The Mike Toole Show - Need for Seed

by Mike Toole,

Some anime series are wildly popular, spanning decades in the form of TV series, movies, OVAs, and an ocean of tie-in projects. Others burn bright, but wrap up after a single TV series or film. But there are a few - just a handful, really - that never really go away. Most of them are family comedies or kids' fare, like Sazae-san, Chibi Maruko-chan, or Doraemon. In the realm of science fiction anime and manga, there are a handful of stalwarts that have been hanging around for deades, mostly thanks to the fastidiousness and dedication of their creators - open-ended classics like Locke the Superman and Five Star Stories. What is it, I wonder, that makes a series hang in there and retain an audience for that long?

That question lingered in my mind when I first caught sight of Appleseed Alpha, a film released last year that's the latest chapter in a franchise spanning thirty years. The thing is, that franchise isn't especially prolific - there's 4 relatively slim volumes of Masamune Shrirow's original manga, almost all of which was published before 1990. There's a single cel-animated OVA from the 80s. There's a pair of movies, a TV series, and this new film, which is actually a reboot of sorts. So what's the deal with Appleseed-- what's given the series such intense longevity, despite a relative scarcity of media?

Shirow's original manga, which handily bagged the Seiun award for best manga the year of its release, stands out for a number of reasons. Firstly, it's intensely and vividly detailed, and heavily peppered with both action and dialogue-- it's one of those manga that requires such concentration that it's difficult to just read through at a quick clip. There's simply too much to look at. In Japan, the series was released direct to book format, a relative rarity; here in the U.S., it was the first manga to be licensed by the late Toren Smith's influential Studio Proteus. It was Shirow's first real hit, and his debut as a professional-- while studying painting at the Osaka University of Arts, he made his amateur debut with Black Magic, which was good enough to catch the attention of a publisher.

There are a few central ingredients that are repeated in every iteration of Appleseed. It's always about a pair of officers in the ESWAT (kinda like SWAT, only Extra Special Weapons and Tactics) unit of Olympus, a utopian planned city-state built to revive and safeguard the human race in the wake of World War III. The protagonists are always a specific pair of officers-- the taciturn and powerful Hecatonchires-model cyborg Briareos, and his battlefield point man and lover, the fiery and wily Deunan Knute. They're always working in the service of the city's administration, vat-grown, intelligent, and emotionally stable artificial humans called bioroids. The characters always use Landmates, powerful and versatile mecha suits that appear all over Shirow's oeuvre, not just in Appleseed. And most importantly, Appleseed is never merely a buddy cop show with cool fights-- it explores complex notions of how human society can be preserved and improved in light of humankind's seemingly endless appetite for conflict and war.

The appeal of Shirow's original manga is immediate - as we meet Deunan (the franchise's main character, despite Briareos often being the key figure in whatever operation they're involved in) and Briareos wandering the "Badside" wastelands that the cities were reduced to after a calamitous third world war (happily, still mostly fought with conventional weapons), the pair have an easy chemistry-- they've been both romantic and tactical partners for some time. Shirow never scrutinizes the incongruity of Deunan's fiercely pretty human visage and Briaereos's static, eight-eyed cyborg face too closely; they were lovers before a battlefield injury made him a cyborg, they remain that way afterwards, and that's all there is to it.

Scrabbling desperately for food, ammo, and supplies, the pair are hooked by Hitomi, a cute and bubbly recruiter for Olympus, a mega-city arisen from the ashes of the old world. While nations, like the USA and USSR (yep, this was from the 80s, alright) still exist, Hitomi represents a global concern that's looking for capable soldiers in the wastelands, to use as staff for Olympus's police force. Questionable wisdom of using paranoid mercs as police officers aside, Deunan and Briareos accept the offer, moving from a backdrop of refugees and smashed-in, ruined cities to the glittering megalopolis of Olympus. Do they have some trouble fitting in? You bet!

But Appleseed isn't merely a police story-- the city's got an odd dynamic. To try and stave off mankind's predilictions for disorder, the place is largely populated by bioroids, placid and smart administrators incapable of ordinary human reproduction. Despite that, there's still plenty of crime to handle-- both small-time crooks and big-time state agents want a piece of Olympus's action, so it's up to Deunan, Briareos, and their new department to maintain order in a brave new world-- easier said than done, as Deunan's both a notably more proficient fighter than most of her new colleagues and more resistant to authority and working inside a unit. The cast is filled out by the city's chief executive, the stern, calculating Athena and her attache, the inscrutable Nike. Athena's distrustful of the council, quietly pursuing her own ends. And then there's Olympus's massive central planning computer, GAIA. As the story gains momentum and the council pointedly debates whether or not the stable bioroids should simply overrun and replace humankind, GAIA suddenly starts acting on its own.

Appleseed, originally a one-shot manga, was popular enough to spawn multiple follow-up volumes, stories that stand alone nicely but expand and complement the series' fictive world. Given its popularity, an anime version was inevitable, and the 1988 OVA we got is an interesting project-- it's got Gainax on the production committee and a number of their staff, including Hideaki Anno, on the job. It's brief, action-packed, and accessible, sort of a condensation of the second volume's story with some new antagonists for Deunan and company to square off against.

It starts with a hostage situation where te solution is to violently gun down kidnappers in front of schoolchildren-- man, 80s OVAs were great! But soon Deunan and Briareos are investigating a plot involving stolen Landmates and terrorism-- all, of course, when Deunan isn't typing up reports on the typewriter and faxing them to her superiors. Man, 80s OVAs were great. Eventually the duo realize that one of the bad guys is operating inside their own department, so it's up to them to sniff out the antagonist and prevent them from stealing Hitomi, who turns out to be the master key to GAIA. The original laserdisc release also includes a brief live-action segment, which actually looks kinda OK for a no-budget affair. Despite being a step above a fan film, it really captures Appleseed's aesthetic, which can be summed up by Deunan and Briareos zooming past in a military jeep, an image that echoes again and again throughout the franchise.

2004's Appleseed feature film, taken up after more than a decade of very little Appleseed media (Shirow had kept manga's fire stoked with short stories and guidebooks, but that's about it), is a dramatically different affair, a cel-shaded CG feature film directed by mecha wizard Shinji Aramaki. He seemed like kind of an odd choice as director-- his track record in the role was questionable, including both the fun MADOX-01 and the disaster that was Megazone 23 Part III. But what he brought to Appleseed was a real flair for creating high-quality, cinematic action scenes, a skill he'd employ over and over for the film. One detail I like a lot: the movie's poster, which dauntlessly updates Shirow's original manga cover, already almost twenty years old at the time.

In general, anime has struggled to get most of its all-CG productions right-- even the popular and engaging Knights of Sidonia has some seriously weird character models and movement cycles. But the cel-CG look of the characters, contrasted against the realistic, detailed mecha and vehicles, is a winning combo. The story, another adaptation of Shirow's manga, changes some details-- as it opens, Deunan's working alone in Badside, unaware that her lover Briareos was taken to Olympus and rebuilt as a cyborg. Consequently, when she's eventually rescued by Hitomi and recruited, the franchise finally, tentatively explores her reaction when she discovers that her longtime lover's body has been largely replaced with servos, ceramic plating, and a pair of gigantic antenna-- a character design feature that would later inform Neil Blomkamp's movie Chappie. But underneath the cyborg parts, it's still Briareos, and once Deunan's acclimated to the city, they go right back to being a terrifying duo on the battlefield.

That 2004 movie was a surprising success in North America. Not only did it net a neat $1.5m at the US box office, Geneon's wide variety of DVD releases-- standard edition, steelcase edition (back before steelcases were a big deal), and one packaged with a detailed Briareos action figure all combined to sell six figures worth of discs, a sizable hit on home video. The film did so well, in fact, that it attracted the attention of John Woo, who agreed to help produce a second feature film.

Appleseed: Ex Machina (simply released as Ex Machina in Japan) is the first piece of the franchise to really look past the manga, giving us a new story of Olympus squaring off against a rival city-state, Poseidon. It also introduces some surprising character work; after the film's opening action scene, Briareos is injured again (he gets hurt a lot, which always freaks out Deunan, which means both the manga and screen versions constantly use this situation to generate cheap heat), so Deunen has to settle for a new partner-- Tereus, who looks and talks exactly like Briareos.

As it happens, Briaroes isn't just a powerful cyborg, with a body named after the hundred-handed giants of Greek mythology. According to the city's data, he's also the guy on the force who's quickest to shrug off fatigue and trauma, who suffers less from PTSD, who continues to think clearly even when the situation on the ground has gone to hell. Because of this, his DNA's been mined to create Tereus, a test case for bioroid police officers-- cops with the combat prowess of Briareos, but the mild temperament of the city's bioroid administrators. This naturally freaks Deunan out, but the fact is, Tereus is charming and sympathetic, and when Briareos grudgingly accepts him as an equal on the force and chooses a new temporary partner for himself, she's left with confused feelings.

Ex Machina would stand out as an interesting character study, but for the incredibly obvious bad-guy plot, which involves hijacking the Google glasses everyone around the city wears to control them. That rote storyline, along with a forgettable set of bad guys, keeps the generally solid film from really excelling. Once again, director Aramaki goes for the cel-shaded CG look, so the movie still looks good.

You know what doesn't look good, though? The TV series. It's hardly surprising that the success of the two films would lead to a series, once again produced by the studio Micott & Basara-- in fact, they'd first announced the forthcoming Appleseed: Genesis in 2005, in the wake of the first movie. Eventually, Romanov Higa was attached to direct, with original character artwork by Haruhiko Mikimoto and Romi Park voicing younger, more hot-tempered Deunan. But in 2008, there was suddenly a lawsuit-- Robix mobanimation, one of the contractors on the film, claimed that Micott & Basara had ceased production and wasn't paying them for the work they'd already completed. There was a countersuit, and a settlement, and bankruptcy, and almost a decade later, we've got no Appleseed series...

...from Micott & Basara, anyway. Production I.G stepped up in 2011 to create an ONA series called Appleseed XIII, and all I can really say about it is that it kinda stinks. The character artwork looks decent but the models move strangely, as if they're not quite rigged up correctly. The lower polygon count of the TV series, both in terms of character and mecha models and background details, is a major step down from the films. It's still Deunan and Briareos (I hate the design he has in this version-- while a bit closer to the original manga design, it's missing the big round central sensor on his face... which is actually his nose!), but they spend more time quarreling than fighting the bad guys. The series isn't dreadfully bad, but just go ahead and put an episode on and see how long it takes you to zone out.

Appleseed Alpha, a prequel film released just last year, just seemed to sprout out of the ground. Seriously, was there any bigtime promotion for this film? At any rate, after viewing it, I'm actually pretty happy it sneaked its way into the franchise. Another origin story for Deunan and Briareos, this film both changes some background details (the pair are mercs in New York, rather than the LAPD-turned-soldiers of the original manga) and drastically alters its visual aesthetic. Despite once again being directed by Shinji Aramaki, this version is photorealistic, with its human characters having a much less pronounced cartooniness about them.

See how realistic that looks?! Wait a minute, that's an actual photo of the director and a promotional model at Japan Expo.

Ah, that's better. Despite once again sporting a kinda weak story about escaping New York and another rote, boring villain in the megalomanaiacal cyborg Talos, Appleseed Alpha is solidly fun to watch-- it opens with a great fight scene on the subway, and the romantic tension between Deunan and Briareos, made thorny by her desire to leave the city and his inability to go long without repairs, is still intact. The mecha designs, featuring really cool bipedal tank drones, remain excellent. The movie's pedigree is an interesting one, too-- it's developed specifically for the western market, with a screenplay by God of War videogame scribe Marianne Krawczyk. There's even a spinoff manga in Japan, which I totally want to read.

One big strike against Appleseed Alpha? The soundtrack. Every time a film like this is made with an eye for the overseas market, they end up enlisting the services of a composer named Tetsuya Takahashi. He's got that slick, contemporary sound, but his work is thudding and boring. Remember Madhouse's Marvel anime? Yeah, he did the soundtracks for all of those, and they're all terrible, too! I only really complain because the original CG film's soundtrack manages to be both ultramodern and really cool-sounding. For the next film, I hope they can get some of that magic back.

But is there a next Appleseed film? Not at the moment, but I have a feeling there will be. I opened the column by wondering how it is that Deunan and Bri have managed to stick around for so long, but surveying the franchise makes it obvious-- it's their chemistry, a palpable thing in every iteration of Appleseed, even the mediocre TV series. They're a deeply unconventional couple, but Briareos's brusque, all-business style complements Deunan's wild streak really nicely. In terms of characterization, I think Deunan's a nice counterpoint to Major Kusanagi, Shirow's Ghost in the Shell heroine-- she's detached and calculating, but Deunan is appealingly impetuous and ingratiating. Early in the manga, when Hitomi idly wonders what the definition of "fun" might be, Deunan readily jabs a finger at herself. "Me," she replies, "it's me!"

There's just one last question: why the hell is it called Appleseed, anyway? Across the multiple manga, film, and TV projects, that answer varies. In the comics, there's a literal Appleseed, as in little round seeds that Briareos packs into a hollow-point bullet to create a dud round that will damage a sensor without causing an explosion. In the 2004 film, the "Appleseed" is the genetic data that will allow bioroids to reproduce and overrun the human race. And in Appleseed Alpha? The seeds are Deunan and Briareos themselves, doing great works out in the Badside, as they make their way towards Olympus. I hope they get there.

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