Appleseed Saga: Ex Machina
Some favorites you just know are going to stand the test of time, others not so much. When I first saw Appleseed Saga: Ex Machina [Ekusu Makina] I liked it a lot, but I immediately realized this wouldn't necessarily be the case the next time I'd sit down to watch it. The film leans heavily on its 3D/cel-shaded style, so keeping rapid technological evolutions in mind there was a big chance this wouldn't look half as impressive as it did 13 years ago. There was only one way to find out, so I figured it was time to give the middle entry in Shinji Aramaki's Appleseed trilogy another spin.
Appleseed is somewhat of a forgotten franchise, eclipsed by the success of Ghost in the Shell. I've always had a soft spot for the material, since its sci-fi elements include elaborate technological, sociological and political evolutions. The Appleseed world is more than just "what if this current thing blows up in our faces", it's a multigenerational progression of our world, with several key events having determined its future. Shirow adaptations have often downplayed or even hidden these elements in his work, Appleseed seems to be somewhat of an exception.
Not that is an overtly political or even pensive film, the primary focus lies on action and crime solving, but the Appleseed world has a prominent place in the background and commands the steers of the plot. While it requires some investment from the audience and it's not always easy to accomplish this kind of world-building within the limited scope of a feature film, I think in the end it pays off. And again, for those that aren't all that interested in its political intricacies, there's more than enough mecha action here to make sure you don't have to think twice about the plot of the film.
Olympus is a futuristic utopia, the only place on Earth where humans and bioroids live peacefully together. Other countries are still struggling with the fallout of World War III, so Utopia takes the lead and brings all the world leaders together. They hope to combine all the world's satellites into a centrally governed network that offers a better defense against organized crime. Not everyone agrees with Olympus' vision though and an underground cell is preparing a worldwide attack once the network is up and running. It's up to Deunan and Briareos to stop this looming threat to world peace.
Aramaki's Appleseed series was one of the first high-profile productions to go the more realistic-looking CG route. Japan tried to hold out for at least a decade, favoring 2D cel animation over the computer-generated alternative that was dominating Western animation, but in the end there was really no stopping this technological revolution. Being one of the first made me fear the animation would look extremely outdated by now, luckily that wasn't really the case. Sure enough the animation detail is severely lacking. Facial expressions are stiff and characters look a little wooden, but the artistic direction more than makes up for that. The camera work combined with slick editing is amazing, the cel-shaded look is attractive and Aramaki managed to keep true to the existing Appleseed aesthetic. So yeah, it's not as fluent and detailed as modern CG animations, but it didn't disappoint me in the least.
The soundtrack is fine, but pretty basic and expected for an action-based film. The electronic touch to the score is definitely appreciated, for the most part though it's just adrenaline-inducing background noise, there to make the action sequences that extra bit intense. The sound effects are a step up from most anime productions, which I guess is what happens when you take someone like John Woo on board. The rattling guns and squeaking mechs really sound terrific here. And as for the voice acting, the choice is simple as always, especially with Kôichi Yamadera as one of the leads. Yamadera is no doubt one of Japan's most talented and unique voice actors, his work with Briareos is amazing. The English dub just sounds hollow and uninspired in comparison.
Though Ex Machina is part of a trilogy, it's easy enough to jump in without having seen the first film. There's a little intro that roughly explains the Appleseed universe, after that it's just a pretty straightforward action flick with some sociopolitical tug wars in the background, directing our main duo from one action scene to the next. That's maybe a little disappointing if you were expecting a more faithful/hardcore Shirow adaptation, or an alternative to Ghost in the Shell for that matter, but that's simply not what Aramaki is aiming for. Once you're okay with that, there's a lot of fun to be had with this Ex Machina.
When I decided to give Ex Machina another spin, I was fully prepared to scrap it from my list of favorites. After the opening scene in the church I felt I would probably need to reconsider and by the time the film had ended, I was confident that it could safely remain on my list for a couple more years. Aramaki serves a very capable genre flick, making great use of the Appleseed setting and going beyond technological excellence to create a stylish, extravagant action spectacle. Well recommended if you're looking for some kick-ass, mecha fueled adrenaline.