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APPLESEED

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Ai Kobayashi, Jûrôta Kosugi, Yuki Matsuoka, Mami Koyama
Directors: Yasuhiro Otsuka, Shinji Aramaki
Audio: Japanese Dolby Digital or DTS 5.1, English Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, 16:9 anamorphic widescreen
Studio: Geneon
Features: Commentary, music/scene cues, staff profiles, previews
Length: 105 minutes
Release Date:  May 10, 2005

"What a strange creature is Man that he would choose to cage himself so willingly."

Film *** ½

One of the most revered names in Japanese manga and animé is Shirow Masamune.  As the creative force behind such entertaining works as Black Magic M-66 and Ghost in the Shell, Shirow Masamune has been at the forefront of the Japanese comic world for over two decades.  His most acclaimed manga is Appleseed, an insightful and futuristic epic saga set in a post-apocalyptic world shared by humans, bioroids, cyborgs, and machines alike.  Several subsequent volumes of Appleseed have been released since its original publication in the mid-1980's, and Shirow Masamune's classic remains the standard to which all other Japanese manga are still compared.

One noteworthy aspect of the Appleseed manga is the strong characterizations of its female characters.  In fact, all the major characters are women - Deunan, Hitomi, Athena, and Nike.  Deunan is the manga's central protagonist, a survivor from the post-apocalyptic wastelands now struggling to adapt to life in the new bioroid city of Olympus, governed by Prime Minister Athena with her extremely capable aide-de-camp Nike.

Appleseed was first adapted into animé in 1988.  This first version was a traditional cel-animated film following events mostly from the early chapters of the manga.  The animation was somewhat crude but effective, providing little character development but plenty of action and energy.  The recent advent of CG animation has provided a new opportunity to re-visit Appleseed, and in 2004, a new, all-CG version of Appleseed was released, bringing the city of Olympus and its barren world to life as never before.

For the most part, this new film remains faithful to the narrative arc and character designs of the Japanese manga.  Many scenes have been lifted directly from the sequential artwork, although there enough new changes that viewers familiar with the Appleseed manga will have a few surprises in store for them.

The film opens with an impressive battle sequence staged in the scorched-earth wastelands of a post-apocalyptic world.  A small band of survivors, including Deunan Knute (Ai Kobayashi), is under attack by a mysterious group of heavily armoured and very powerful cyborgs.  One by one, all of Deunan's colleagues are killed, and as Deunan herself is surrounded and faces the near-certainty of death, she is suddenly rescued by saviours from the sky, descending in their landmate warsuits and assault heli-crafts.

The rescuers are revealed to be members of ESWAT, an elite fighting force originating from the city of Olympus.  They are led by Hitomi (Yuki Matsuoka), a bioroid charged with reacquiring humans from the wastelands and rehabilitating them for peaceful co-existence in Olympus.  She will also hold the key to maintaining the communal relationship between humans and bioroids by the film's explosive climax.

Among the rescuers is Briareos (Jûrôta Kosugi), a heavily armoured cyborg, more machine than man now, who once shared an intimate past with Deunan.  Their relationship and reconciliation will comprise one of the developing focal points in Appleseed (this being a minor but significant change over the original manga, in which Briareos and Deunan were together from the start).

Now, a word about Olympus, the final great city and seeming utopia of Man.  In the aftermath of the last World War, Olympus was constructed as a haven for human survivors and perhaps the next phase of humanity - the bioroids.  Bioroids were created as genetically-enhanced human clones, unable to reproduce themselves but otherwise quite similar, if not superior, to humans.  Bioroids possessed limited lifespans which were nevertheless infinitely expandable through periodic maintenance (much like motor vehicular tune-ups).  They were also designed with moderately suppressed emotions, so bioroids did not submit to the fits of rage and irrational passion that have tormented "real" humans for much of their history.

There is a link between Deunan and the mysterious origins of the bioroids, and the revelation of this enigma is another of Appleseed's intricate subplots.  Not all humans in Olympus are fond of the bioroids, and some are apprehensive that "true" humans may eventually become extinct, superceded by bioroids as the emergent new form of human life.  This fear has led to random acts of terrorism throughout Olympus, and the increasing frequency of these attacks ultimately compels Prime Minister Athena (Mami Koyama) to declare martial law.

This decision does not sit well with General Uranus, commander of the human army of Olympus: "I will never allow humans to become living tools."  He is highly suspicious of Athena's intentions, and her actions only heighten the tension in the city, serving to paint her loyalties and convictions in an ambiguous light.  Athena is, after all, a first-generation bioroid herself, and the film is ambivalent about her intentions, whether Athena is the true power-hungry mastermind behind the reign of chaos over Olympus or whether she has the city and its inhabitants' best interests at heart (readers of the manga comic will know the answer).  Furthermore, Athena conceals a hidden link to Deunan's past, a secret concerning the film's title and one with a potentially explosive impact upon the final outcome of the growing conflict between humans and bioroids.

The finale to Appleseed features the mind-boggling Mobile Fortresses (a highlight of the manga) in action.  Entrusted with the safe-guarding of Olympus, the Mobile Fortresses are like gigantic mechanical spiders wielding massive heavy artillery guns, rocket launchers, Gatling cannons, laser rays, etc. (you just name it).  Should they ever turn upon the city, these leviathans are virtually unstoppable and would cause utter destruction.  This is precisely what will happen, although the ultimate question as to who is truly controlling the Mobile Fortresses and Olympus - the bioroids, the humans, or even Gaia, the utopia's central supercomputer brain - remains in doubt.

The "appleseed" of the film's title is literally and metaphorically the seed of Life.  It is akin to the bioroid's Holy Grail, and the quest to find it provides the dramatic thrust of the film, whether this "appleseed" is an abstract concept or whether it exists as an actual, physical entity.  However, sometimes such lofty goals are worth dying for.  As to paraphrase a familiar quotation - one's aims must exceed one's grasp, or what's a heaven for?

Video ****

Okay, this is what most fans of the manga really want to know - is the animation any good?  In two words - you betcha!  Appleseed looks awesome.  This is Olympus faithfully brought to life from its manga origins.  During travelogue scenes throughout the city or during the numerous battle scenes, the film remains very faithful to the look of the original manga.

This being a CG-animated film (or "3D Live Animé" as the filmmakers call it), the video quality of Appleseed is absolutely exquisite.  The stunning images are pristine and crystal-clear with brilliant flashes of color and ever-constant motion.  Appleseed may initially appear very much like a typical animé film, but the extra spatial quality of CG animation adds an unparalleled degree of visual splendor to the proceedings.  Even during lengthy scenes of sometimes rather sophisticated exposition, Appleseed looks so gorgeous that there is never a dull moment in the film.

If there are flaws, they have nothing to do with the actual mastering but rather with the design of the film.  The character animation lacks the plasticity and fluidity of, for instance, a PIXAR production, and the human characters at times look more like poupée dolls than fluid characters.  On the other hand, the motion capture animation and mechanical movements are quite impressive, and in terms of CG action sequences, Appleseed has few, if any, peers in the animation genre.

However, there is a slight disconnect between the industrial and mechanical feel of the three-dimensional background with the cartoonish appearance of the human (or bioroid) characters.  These characters look like typical animé characters, only rendered in three-dimensions.  The visual disorientation is slightly similar to that seen in recent animé films like Metropolis and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (although in those instances, the characters were two-dimensional ones superimposed on a three-dimensional background).  After a while though, viewers will become quite accustomed to this hybrid appearance.

In the final equation, Final Fantasy still retains the crown as the finest achievement in CG animation and rendition of humans.  Appleseed is not far behind graphically, although it opts for a more animé-esque design and less of a realistic one.

Audio ****

There are three very dynamic audio options - Japanese Dolby Digital or DTS 5.1 and English Dolby Digital 5.1.  The voice acting is equivocal in both languages, although for that extra bombastic feel, the Japanese DTS track is the best.  If your audio system supports DTS, don't wimp out, use it!  The numerous action sequences will really give your audio system a bone-crunching, innards-liquefying workout.

Unfortunately, you also have to deal with an awful rock soundtrack.  The score itself complements the film's action well, but the songs in Appleseed, in a word, suck.  Big-time.  If I were a hormonal, rebellious teen, I'd still think these songs sucked.  They are a mixture of rave, grunge, metal, electronica, and alternative rock.  These songs might be just fine on the dance floor of a discotheque, but every single one feels intrusive or out-of-place in Appleseed and trivializes the film's impact.  Imagine any of the recent Star Wars movies with a hip-hop soundtrack, and you will get the picture.  Alas, such are the necessary evil machinations of marketing and product placement in today's action flicks.

Features *

Don't be fooled by the clever packaging.  This stand-alone DVD doesn't really have much in the way of quality bonus features.  The most significant one is a difficult-to-follow commentary track by director Shinji Aramaki and producer Fumihiko Sori.  The commentary is in Japanese with optional English subtitles.  As a nice touch, one speaker gets white subtitles while the other receives yellow ones.  Unfortunately, the men converse in an overly enthusiastic and extremely rapid clip with frequently overlapping comments, such that the detailed subtitles fly by at a distressingly whirlwind pace.  Viewers should keep the remote handy, as they may be hitting the pause or reverse button quite regularly (and will probably not have time to actually watch the film while following the commentary).

Anyone who can follow the excitable comments will find that they are only occasionally informative.  The two men describe some changes between the film and the original manga, but most of the somewhat self-congratulatory discussion centers upon the more technical aspects of the film - the CG graphics rendering, motion capturing, character and set designs, and voice acting.  Furthermore, showing that humanity is flawed, the men find opportunities to praise the rock music, perplexingly enough.

Everything else on this DVD is promotional and publicity filler.  The "Music Cues (with Scenes)" section offers quick access to scenes in the movie featuring the songs on the soundtrack.  This section is also accompanied by short biographies for the participating musical acts.  Considering the quality of the musical selection anyways, this bonus feature is probably a miss.  There is also a quick promo spot for the Appleseed original soundtrack.  Whee.

The "Staff Profiles" section offers biographies for six of the film's creators, including the director and various producers.  However, much of this is technobabble and is not even written in complete or intelligible sentences.  This section is another miss, but at least it acknowledges the talent behind the film's production.  There is also a separate section for the DVD credits.

Lastly, there are previews for six other Geneon animé films.  As with most animé films, these are hit-and-miss and tend to feature samurais or ninjas or big-breasted teen-aged girls or cybermachines (and combinations thereof).  Included are previews for Samurai Champloo, Tenjho Tenge, Kyo Kara Maoh!, Fafner, Gankutsuou - The Count of Monte Cristo, and Paranoia Agent.  Only these last two films look remotely interesting - Gankutsuou for its original art design and Paranoia Agent for its mystery thriller aspects.

On a side note, a superior deluxe two-disc edition of Appleseed is also available with a virtually indestructible metal box case, much better bonus features, and even a Briareos action figure.  That edition is obviously more expensive, but for the film's rabid fans, it is worth the price of purchase.

Summary:

Appleseed is a landmark film in animation.  Combining the impressive visuals of a CG film with the cyberpunk and mechano-erotic nuances of Japanese animé, Appleseed is not only a faithful translation of the spirit of the acclaimed manga series but is also an extremely enjoyable and enlightening sci-fi film in its own right.

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