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"Origin: Spirits of the Past" SE: Very Pretty, But Haven't We Seen This Before?

The good news and the bad news about Origin: Spirits of the Past (or Gin-iro no Kami no Agito in the original Japanese) is that it feels a lot like a Hayao Miyazaki movie. The bad news is that Origin breaks precious little new ground in animated storytelling, but the good news is that Studio GONZO’s first effort into feature films is every bit as visually beautiful as anything that has come out of Studio Ghibli. FUNimation released a single-disc edition of Origin in February 2007. Now, the distributor has released a two-disc special edition set containing both the movie and an entire disc of supplementary material.

I was going to say I saw a duckie and a horsie, but I changed my mind.The opening credits of Origin detail a cataclysm that left a gaping wound in the moon and blanketed the Earth in a massive and somewhat sentient forest that has a habit of attacking people without warning. The movie proper picks up three centuries later in the rugged, Spartan human outpost of Neutral City. Young Agito is a boisterous teen prone to the usual pranks and horseplay. During a friendly competition with his friend Cain to steal water from the mysterious forest Zruids, he discovers a strange chamber and awakens a mysterious girl from a state of suspended animation. The girl’s name is Toola, and she reveals that she has been asleep since before the cataclysm. News of her awakening sparks the interest of the mysterious Shunack, a commander of the highly industrialized Ragna Army. When Shunack begins to flex the Army’s mechanized muscle to gain control over Toola, Agito finds himself in the center of a power struggle between the forests and the Ragna Army, with another global holocaust at stake.

This will all seem rather familiar, since Origin covers ground well trod by Hayao Miyazaki in movies like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke. Unfortunately, Origin does not really add anything significantly new in the process. Anime viewers who dismiss those two films as pro-environmentalist propaganda are advised to avoid Origin: Spirits of the Past as well. The criticism is as unfair to Origin as it is towards Miyazaki’s movies, since it ignores the fact that Nature in all three films is as dangerous, impersonal, and destructive as the most extreme of the human characters. The real central problem of all these movies is that the natural world and the human world have gone out of balance with each other, with the extreme element on either side being as obstinately unreasonable as its opposite. Thus, the task of the central characters is to restore the balance between humanity and nature, creating symbiosis in place of mutual antagonism.

No, come on...knock knock!Furthermore, criticizing these movies for being overly environmental usually ignores the valid points raised by the human characters. In Origin, the Ragna Army turns out to have more complex motives than it would seem at first blush, and although Shunack’s lieutenant Jessica is a rather underwritten part, she redeems Ragna admirably by the end of the movie. Admittedly, this revelation is at the expense of Shunack, whose moral ambiguity is ultimately jettisoned to turn him into little more than a mustache-twirling blackguard. Still, for most of its running time, Origin often does better than either Miyazaki film to give equal weight and merit to the arguments of both sides.

Though its plot is overly familiar, I do not mean to criticize Origin too harshly, as it is executed quite well. While one can guess the movie’s bent fairly quickly, there are just enough “where are we going?” elements to keep the audience guessing about the details. While the characters are a bit two-dimensional, they are also all rather appealing. It’s not hard to find yourself rooting for Agito in his struggles, and if Toola drives you crazy with some rather poor decisions in the middle of the film, it’s probably because you’ve grown to care about her as well.

It's all fun and games until someone bashes his ass on a pointy rockThe movie does seem to suffer a bit from pacing problems, though. The marvelously boisterous race between Agito and Cain that opens the movie deftly swings between the comic and the serious, with an exhilarating breakneck pace that keeps up almost continuously until Agito discovers and awakens Toola. But after that the movie seems to bog down for its middle third, as characters spill volumes of exposition. This section is made tolerable only by the joys of discovering the wonderfully realized world. The third act of the movie is an extended action sequence as Agito and Shunack engage in a physical and spiritual battle over Toola, and this last third is a triumphant return to form that provides the movie with some memorable set pieces, especially in the massive combat between the Ragna Army’s insect-like tanks and their titanic foe.

See? Told you so!Where the movie truly shines is in the stunningly high-quality animation. From start to finish, Origin is one of the most beautiful animated movies made in the past decade, easily matching up to the best animated output of any studio worldwide, including Pixar and Studio Ghibli. The race between Agito and Cain is a joy to watch and re-watch, especially a comedic moment at the end when Agito tries to suppress a howl of pain. Even the quieter moments are wonderfully executed, with silent gestures communicating volumes about a character’s state of mind. Such small gestures go a long way toward ensuring that we feel Toola’s confusion and bewilderment at this strange new world. The hand-drawn elements are paired with some gorgeous CGI work as well, which brings trees and vines to menacing, organic life, while also giving the vehicles and buildings real weight and heft. Studio GONZO has built a reputation for excellent animation on their television series, but they really pulled out all the stops for Origin, and the results are evident on the screen. The movie is worth at least a rental just to gawk at how pretty it is.

By now, the production values of the DVD should come as no surprise to anybody familiar with FUNimation’s output. The anamorphic widescreen presentation of the movie is mated with 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks in English and Japanese. The English dub is every bit as good as the Japanese soundtrack, and may be preferred by viewers who don’t want to take their eyes off the gorgeous visuals of the movie proper. Disc 1 is taken up entirely with the movie itself, and appears to be identical to the initial single-disc DVD release.

BangThe bonus disc turns out to be a bit of a disappointment—certainly well-intentioned, but only capable of holding the interest of the most rabid fan of the movie. It is anchored by an hour-long documentary on the production of the film. Even without paying much attention to the content, comparing the tone of the Japanese filmmakers with comparable American ones is an interesting exercise in plumbing national psyches. The Japanese filmmakers on this DVD seem far more self-effacing and much less self-congratulatory than those featured on the average American “making of” documentary, where all the participants call all the others geniuses, and babble about how honored they were to work with each other and what a pleasure it was to do the film. However, the documentary on the bonus disc often comes off as extremely sedate and measured, if not outright stilted. It also lacks any deep treatment of any one subject, which is a bit disappointing considering how much work obviously went into making the movie. As a result, the documentary is not as satisfying as one would hope it would be. The remaining extras include a variety of theatrical and TV trailers, a short sneak preview that came out in advance of Origin‘s release, and textless opening and closing sequences. Unfortunately, the trailers feel like an exercise in applied combinatorics, revealing how many different ways the same handful of scenes can be rearranged to create a unique sequence. In the end, the most interesting new feature of the deluxe edition DVD turns out to be the clever, environmentally friendly packaging, which is made entirely of cardboard, but still holds the discs quite securely.

Origin is a movie that is definitely worth watching, even if only as Studio GONZO’s coming out party as a real technical force in the field of animation. Those who own the original one-disc release may have a hard time justifying a double-dip unless they are hardcore fans of the movie. Newcomers will also have a hard time justifying the higher price tag of the deluxe edition DVD.

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