Appleseed (2004)

I don't read much manga. To some fans (and a few of my readers, surely), this will probably be seen as a deficiency. After all, a lot of anime is birthed in the illustrated pages of manga artists, and not just a few people prefer the original written works to their animated counterparts. In my case, if I really like a show based on a given manga, I'd prefer to watch, then read. And, if the manga does turn out to be superior, there's no loss.

Unfortunately, there's no way I can roll back the clock on Appleseed. The manga was one of the first to reach U.S. shores back in the late 80s, and it was one I gobbled up. Shirow Masamune's magnificent artwork was an immediate draw, but I kept collecting the series to try and unravel the mysterious (and, frankly, labyrinthine) plot of the mysterious world of Gaia. I was drawn to the team of Deunan and Briareos, the hardened woman with a deep interior and the cool, laid-back bunny cyborg. I read a lot of manga back then, and though I didn't appreciate all of it, I looked forward to every issue hitting the shelves.

The wonder and curse of Appleseed (2004) is that it is both thrilling and strangely disaffecting. For a fan of the original manga, the main components are all there, but it all looks and sounds so much different...and what's worse, the characters just don't act the same. Although it is head and shoulders ahead of the blandly annoying 1988 OVA based on the same property, it just doesn't feel right. However, some of that disappointment is subdued by the enjoyability of the piece on its own terms; the essentials of the story come through, and with the revolutionary (if occasionally jarring) visuals, it's still pretty good.

Deunan is a warrior in the wastelands, taking on enemy tanks with aplomb when a mysterious force steals her away to a magnificent city called Gaia. A world away from her existence as a timeworn combatant, Gaia turns out to be the home of her compatriot and former lover Briareos. Injured in battle and now more machine than human, Briareos still carries a great deal of affection for Deunan, but there's not much time for romance. Gaia is filled with bioroids, which are android beings with a touch of humanity...but can you tell them apart from the average Joe down the street? Not really. That doesn't mean that terrorists determined to make Gaia a haven for humans alone won't make a mess of things, and as members of the elite ESWAT team, Deunan and Briareos find themselves at the center of explosions, intrigues, etc.

From one perspective, Appleseed (2004) is right on the bleeding edge of technology used in anime. Extensive motion capture was used in the making of the film in a process very similar to the recent Christmas film The Polar Express. Essentially, most of the human characters in the film went through a process of motion capture; then the "anime" artwork was superimposed onto their features. This is supposed to make Appleseed more lifelike; what it really does is freak us out. The animation highlights movement but overemphasizes tiny changes to the point that it's just unreal in a different way from standard anime. That doesn't mean it's not amazing -- it really is revolutionary in terms of technology -- but I doubt it will change the way anime is made.

The other major side effect of this technology is a disconnect between characters and their environments. In many sequences, the backgrounds are absolutely gorgeous, but when Deunan walks through them, her colors and shading don't match up. Unfortunately, unless you can get over the disconnect, it feels like somebody's playing with computerized dolls within an intricate dollhouse. Thankfully, many sequences are so spectacular in their elaborate violence that you won't notice -- and when human characters aren't a direct part of the action, it looks stunning.

The plot of the film is ultimately simple, despite some twists and turns through its layers. This actually works well on behalf of the film, which doesn't bog down the way that other pictures based on Shirow's works (i.e. Ghost in the Shell) have in the past. It also makes the film a smart intro for the newcomer into the Appleseed world. As a fan, though, it makes me a bit sad. Appleseed was, despite its action and great look, never really about being a brainless action fest along the lines of Spriggan. Ultimately, that's what it's turned into...a very good version of that, mind you, but far from its origins.

This is also a problem in the characterizations of Deunan and Briareos. Deunan not only looks very little (in my opinion) like Shirow's character, her heart is very different. Granted, in the manga we mostly knew Deunan as someone already acclimated to Gaia, but we saw a deep sweetness in her character expressed in quieter moments to Briareos. She was not completely tough-as-nails nor one dimensional, as the film shows her to be. And Briareos? He's gone from an enjoyable, laconic sidekick to a brooding bore. Now both of these characters wind up working pretty well within the film, and if you are unfamiliar with the manga, you'd never notice. But I can't help but mourn their loss.

The good side is that the film is doing quite well in DVD sales, having received at least mixed approval from a lot of critics. Why would I say this, considering my dislike for all the changes? Well, for one, if you aren't familiar with Appleseed's lineage and are looking for a good Friday night action picture, you probably can't go wrong. I may not think its visuals are stupendous, but even I thought they were at times brilliant, and it's loads more intelligent than your typical B-grade thriller. I'd have no problem sitting down again and watching it tonight.

Second, my hope is that more of the Appleseed I know might make it into a sequel. Appleseed (2004) is in many ways an origin story, and a sequel might get us past that into the real meat of Shirow's work. The show's creators strip the concept down, but they made an effective movie out of it. If in a sequel they could just jump into the action a couple years in the future, it might actually be a blast.

Ultimately, I'm giving this film the same grade as the recent Steamboy. Although I must say that Appleseed (2004) is better paced and more enjoyable to watch than Otomo's solid but frustrating effort, its lack of concern for the original manga and its somewhat disconnected artwork bring it down in my eyes. It's a step in the right direction, and I just hope that they might finally get the Appleseed formula right.

Appleseed (2004) -- violence, profanity -- B