Background: One of the things you may notice about Japanese anime is the huge number of environmental themes exploited by the genre. Some of these are blatant, typically the Miyazaki movies coming to mind first but even a casual glance at titles released in the last three decades will show that it is probably the most dominant theme present across the board. Most of the time, it seems like the writer has a guilt complex about the ruination of the environment caused by what most call "progress", showing crumbled civilizations, the Earth reclaiming the scorched portions that industry has destroyed, and the divinity of nature that some attribute to philosophical or religious beliefs (the basis behind most of the Kaiju movies like Godzilla, Mothra, and the like follow this pattern as well). With so many people cramped into the dirty, seriously polluted urban areas in the country, I can see why this aspect of the culture gets so much attention; perhaps in an attempt to influence the young in positive ways as they grow up. The latest such effort is the brainchild of the fabulous Gonzo studio, the first feature film released by the company known for some of the most advanced series coming out in recent years. The title was called Origin: Spirits of the Past, and the futuristic parable about mankind's inevitable path had a lot to like, even if the limitations were common to the genre.
Movie: Origin: Spirits of the Past is set 300 years in the future, showing Earth in what many would call a state of decline after a horrible scientific experiment went awry, destroying much of the moon and causing the collapse of civilization. The tragedy allowed enhanced plant life to limit the spread of mankind to small tribes that rely on the generosity of the ruling elite of the vegetative nation to supply them with life giving water as technology has largely fallen by the wayside over generations. Each city on Earth is started when a human becomes enhanced by the plants, allowing them to travel about and settle, paying a price as they get older and lose their mobility. The protagonist of the story is a young boy by the name of Agito, son of one of the enhanced humans that established a peaceful coexistence with the plants. Agito is brash and headstrong, following the motivations of his heart over his head; usually winding him and his friends in trouble to the dismay of all around him.
One day while playing in a forbidden area, he comes across a glowing light that draws his attention. His curiosity gets the better of him and he awakens a beautiful young girl from the past, Toola, a girl whose destiny is tied to the future as well as the past, much to the chagrin of the plants. Within her is the key to change the hands of time, a power that frightens those in the city but also encourages those in a nearby city that follows the old ways to attack in order to reverse the years of plant domination. The military leader of that city, the City of Ragna, is Shunack, a guy from before the cataclysm himself that tried to embrace the new order but found he preferred the old, familiar ways. As the plot thickens, it becomes apparent that his obsession with the past is the result of his role in what happened, while working for Toola's father on the project.
To be frank, there was no new ground explored here but it was a comfortable type of story that served the message fairly well. I never got the impression that it tried to be as grandiose as some of the other environmental movies that anime fans are familiar with (that have been known for huge budgets) and it served as a nice introduction to Gonzo into the features market that I think they could really do a lot with when they find the right stories. The animation style was decent with the lush backgrounds and CGI effects enhancing the plot along better than expected. The story itself could have used a bit more thought and detail but overall, it was a fun little flick to enjoy with the family that provided enough mysticism to give the fanboys something to argue over until the next such offering comes their way. Still, the retreaded elements lacked originality and the replay value was thus impacted so while I rated it as a Rent It, those with inquisitive children will find this a step above most recent Disney fare as well as a decent introduction to anime for tree huggers that embrace technology on one hand while agreeing with ill thought out environmentalist crud on the other (you can't have it both ways; all technology creates a footprint and short of killing off most of the population, the environment will be impacted negatively). Here's what the press release said about the movie, thankfully limiting the spoilers this time:
"Ages past, the Forest was awakened and the Moon unleashed a ravenous Beast upon the Earth. Man cowered in fear... Three hundred years since and the landscape of the world has been drastically rewritten. The remnants of humanity are divided as never before. Half seek a tenuous coexistence with the Forest, half seek to dominate and subdue that which they cannot understand. Agito, the son of an aged hero, inadvertently sets in motion the destruction of all that is left when he revives the young Toola from her timeless slumber. Unable to reconcile life as she once knew it from the world as it is now, Toola calls forth ancient technology to reshape the future from the ashes of the past. With the blessing of the Forest, Agito must first save the girl from herself in order to rescue them all..."
Picture: Origin: Spirits of the Past was presented in a beautiful 1.78:1 ratio anamorphic widescreen color as originally shot. The animation of the characters was contemporary in terms of the amount of movement they engaged in and how fluid it was, but the backgrounds were richly detailed and lush to the point where you could watch it closely and get a feeling for the situations. The city of Ragna was suitably detailed too, showing the grime and grease very well as a contrast to the greenery elsewhere, and the special effects invoked the plot elements well during the conflicts shown. The show looked very skillfully put together with no compression issues, edge enhancement, or moiré, showing that Gonzo is again on the ball in making their work stand out to the eye.
Sound: The audio was presented with the usual choice of a 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround track in either the original Japanese or the English language dub. I listened to both tracks and while my anime loving ears always leans toward liking the Japanese tracks in these cases, the dub was exceptionally well handled too with none of the voices out of place. The separation of the vocals wasn't as pronounced as the pleasing music track or effects, remaining largely in the front center speaker regardless of where the characters were standing on the screen, but there were some attempts at expanding them during some of the conflicts. The vocals were warm and layered too, allowing them to flow nicely with the other elements of the movie all too well. It's a shame that the score wasn't provided in an isolated track too but that's nothing new in anime so I won't fuss about it.
Extras: Sadly, aside from a slip cover and some trailers, there were no extras, a factor in my rating this as a rental.
Final Thoughts: Origin: Spirits of the Past provided the kind of eye and ear candy that I've grown accustomed to getting from the superb team at Gonzo (as released by FUNimation of course) and except for the shallow plot that borrowed heavily from a number of other titles in recent years, it was definitely a great opening title for the companies. On the other hand, the replay value was limited and the extras were the weakest I've seen of late so unless you find it dirt cheap, give it a look first before shelling out the money. I really want to see the Gonzo/FUNimation team up continue though because they have been responsible for so many recent favorites that I can pick up anything they offer sight unseen and enjoy them, but I would really prefer they try to find a story to make into anime that is unique. In short, Origin: Spirits of the Past was a special flick catering to the environmental themes, showing tremendous potential for future efforts if not quite hitting the mark this time.
If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVD Talk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003, Best Of Anime 2004, Best of Anime 2005, and Best of Anime 2006 articles or their regular column Anime Talk.