The frequency of American theatrical releases for anime features is beginning to pick up speed. This is good. Unfortunately, they are all still limited releases so far. The failure of Miyazakis Spirited Away to attract a big box office after its 2002 Oscar for best animated feature, despite Disneys release of it in 750 theaters, has been discouraging. But the popularity of anime is steadily growing through its exposure on TV and the video market, so there is hope that its theatrical b.o. will continue to climb even if only in the art-theater market. After all, any new anime theatrical release could become the next Akira, couldnt it?
Two new features have just appeared less than a month apart. On December 31, Maxmedia/Endgame released the July 2003 Korean feature Sky Blue. (Purists may object, but the term anime is evolving to encompass animation produced by any east Asian nation, not just Japan.) On Jan. 14, Geneon Entertainment released the April 2004 Japanese feature Appleseed.
Both features seem designed for the anime cult core market. They are futuristic action-packed sci-fi dramas showcasing the latest spectacular cutting-edge animation technology.
In fact, the publicity of both seems more like a promotion of their studios cinematographic breakthroughs than of their movie. Sky Blues presskit states: Sky Blue took more than seven years to complete, and employed many hundreds of Koreas leading animation artists and technicians in its production. The result is a unique composite of elements -- live-action miniatures and atmospheric elements shot on Panavisions 24p HDW-F900 camera, immersive 3D CGI backgrounds, and traditional 2D character animations -- layered many dozens of times in each frame of HD digital film. Sky Blue achieves a technical vision never before realized and achieved at a fraction of the budget usually engaged for CGI animation features. It is seen widely as a technical hallmark of a maturing Korean animation industry set to compete with the worlds other leading animation nations. The presskit devotes five pages to describing the production techniques and only two pages to the story synopsis and characters.
Similarly, Appleseeds publicity trumpets: A Cyberpunk-Thriller Film That Elevates The Future of Animation to the Next Level. Life-like, Yet Animated: Full 3D-CG Technology Using Traditional Anime Character Design. Use of advanced technology to create a visually stunning new style of animation. The film features a groundbreaking style known as 3D Live Anime a blend of motion-capture technology and 3D computer animation, which is further enhanced by the new generation of toon-shading programs, which renders 3D CGI into 2D cel-style images. The film is a huge leap forward in technical and visual terms, far exceeding the previous benchmark for computer animation from Japan, set by Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.
Too bad neither gave as much attention to their stories. But then, that is consistent with most features from the worlds other leading animation nations, isnt it?
Sky Blue is my favorite of these two. It is especially impressive considering that it was started from scratch in just about every respect. To create a theatrical feature of this quality was a lifelong dream project for Korean director Moon Sang Kim. Kim has produced more than 200 South Korean television commercials since 1988, and has won numerous awards starting with the first prize of the Korean Broadcasting Award in that year. After trying for some time to advance to more than TV commercials, Kim co-founded (with his wife Kay Hwang, a Sky Blue co-producer) his own animation studio, Tin House Co., Ltd., in Seoul in 1996. Sky Blue is Tin Houses first production of any kind besides TV commercials, according to co-producer Sunmin Park; but Kims long-range goal has always been the creation of a theatrical feature. He used Tin Houses commercial projects to build up his staff, equipment and expertise, and to make contacts.
Sunmin Park is a producer/writer/director at Los Angeles-based Maxmedia, Llc., which has been coordinating the financing and production of theatrical features for international distribution since 1989. It was Koreas Samsung Venture Investments Corp., which alerted Maxmedia to Kims project. Parks participation included co-writing the screenplay and arranging for Tin House to conduct CGI camera tests at the Panavision studios in Hollywood, although all of Sky Blue s production was done in-house in Seoul.
Principal production began in 2001. The completed film was released in Korea in July 2003 under the title Wonderful Days. (Publicity has implied that there is a considerable difference between the domestic Wonderful Days version and the international Sky Blue version, although Park told AWM that the distinction is only a few frames plus more international music in Sky Blue.) It immediately became an international film festival favorite, playing at over a dozen festivals before its U.S. release. Kim has described his blend of multi-layered cinematography as combining the depth and reality of miniature sets, the metallic futuristic appearance of 3D CGI, and the comfortable familiarity of 2D cel characters to achieve a Surrealistic style of animation, as distinct from the Hyper-realistic CGI style employed in Final Fantasy.
Kim always knew that his movie would be a futuristic adventure involving ecological disaster, but the plot went through many rewrites. The final version is set in 2142 A.D., a century after humanitys carelessness resulted in the collapse of Earths biosphere. The only survivors are a technological society in a magnificent enclosed scientifically-designed refuge city, Ecoban, and a small horde of refugees in the Wasteland just outside. The leaders of Ecoban have supported the refugees in return for their providing labor to mine the raw materials needed to keep Ecoban operational. After a century, Ecobans leaders have degenerated into an indolent elite class who have reduced the Diggers to slavery, providing no more than the barest minimum to keep them alive. The Diggers have finally grown angry enough to strike for better conditions, at the same time Ecobans machinery in use for a century is breaking down.
The central story is a Romeo and Juliet romance between Jay, a young woman in Ecobans security guard who sympathizes with the Diggers, and Shua, a young activist in the Diggers revolutionary movement who realizes that violence could destroy the shaky technology upon which all lives depend. Shua is secretly assisting Dr. Noah, a former member of Ecobans ruling council who believes that the technocrats should try to rid Earth of its permanent cloud cover of acid rain so the whole planet can be reclaimed, instead of trying to brutally destroy the Diggers. On a scene-by-scene basis, Sky Blue is a compelling story with believable characters. Yet the plot depends upon the Metropolis-like concept that Ecobans ruling council would support sadistic security Captain Lockes plan to goad the Diggers into open rebellion, thereby justifying slaughtering them all to increase production. Huh?!
Appleseed is similarly visually impressive, but has a story even more riddled with holes. This April 17, 2004 feature is adapted from the classic sci-fi manga novel by Masamune Shirow, so popular that it was one of the first manga to be published in America in the late 1980s. (Shirow is better known as the author of Ghost in the Shell.) Appleseed was produced by the Digital Frontier studio in a process blending motion-capture filmed actors rendered to look more like traditional cel-animated characters rather than attempting a completely realistic appearance, composited over shiny futuristic CGI settings.
Appleseed is a great example of turn off your mind and submerge yourself in the action. It is set in 2131 A.D. (only 11 years different than Sky Blue), in another future world that has been completely destroyed except for a single scientifically advanced refuge city, Olympus. Here the apocalypse was due to a global World War III. The technological elite who built Olympus reasoned that humanity is inherently violent, so they also created manufactured humans, bioroids, whose emotions have been suppressed so they can serve as peaceful and fair administrators of the city. Olympus police force is comprised of bioroids, while the citys military consists of normal humans.
This is seen through the eyes of Deunan Knute, a young woman who is an ace commando and one of the last soldiers to survive in the war-ravaged world. She is saved at the last moment from military robots programmed to kill all humans, and brought to Olympus, a paradise on Earth whose existence she never suspected. I would have to see Appleseed again to count how many times the word utopia is used in the first half-hour to describe it; yet Deunan has not been there for more than a day before Olympus-designed killer robots are sent to hunt her down, apparently for siding with the bioroid administrators. It seems that the military, consisting entirely of bigoted humans controlled by their destructive emotions, are planning a coup to overthrow the bioroids. Much really spectacular destruction ensues, not leaving much of Olympus still standing at the conclusion although the bioroids continue to cheerfully refer to it as such a utopia.
This is the second time that Appleseed has been animated. The first time was as an April 1988 70-minute direct-to-video movie, produced by the Gainax and A.I.C. studios. (It was first released in America on video by U.S. Renditions in August 1991. The current DVD release by Manga Entertainment came out in April 2001.)
Anime fans seldom mention this earlier Appleseed because the animation is of low quality, and the story seems like a standard TV police-versus-terrorists plot despite its futuristic setting. Yet in comparison, its story is much more plausible. In the 1988 version, the world has been devastated by the world war but civilization is not completely destroyed. The remnants of the old nations still exist, and dictators are greedy for Olympus wealth and technology; so Olympus is justified in having a small military for self-defense. In the new movie, Earth seems to be an uninhabitable wasteland outside of Olympus, so why does the city need a huge military with even bigger and deadlier killer robots? In the earlier movie, humans and bioroids are shown living together in harmony.
The Free Human Liberation Alliance terrorists are revealed to be a tiny radical fringe with no popular support. In the new movie practically no true humans are seen except those in the military, and there is no apparent justification for their vicious prejudice against bioroids. Unreasoning, violent prejudice does exist, but shared by the entire military and openly encouraged by its commanding officers? I also got annoyed after a few too many battle scenes stretched into saved-at-the-last-possible-moment rescues. This Appleseed seems adapted less from Shirows novel than from a videogame version of it.
Both Sky Blue and Appleseed have been getting favorable reviews filled with descriptions like beautiful, dazzling and spectacular. Yet there are few words of praise for the stories, for obvious reasons. They will be popular with anime fans, and fans of sci-fi movies; and Appleseed is a treat for fans of violent videogames. But neither of these will make anime look ready to appeal to general audiences.
Fred Patten has written on anime for fan and professional magazines since the late 1970s. He wrote the liner notes for Rhino Entertainments The Best of Anime music CD (1998), and was a contributor to The World Encyclopedia of Cartoons, 2nd Edition, ed. by Maurice Horn (1999) and Watching Anime, Reading Manga (2004) was recently published.