Just like every other genre of film, anime has its clichés. It's unavoidable, especially when you consider the wealth of product put out over the years. From big bustlines and New Romantic-era hairdos to man/machine mash ups and the inevitable power mad villain, these tired truisms require a level of advanced artistry to work and work well. Sure, thirty years ago, a filmmaker could get away with androgynous heroines with as much cleavage as butt kicking acumen, fey warriors who resemble combat ready Blitz kids, mechanical men marred by emotion, and endless end of the world/post-apocalyptic scenarios (including the occasional influx of supernatural monsters and their minions). But today, you've got to offer more for the standard manga translation buck. Enter Appleseed, long considered a classic by those who make the cinematic category their passion. Oddly enough, it's not the story elements that demand such consideration. They're relatively old hat. No, what turns this take on humanity hanging on the edge of bio-engineered extinction is the spellbinding CG animation, which when combined with Shinji Aramaki's excellent direction, overrides the otherwise tired narrative facets at play.
Deunan Knute is a legendary soldier sent out into the wastelands of the world. She is mythic in her military skill, responsible for the deaths of many enemy troops. Left all alone when her boyfriend Briareos Hecatonchires headed out into the field, never to return, she has since been living on the edge of destruction, entire mechanical armadas seemingly after her head. When she is finally captured, it is not by the bad guys. Instead, the ESWAT team of the utopian city of Olympus takes her in and informs her of the role she plays in their current society. Deunan's mom and dad were instrumental in the development of the 'bioroids', a synthetic human that, while important to preserving peace and prosperity in the metropolis, have no ability to love or reproduce. Factions within the military want the robots destroyed. Members of the governing committee have other plans for the man-machines. Given the quest of finding the key to the bioroids survival, Deunan begins a journey that finds her reunited with Briareos (or what is left of him), discovering more clues about her past, and helping to undermine the entire fabric of Olympus from the inside. Naturally, only she can stop the impending Armageddon as well.
Once you get past the stylized approach to the animation, the smoothed out design that renders all the characters like simplified avatars in an early '90s videogame, Appleseed delivers, big time. It's an exceedingly brilliant combination of future shock set-up and old school moralizing, a deconstruction of what it means to be human rendered in tech tones so slick that you often forget you're watching a cartoon. Better by leaps and bounds that other all CG offerings, Appleseed excels because of scope and the rendering of same. There is density and detail present in every single shot, from a close-up of a character preparing for battle to the sprawling post-modern metropolis built out of glitter and glass. The movement is modified, combining realistic (almost rotoscoped) action with the standard splashy anime shortcuts. Infused with a story that occasionally trips over itself and voice acting that gives you a real sense of the seriousness - and silliness - of the concepts involved, you wind up with an experience so energetic and all encompassing that you really don't mind the occasionally missteps.
Where, exactly, does Appleseed go wrong (and we won't even mention the less than faithful adaptation of the source material)? Well, for one, we really want more of the backstory on Deunan's beau Briareos Hecatonchires. We hear snippets of his situation - taken to the war zone, being left for dead, now resurrected as a Robocop like killing machine - but why can't he be "bioroided" back into human form? Why must our heroine romance a non-humanoid mechanical man? Also, we need more information to help sort out his obviously mixed motivations. While not giving too much away, Briareos does something that stands in such stark contrast to his apparent personality that the throwaway line of dialogue re: intent is just not enough. We need more. In fact, it's the same for almost every character except Deunan. Her lingering issues get raked over and over the cinematic coals while other intriguing elements like Hitomi, the robot hating Hades, and chief villain Gen. Uranus are rather undeveloped.
Still, Appleseed provides the necessary amount of eye candy to prevent any major problems. The opening, with its bleak post-apocalyptic world and Terminator-like enemies is truly horrifying, while the last act mobile staging platforms that literally overrun the city are sensational in their epic destruction. The fight scenes never overstay their welcome while offering some definitive butt kicking action and the discovery of important evidence on an abandoned ocean rig has a halting, haunted quality. Director Shinji Aramaki easily applies his skills as a mechanical designer to the means and make-up of the bioroids, turning them into something quite novel and original, and his pacing is near perfect. Indeed, had the characters been developed a bit more, had the script been smoothed out to avoid a last act situation where unnecessary revelations come rocketing at the screen left and right, Appleseed would be a masterpiece, a work of flawless CG artistry. As it stands it is very, very good - unforgettable in its look and design while a tad incomplete in the context department.
From what this critic could gather, this is the third (or perhaps, fourth) go around for Appleseed on DVD. What makes those previous editions different in the tech specs department is a question best left for anime-oriented websites to address. For what's offered here, the movie looks amazing, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image delivering a gorgeous cinematic experience. The colors are vibrant and the contrasts are controlled with painstaking precision. While it probably would be a knockout on Blu-ray, this standard digital release looks dynamite.
There are three aural possibilities here - a mediocre English dub offered in Dolby Digital 5.1, a better Japanese mix in 5.1, and a stellar DTS track in the original language of release. All three are good, but the high end version really delivers in the channel challenging and speaker sparking arena. The movie is overloaded with machinery and mechanical ambience, explosions and dance drone music by such acts as Boom Boom Satellites and Basement Jaxx. Sticking with the DTS will turn your home theater into the local Cineplex, the mastering is that good. And yes, the subtitles are very easy to read.
The main bonus feature here is a commentary by director Shinji Aramaki and producer Fumihoko Sori (apparently ported over from previous releases). Rather technical and dry, the duo take on all aspects of the production, providing insight into the source material, the means of bringing the characters to life, and the complicated computer elements involved. In Japanese with English subtitles, it's a nice breakdown of Appleseed's roots and realization. Three is also a few production staff profiles (interesting) and a collection of trailers. That's it. Other editions have offered Making-of material and a profile of 3D animation in general. None of that can be found here.
The main draw of movies is their ability to take us to places we've never been to - physically, emotionally, or pragmatically. In that regard, Appleseed is indeed magic, a glorious journey into hyper realistic realm where good and evil, right and wrong constantly clash and conflict for the ultimate balance of power as well as the fate of humanity. It's mindblowing to look at and often challenging in its future shock subtext. As a result, it earns an easy Highly Recommended rating, arguing for its place among the recognized classics in the anime genre. Sure, some will find it overly melodramatic and messy, its storyline spiraling out of control until its not quite sure where to go next, and there are moments of coincidence and contrivance that just aren't as dramatic as Aramaki and his actors think they are. But in a cinematic domain often baffled by the reliance on clichés, Appleseed shows how you can apply the givens and yet still come up with something quite special. It may seem like the same old thing, but the amazing approach more than makes for the feeling of familiarity.
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