Thanks to everything from Astroboy to Akira, to films that have not even been released yet, science fiction is probably the one genre that is most readily identified with the medium of anime. And no anime creators working in science fiction come to mind as easily as does the trinity of Masamune Shirow, Katsuhiro Otomo and Mamoru Oshii. Oshii's Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence played in theaters throughout the US in the fall of 2004; Otomo's Steamboy is set to premiere this March. In between the two comes
Appleseed, which like Innocence, is based on a manga by Shirow Masamune.
Appleseed opens briskly—first a fairly lengthy and relatively obscure Bible verse (Revelations 12:4) and then a non-stop action sequence. At an unidentified and unidentifiable urban wasteland that immediately brings to mind Grozny or Fallujah, a small group of soldiers is skirmishing with—and losing to—robots of some kind, or maybe powersuits; in any case, big clunky metal things with guns. For at least the first five minutes of the film, not so much as a single word is uttered—which by no means is a sign of things to come. Soon enough, the battle is over and the plot kicks into gear.
Deunan Knute is, if not the ultimate warrior, still a very good one. For years, she has been fighting a meaningless war that has already claimed her lover. What she doesn't know—or does not remember—is that her mother was a pioneering scientist who had a key role in the creation of the utopian city of Olympus, a place of gleaming highways, ziggurat-like towers, green parks filled with happy residents. A technological paradise that rises above the turmoil and destruction that covers the rest of the planet, Olympia is populated by a mix of people and "bioroids," vaguely defined artificial humans who are unable to either reproduce or experience strong emotion, but who in all other regards are indistinguishable from the real thing. As Deunan is surrounded by the aforementioned big clunky metal things, an Olympian tilt-rotor swoops down, disgorges a squad of powersuits of its own, and whisks her away—into the middle of a power struggle between Olympia's chief executive Athena, the military commander General Uranus (yes, he does have a first name; no, it is not used more than once), and the stereotypical seven wise old men who serve as the private council of the city's AI brain. The power struggle has to do with the future of the bioroids and their entirely predictable attempt to unlock the capability to reproduce, prevent humans from reproducing, and replace homo sapiens
as the dominant life form on Earth. It plays out predictably: debates, double-crosses, mixed allegiances; it's nothing we haven't seen before in a hundred different books and movies, whether animated or live-action. Despite the occasional stabs at pretentiousness via the Bible verse at the beginning, the occasional lapses into technobabble, and several montages of vaguely scientific-looking images (strands of DNA, cells, lines of scrolling code), the plot is essentially irrelevant.
Once it comes out on DVD, Appleseed will be the poster child for the chapter skip function. Whether with good reason or without, every ten minutes or so there is an action scene. An elaborate, memorable, breath-taking action scene: an urban battle, a highway chase (...with robot ninjas!), the grand finale assault on something that looks like the unholy offspring of the Sister Ray cannon from Final Fantasy VII. "Gratuitous" seems to be the keyword here: gratuitous violence, gratuitous explosions, gratuitous special cuts to bullets feeding into machine guns. With a soundtrack that features Paul Oakenfold and a variety of other techno artists, the fight scenes work best as standalone music videos—and will probably wind up as fodder for anime convention music video contests for years to come. True enough, videogame cut scenes over the last few years have shown us just what CG can do, but every once in a while, the little things really do stand out. Seemingly every single bit of dust emanating from an explosion is there on the screen, and even in some of the other non-battle scenes, computer graphics are used to incredible effect. The world Appleseed takes place in seems to be designed specifically to highlight what can be done with CG. For example, nearly every building is a cluttered multi-level structure of amazing complexity. Sometimes it's the obvious things that you know to look for, like reflections. At others, it's the tiny background details—waves breaking on a shore, and my favorite, the way wrinkles form on a bed cover as a character falls onto it.
Much has been said already about the motion capture technology used to animate Appleseed's characters. Does it work? No, it does not. Why it doesn't has something to do with the basic definition of anime. As pretty much every single commentator on Japanese animation has noted, it does not strive for realism. Details are always only as important as their relevance to the plot or the setting. This is why anime can get away with characters who are explicitly not realistic and with static backgrounds that only offer suggestions of reality. When superimposed against a CG background that is realistic—even hyper-realistic—the limitations of the animated characters become not only painfully clear, but jarring. When individual specks of dust are visible... but a character's hair is simply a solid geometric shape on top of his or her head—or worse yet, a group of separated geometric shapes—a viewer's attention is invariably drawn to what's missing, not what's there. Especially in the (very few) shots where more than a couple of people appear wearing street clothing rather than armor, it is immediately evident just how clunky the character animations are.
Other issues with this movie—issues that have nothing to do with the technical aspects of its production—are numerous. Shinji Aramaki, the director, is an anime industry veteran, but his only other directorial experience was back in 1987, on Madox-1, and to the best of my knowledge, this is Tsutomu Kamushiro's first screenplay. It shows. The script is full of holes and scenes are thrown in and never picked up on again. Conversations drag on for too long, to no real effect. Ultimately, Appleseed is nothing less than one of the most predictable movies—anime or live action—in recent memory, even given the fact that the science fiction genre is almost based on cliché and predictability.
As a complete package, Appleseed is not a failure. The action scenes alone are well worth the price of admission or the DVD. But “limited expectations” is the key phrase here. And as far as the motion capture technology goes—well, it's not the first movie to try to capitalize on this particular technological innovation. It will certainly serve as a lesson to other directors using motion capture, and in due time, it will take its rightful place in the list of movies that had to get it not quite right before someone came along and finally figured out just how to truly and effectively integrate CG and animation.