Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jun 17th 2014
Appleseed XIII: Tartaros & Ouranos
Deunan and Briareos are a pair of paramilitary police officers in the future city of Olympus. Raised by her military father to survive literally anything, Deunan is an all-human, all-deadly young woman; Briareos is a high-end cyborg who lost a goodly portion of his anatomy in an explosion. The pair is very close, bicker-prone, and unbeatable together. Which is good, because Olympus—an advanced city where the human minority is supported by a subordinate class of artificial humans known as bioroids—is under attack. Specifically by a terrorist organization targeting the city's ambitious migration program, which is designed to populate far planets with free-willed bioroids. A terrorist organization backed by opaque conspiracies and run by a ruthless operator whose reasons for mayhem are every bit as compelling and tragic as Deunan's reasons for protecting her new homeland.
The back of this two-movie set promises the Appleseed XIII TV series without any padding, compressed down to "bullets, explosions, and total mayhem!" That's not exactly a lie, but it is a bit disingenuous. Having never seen the TV series, I can't say what's been cut out, but what remains has a healthy personal focus and more than a couple of unnecessarily repeated scenes, so it is neither padding-free nor a three-hour action sequence.
It is, however, a reasonable sort of abridgement of the original series. Again, I can't say what was left out, but the films hang together well enough. Only occasionally do events lack the context necessary to make full sense, and the crush of subplots and characters, all smooshed together with none of that padding to separate them, is handled cogently enough that it comes across as merely dense rather than insensibly complicated. There are issues of course. The films have that distinctive welded-vignette structure that you get with films made from serial sources, completing one condensed short story every few minutes before shifting moods and narrative gears to start a new one. The rhythm is less than graceful, backstories and lovers' spats stuttering past as the over-arching plot unfurls in fits and starts, but each film eventually builds to its own emotion-strewn action blow-out, at which time it's generally pretty easy to forgive it its pacing problems.
The plot is thick—with characters, with twists, with double-crosses and political machinations and musings on the blending of human and machine, questions about what constitutes "humanity" as technology and biology merge. In short, it's Masamune Shirow: ambitious, complicated, a bit over-pleased with its own erudition, and blessed with action instincts that make all its conceits and convolutions a lot easier to swallow. The problem is that Shirow's been hoeing this row for going on thirty years, and there's not much new growing anymore. XIII is basically a dumber, less sophisticated version of Stand Alone Complex, its only substantial additions being its obsession with Greek mythology and the Blade Runner-esque questions of identity and free will posed by the bioroids.
Well, that and its earnest desire to grow a heart. (For all its superior qualities, Stand Alone Complex was a pretty cold, bloodless affair.) Of course, as the Tin Man knows, just because you want to grow one doesn't mean you can. You gotta earn it. And XIII''s idea of earning it is repetitive flashbacks to the traumas that shaped its characters, hackneyed romantic friction between Deunan and Briareos, and a lot of predictably tragic action. Strangely, as trite as it all is, sometimes it actually works. The way the main villain's past—and it's really a heartbreaking past—has twisted her up inside makes her far more sympathetic than your average city-nuking psychopath. She's driven by feelings that, though sometimes horribly-written (her romantic flashbacks are awful), are quite human and even, in their murderous way, kind of sadly sweet.
They'd be a lot sadder, sweeter, human, and sympathetic, however, if it weren't for the decision to animate XIII as if it were a PS2 cut scene. For all their sundry little writing and plot-condensation issues, nothing wounds these films quite like their disastrous 3D artistry does. Olympus is supposed to be a technological utopia, a place of ethereal beauty. Instead it looks like a plastic model of an ethereal utopia. Zoom in a bit and settings are still detail-deficient and personality-impaired, making even the homiest of dwellings look like the inside of a mass-produced doll house.
The real lethal damage, though, is reserved for Takayuki Goto's 3DCG character designs. Awkward and wholly unconvincing, you can practically see the streams of 1s and 0s behind each manufactured smile and inelegantly jointed hand. The effect messily slays all of the films' emotional ambitions. How can you feel Deunan's frustration at Briareos's fatherly protectiveness (when what she really wants is something a lot less platonic) when her features move as if pulled by invisible strings? How can the villainess's tortured gaze hit us where it hurts when her eyes are dead glassy orbs? How can anything connect on a proper human level when not for one moment do we buy any member of the cast as a human? (Or humanoid or whatever.) Not even the nubile sensuousness of Shirow's women survive the CG, and the less said about the molded-plastic wigs everyone wears, the better.
The films' computer artistry is a little kinder to the action, which is less reliant on the impossible intricacies of human movement (most of the characters wear mecha exoskeletons when fighting) and more reliant on things CG is good at. Like big explosions, sky-cruising mech tech, streams of bullets, screaming missiles, and whirling, sizzling beams of energy. The first film's climax—in which a ponderous mecha fortress decimates Olympus's swarming aerial forces with an arsenal of energy-spewing metal tentacles—in particular is a consolidation of animation strengths. The hallucinogenic flashbacks and stained-glass interludes featuring figures from Greek myth are also pretty neat.
Conisch's score is gloriously, old-fashionedly cheesy. Sometimes it's a little much—particularly when coupled with the excesses of the English dub—but usually it's kind of charming in its 80s-anime awfulness.
Funimation's release has three discs, one DVD for each film and a Blu-Ray with both of them. Both formats have locked audio and subtitle tracks, so switching them on the fly is impossible and it's also not possible to compare the dub and subtitle scripts (there's no way to get the dub to play with the subtitles on). Which makes it a little difficult to tell exactly how faithful the English version is. It seems pretty accurate though, especially if you go by the mismatch between the characters' CG mouths and the English that comes out of them. Casting is good, and the fun-with-accents moments add welcome color, but the tendency of the performances to trend towards the, shall we say, non-Kosher side of the spectrum can be problematic. The actors really bring out the cheese in the script's high drama, and they somehow make the parts where characters gracelessly dump Shirow's philosophizing on us even more blatant.
Given the quality of the visuals, it matters not whether you watch the DVD or Blu-Ray versions. Extras merely cover the usual range of film trailers, clean OPs and EDs, and company previews.
Overall (dub) : C-
Overall (sub) : C
Story : B
Animation : D
Art : D
Music : C+
+ Good job of compressing the TV series' salient points; surprisingly sympathetic villain; tries valiantly to emotionally justify its action, which is excellent regardless.
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