Several years back, The New York Times' Arts & Leisure section emblazoned its front page with a garishly colored and extremely busy cartoon street scene to herald the dawn of Japanese cinema's "Second Golden Age." Anime auteurs such as the moody philosopher Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell), the self-reflexive genre modifier Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress) and the eccentric fantasist Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away) were, so critic Dave Kehr argued, the contemporary equivalent of Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa.
Oshii, Kon and Miyazaki have all released impressive new anime since then—Oshii's Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence and Kon's Tokyo Godfathers actually made a few 2004 10-best lists. Pixar may rule the Earth, but so far as audiences and even cinephiles are concerned, anime remains largely the province of its devoted hardcore fans. Few things would please me more than to predict video-game designer Shinji Aramaki's mondo elaborate Appleseed as the breakout breakthrough the mode deserves, but unless banality turns out to be the secret ingredient in the soufflé of its success, it's not going to happen.
Adapted from Masamune Shirow's best-selling mid-'80s manga, Appleseed opens in the standard-issue post-apocalyptic future with the big-eyed-blond action babe Deunan fighting a robot tank in the streets of some blasted metropolis. Before long, however, the winsome woman warrior is captured by a mysterious SWAT team and whisked off to the capital of the new world order—a high-tech, totally controlled "utopia" known as Olympus and administered by a cheerful council of lovably floating Yoda clones in consultation with the supercomputer code named Gaia. (Greek mythology provides a constant, if largely inconsequential, point of reference.)
Shirow is also responsible for the Ghost in the Shell manga, and Appleseed is populated by a similar mix of humans, genetically engineered "bioroids," and all manner of cyborgs—including Deunan's newly reconstituted and fearsomely metallic ex-boyfriend. (As usual, the humans are the most belligerent and least sympathetic life form.) But mainly, Appleseed is characterized by its female protagonists, whose physical attributes are not restricted to their Lara Croft buff bods but include great hair and indelible lip gloss. How is it that outsider artist Henry Darger's innocently kinky Vivian Girls have never been given the anime treatment? The transposition of that enigmatic mythology might yield a bizarro world or a nursery-school version of demonlover's anime porn.
Despite a mildly impenetrable plot and the confusion produced by the sudden materialization of Deunan's repressed cybermemories, Appleseed will seem less than novel to anyone even slightly acquainted with anime. Carefully rendered reflections and svelte machines clanking through the misty weather notwithstanding, there's not much craziness here. Much of the movie is dull, and as it has been dubbed into English, the blah-blah is impossible to ignore. It's not just that Appleseed is a remake—a mediocre version of Masamune's manga was released in the late '80s—the movie feels like a Canal Street copy of its own ancillary merchandise. The filmmakers might have been transported 15 minutes into the future to crib the rock-scored car chases and catapulting kick fights of the upcoming Appleseed video game. (On the other hand, the urban sniper scenes seem very nouveau Falluja.)
Appleseed's animation is some sort of technical advance. In a bit of retro jujitsu, three-dimensional computer-generated images are here reprogrammed to resemble old-fashioned cel animation. This "toon-shading" adds a sense of volume to the characters but no soul. For all the movie's impressive figure and facial modeling, as well as the superfluid humanoid motion, any depth is purely an illusion.