The FilmThe year is 2077. A decade earlier, robot technology had become so advanced that the United Nations, concerned that further developments may lead to the ‘weaponization' of the human body, passed a resolution banning the use of android technology. Choosing to defy the treaty in order to allow the mega-corporation, Daiwa, to continue its research, Japan became a lone, renegade nation effectively shutting itself off from the rest of the world. Isolated and shielded from all outside communication and satellite surveillance, with nobody having entered or left the country for ten years, Japan has become a mystery to all those living outside its borders.
Fearing that Daiwa may now have taken its bio-tech android programme to the ultimate extreme, a crack US Special Forces Unit is tasked with infiltrating Japan on an intelligence mission. Led by a determined, young female commander, Vexille, the unit hooks up with a band of Japanese underground rebels who have refused to conform to the dictates of the Daiwa Corporation. But what Vexille and her team uncover inside Japan proves to be far more devastating than anybody could possibly have imagined and soon they find themselves fighting a battle that will determine the future of all humanity.
Comparisons between Vexille and Appleseed are inevitable, not just for the fact that Appleseed producer Fumihiko Sori has this time returned in the director’s seat while adopting a similar aesthetic approach thanks to the same animation team, but so too that in general it owes a huge amount of debt to the works of Masamune Shirow. By utilising the same motion-capture techniques Sori creates an intriguing scenario; visually dynamic it breaks away from Appleseed’s bright and beautiful utopia in favour of presenting an opposing dystopian society. But it’s funny that no matter what side of the coin we’re on, the outcome always seems to be the same.
The storyline kicks off well as it presents a tale of history quite literally repeating itself. Japan has once again closed itself off from the rest of the world; a completely fortified nation, it dispenses of all outside communication; no trade routes or satellite intervention for instance can intrude on the greater plans that lay ahead. As World War events are dug up for the billionth time it’s here that Sori builds upon U.S. and Japanese relations while addressing concerns over personal isolation, curiously placing a spin on events that frankly we wouldn’t expect to see coming. What is certainly interesting is that Vexille doesn’t harbour much by way of jingoism. Japan, while being portrayed as a victim, is also very much the antagonistic force that drives the film. Sure enough the picture takes the opportunity to throw a few slurs in the direction of the heroic U.S.A. (“Americans never learn”), but it isn’t afraid to depict its own country in a harsh manner and set up the good ol’ Yanks as our heroes of the day. It takes someone like the American Vexille to come into town and fix Japan’s mistakes. In turn that does make for a rather serious affair, not least because she also has her own problems to deal with.
But ultimately it’s executed all so routinely. What starts off promisingly enough winds up a cliché-ridden tirade that happily riffs off Appleseed, a number of J-Sci-Fi and just about every other post-apocalyptic movie ever made. There’s a very loosely played love-triangle, incredibly long-winded exposition scenes and another genetics-obsessed villain suffering from godly delusions of grandeur. Alright, it does throw in one or two nice set-pieces - though none of them quite match the opening five minutes of Vexille‘s crew storming a mansion - but it‘s often inconsistent and only goes on to replicate mistakes made by Appleseed. Sadly, Vexille herself simply isn’t that interesting either, more than likely coming across as a cipher through which to illustrate a clear political message. There’s a little history to her, but for the most part emphasis is placed to greater effect on the lives of Maria and her fellow resistance fighters. But even so the handling of the relationship shared between she, Vexille and Leon is entirely superficial and so abruptly portrayed it’s a little confusing, leaving us to wonder if it really was all that necessary to add another blemish to their deep woes. And at the end of the day is the film’s message really that unique? Not really, no matter how you choose to dress it up. We’ve seen and heard it all before. It feels like on the whole that Japan is spinning on an endless loop as it continually struggles to put its past behind it, taking great pains to ensure that whatever atrocities happened in the past must never happen again. It’s admirable in many respects, but it doesn’t necessarily make for entertaining viewing. All of that majesty on screen and the potential for a blistering action flick is undermined by a cold and depressing narrative, with not a single lick of humour or any real fun behind its actions, and at almost two hours in length that takes a lot of patience to get through.
Momentum Pictures’ presentation of Vexille is very much a disappointment. Although presented anamorphically at approximately 1.78:1 it’s dogged by a standards conversion; ghosting and combing artefacts are present, and certainly the former is more apparent and distracting when viewing on LCD. Minor compression artefacts are also evident during energetic action sequences and there’s a spot of edge enhancement to boot. Detail is reasonably fine, although there is an overall soft haze to the image, which doesn’t seem too out of the ordinary given how Appleseed: Ex Machina even looked on HD formats. On the other hand the transfer does come across as a tad dark, with black levels appearing a little muddy. The final nail in this reviewer’s book are the hard subtitles. Not much of an excuse these days to have forced subs on DVD. While they read well and provide a good translation they leave me to question the source of the transfer which undoubtedly should look a whole lot better than this.
At least the two soundtracks fare well. We’ve Japanese DD5.1 and Japanese DTS, and while there isn’t a huge amount to separate them they’re solid enough. Primarily viewing with the DTS option I found the bass to be more active, but otherwise sound effects across both offerings have their share of ups and downs. When called upon the soundstage is rife with rocket blasting and gunfire; the former packing a fair amount of aggressiveness, while the directionality of the later is far weaker. When channelled through the forward speakers gun effects come across like cap-gun fire, while the rear left and right speakers make efforts to add a little extra punch. On the dialogue front, things are presented clearly, with no noticeable defects.
Audio commentary by Jonathan Clements (co-author of The Anime Encyclopaedia):
I liked this audio commentary. Clements provides a wealth of info without pausing much for breath. Well prepared, we can hear the occasional rustling of notes, he talks much of Fumihiko Sori’s personal background in production, along with providing plenty of info with regards to the voice cast; particularly amusing is the constant pointing out of various live-action dubs that the artists have done for Hollywood blockbusters and other films and shows, with my favourite being Akio Ôtsuka performing for Ross Kemp in Ultimate Force of all people. Clements comes across very honestly and I’m glad he makes the most of his opportunity by highlighting the various political content strewn throughout the picture, which Sori seems adamant in pretending doesn’t exist. He does appear to like the film a great deal, touching upon social aspects and enjoying the animation style in general, while also reverting to several historical facts that fit into the context of Vexille. Occasionally a point diverts a little, but he quickly gets himself back on track, providing an overall pleasant listen.
For the ‘Making Of Special’ director Fumihiko Sori talks for the best part of an hour about how he approached Vexille off the back of Appleseed. He chats about which elements originally captured his interest the most, such as the Tokugawa inspired cut-off and great communication barriers; the distinction of CG+live-action style of film making and of course the differences between it and Appleseed. Sori certainly talks his film up a treat, naturally, but I find myself not agreeing a whole lot with his reasoning, especially when he mentions how he wanted to try something different at various points. His choice of narrative structure doesn’t seem as balanced as he suggests and by mentioning the huge action opening to draw the viewer in he does slip that it’s pretty much there for the sake of it. Likewise, although he tries to state differences between this and Appleseed it seems that the best we get is that Vexille simply looks a bit nicer. Questionable is the director’s take on modelling characters; there’s plenty of talk about expressions, yet I feel the one downside to these models is that they exhibit so very little of this. There’s also a bizarre statement that because Vexille deals with relationships it needed to have a love triangle, something which really makes little sense, and when symbolism is brought to the table with regards to the JAGS Sori speaks for several minutes but comes away having said nothing at all really. Aside from this there are other looks into the film: Kisaragi’s character; a breakdown of Daiwa Heavy Industries and a slight commentary on the dangers of science and closed-communication. Perhaps the best piece of info is that we actually find out what Vexille’s name actually means, which is nice as it was the one thing I didn’t understand about the entire picture.
At an hour in length ‘The Inside Story’ is an in-depth look at the varying factors which make up Vexille. Elaborating upon some of Sori’s points shown in the interview feature it places a lot of effort into ensuring that above all else we fully understand the director’s intent of carrying across an important message for the benefit of Japan’s future. Aside from these personal insights the documentary takes us behind the scenes to look at editing and scoring the feature; realising the characters with motion capture and overcoming certain large-scale challenges. We also journey with Sori as he goes on his mass promotion tour, from the Tokyo Anime Expo to Cannes, and additionally get to see him work a little on his latest live-action film. The most interesting piece I find is the voice recording sessions, which shows the diversity of the cast on hand, from debut artists to seasoned veterans. The most candid look into the recording features Meisa Kuroki, making her voice acting debut as Vexille. We see Sori work hard at trying to get her to sound just right, but it comes across as awfully trial and error, with Kuroki’s body language showing perhaps a little frustration at not being able to consistently hit the desired tone. It makes us wonder, then, how some VAs actually get cast in such matters, though it should be noted that Kuroki isn’t a VA by trade, but a model turned TV and film actress. Another interesting point comes when Sori describes the nature of tertiary characters to his voice artists during an Expo event. A completely shocked and overcome Romi Pak reels upon hearing the director describe exactly what her character is about. And this is very much a problematic issue I feel. Considering he wants these characters to be so special he leaves a tonne of ambiguity on screen so that they’re nothing more than, in a sense, 2-D support. Here he’s fully fleshing them out before our very ears and it feels like an incredibly wasted opportunity to have denied them such soul in the finished product.
A theatrical trailer rounds off the disc.
Fumihiko Sori’s overall intent here is admirable at best. While Vexille is pretty to look at it’s sadly hindered by the usual stereotypical characters and worn sentiments. Sori has since gone back to live-action directing duties and I can only hope that now he’s (presumably) done with pushing animation to its limits he can follow up his marvellous Ping Pong in style with the upcoming Ichi.
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