A review copy was provided by FUNimation Entertainment
From various observations and narrative explorations, I’ve come to realize that there’s both a right and wrong way to handle sci-fi. The former focuses on the carnal human desire to view uninhibited conflict without the burden of appropriate context or meaning. The latter, which has come to full fruition after decades and even centuries of successful writing in the genre from mainstay greats like Arthur C. Clarke and more current champions, such as Haruki Murakami, understands that true science fiction is not about the end result of changes in both time and circumstances, but rather the underlaying ropes of fate that link those contexts to ours.
In short, good science fiction, in my opinion, remembers to examine modern society by making slight changes to the equation, whether they be through time jumps, like in the vast majority of space operas, circumstantial alterations to current events, like in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or changes to our own history. Science fiction, in its purest examination, in not truly about the space ships or the lasers or the robots, its about how we as humans under the same genetic and sociological makeup we currently contain, would act and react in the presence of such entities and changes.
And so I started to watch Jinni’s Animation Studio and Production IG’s work, Appleseed XIII by judging it under that self-developed, perhaps far too pretentious lens. Admittedly, I don’t really watch much anime in the long and prosperous mecha genre, with exception to the Neon Genesis Evangelion rebirth films, the incredible Gurren Lagaan, and a little unknown series called Jinki: Extend (which was actually one of the first anime series I ever watched all the way through, not that it was any good). The former two naturally managed to flourish thanks to exceedingly fresh and ingenious narratives that remember to put characters and worlds above the robots and even the objective plots. But I’m here to talk about Appleseed XIII, not return to some of my all time favorites.
A bit of background info first. Appleseed as a franchise has actually been around for quite some time. It was birthed from a 25 chapter manga starting in 1985 and saw mutliple OVA film and video game adaptations before a fully fledged 13 episode series was created, which was destined to only be an ONA, never receiving a televised release. I was initially surprised by just how old this franchise is, and how infrequently it saw updates or revisions in its long history. There must be fans of its world and storytelling style, or else this would have likely vanished from humanity’s collective conscious.
As for this ONA series itself, perhaps the first thing that demands evaluation and discussion is the element that makes itself the most noticeable the fastest. Unlike just about every anime series before or since, Appleseed XIII is, like the 2004 OVA film that came before, an entirely CGI production. This can be an incredibly difficult visual pill to swallow, as I’m sure many of you are like me, completely spoiled by high budget 3D animation created here in the West.
Perhaps it’s unfair to throw flaming epithets at a work that couldn’t have received more than a shoestring budget. Yet it is unfortunate that Japan’s wealth of 2D animating prowess couldn’t have been used to tell this story, at the very least with the human (and humanoid, as we’ll get into later) characters, whose facial features and body movements suffer immensely from this artistic decision.
After a few episodes, the animation style slowly sank into my acceptance, especially once heavy action sequences started to pop up, which surprisingly benefit heavily from the move to 3D. But faces never felt quite right, and the animation has the unfortunate tendency to freeze completely between motions, a MAJOR no-no when working in 3D as it creates an uncomfortable lifelessness. Freezing animation to hold poses works in 2D animation because we’ve already subconsciously established a pretty large natural gap between ourselves and the fake, quasi-dimensional characters standing in front of us with no real physical link to our perception on reality. But 3D models exist in 3D space, just like we do, so there’s greater risk of infecting these models with inhuman breaks in motion and lunging right into the uncanny valley.
Luckily, other facets of the series manage to save it somewhat from this unfortunate choice. Appleseed XIII revolves its plot around the entirely likable Deunan and Briareos, two refugees, or survivalists, rather, who have migrated to a pseudo-utopian society, Olympus, that formed after the fifth world war. It’s made pretty clear that much of the world is in ruin, and that this modern and fairly peaceful metropolis is the exception rather than the rule.
Several classifications of human and semi-human life are bound to this narrative. Deunan, a fully fleshed human being, begins the series already in a long and pensive romantic relationship with Briareos, who was once human but was reformed into a cyborg after an explosion left his organic body dismembered and charred. Bioroids, another level of human existence, makeup the majority of individuals found in Olympus, and they are essentially biologically human beings with seemingly digitalized consciousnesses. Their role in this new society is to ensure the continued success and prosperity of the increasingly endangered humans.
Much of the series’ plot engages the viewer in a discussion about power between the humans and the Bioroids, as there are complex dynamics implanted in the relationship. In a later episode, this relationship is equated to that of the Greek deities and the people that serve under them. Bioroids are not allowed to share the same emotional capacities of humans, and are often created simply to serve the humans. Even still, their rationale and unemotional state somehow places them in a greater place of power, as Olympus’ leaders are Bioroids, who themselves serve under a vague but powerful AI entity known as Gaia.
If this setup sounds supremely complicated and somewhat contradictory, then you’re absolutely not alone. This series attempts to cover a tremendous amount of ground in a short amount of episodes, and many of the episodes’ narratives come off as ham-handed instead of deep and powerful. Nonetheless, this examination into our relationship with technology as it continues to surpass our power and universal comprehension is an important one, and one that’s certainly not new to the genre.
Unfortunately, this issue with the narrative falling flat is present in more than just a few instances, as some entire episodes seem to lack purpose and fail to impart any emotional or inquisitive interest in the happenings of the characters. Other episodes make up for it, but the overall tempo of the series is incredibly slow and pensive.
This wouldn’t be a problem, as some of the best sci-fi works remember to keep the focus squarely on character interactions and emotional happenstances, if it weren’t for the fact that the overarching plot doesn’t seem to offer the appropriate amount of depth to pair with the moral questions raised by the setting. Most episodes are spent on individual little stories until certain, more minor characters start to weave the plot into a more concentrated direction. That direction, to the misfortune of the series, doesn’t do nearly a comprehensive enough job in explaining itself or making its conflict feel important or even necessary.
I was also expecting the relationship between Deunan and Briareos to take up greater emphasis near the finale, as that would have, in my mind, made up for its vague and unrewarding plot (which could have benefited from taking a more background role). After the midway point in the series, however, exploration of their relationship stops almost entirely, and the series ends with a far too typical and woefully underwhelming shrug as to what the next step of their relationship will be or when it will happen.
In the end, the series misses several key opportunities at making its focus personal, as well as indulging its audience’s curiosity by providing a greater exploration as to how the present circumstances could become as described. How could humans willingly give up their administrative power to beings that they clearly have so much trouble acknowledging as equals? How did Olympus manage to create such a beautiful, near perfect culture and city isolated in the aftermath of such horrible destruction?
However, the weaknesses of the narrative do actually have positive components of the package to overtake them head on. First off, the art direction of this series is actually quite spectacular, as the color palette and atmospheric tones occasionally manage near Madoka levels of beauty. Shots are framed and edited exceptionally well, and I found that the pensive, distant nature of this anime provided an almost dream-like quality that in all honesty I find difficult to accurately pinpoint. There’s just something remarkably soothing about watching Appleseed XIII, even in the midst of combat and conflict.
Visually, it also manages to avoid looking too dated, considering its source material, even if at times I was reminded of PS1-era Final Fantasy CG cutscenes (aided by the fact that Deunan looks a little too much like a gender-bend of Zidane). The mech designs, while certainly a little to bulbous and lumpy to be considered of modern design, do have a very aesthetically pleasing look to them in the midst of the more blocky, hard-edged designs perpetuated by Gundam. The battle armor reminded me a lot of Tau Crisis Battlesuits, but that’s a reference that might be over all of your heads.
Voice acting is another plus here, with fairly great performances in both English in Japanese. Actually, I should reiterate that. The performances were great in Japanese and with the surprising addition of the English voices. Lucy Christian gave her character, Deunan, suitable depth and strength, and, in my opinion, may have outpaced the original actress, Maaya Sakamoto. David Matranga also manages to give strength to Briareos, although I’m a bit more inclined to prefer Koichi Yamadera’s deeper vocal range.
The DVD/Bluray combo pack by Funimation Entertainment manages to offer a very hearty amount of extras in the form of short documentaries about the creation of each episode (totalled at around two and a half hours). Of course being an animator, I was salivating over the chance to get such an intimate look into an anime series’ production, and the documentaries do a pretty fair job at doing so. May be dry for most, but those who enjoy this kind of work will likely find it really cool.
Ultimately, what I can say for Appleseed is that it does feel like it has a passionate group of creators behind it, and the narrative is followable if a little muddy. Those who like a little more pensive, thoughtful pacing in their sci-fi will likely find something enjoyable here, as there is a suitable exploration of society and human interaction, even if some background information is sorely lacking. Appleseed manages to maintain such an interesting world and atmosphere that my overall impression of it is absolutely positive. You’ll just have to decide for yourself if the profundity and thoughtfulness of the world and its art direction outweigh a decidedly poor animation quality and a dire lack of elaboration.
–Fantastic arti direction that knows to give its audience a wide range of color.
–Duenan and Briareos are fun to follow, even if their relationship never gets fully fleshed out.
–Provides a pensive pacing that serves the narrative well.
–Can be appreciated on multiple layers, from its thoughtful examination of Greco-Roman Mythology to its experiments in human power in relation to technology.
–It often seems to fail to tell us the stories that match the atmosphere’s strength and power.
–Sometimes feels floaty, lacking elaboration.
–The entirely CGI animation is a poor choice, and oftentimes the silly, robot movements of its characters unwillingly break any dramatic tension.
–Some episodes could be described as entirely pointless.
Studio: Pruduction I.G & Jinni’s Animation Studio
Director: Takayuki Hamana
Writer: Junichi Fujisaku
Original creator: Masamune Shiro (manga)
Original run: Released online June 3, 2011 through January 25, 2012