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Friday, Oct. 19, 2007
Slick anime sure to Woo sci-fi fans
"Appleseed," Shinji Aramaki's sci-fi animation based on a Shirow Masamune comic, was hailed as ground-breaking when it opened in 2004. Not so much for its story, which recycled tired dystopian, man-as-machine tropes from many sources, including Masamune's better-known manga "Kokaku Kidotai (Ghost In the Machine)," as for producer Fumihiro Sori's vividly realized future world and hypercharged battle scenes that outclassed the average arcade game, not to mention the average live-action pic.
For industry types, however, the film's real attraction was its innovative use of out-of-the-box animation software to create Hollywood-style effects at a tiny fraction of Hollywood budgets. "Appleseed" cost about ¥100 million to make, which is probably about what Pixar spends annually on staff massages. Studio Ghibli President Toshio Suzuki told me at the time that "Appleseed" would revolutionize the animation business, though Ghibli itself continued to cling to its distinctive "hand-drawn" aesthetic, with great success.
Aramaki's new film, "Appleseed Saga: Ex-Machina," is not just an "Appleseed" sequel but a version upgrade — the animated equivalent of going from Windows 98 to XP. Not 3D state-of-the-art, in other words, but still a dramatic improvement. The film's world, from its cityscapes to robots and other mecha (mechanical devices), is realized with a solidity and detail, down to the scratches on the chopper doors, that give it an uncanny reality. Walking out of the screening room into the Ginza, I had the disorienting feeling that I was still in the film's city, Olympus, albeit many decades before the story starts in 2138.
Also, compared to similar characters in "Vexille," producer Sori's latest sci-fi action flick, the central characters of "Ex-Machina" have a wider emotional range, expressing everything from matey humor to expressions of embarrassment and gestures of love that are surprisingly natural, even moving. Not that "Ex Machina" is an acting tour-de-force — the character animation is still stiff by Pixar's rubber-faced standards, but it does feel more like a real movie, less like an arcade game with ambitions. One reason may be the influence of Hong Kong action legend John Woo as producer, though his most obvious creative signatures are the two-handed firepower displays by the cyborg hero and the doves that fly up at a key moment and turn into robots.
As the story begins, an uneasy peace has settled on a devastated world after a war that has wiped out half of humanity. In Olympus, a neutral city, the powers-that-be have tried to curb humanity's warlike impulses by creating a new, more even-tempered race — called bioroids — from human DNA. The city is also protected by a highly trained security force, E.S.W.A.T., whose members include the beautiful but deadly human Deunan (voiced by Ai Kobayashi) and her cyborg boyfriend Briareos (Koichi Yamadera). Gravely wounded in a firefight, Briareos was transformed into a cyborg, losing his human body in the process, if not his human spirit. (Transforming him into a bioroid evidently is not considered.)
Then, in a battle with antigovernment forces, Briareos is nearly destroyed protecting Deunan. He is saved by the heroic efforts of a cyborg medical specialist, but he faces a long recovery. The work of E.S.W.A.T. must go on, however, and Deunan gets a new partner — Tereus (Yuji Kishi), a buff young bioroid made from Briareos's DNA, whose perfect resemblance to his human "father" repulses, and then attracts, Deunan.
Violent incidents intensify when the terrorists electronically gain control over the cyborgs and turn them against their human masters. Panicked, the government shuts down cyborg-parts shipments, leading a major parts maker to dispatch the steely, if gorgeous, Yoshino (Rika Fukami) to lobby Olympus's imperious leader Athena (Mara Takashima). But Athena has bigger fish to fry — a meeting of world leaders in Olympus, at which she intends to call for a global satellite network to monitor security threats.
On the first day of the meeting, Deunan, Tereus, a revived Briareos and the rest of the E.S.W.A.T. team are guarding the perimeter of the assembly hall when the terrorists try to invade the premises using human zombies as shock troops. What in the name of Zeus is going on?
As in "Appleseed," the emphasis in "Ex-Machina" is squarely on action, while its story is less formulaic and more relevant to the present moment (though today's terrorists haven't yet figured out how to use the 22nd century equivalent of iPods as brain-control devices.
But as hard as Aramaki, Woo and their team try to make "Ex-Machina" the latest word in sci-fi anime, they are firmly wedded to standard action tropes, such as characters who spray foes with terrific blasts of automatic firepower, like Leslie Cheung and Chow Yun-fat in Woo's 1980s Hong Kong action pics. Won't they be using ray guns in the 22nd century — or is that technology too 1930s Buck Rogers? I also had my doubts about Deunan's Prada-designed cocktail dress and high heels. She wears them to a party with a winning awkwardness — but they look more 2007 than 2138. Won't fashions change more in 131 years — or am I underestimating the appeal of the retro look to our distant descendants?
One aspect of the film seems prescient, though: hardly anyone in it, from the ageless Athena to the zombies, look a day over 35. Wars may be forever — but the science of 2138 may well have licked the problem of paunches, wrinkles and gray hair. We can only hope.