Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger is amazed at how one humble apple seed can bloom into a rampage of explosions and mayhem.
Humanity's last chance for survival.
If you spliced Barbie and Major Matoko into one character, set her up on a blind date with Robocop, threw them into a lighter version of Ghost in the Shell, and rendered the whole thing in glossy CGI à la Final Fantasy, you'd get something like Appleseed. Appleseed is a victim of its own hype; it is not the single-handed savior of anime. Instead, Appleseed is a summer blockbuster explosion of eye candy wrapped around a conservative anime backbone.
Facts of the Case
Deunan Knute, an extraordinary soldier and highly attractive woman, is doing her usual thing: Lurking in a bombed-out urban labyrinth and mowing down robot dudes. Soon she is taken away by the mysterious ESWAT to Olympus, a glittering paradisal city of splendor. Everything is perfect in Olympus, from the weather to the glossy CGI vehicles to the humans and Bioroids living in tranquility. Deunan retires from soldierhood, becomes wealthy and famous, and raises lots of kids on her way to a pleasant old age.
Yeah, right…as if.
Before we launch into the review, let's test your anime instincts. Be aware that the following questions (and probably the rest of this review) could be considered spoilers:
Question One. Appleseed is set in a city populated 50% by humans and
50% by Bioroids, which are cybernetic beings made in the likeness of humans. In
the course of Appleseed, the humans and the Bioroids are going to:
Question Two. The villain of Appleseed is:
Question Three. The heroine of Appleseed is Deunan Knute. Deunan's
If you selected anything other than "C," you will find the plot suitably suspenseful. However, if you have seen any sci-fi themed anime in the last 15 years, get ready for rehashed "humanity vs. other" plot twists and painfully extended stretches of philosophical exposition. Blockbuster anime is paradoxically conservative when it comes to plot; Final Fantasy suffered the same syndrome. Maybe the writers thought to themselves, "This is getting a major release, we'd better leave out the clown snipers and the subplot about the horny octopus android—or else people will think anime is weird." This conservatism leaves us a predictably melodramatic, unsurprising mishmash of themes we've seen many times before.
Where Appleseed shines is in action sequences, and boy, does it ever shine. The opening set piece with Deunan taking on a horde of robotic tanks is a mesmerizing onslaught of violence. Each bullet, kick, explosion, and leap gleams with detail. It reminds me of the street shootout in Heat, which is high praise considering that said shootout is among the most adrenaline-charged action set pieces ever. The closest rival I've seen in anime is the dock shootout in the "Not Equal" episode on Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex (Volume 4), but that scene isn't nearly as long or as polished as this one. If you crave the visceral punch of heavy artillery and the dazzling reflections of huge fireballs while watching a hot woman dole out pain, I doubt you will find a better sequence any time soon.
Again, derivative plot is the Achilles' heel. The problems with the opening sequence are threefold. First, Deunan is a disciple of the "bullet time" school, which means we see yet another cyberpunk chick whirling around in slow motion to dodge bullets just before landing a high kick into someone's forehead and backflipping to the ground. Second, we have no doubt whether or not the yet-to-be-introduced Deunan is going to make it out alive, so the scene lacks suspense. Third, Deunan is literally saved by deus ex machina, when an ESWAT chopper swirls out of the sky to save her.
Hmm…Achilles' heel, deus ex machina…do you like these references to Greek mythology? I hope so, because Appleseed is going to beat you over the head with them. In fact, if you have even passing familiarity with classic Greek myth, you'll know who is who within seconds of hearing their names.
It isn't completely fair to pick on Appleseed's plot. The story seems highly derivative of Ghost in the Shell and The Matrix, but there is a good reason: The film is based on works by Shirow Masamune—just like Ghost in the Shell and The Matrix. The problem is that Appleseed comes from Masamune's earlier work, and we've since been treated to more sophisticated and engrossing interpretations of the same subject matter. In fact, Appleseed is an updated treatment of an OVA from 1988, so how cutting-edge could it be?
The real story here is the seamless integration of three-dimensional and two-dimensional artwork, which is the Holy Grail of anime. Two-dimensional art is quicker and cheaper to produce, while three-dimensional effects up the eye candy factor at the expense of time and money. Traditionally, these two styles have not meshed well. Appleseed meshes them beautifully. In the course of its 105 minutes, this animated feature crams in every special effect, dazzling detail, texture, color, and movement you could reasonably expect. In fact, my one complaint with the film's look is that it's too glossy: faces, uniforms, and other organic surfaces shimmer and gleam unnaturally. The positive result is that the awkward "3D object in a 2D world" effect is eliminated.
Appleseed is a mixed bag that resembles a capital "U." The opening sequence is stellar, and then the story drops down into an abyss of exposition and melodrama. Finally, we absorb the true scheme, and Deunan and company find themselves in a desperate, epic battle. This battle ends in unexpected fashion, the result of words instead of actions, which is a refreshing change from the norm. Did I mention the destruction? The Matrix only destroyed one skyscraper…amateurs.
Geneon has provided a feature-length commentary, which is unusual for anime DVDs and well worth listening to. The director and producer are enthusiastic and animated, keeping up a steady stream of critical self-analysis. They cover the ideas, failures, decisions, and techniques that shaped Appleseed. It is often difficult to follow the rapid dual streams of subtitle, but that's why DVD has a 1/2-speed option. The "music and scene cues" extra is simply a menu of bookmarks that takes you to "music video"–type segments within the film. This extra gave me a slightly different view on some of the scenes. Finally, we have basic biographical information about the creators of Appleseed.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Appleseed demands a six-barrel sonic assault. Geneon has generously provided two Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks and a DTS track, but they only loaded half of the barrels.
When you listen to the Japanese surround tracks, you feel as though you're sitting inside a wedge pointing at the right main speaker. The surrounds and right main are extremely loud, overpowering everything else. Dialogue ranges from weak to faint, and the left side of the front soundstage feels like it has been lopped off. The result is a constant shift between straining to hear words and being assaulted by relatively minor surround effects. The English dub (which I enjoyed, by the way) doesn't suffer the same dramatic swings in volume, but it isn't as detailed either. What we do hear of the Japanese DTS track is amazing, but the balance is dramatically skewed. When I notice glaring sonic flaws with a major DVD release, I go to the net for confirmation. An AVS Forum thread (linked in the sidebar) gives further information about the possible reasons for this sonic distortion.
Appleseed is not the end-all be-all release that some have hyped it as: The script is saddled with an outdated plot, and the visual effects are disconcerting where people and texture are involved. Yet the action sequences are stellar, and the polished visuals give me hope for anime's future. If the DTS track had been properly mixed, I'd be much more inclined to recommend it highly. As it stands, I still recommend the DVD just for amazing action scenes and great commentary track—with the disclaimer that Appleseed is an exciting visual update to a well-trodden plot.
The filmmakers are free to go. The center channel and right main shall remain for further sentencing, which will likely involve electroshock therapy.
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• Audio Commentary by Director Shinji Aramaki and Producer Fumihiko Sori
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