Reviewby Brian Ruh,
In the world of Annwn, eight tribes called the Garm were created long ago to serve their god. One day the god left the world, and the races fell to fighting among themselves. Now, after devastating the planet, there are only three tribes remaining (Briga, Kumtak, and Columba). There also seem to be no more Druids, mysterious beings who conveyed the words of god. The Briga control the ground, the Columba control the skies, while the weakened Kumtak serve the Briga.
The film is divided into three acts. The first, "The Exile of the Three Magi" sets the stage for the film's journey. The Columba have captured Wydd, a Kumtak in posession of a Gula (a mystical being that looks remarkably like a basset hound) as well as the last Druid in existence (we have a title!). During his interrogation, Wydd says he was fleeing the Briga because the Kumtak are enslaved, and he offers his services as well as the power of the Druid to fight on the side of the Columba. As the Columba give him access to their systems, the Briga, led by Skellig, invade the Columba airship and retrieve Wydd and the Druid. They manage to get away as the Briga attack, but Khara, a cloned Columba pilot pursues them. She is shot down, but Skellig's ship crashes as well. Once they are reunited on the ground, Wydd convinces Khara and Skellig to accompany him on his own quest to the lands of the Druids to try to solve the mystery of why the Garm were created and why their god left. The second act, "Passage to the Other World," chronicles their journey as they try to make it to the land of the Druids, with Khara and Skellig discussing why they're following Wydd on his fool's journey. In the third act, "Sacred Grove," the band arrives at their presumed destination, only to find that things aren't entirely peaceful.
It's become something of a rule of thumb among some anime fans to avoid Mamoru Oshii's live-action films. On the surface, this impulse is perfectly understandable. Oshii has been widely acclaimed for being one of the foundational writers and directors behind anime franchises like Patlabor and Ghost in the Shell, in addition to more experimental fare like Angel's Egg. However, Oshii's sensibilities don't always translate well into a live-action format, and I've heard many of these films criticized as dull and uneven. Although I'd be the first to admit that they certainly wouldn't be to everyone's tastes, it's important to go into these films with an open mind.
This is something of a long-winded way to say that Mamoru Oshii has a new live-action film available in North America -- Garm Wars: The Last Druid. Currently in limited theatrical release and available on VOD, this futuristic drama is Oshii's first English-language film. This isn't the first time that Oshii has broken away from the Japanese language in a film, though - his 2000 live-action film Avalon was originally filmed in Polish, and 2009's Assault Girls contained a fair amount of English as well, although this was spoken by Japanese actors and was heavily accented. Garm Wars was filmed in Canada and features US and Canadian actors Lance Henriksen (Aliens) as Wydd, Kevin Durand (Lost) as Skellig, and a starring role for Melanie St-Pierre (most recently seen on TV in an episode of Heroes Reborn) as Khara.
In spite of this being Mamoru Oshii's first English-language work, anyone familiar with his films will be able to pick out many of his usual motifs. The most obvious is perhaps the solid, if unremarkable, score by his consistent collaborator Kenji Kawai. The opening credit sequence of Khara being regenerated while Kawai's composition plays doesn't seem like it could be anything other than a direct reference to a similar opening in 1995's Ghost in the Shell. Many of the early scenes contain the sepia-toned look Oshii began developing in Avalon and Ghost in the Shell 2. (Though I need to mention Benoit Beaulieu's outstandingly gorgeous cinematography, which takes these ideas and images to a whole new level.) In terms of story, Khara's personal quest to discover the meaning behind the endless fighting of the Garm tribes is reminiscent of the cyclical struggle of The Sky Crawlers. Oshii's customary use of biblical passages come into play in a couple of different placesas well, which is appropriate for a film that contains, as the voiceover puts it, a "pilgrim's journey to the holy land." And it will come as no surprise to anyone that there is a basset hound as one of the film's main characters. If fact, it's fortuitous timing that Dark Horse recently published the translation of Seraphim: 266613336 Wings, a mid-'90s manga collaboration between Oshii and Satoshi Kon - the quest of the Garm Wars characters very closely resembles the quest of the Magi in that apocalyptic vision (and is even referenced in the title of the film's first act). Like Seraphim, though, Garm Wars is frustratingly open-ended, with the last scene showing the world of Annwn on the brink of a new disaster.
At first, Garm Wars seems like it might be falling prey to otaku-like overcomplication. The pacing of the film does not do itself any favors by front-loading the information about its world in an info-dump in the first ten minutes. Not only does the film detail these in a voiceover, Wydd's character has some grand expository dialogue that rehashes the same information a few minutes later. In spite of this double dose, it's hard to wade through the names of the Garm tribes and their loyalties, and even more frustrating when you realize that none of that actually matters through the course of the film. These aspects could easily have been trimmed away, and the building of the world more thoroughly integrated into the presentation of the narrative.
Some might also be turned off by the film's emphasis on elements that don't seem to be strictly related to the story. In particular, there are multiple scenes in the first act of Khara wandering through richly-lensed environments after she crashes. Although it's true that these scenes slow the pace of the story, they also build on one another, contributing to a greater sense of the world that the characters inhabit. Oshii certainly seems more interested in the visual presentation of Garm Wars than he is of its complicated backstory.
That said, the film is a worthwhile watch with something interesting to say. In fact, Garm Wars seem to build directly on many of Oshii's previous films, from Avalon through Assault Girls. In fact, I think all of these films exist in the same narrative universe, with the action in Garm Wars only being the most recent manifestation of the immersive computer worlds we've seen in these previous films. The events we see are the subsequent growing pains of artificial life as it tries to come into its own, to not just survive but to have a reason to live. Part of this is the process of individuation, which is why the concept of collective memory among the Garm as well as separation from this collectivity are highlighted. The Garm do not (cannot?) know know their own history, and their reliance on memory and their data archives only gets them so far. The separation of Skellig and Khara from the rest of their tribe is the leverage Wydd uses to get them to accompany him on the journey to the lands of the Druids. Since they are not connected to their networks, their memories will not be downloaded when they die; therefore, they have no choice to press on to try to discover new knowledge. Annwn is a stagnant world - as Wydd says, "The Garm don't create, they maintain." Like Ghost in the Shell's exhortation "Your desire to remain as you are is what ultimately limits you," something drastic needs to happen in this world in order to progress. It's difficult for such a creation to go beyond the bounds of it's original parameters, but Oshii seems optimistic that such growth is perhaps possible, though this is tempered by the open-ended nature of the film's conclusion.
Garm Wars may initially seem like a gorgeous piece of SF candy, but there's actually quite a bit to consider below the surface. However, it does require some patience and knowledge from outside the film (and particularly of Oshii's previous works) in order to really get at it. This may be too high of a price of entry for some, but I enjoyed the visual and philosophical ride.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B
Art : A
Music : B+
+ Fantastic visuals and great use of design and color. Tries to wrestle with some heady issues of meaning and identity.
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