Though Masamune Shirow is primarily known for his exquisitely detailed illustrations of scantily-clad women and his fetish for hi-tech, he should be equally recognized for his thought-provoking writing. Like director Mamoru Oshii (who incidentally tackled Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell twice, to great effect), Shirow spends a lot of time ruminating on the human condition, the intersection of man and machine through cybernetics, and the future such technology makes possible.
Perhaps Shirow’s second most well known work, Appleseed has been translated to film once before as a traditional anime by director Kazuyoshi Katayama (Argento Soma, Those Who Hunt Elves). This 1988 production was a worthwhile effort, but really didn’t capitalize on the strengths of the manga the way Oshii would seven years later with his adaptation of Ghost in the Shell.
Last year, however, Shirow’s manga was adapted yet again, this time with much better results. Like Shirow’s body of work as a whole, this new Appleseed (directed by Bubblegum Crisis vet Shinji Aramaki) dazzles the eye but doesn’t forget its’ cerebral core. Without a doubt the main attraction here is the wonderful cel-shaded animation which creates the look of a moving manga, but with the sense of reality one gets with live-action film. It’s certainly pretty to look at, but ultimately what makes the film such a treat is its’ richly realized storyline. In this sense, it’s not entirely dissimilar to Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, and indeed the films make wonderful thematic bookends.
Deunan Knute is a lone soldier fighting amongst the ruins of a future Earth which has been devastated by several years of conflict. Unaware that the war has been over for some time, Deunan is captured by her ex-lover Briareos (whose war-ravaged body has now been transformed into a powerful cyborg shell) and brought to a nearby utopian nation-state called Olympus. There, a council of men have conceived of a perfect society in which humans preside over their dominion alongside a race of engineered beings called ‘bioroids’. In order to keep them in check, bioroids are deprived of their ability to reproduce and of their more passionate emotions…love and hate. In this way they serve as a balance to humans, who are prone to all kinds of emotional outbursts, which on a large scale result in wars and whatnot. Overseeing this society is the aforementioned council and an Artificial Intelligence called Gaia which was created to cooperatively make decisions with the council. Though this society seems truly utopian on the outside, there are forces working to upset the balance. Deunan soon finds out that she was not brought to Olympus by chance and that her past holds the key to Olympus’, and mankind’s, future.
While Appleseed has many thematic ties to Ghost in the Shell, Aramaki’s film is much more action-oriented. While I prefer Oshii’s more measured pacing, Appleseed is more of a thrill-ride, and on that basis succeeds handily. The action quickly ramps up to the final, apocalyptic confrontation pitting Deunan, Briareos, and the rest of Olympus’ E-Swat squadron against an army of mobile fortresses the size of office buildings. Overkill, perhaps, but there’s no denying that it’s a real white-knuckle ride.The film falls a little flat at moments of melodrama, which seem all to cliche. It’s all fairly by-the-numbers anime pathos that goes for the jugular in its’ attempt to pluck your heartstrings. Thankfully, Aramaki knows better than to belabour the point, and the film gets back on its’ feet quickly.
In truth, Appleseed is very true to Shirow’s manga, jettisoning only those elements which would stand in the way of a straight narrative…most notably Shirow’s oddball sense of humor. I’ve no fault with this approach; Shirow’s slapdash jokes work fine on paper but tend to grow tedious when brought to life (as anyone who’s seen the anime of his Dominion: Tank Police will know). Shirow’s fetishistic attachment to hi-tech weaponry, mecha, and attractive young women is still greatly apparent, and should satisfy Shirow fans who are attracted to his work for these elements.
Much has been made of the film’s unique animation style, and there’s no doubt that Appleseed is some serious eye-candy. The film looks simply gorgeous. If you managed to catch the recent Korean feature Wonderful Days, you’ll have some idea of what to expect. The major difference is that the characters have been rendered with cel-shaded graphics instead of traditional hand-drawn cels. This actually helps integrate the styles more gracefully…a problem many people had with the aforementioned film. I personally had no problem with it, but Aramaki’s approach is less jarring.
Another aspect of the film which got much attention was the soundtrack, which features contributions by two giants in electronic music, Paul Oakenfold and Ryuichi Sakamoto. Both of these gents are living legends in their respective fields, so it’s natural that a score including new material from them would garner attention. To be honest, their material is expectedly wonderful, but once the film gets rolling you really don’t pay it too much attention. It plays much better on the Original Soundtrack (out now from Tofu!) where the music can be heard divorced from all the gunfire. In addition to Oakenfold and Sakamoto, the film also hosts tracks by Basement Jaxx, Carl Craig, and Japanese technorock act Boom Boom Satellites.
Slated as one of Geneon’s bigger releases this year, the Appleseed DVD is a nice package. For those of a collector’s bent there are a number of editions (too many, I’m inclined to argue), but for purposes of this review we’ll focus on the single-disc version, since that’s what we received to review. Even on the bare-bones edition the packaging is quite nice. The singe-disc snapper comes sheathed in a cardboard sleeve; I know some people pitch these the moment they tear the plastic off their DVD, but I have to admit that I dig cardboard sleeves on my DVD’s, and this one is quite nice. It’s embossed and looks quite nice on your shelf.
As for the contents themselves, Geneon delivers a top notch disc. The video quality is stunning, though that’s to be expected from a digital film. Ditto the soundtrack, which sounds fantastic in any of the options available: English and Japanese 5.1 Dolbly / DTS or Japanese 2.0. The English voice actors are actually quite good, so going with the dub over the subbed version is equally rewarding.
Though it is merely a single-disc non-Special Edition, the standard version offers some goodies for those unwilling to drop the extra cheddar. The best extra is a commentary track by director Shinji Aramaki and producer Fumihiko Sori, though it suffers from the same pitfalls of many Japanese commentary tracks. First of all, the participants are exceedingly polite…you might even say innocuous. Also, it’s a very technical commentary. Though some plot points are touched on, Aramaki and Sori mainly explain and aplogogize for minor faults that would otherwise go unnoticed if they weren’t pointed out. It’s a decent enough listen, though it’s not the kind of thing you’ll throw in for kicks on a regular basis. Still, considering that this is ostensibly a ‘bare bones’ edition, it’s nice that it was included. The only other special feature to be found is an index of the film broken out by musical cue, so if you want to see which scenes were scored by Paul Oakenfold, or see where that Carl Craig song ended up, you can do so. It’s kinda neat, though really not all that necessary since it just drops you in at the relevant point of the film.
Up until now, when it comes to Masamune Shirow anime adaptations, I’ve only really cared for Ghost in the Shell. Tank Police, Black Magic M-66, and even the original Appleseed really didn’t do all that much for me. However, Appleseed met all my expectations. It’s not quite the achievement that, say, Ghost in the Shell: Innocence is, but all things considered it’s a damn fine film, and does its’ source material justice.