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The Mike Toole Show
Done with Computers

by Michael Toole,

In just a couple more days, North America will be graced by yet another example of that surefire hitmaker of Japanese animation: the all-CG film that's based on something popular in these parts. I am referring, of course, to Starship Troopers: Invasion, a new feature directed by mecha designer great Shinji Aramaki, who grew up with the business in the 80s and is reaping the benefit of his experience by being one of the go-to guys for projects like this one. It's hard to argue with the pedigree of something like Starship Troopers: Invasion. I pretty much already know it's going to succeed, because its two predecessors, Starship Troopers 2 and 3, while each fairly terrible, were profitable ventures for Sony, who no doubt have been working tirelessly to keep the Starship Troopers brand alive, because they're still paying off the goddamn costuming budget for Paul Verhoeven's original, massive-scaled magnificent flop. Aramaki's approach is workmanlike but rarely terrible, co-writer Ed Neumeier is producing with original star Casper Van Dien (who, hilariously, does not reprise his role as Johnny Rico), and the advance notices from Comicon complain about soft plotting, but laud the numerous action scenes. Yep, this one's pretty much bulletproof.

But why is this specific formula-- the all-CG approach-- seen as such a surefire path to success in the west? Almost every CG anime that's struggled out of the gate in Japan has seen the light over here, from complicated stinkers like Vexille to lean, auteur-driven stinkers like Malice@Doll and URDA. The only way to really pin stuff down is to talk about the whole spread of these all-CG anime films, but before that? I want to complain about something totally dumb.

Alright, see, before this Tuesday, I used to be able to bamboozle a lot of people by talking about “that Starship Troopers anime.” Almost to a person, they'd figure I was talking about the generally likeable Starship Troopers: Roughnecks, a sturdy little TV spinoff of the feature film helmed by Foundation Imaging, the guys who created most of the computer-driven SFX for Babylon 5. Then I'd get to tell them about the real Starship Troopers anime, the Sunrise OVA series from 1988 that, just like Verhoeven's movie, shifted protagonist Juan Rico's nationality from Filipino to Argentine. You know, the one that, despite using Studio Nue's absolutely fantastic powered suit designs and sticking fairly close to the book's M.O., was generally pretty awful, with sluggish plotting, weird character designs, ugly enemies that resembled walking vaginas, and one of the most discordantly cheerful OP sequences ever. Watch closely, and don't miss Carmen's amazing death-stare! Thing is, the storied “Starship Troopers ANIME” is likely to be overshadowed by this new feature, which is a shame. Why? Because, well, the bad stuff must be preserved along with the good!

Putting that aside, what we're really talking about is Japanese animation rendered entirely in 3D CG, and that story can be opened pretty appropriately with Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. The rather infamous Final Fantasy movie wasn't the very first computer-generated anime - veteran studio Satelight contends that their 1995 Bit the Cupid TV series was the first anime to be all-CG, albeit a production that mixed 3D backgrounds and 2D sprites - but it was the first truly high profile project of its kind, a massive, 4-year undertaking that involved a huge, multinational crew, a rendering farm of dozens of workstations, and a truly monumental amount of hubris courtesy of Squaresoft and director Hironobu Sakaguchi, who'd successfully steered the Final Fantasy franchise up to that point.

In short, Sakaguchi and company got caught up in their own hype, using Square's considerable financial resources and clout to push 3D CG technology to the limit. But the cost wasn't cheap-- some $139 million went into developing the movie, and audiences around the world reacted with a complicated mixture of awe and complete confusion to the film's stunning visual quality, patchy story, and the sheer spectacle of a meticulously rendered CG model of Ben Affleck that speaks with the dulcet tones of Alec Baldwin. Actually, the voice cast might be the best thing about Spirits Within - lead Ming-na Wen isn't spectacular, but Baldwin and fellow co-star Donald Sutherland are both that rarest of Hollywood bird, the A-list actor who understands how to effectively voice-act. Hilariously, the Chicago Sun-Times cited the movie's weak box office performance as the reason for Square Pictures’ demise, neglecting to mention that Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was the studio's only feature film. Square Pictures’ Honolulu unit did manage to kick out one other project, the solidly impressive short Last Flight of the Osiris, part of Warner Bros’ Animatrix anthology. Now? Well, the company still technically exists, but it's been folded back into the Square-Enix media juggernaut, possibly never to resurface.

Final Fantasy might've been the first all-3D CG anime film to go into production, but it was beaten to theatres by a much smaller project, a Gaga Communications joint called A.LI.CE that debuted in 1999. Not only was it possibly the first CG anime film to screen in theatres, it was the first movie in Japan to be screened digitally, using DLP projectors. There's actually considerable talent involved in A.LI.CE - director Kenichi Maejima was Osamu Dezaki's understudy on Space Adventure Cobra, and had helped steer the boat on memorable fare like Urusei Yatsura and Legend of the Galactic Heroes. But A.LI.CE, with its clunky story of time travel and struggle against oppression and primitive, off-putting CG, isn't much of an artistic triumph. Gaga followed quickly with Blue Remains, a 2000 film with more anime talent, notably Haruhiko Mikimoto on character designs, but this too failed to make an impression. Gaga would team up with Soeishinsha for 2001's 3-episode OVA Malice@Doll, and while it's the most polished of the three, it still kinda looks like shit. It's helped by some smart characterization and a weird, psychosexual story by scribe Chiaki Konaka, but it just doesn't hold up. All three of these bizarre, small-time CG movies are available on a single DVD here in North America, under the title Landmarks of CGI Animation. That title's a bit too kind, methinks.

Remarkably, the world of Japanese animation didn't exactly learn its lesson from Final Fantasy’s lousy financial performance. The following year of 2002 would see another high-profile CG project based on a video game, Galerians: Rion. Based on a fairly popular series that never seemed to gain much traction in the west, Galerians was, oddly enough, backed by a magazine company, Enterbrain. The OVA has some major-league anime talent, with Madara creator and comic illustrator Sho Tajima contributing character designs, but his work translated pretty horribly to 3D. Meanwhile, director Masahiko Maesawa was ordinarily tasked with doing direction and continuity work for video game cutscenes, and it really shows - throughout the feature, the camera tracks slowly and ponderously, the characters move without weight, and their faces pinch and gawk strangely. Image Entertainment, flailing heedlessly at the video game anime gravy train, hooked Galerians for high-profile DVD release and MTV2 broadcast in 2004, complete with brand new nu-metal soundtrack. Like the OVA itself, their campaign flopped.

Now, wait a minute. Earlier, I talked about how these 3D CG projects are often viewed pretty favorably, but the opening entries to the field are clear flops. What turned the trend around, you ask? That'd be 2004's Appleseed, the aforementioned Shinji Aramaki's first big CG joint. Appleseed’s merits are actually fairly obvious; if you ask me, it's the first all-CG anime that really looks the part convincingly, with sleek, realistic mecha design and stunning character artwork. Aramaki's treatment of Masamune Shirow's manga isn't perfect-- it spares no time for Deunan and Briareos’ complicated relationship-- but the core story of the dystopian city of Olympus is intact. The movie went straight to home video in North America, and was an unexpected success-- total units sold surged past 100,000 in the first couple of months, and publisher Pioneer had some trouble keeping up with orders for the steel-boxed special edition. At this juncture, Warner Bros. smelled money, and smoothly stepped in to help produce a sequel. Aramaki's Appleseed: Ex Machina still looks great and packs some fantastic action scenes, but its story is barely coherent, at best. But despite all that, the initial film was a solid performer and gave the franchise some new life. Both Appleseed and its sequel are still in print, a rarity in this day and age.

Interestingly, the business started to build on Appleseed's success. The most ostentatious example is Squaresoft's Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. Something of a vanity project headed by FFVII art director Tetsuya Nomura, 2005's Advent Children is a direct sequel to the globally popular installment of the franchise. You know, the one where Aeris dies. The company expressed surprise when the movie debuted to packed cinemas in Japan and empty video shelves in much of the rest of the world, but its success really seemed like a no-brainer to me. The movie looks incredible, with FF: The Spirits Within’s CG technology clearly being polished up and utilized for the visuals, and while the story is only marginally coherent, it's appealing enough to fans of the franchise, and the movie is stuffed end-to-end with eye-grabbing action scenes. In my opinion, Advent Children is the Final Fantasy movie that fans across the globe were really hoping for in 2002; more's the pity that it wasn't released then. But to this day, Advent Children is perennial top-selling anime blu-ray on Amazon. Could that be because it costs less than $8? Probably. Eight bucks is a pretty damn great deal for a visually sumptuous fantasy action flick.

Remember how Makoto Shinkai made the jump from being a video game artist to anime director by cultivating his own short project, Voices of a Distant Star, virtually on his own? As he completed this rare accomplishment, a sort of Mirror Universe version of his success story was playing out across town. 3D games animation artist Romanov Higa spent a big chunk of his spare time in the early 2000s creating URDA, a brief original internet animation about a bizarre Nazi time-travel scheme. He released this project in 5-minute chunks throughout 2002, and response was good enough that he was eventually able to back off from games work and pursue his own endeavors. He followed the curiously dubbed-in-English URDA with another dubbed-in-English net animation, 2006's Catblue Dynamite. Catblue's a bizarre attempt at capturing the mood of 70s cop movies and TV; its only real success is its soundtrack. See, Romanov Higa has problems; he has a great sense of the cinematic, but his character animation has always looked halting and alien to me. There's an ugliness and uncanny valley-ness to his work that outdoes even Robert Zemeckis's fare. More recently, Higa's directed a short OVA loosely based on Masamune Shirow's Tank Police manga, titled Tank SWAT. Once again, it just looks weird as hell. Nowadays? Someone, somewhere is continuing to give Romanov Higa money, and this person must be stopped!

Despite my bitching, Higa's approach has led to success, and he wasn't the only animator to take the “Comix Wave” approach that Makoto Shinkai employed. The publisher also gave a leg up to a guy named Jun Awazu, who created a short CG OVA called Negadon in 2005. You might remember it, because Central Park Media released it here. I like Negadon a lot-- it's not especially ambitious, but Awazu and his small team work hard to recreate the mood and look of Showa-era monster movies using computer graphics. Now, you can see an interesting trend starting to emerge-- by the mid-2000s, there was a solid collection of CG anime, but it remained (and continues to remain) a remarkably narrow subset of Japanese animation in general. Make no mistake, 3D CG is much more integrated in “regular” anime than it's ever been, but all-3D CG stuff is still comparatively rare. Shinji Aramaki established himself as an authority in the medium with Appleseed, and Awazu made his mark with Negadon. The third emerging figure in the medium? That'd be Fumihiko Sori, who made his directorial debut with 2007's Vexille.

Vexille is, like too much of this stuff, better as a production showreel than an actual feature film, with story and continuity taking a back seat to bristling weaponry and striking characters. Indeed, the titular main character, a blonde special forces commando, is fun to watch, but she can't do much about the movie's bizarre story, a tale of immortality and the mysterious, barely-coherent isolation of Japan. A lot of people in my circle were quick to check out Vexille when Funimation brought it to these shores, and just as quick to move on to the next. That's probably for the best.

2008's Resident Evil: Degeneration would prove to be the second in the “based on video games” formula that actually worked really well. Directed by SFX wizard Makoto Kamiya, the movie tells a sloppy but still enjoyable tale of monsters n’ zombies at the airport, and the heroes who fight against them and the nefarious Umbrella Corporation. You know, I feel bad for Leon Kennedy and Claire Redfield; they've been alternately fighting and fleeing from monsters for literally more than a decade, but they still always seem to get caught up in these situations. And a decade later, Leon and Claire still look sort of like Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes to me. Anyhow, this movie raked in millions at the Japanese box office and was a top-10 hit on home video here in the states. Can you guess what happened next? That's right, Resident Evil: Damnation, a sequel centering on Leon once again, is set to hit Japanese theatres in October. Apparently the first film did really well here, because we're getting it a month earlier than the Japanese, at the end of September!

Now it's time to talk about stuff that came out in 2009, which makes me glad. 2009 was a good year for all-CG anime. On the home video front, we had To, which is one of those shows with really unfortunate titles, like Another. How the hell do you go to the video store and ask for To? What is a video store, anyway? To is a really neat OVA, a pair of two unrelated science fiction tales directed by the aforementioned Fumihiko Sori. To’s got a great storytelling pedigree - it's based on 2001 Nights, manga from Yukinobu Hoshino, a dude known in these parts for adapting James P. Hogan's The Two Faces of Tomorrow. The two films are a little low key, but still pretty engrossing SF. But To is overshadowed by a really neat family movie that we just got on DVD and blu-ray in this neck of the woods: Oblivion Island. Subtitled Haruka and the Magic Mirror, Oblivion Island is one of those Production I.G. affairs that really obviously doubles as a sizzle reel, with lots of “hey, look at what we can do with our newest techniques!” stuff. Think Kai Doh Maru, with its detailed 2D animation layered seamlessly on all-3D backgrounds, and you're in the ballpark. But Oblivion Island actually takes the reverse approach, with 3D characters and props laid out over 2D (or, at least, 2D-looking) background elements. The approach seems kind of old-school, but visually it works really well. The titular protagonist is a likeable teen girl, and the story is weird and sentimental is a pretty good way. Oblivion Island is one of those rare anime films with enough mainstream appeal that you can just walk into Target and pick it up; I do recommend you do so!

2010 would bring us Planzet, directed by the aforementioned Jun Awazu. See what I mean about a small group of creators really making their mark in this area of anime? Planzet is yet another Comix Wave joint, who seem to be making themselves the standard-bearer for neat indie anime. Something about the character art in this feature bugs me a little, but its story, about a totally overwhelming alien invasion and the pack of humans who make a last-ditch effort to repel them, is solid and reminds me of Titan AE. Only, you know, not horrible. 2011 would bring us a spoiler to the momentum of the whole video-games-as-anime model that had started to work well with Advent Children and Resident Evil, and that'd be Tekken: Blood Vengeance. Oh, man, Tekken. There's a story here, but it's not easily-told; a story of me, going to the movies to see this, and being in a theatre full of people who booed the living shit out of this crappy movie. A story of a review so harshly critical (I called out both scriptwriter Dai Sato and the entire production committee for even allowing this to be made) that nobody bothered picking it up for publication. The funny thing, though? Even thought I hated, hated, hated Tekken: Blood Vengance, I still meet people who liked it just fine. It was directed by Yoichi Mori, one of Namco's video game guys, and it has all of the requisite fightin’ that you'd expect from a Tekken movie. But if you ask me, the OVA is better. Yes, the 2D OVA, which featured the gang fighting invisible dinosaurs, is better than this. Make of that what you will.

So what's the deal in 2012? We already know most of the story. Starship Troopers: Invasion is hitting shelves this week, Resident Evil: Damnation will follow soon after. And hey, we already got Dragon Age: Dawn of the Seeker, which rolled out at the beginning of the summer. I haven't seen it and I'm not all that familiar with the Dragon Age franchise, so I can't really go into its quality. (Zac sure didn't like it much!) It was, however, directed by Fumihiko Sori, the To and Vexille guy who, along with Aramaki and Awazu, has established himself as a force in 3D CG anime. So even if it's not a great project, it's more proof that 3D CG anime is a narrow but potent field, with a few creators rising to the top. There's only one major movie that I can't cover here, because it hasn't gotten a major release outside of Japan. That'd be Friends: Naki of Monster Island, which hit Japan last Christmas. I'm a bit surprised we don't have it yet, but it took Oblivion Island a couple of years to get released here, so I'm sure we'll see it eventually.

So how about this, readers: do you, as anime fans, like the look of 3D CG anime? I think it's getting better, but some aspects of the character designs-- the pinched faces, for example-- just rub me the wrong way. Do you have a favorite 3D CG anime? Or maybe you're sore at me for not talking about other projects, like MS IGLOO or Mr. Stain in Junk Alley? Talk about it in the comments!

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