal and efficient on the Japanese side, but grossly overboard on the American. This is evident in the none too subtle names of the two cyborgs. The Americans wish to uncover and probably exploit the Ark’s dangerous secrets, while ARCAM wants to seal them away. This naturalistic sermonizing does get a bit tiresome coming from a country with serious pollution problems, though.

Most of Spriggan‘s characters don’t rise above caricatures, or merely hint at a complexity that goes unexplored. Yu is a typical teenage anime hero: brooding, impulsive, and cocky. Late in the game we learn that his grim nature is due to the murder of his parents and his bloody past as an assassin. MacDougall is nearly Yu’s mirror image; only he’s swung to the dark side. A genetically created child who has been exploited all his life by his lesser superiors, he has let his resentment and arrogance grow so strong that he thinks it falls to him to right humanity’s course. These characters, who echo Akira-leads Kaneda and Tetsuo, respectively, and are too cliché to be very engaging. The only characters that stand out are the pompously murderous Fat Man and his creepy, inhuman sidekick Little Boy. The former is an armored giant with a massive gatling gun built into his body, and the latter an agile midget who uses razor sharp wires to slice up opponents. They have Darth Vader potential written all over them, but their limited screen time keeps them as mysterious as Boba Fett.

Never mind character development though; Spriggan saves its strength for explosive action and delivers handsomely. The film’s action sequences are among animation’s best ever, in particular a mountainside showdown between Yu and Jean and Fat Man and Little Boy. The speed and viciousness with which it unfolds is truly thrilling, and suggest this may be one of the anime that The Matrix used for inspiration.

They say it’s CG’s time to rule, but Spriggan defies this trend. The character movement is exceptionally fluid and realistic, especially in the breathtaking action scenes. They are very nearly of live-action quality. This beautiful fluidity is a great argument for why CG is not yet able to fully replace 2D animation. It remains too stiff and inexpressive by comparison. However, when limited to vehicles and backgrounds, as in Spriggan, it is generally convincing.

This special edition contains commentaries from ADR director Matt Greenfield and ADR engineer Christopher Bourque on the one hand and voice actors Chris Patton (Yu) and Kelly Manison (Margaret) with Greenfield on the other. The former contains some interesting detail on Spriggan‘s production, including that it is a rare example of an anime in which the vocal tracks were laid down before the animation. However the discussion is heavy on explanations of the ADR process, a little of which goes a long way. The largely unnecessary cast commentary contains the actors’ glib recollections of the recording process and more exhaustive detail from Greenfield on the tedious subject. Shockingly, there is next to no information on the animation process for this visual masterpiece. Really, these commentaries seem to be intended more for budding ADR engineers than for animation or movie fans. A commentary from Otomo or director Hirotsugu Kawasaki would have been infinitely more desirable.

Also included in this special edition is the excellent soundtrack CD, which combines fast action numbers, sweeping orchestral pieces, and the sort of pounding tribal rhythms one associates with Otomo productions like Akira. I should note that it actually contains 27 tracks, although the jacket lists only 20. It’s great listening, and this is the kind of extra I hope to see more of in future anime releases. When warranted of course. Thirty seconds of the DragonBall Z theme is more than enough to make my ears bleed.

Taken as a whole, Spriggan is a slightly awkward combination of action and science fiction, hindered by thin characterization. Never mind all that though. It’s more than worth seeing for the breathtaking action scenes, and the beautiful soundtrack seals the deal. The ending hints at a possible sequel, and Spriggan would be an excellent choice to join the slowly growing list of anime adaptations Hollywood is considering. It’s already got the mind-blowing Michael Bay violence; now it just needs the stomach-churning Michael Bay romance. Lord knows, Ben Affleck needs the work.

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