The first feature-length effort from Gonzo was always going to be, in my mind at least, a big event. The premise of a post-apocalyptic future world, a struggle against nature and everything wrapped up in super-shiny Digimation certainly sounds appealing and since one of my main criticisms of the studio is that of corner-cutting in its animation, I was hoping that a movie budget would set this right. As it turns out, Origin: Spirits of the Past is a visually spectacular and ambitious production; as a whole though, how does it measure up?
I’m a big fan of the futuristic dystopian type of movie, especially when environmentalist themes throw in the old humanity/nature conflict. In the case of Origin, its worldview is fantastic: lush vegetation spills over onto a long-since ruined civilisation with tree roots and moss covering the crumbling buildings and roads; recognisable details such as the outlines of skyscrapers and the corridors and staircases within remind us that this is our world, but not as we know it now. The settlement of Neutral City that our hero Agito and his fellow humans inhabit is a simple, subsistence-level society, not without its hardships but arguably simpler and more idyllic than the rat-race of today – a difference highlighted when Agito meets Toola, a girl from the old world awaked from a centuries-long sleep. The world is already in turmoil with the likes of Neutral City being one of the few who seek harmony and understanding with the surrounding forest; the hostility of nature in the world of Origin is borne from the fact that it came from a scientific experiment gone wrong and that Toola’s knowledge could restore things to how they were.
The artwork and animation of Origin is, as is apparent from my glowing appraisal of Gonzo’s art department above, the best blend of cel and CG I’ve seen this side of Otomo’s Steamboy. They’ve really done themselves proud in terms of portraying Agito’s world, surpassing even Last Exile in all-out prettyness in both the natural and mechanical aspects. This is backed up by a suitably grandiose soundtrack courtesy of Taku Iwasaki; I loved his contributions to the likes of Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and the R.O.D. OAV and TV series, so I was pleased at the way in which the bold orchestral score fitted so perfectly. At ninety minutes in length the movie can’t be accused of being overlong or drawn-out either, although there are a few supporting characters and minor details that I would have liked to have seen explored a bit further (a problem that comes with all stand-alone features really).
An unnecessary plot point involving Agito acquiring some sort of tree-bestowed ‘super powers’ smacked a bit of Akira to me, although it does actually serve a purpose for the story; nevertheless I would have found the movie at least as enjoyable without it and the improbable physics behind the finale are little hard to accept. The most serious mistake that the writers of Origin made though was to make the storyline so derivative and reluctant to stray from the tried and tested eco-fable premise. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen so many films that cover similar subject matter already, but a large number of aspects gave me that see-it-before feeling which is always unwelcome in a new feature such as this. One particular victim of this was my old fave the Nausicaä movie: I won’t bore you with an exhaustive list but suffice to say it becomes an exercise in Spot the Reference at times. To paint such an epic worldview and animate it so beautifully, Origin’s creators have done themselves a bit of a disservice in making the storyline so lacking in original themes and ideas – mainstream film buffs won’t mind perhaps but it’s a sticking point for more hardcore anime nuts such as myself.
With this in mind it’s less of a surprise when the cast of characters appear like they’re taken from the metaphorical Anime Movie Character stockroom. Don’t get me wrong, they’re engaging and likable enough but, like the events that unfold around them, they are predictable and come across as eerily familiar. Toola, who could be the most interesting of the lot owing to her unexpected awakening and the inner conflict regarding the old and new worlds that results, feels somewhat under-used despite her having a pivotal role to play. Like the movie as a whole, Toola is undeniably pretty, somewhat mysterious but nothing we as anime viewers haven’t met before.
The fundamental questions they (and the viewer) have to answer are these: how does the world of Origin compare with today? Should it be, as Shanak and the people of Ragna, Neutral City’s more belligerent and industrious neighbours, wiped out in favour of restoring the world prior to the great calamity or left behind to embrace the new? Who really are the good guys and the bad ones? Interesting questions perhaps but unless you’ve never seen the more significant of Hayao Miyazaki’s movies (which is a relative minority, at least in anime fandom), you can probably guess the answers for yourself. Alternatively, you could just sit back and gasp in amazement at the pretty pictures.
Origin: Spirits of the Past is a visually and musically breathtaking feature which makes it impressive and thoroughly enjoyable viewing, while it lasts at least. Its epic scale and gorgeous presentation cannot be faulted but its impact is hampered by a predictable storyline – it’s a movie well worth watching for the cinematic experience but it fails to cover any new ground. Gonzo have proved that they can make a feature-length artistic marvel, but they have yet to make a truly memorable one.