Appleseed [アップルシード] (1988)
Starring Masako Katsuki, Yoshisada Sakaguchi, Toshiko Sawada, Toshio Furukawa, Nobou Iwamoto, Mayumi Sho
Directed by Kazuyoshi Katayama
Masamune Shirow didn’t only make Ghost in the Shell, he also created the less well-known Appleseed. There have been a host of films made for this franchise as well, but most of them have been relatively recent. This first attempt is the only version from the twentieth century, and it handily proves just why Appleseed is less well-known than Ghost in the Shell.
Firstly, I should point out that 1988’s version of Appleseed is rather low-budget. The animation feels much more like an early ’80s anime rather than a late ’80s one. It’s low-detail and low-frame rate. This isn’t to bash the film — I don’t judge a production by how much money someone shoved at it — but with the sleek, shiny Ghost in the Shell as the face of Masamune Shirow’s work it’s easy to expect similar production values from Appleseed as well. That, however, would be a mistake.
The real problems of Appleseed have more to do with its clumsy plot than its clumsy animation. I remember being rather disappointed with the original manga as well, so it might be something to do with the source material, but it is undeniable that Appleseed‘s first film adaptation has some serious flaws in its execution.
The story takes place sometime after World War III wipes out most of human civilization. Olympus, one of the surviving strongholds, is populated by bioroids. Now the film does a pretty crappy job of explaining what these guys are. At first I thought they were cyborgs or robots or something, but really they are nearly indistinguishable from regular humans. Wait, scratch that, the bioroids are completely indistinguishable from regular humans. I still don’t know what exactly the difference is, except that bioroids appear to be some kind of test tube babies. From then on, they look and act pretty much identical to humans.
Now despite this concept, Appleseed is not a dystopian future per se. It has some issues, but by and large Olympus is in fact a nice place to live and the government’s mission is to preserve the peace and prosperity of its citizens. It even selects immigrants from the post-apocalyptic wastelands to join the society at large. This includes the main characters, Deunan and her cyborg (not bioroid) partner, whose name seems to be spelled differently in every available source (sometimes even in the same source). Since I no longer have the DVD with me to verify which spelling it used, I’ll just stick with calling him Briareos.
Deunan and Briareos are now productive members of society, keeping the peace as members of Olympus’s SWAT team as it cracks down on a terrorist gang. And now that I’ve finally gotten the basic premise of the film out of the way, I can get to what this film’s problems are. The first of them is that the premise is so awkwardly explained. There’s a distinct lack of clarity regarding why anything is happening. The film bounces from a woman committing suicide to terrorists being betrayed from within their own group to political maneuvering by politicians to a cop on the take, all while trying to set up the world I just spent two-and-a-half paragraphs describing.
You’re given a few action scenes to chew on while you mull over the confusion of it all, but it takes the first half of the film to even have a grasp on the basic situation. This isn’t helped any by the fact that Deunan and Briareos aren’t given much depth. Character development is dropped in favor of more confusing plot stuff that’s hard to figure out, so you wind up without much investment in the main characters, and that’s always a bad sign.
That’s not to say it’s all bad news, because it’s not. Some of those action scenes are quite fun and entertaining, even if they aren’t all that well animated. The best part of the film is that we get to see things from the terrorist’s point of view as he teams up with the disgruntled cop. The two of them set up a bunch of cool plans that leave the police force in complete disarray, and this aspect of the film is nicely handled.
The terrorist’s motives, however, are left almost completely ignored, which does put a damper on things. All we are left with is the traitor police officer, Calon, who becomes the real star of the film by virtue of the fact that he is the only character given any kind of characterization. Despite how lovely Olympus is, his fiancée wound up depressed and bored to the point of suicide, and in his loneliness and despair Calon decides to blame it all on Olympus. Calon becomes the glue that holds the entire film together, and I remained intrigued to see just how far he would fall in his quest to bring revenge on the society that he sees as having killed his fiancée.
But one man alone has a hard time making up for all the flaws of this film, especially when he isn’t the main hero or villain. Because of this, and a highly underused cyborg ultra form for the real bad guy, the ending of Appleseed turns out highly anti-climactic. There’s also a few odd plot holes that bog the film down as well, like Deunan and Briareos being accused of treason, only to be the most trusted members of the team just a few minutes later.
With all the flaws piled up in this anime, it’s hard to give Appleseed a recommendation. It has a few good moments, and the action can be quite clever at times, but the clumsy plot drags it down to the point of mediocrity. The worst part is that it was trying to work with some intriguing themes of human nature and living in a regulated utopia that could have elevated the film to high art, but it never manages to address those themes in any meaningful way, leaving its story and characters floundering. Those looking for Masamune Shirow’s signature take on sci-fi concepts will only find a dim shadow of it here. Only hardcore fans and those dying to see the franchise in its entirety need apply.