You have to hand it to the Japanese--they have managed to create so many variations on a dystopian future, especially in anime, that the head virtually reels at times. Origin: Spirits of the Past is yet another trip down this familiar lane, but it has quite a bit of innovative ideas which help to keep it feeling fresh. For example, its prime conceit is that this particular dystopia is caused by an out of control forest (think Star Trek's "Genesis Project" run amok), leaving the poor hapless humans to fend off conscious (and angry) foliage. There's also a time travel element of sorts, as two characters from Earth's distant past show up in this wild and wooly (leafy?) future to help set things straight.
Origin: Spirits of the Past, which is one of the most visually spectacular animes I've seen recently, opens with a very impressive sequence which alludes, if not portraying outright, the destruction of the moon. The film will later make clear that a "Genesis Project" of sorts on our planet's satellite went awry, causing both the destruction of our nearest space neighbor while also sending malevolent tree-like creatures hurtling toward earth. The image of the fractured moon, chunks of debris spilling across the nighttime sky, becomes an iconic image throughout Origin.
This sort of animated version of Koyaanisqatsi depicts the aftermath of a world overrun by nature out of control. It's a fascinating reverse gambit, completely opposite of many animes, where nature has been destroyed and Man's technology has created a barren, mechanized world. Here, the exact opposite is offered--Man has built bulwarks out of destroyed metropolises as He attempts to keep the encroaching forests at bay. This gives Origin bonus points for quasi-originality, but it also provides the film what turns out to be its greatest asset--its penchant for absolutely glorious images.
In a genre that is filled to the brim with one amazing visual after another, it's easy to become inured to the splendors one sees regularly in anime. Even taking that into account, Origin: Spirits of the Past offers some really gorgeous visual treats. The ruined remnants of the once mighty metropolis is a marvel of rubble and Rube Goldberg contraptions. The underground world where scarce water is guarded over by a sort of neo-Druid clan is both mysterious and dangerously attractive (as well it should be). But most of all it's the amazing forest scenes where Origin: Spirits of the Past really shows off its visual ingenuity. When the "forest monster" comes alive and becomes a sort of flowered dragon snapping at various characters' heels, it's an amazing, and quite unique, sight.
Director Keiichi Sugiyama does hedge his bets a bit by building the film to a fairly routine climax, involving mecha and a large scale battle, but even that is handled with some nice visual audacity, especially when hero Agito and anti-hero Shunack, both of whom are "enhanced" (meaning merged with the forest consciousness), start morphing into trees and vines. I'm not sure just how much Sugiyama meant for there to be a weird reverse environmental subtext in this film, or even if it in fact makes very much sense. The fact is, after setting up two starkly different choices as to what will happen to the planet, neither very satisfying, Sugiyama provides a Deus ex Machina moment when suddenly a happily-ever-after solution appears pretty much out of nowhere. It may be dramatically inconsistent, but it helps to let the film go out on a relatively hopeful note.
While some of the adult characters are largely ciphers, the duet of kids who are the focus of most of the action are nicely detailed, both graphically and emotionally. Agito, the hero, is a scrappy kid who obviously engages in a little hero worship of his own regarding his father who is slowly disappearing into a tree (literally). He's smart, yet vulnerable, especially after he discovers Toola, the heroine of the piece, a girl who has been in cryogenic sleep for centuries until Agito stumbles across her, still snoozing as it were, in her long forgotten pod. The film does a good job of detailing Toola's displacement, not just in time, but in the difference between the culture she left long ago and the one she finds herself in now.
I've mentioned before in other reviews of at least somewhat similarly themed dystopian animes that there's little question that Japan's experience with the atomic bombs and resultant devastation (some of which, like genetic mutation, didn't show up for months or years after the actual explosions) has colored their collective psyche in a way the rest of us can only observe from the outside. Origin: Spirits of the Past is yet another subtly eloquent reminder that the horrors the Japanese witnessed (and, yes, brought upon themselves as some would no doubt argue) has birthed a whole genre of "entertainment" that has some very dark underpinnings. It's fascinating to compare Origin's changes to the basic dystopian trope with other animes of this ilk. Origin may in fact be its own kind of new beginning, as the Japanese finally begin to imagine a dystopian future that, as impossible as it sounds, ends up having a happy ending.