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Friday, Jan. 13, 2006

Patchwork anime at seams

Gin-iro no Kami no Agito

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Keiichi Sugiyama
Running time: 95 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

For decades the Japanese animation industry has made films based on popular TV cartoon shows which are in turn based on best-selling manga. This makes good business sense: As a theater booker once told me, "Japanese audiences like what they're already familiar with." The longevity of "Doraemon," "Crayon Shinchan" and other manga-to-TV-to-movie series bear him out.

News photo
A character in "Gin-iro no Kami no Agito" GONZO/GIN-IRO NO KAMI NO AGITO SEISAKU IINKAI

Gonzo, an animation house specializing in TV and video series ("Peace Maker," "Gantz," "Vandread" and "Samurai 7"), has defied this industry wisdom with its first feature animation, "Gin-iro no Kami no Agito (Agito with the Silver Hair)." Instead of a proven manga or TV property, this action fantasy set in an environmentally degraded future is based on an original story. Bravo for Gonzo.

The company has covered its box-office bet in other ways. First, it has made extensive use of digital CG to give its various "mecha" (i.e., robots and other mechanical marvels) a lifelike 3-D solidity. Second, its animators pay frequent homage to their illustrious elders, particularly Hayao Miyazaki and, to a lesser extent, Katsuhiro Otomo. In other words, they give the audience the familiarity it craves, but in new CG guises.

Fans of Miyazaki's 1997 hit "Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke)" will recognize everything from the theme of humankind vs. nature to individual images, such as a shot of tree tendrils enveloping the hero's arm, which is nearly a frame-by-frame steal from "Mononoke."

The borrowings from Otomo range from the hundreds of cannons that emerge, blazing, from a mountainside (shades of the "Cannon Fodder" segment in the Otomo-produced omnibus "Memories") to the violent destruction of the mountain itself, which recalls the climax of "Steamboy." Also, in the march of the robot army to the mountain, I could detect echoes of Kazuaki Kiriya's dark future epic "Casshern."

Am I saying that Gonzo and its director, Keiichi Sugiyama, are flagrantly ripping off their betters? Not really. Every animator, including Miyazaki himself, builds on what has been done before. But while a great animator like Miyazaki integrates his influences into his own, unique artistic world, Sugiyama and his collaborators often seem to be sampling -- a bit of Miyazaki here, a bit of Otomo there -- but without their models' skill and, more importantly, overall vision.

Despite individual scenes that dazzle with their dynamism and imagination, "Gin-iro no Kami no Agito" has a patchwork look, as scenes of ultrarealistic 3-D mecha are followed by views of surrounding countryside looking sketchy and pale, as though the colorists took an early lunch break and never returned to finish the job.

Not enough money? Gonzo did not have the billions lavished on Miyazaki's creations, but some Japanese animators, such as Masaaki Yuasa in his surreal fantasy "Mind Game," do innovative, visually stunning work on tiny budgets. Something else -- perhaps an overly tight schedule or a straight-to-video mind-set -- is at work here.

The story begins promisingly enough, with the hero, the rambunctious teenager Agito (Ryo Katsuji), playing dangerous games among the partly rebuilt ruins of a futuristic city, together with his slightly more cautious pal Cain (Masaru Hamaguchi). Slipping past a dozing security guard, they plunge into a pool at the bottom of what looks to be a deep mine shaft.

Exactly how deep Agito soon discovers, as he dives to escape what look to be cloned denizens of the surrounding forest, which has been infected with genetic material from -- don't ask how -- the moon which is hostile to humankind. Down he slips and slides, through tunnels and over waterfalls (reminiscent of similar plunges in "Ice Age"), until he finally reaches the bottom -- and discovers a girl who has been enclosed for three centuries in a life-support capsule.

Toola (Aoi Miyazaki) is shocked by the ruination around her, but accompanies Agito to the ramshackle city founded by Agito's father. Its inhabitants have reached an uneasy stalemate with the threatening greenery around them, while living a primitive life without electricity or running water. Toola, however, refuses to resign herself to this dismal existence and becomes determined to restore the world she once knew.

Meanwhile, the nearby city of Laguna has transformed itself into a military power, complete with robot warriors, and plans to take the battle to the forest. One of its leaders, the sternly handsome Shunack (Kenichi Endo), is also from the past. Soon, Toola, after experiencing the forest's dangers, finds herself at his side. Together, he says, they can set the world aright. Or will the powerful weapons he commands bring on the apocalypse?

Based on a story by Umanosuke Iida, the plot clips along briskly enough, concluding with a spectacular showdown between two cities and two outlooks on life. The film also takes its environmental theme to imaginative extremes that put the phrase "becoming one with nature" in a new, unsettling light.

But the violent swings in visual mood make it hard to focus on the story, instead of the techniques used to tell it. It's somewhat like installing a menacing metal sculpture in a small gallery lined with gauzy watercolors and expecting visitors to find a common theme. Instead, they are jarred by the contrast between jagged metal and runny paint -- and start edging toward the exit.

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