Manga artist Masamune Shirow is one of the most imaginative and thoughtful writer/artists working in the world of modern Japanese comic books and his work has gained a cult following around the globe thanks to the anime versions of such groundbreaking works as the original "Ghost in the Shell" and "Black Magic". In fact, this reclusive genius has had little to do with the anime adaptations of his ideas since a bad experience working on his first attempted anime crossover ("Black Magic"), but his work's heady mix of philosophy, futurology and full-on action adventure -- all wrapped in a strangely ambivalent vision of a heavily militarised, cybernetically-enhanced dystopian future blighted by terrorism -- has always made his input easily distinguishable amid whatever influences and changes have been brought to bear by the anime studios. "Appleseed" is the original movie adaptation of Shirow's manga of the same name; the title has recently been resurrected in a brand-new, computer animated version but Manga Entertainment UK give fans a chance to catch-up with the original while re-entering the world of Eighties anime thanks to the release of this DVD of that first movie adaptation.
The world of "Appleseed" forms an obvious precursor to that of "Ghost in the Shell": a nuclear war has wrought devastation across the globe and, in the aftermath, a small group of scientist Technocrats have, with the aid of a combination of cybernetics and genetic engineering, produced a modern "utopia" in the form of the sanitised, sealed-off city of Olympus: a huge megalopolis which is overseen and controlled with great efficiency by the central computer known as Gaia. The human survivors from the devastated wastelands are eager to be relocated to these more agreeable surroundings where they are "re-educated" by the general Management Control Office, overseen by feisty Administrative Director, Athena Alleus.
All is not well within this gilded cage of a city though: a rash of suicides are taking place among humans who just cannot cope with the rigorously controlled environment that has been created for them by the State. The authorities are busy engineering "Biodroids" -- genetically engineered, cybernetically-enhanced "people" created with a specific social function and "agreeable" model personalities in mind. Terrorist groups are springing up in rebellion against this heavily controlled world. As a new robot police force, automatically controlled by Gaia, is readied to be brought online, a particularly determined terrorist called AJ Sebastian is on the loose in the city; he's out to destroy the central computer and release humanity from its utopian shackles! It's up to the beautiful but hard-as-nails SWAT team leader Deunan Knute and her sidekick, the half-man, half-cyborg war veteran, Bullaros Hecatombcales, to bring this ruthless fanatic to justice before he can complete his plan and bring death and destruction to the clean and controlled world of Olympus!
Shirow is certainly a fan of attractive female protagonists who also pack a mean punch; his most famous creation in that vein being Major Kusanagi from "Ghost in the Shell". "Appleseed's" Deunan Knute is very similar, although, unlike the Major, she is all human. Like her Batou-esque friend and colleague Bullaros, she has been relocated from the desert wastelands by Olympus Legislative Officer, Hitomi: a cute, large-eyed girl whose job involves rescuing humans from the lawless wilderness outside the City and overseeing their integration into their new, biodroid-friendly world. Deunan is a committed SWAT officer, as we see in her ruthless handling of a terrorist siege at a preteen's school near the start of the film. She and her colleagues have no qualms about pumping the terrorists full of lead in front of their bawling kiddie captives! Bullaros, meanwhile is Deunan's ever-faithful sidekick. War has destroyed his face, leaving him with an expressionless, insect-like cyborg visage; but behind his tough guy persona there lies an obvious devotion to his dedicated female colleague.
"Appleseed" very much conforms to the conventions of Eighties anime -- something which dates it in relation to its ultra-slick modern cyberpunk counterparts like the dense "Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex" television series. The animation style is bold and simple while Shirow's familiar themes are couched in brash, action-orientated visuals accompanied by camp, synth-rock theatrics that are all too clearly influenced by Hollywood science fiction like "The Terminator" and "Robocop". The ambivalent attitude to technology, the emphasis on ruthless police/Governmental control and an obsession with insectoid robots and vehicles is as evident here as it would be in Shirow's later work though. There is also a very ambivalent attitude to the nominal heroes and the way of life they are seeking to protect; although the terrorist plotter, Sebastian, is clearly a broad villain with few redeeming qualities, he is aided and abetted (unknown to the fiercely loyal Duenan) by a bent cop called Karen Mausolos whose motives are very understandable since his wife was one of the humans who committed suicide in despair at the sanitised, unadventurous life created for her by Gaia. Karen's distaste for the biodroid engineering of human foetuses that occurs in the City's TARTAUS block to make them "good citizens", will probably be shared by most viewers (particularly in the West) and the attitude of Deunan's superior, Athena (who dismisses one of the lead biodroid characters thus: "she's a factory-made synthetic product; built to fulfil specific, automated needs. So don't give me any shit about the sanctity of life!") will also jar with them, yet this is the world-view and the way of life the endearing and undoubtedly heroic characters of Duenan and Bullaras are sworn to uphold!
Much of the complex back-story to the founding of Olympus and the origin of the terrorist groups' attitudes is ignored in this rather brash anime adaptation, yet Shirow's fundamental ambivalence remains at the centre of the material, just as it would in "Ghost in the Shell" where political ideals and ever-advancing technology continue to throw up strange new modes of humanity. The story seems to get a little confused and illogical towards the end when the need for action eclipses all else and the film becomes a rather standard giant robot battle flick, but this is undoubtedly an interesting prototype for Shirow's later masterpiece.
"Appleseed" comes to DVD with both English 5.1 and 2.0 Stereo options as well as the original Japanese 2.0 track with optional English subtitles. Extras consist of a superfluous photo gallery, character biographies and a trailer reel for other Manga Entertainment titles; but the most worthwhile extra is the audio commentary by the English language dub voice of Deunan, Larissa Murray, and Jonathan Clements, the co-author of The Anime Encyclopaedia. Murray gives us a few anecdotes about the life of an anime dub artist but it is mostly Clements who fills the track with a relentless list of facts and information. He tends to relegate Murray to the sidelines slightly, leaving her unable to get a word in edgeways, but he undoubtedly has a lot of interesting opinions and information to impart and ensures that there are few quiet moments on the track.
A fairly good presentation of an early anime classic from Manga Entertainment UK, then; well worth catching up with.