The main premise of ICE is, not unexpectedly for a futuristic science-fiction anime film, is based around an end-of-the-world scenario, but Makoto Kobayashi’s film at least appears to approach the subject from a different angle. Although the use of science and technology without consideration for future consequences lies at the heart of the film here, as it does in most apocalyptical SF anime, what represents a more immediate threat in ICE is the fact that the male of the species has become extinct in 2012, leaving women to rule the world, but with no reproductive capacity to extend the human race beyond the current generation.
Not only is that a bit of a refreshing change from the development of nuclear weapons or human weapons of mass destruction, but it gives ICE freedom to extend this vision to consider just how a world without men would operate. Considering the seriousness of the situation and the imminent demise of the human race – the male population having died as the consequence of some unknown virus – conflict still exists between opposing factions over how to deal with the problem. The story in ICE takes place after the wars that have devastated the Earth through a failed attempt by the US to assert authority during the crisis, so the fate of other nations is unknown (but clearly not good), but as far as it has affected Japan, only 20,000 or so inhabitants remain, clustered into the Shinjuku region of Tokyo and split into two opposing factions.
It’s perhaps not surprising that the split is along the lines of those in favour of looking to science as a way to solve their problems – the Guardians, under the leadership of Lady Giulia – and those who blame science for what has happened – the followers of Lady Kusalagi – and look to nature to resolve the issue or accept that their fate is to die. If the split seems very obvious and simplistic – nature versus science – the manner in which the two factions operate is well-designed and interesting, each with strange enigmatic rituals and belief systems that have developed in response to the crisis. Moreover, while there is definitely something of a Hayao Miyazaki environmental message in all this, the issue is not as simple as nature = good / science = bad. If that sounds like a good thing, where the issues are not so clear-cut and there’s a bit more ambiguity to the handling of the concept, that’s not entirely the case, and there is actually a bit of fudging of the issue at the end.
Nonetheless, it allows for an intriguing and – it has to be said – a sometimes unfathomable conflict between factions whose moral position is not entirely comprehensible and somewhat dubious on both sides, and whose means of dealing with the strange situation is equally as fascinatingly bewildering. At the centre of the mystery of the fate of the world and how to deal with it, lies a huge Twin Tower construction that dominates the Tokyo skyline, but the Earth has also been altered considerably by the war. Biohazard material left behind after the war has devastated the environment, meaning that no food can be eaten that comes from the earth, with only preserved goods from before the disaster remaining edible. There are strange birds that mutate into flowers and transmutate again back into birds and jellyfish, bizarrely, also feature, their purpose not quite clear, but they all add to the strangeness of the new world. Most importantly – it’s taken a while to get there in this review – there is the question of ICE, an experimental process involving artificial insemination that could be the answer to the problem, but could also be a very dangerous use of science indeed. Somehow.
If the actual nature (and science) of the dangers are uncertain, and as I say a little bit fudged, it does at least give ICE a bit of an edge in the plot development, in the characterisation, and in its whole look and feel, which has something of a Leiji Matsumoto Captain Harlock feel (not least in the character of Lady Guardian Hitomi Landsknecht), set in a Nausicäa universe. The art design might not be the greatest, the whole thing fairly static, using pans of the camera to make it feel a little bit more lively than it really, is – but when it explodes into action, it’s a little more dynamic and anything can happen in this strange world.
There is one other initially bewildering aspect that becomes significant to the whole storyline. It involves a young woman Hitomi Aida, who appears at the very start of the film in the year 1986. Involved in a car accident, she seems to become witness to this new future world by becoming trapped in the body of the Hitomi Landsknecht. It’s a good device that ties everything together and puts it into context with the “real world” by suggesting that if we act now we can prevent such a disaster from ever happening. It also makes sense of why the actions of the scientist and naturalist Giulia and Kusalagi factions are both questionable – the warning is that it’s too late to fix the problem by that stage, so we just have to ensure we never get there in the first place.
Unfortunately, not only does this message feel rather heavy-handed, but by telling us it’s still avoidable it makes the questions raised feel somewhat academic and almost gives the impression that the whole post-2012 world is nothing more than “all just a terrible dream”. That kind of undermines the film at the end and sends out a bit of a mixed message, but really, the handling of the material and the question of potential threats – whether through present-day low-fertility rates or the unknown danger of GM crops – isn’t rigorous enough to make the viewer think about it deeper or see it as anything more than a typical sci-fi actioner. On that level however, ICE, works fairly well, creating an entertaining, imaginative and immersive vision of a dark future.
ICE is released on DVD by Cine du Monde. Based on the review copy provided, the DVD is a dual-layer disc and the presentation in PAL format. Indications are that the disc is region-free.
The image is presented in a ratio of 4:3. I have my doubts about any anime film from 2008 not being in a widescreen ratio, and the compositions in ICE do look rather cramped, particularly facial close-ups. The image quality itself is variable, looking reasonably sharp in places, and at least showing good stability throughout, but some scenes look overly soft, and artefacts can be seen at edges in colour banding and gradation. It’s never looks better than average throughout, which, taken with the concerns about the aspect ratio, isn’t good overall.
There is only one audio option, which is the original Japanese track. There is no English dub included, but that’s hardly essential. The audio track was advertised as being Dolby Digital 5.1, but on my copy at least, it was only Dolby Digital 2.0. In terms of sound quality, it’s fine if unexceptional, with no notable issues. The soundtrack features Japanese Pop sensations (it says on the cover) AKB48, who provide a very 80s-influenced theme for the film that – like most anime themes, is infectiously catchy from the outset, but rapidly becomes insipid after a few listenings.
English subtitles are white, clearly readable and are optional.
Extras include a fourteen minute ICE Goes Global featurette, gauging international reaction to the film, but mostly featuring Q&A interviews with director Makoto Kobayashi and writer Yasushi Akimoto. This includes a music video performance by AKB48 of the theme. Japanese and English Trailers and Teasers are included.
The treatment of the real-life issues of low fertility rates, Genetically Modified crops, artificial insemination and scientific experiments with human DNA certainly creates an interesting and original if somewhat alarmist spin on the post-apocalyptic world of ICE, but Makoto Kobayashi’s film doesn’t find a way of making those environmental concerns something to be genuinely concerned about. Failing that, ICE does at least work on the level of a good and entertaining – if somewhat confusing and by no means exceptional – sci-fi anime. The DVD presentation – non-widescreen with stereo Japanese audio only – unfortunately leaves much to be desired.