Original release: January 7th, 2006
Running time: 94 minutes
Country of origin: Japan
Original language: Japanese
Director: Keiichi Sugiyama
Writers: Nana Shiina, Naoko Kakimoto
English voice dub: Chris Patton, Carrie Savage, Robert McCollum, John Burgmeier
While in real life I have objections to some aspects of the modern environmental movement and the ways it tries to affect policy based on impossibly specific predictions on the future of the climate, the phenomenon has undoubtedly left a mark on the world of film and animation – James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) being the most recent mainstream example. I really enjoy the films of Hayao Miyazaki, his fantastical stories don’t patronise the audience; but other times I wince at the sanctimonious lecture a film might carry. So when I stumbled upon Keiichi Sugiyama’s anime Origin: Spirits Of The Past, I braced myself for another trip to Al Gore-land based on a few taglines from mainstream reviews, but I was still determined to see it because of the breath-taking accompanying artwork.
It takes no time to see that Origin wants to say something about the environment. In a wonderfully awe-inspiring opening montage we see what happened before moving 300 years into the future to meet the protagonist Agito (Chris Patton). Before he was born, humanity conducted an experiment on the Moon with genetic engineering on trees in order to develop terraforming technology. The experiment turned out to be too successful with the trees gaining consciousness and the ability to grow rapidly. At the end of the opening, the Moon is cracked in half from the growth deep beneath its surface and the snake/dragon like trees head straight for Earth.
Young Agito lives in this strangely beautiful post-apocalyptic world where there’s nothing but forest, most of humanity has been wiped out and the Moon now orbits the Earth in two separate halves as a reminder of the beginning of the end. Some of the survivors live in a place made habitable in and around the ruins of old skyscrapers called Neutral City. The trouble begins when Agito and his friend Cain (John Burgmeier) sneak down to the water hole beneath the forest angering the strange humanoid tree-like creatures called the Druids who protect the water provided by the forest. While Cain is captured and taken back to the city, Agito gets separated only to find a massive cryogenic pod, from which he accidentally revives a young girl Toola (Carrie Savage) who had been asleep for 300 years.
It turns out that Toola is not the only one who had been awakened from a long sleep; Shunack (Robert McCollum), the leader of the nearby militaristic settlement Ragna is also a person from the distant past. While the people of Neutral City try to co-exist with the forest peacefully, Shunack seeks to locate a weapon called “Environmental Defragmentation System” in order to use it to push back against the hostile forest. He and his army soon pay a visit to Neutral City to take a closer look at Toola – and an electronic device she wears as a necklace.
What kept me puzzled throughout the film was the Druids; their origin is never explained and we don’t know why they do what they do. I think they’re best described as an army of sorts at the disposal of the consciousness that is The Forest. It started to feel that the Druids were deliberately underdeveloped in Origin, because the more I knew about them, the less I liked them.
While the people of Neutral City suffer from water shortage, it’s clear that The Forest possesses plenty of water – which is evident when Agito and Cain sneak down to the water hole – and yet the Druids stand firmly in the way, no matter how thirsty people get. There’s no reason given for this, which made me conclude that the Druids are not to be trusted or liked – which in turn made me sympathise with the antagonist Shunack and his army seeking more aggressive ways to fight The Forest. But it’s quite clear that the filmmakers were not looking for this kind of response, therefore attention is drawn away from the somewhat ill-conceived Druids as the film attempts to avoid falling into a trap of its own narrative logic.
The other thing that I found really strange was the “enhancement”, which is when people go through a kind of genetic fusion with The Forest in order to gain superior abilities, but they will subsequently turn into trees in what can only be described as a slow and painful death. Agito’s transformation in the film is visually reminiscent of the process of Tetsuo gradually losing control of his own dangerous powers in Katsuhiro Otomo’s anime classic Akira (1988). To portray genetic fusion with The Forest in this way drifted me even further from the film’s intended message.
As well as the strong parallel between Akira and Origin in Agito’s journey towards becoming a tree, the film also takes from Miyazaki’s Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind (1984), which begins to blur the line between homage and close imitation. A peaceful approach to nature is contrasted with militarism in a post-apocalyptic setting in both films, and the military uniforms in Origin look just like those of Nausicaä with those metallic collars and face covers hinting a status of nobility.
I dished out a lot of criticism, so you may find it surprising that I did kind of enjoy Origin. It’s not very original and some aspects of the narrative are no less than clumsy; it clearly tries to be more than it is but once I accepted that it isn’t, the film was fun to watch. If they worked a little harder on the script, making the film’s message more subtle, tying up loose ends, sorting out the Druids, Origin still wouldn’t be a classic – but it would be a solid feature that can stand amongst other memorable animated films on the shelf with pride. But it feels like this was rushed into production with some weird ideas like the “enhancement” and blatant clichés like the scene at the end of Agito’s transformation where Toola is literally hugging a tree.
Nevertheless, Origin is perfectly capable of delivering a fun anime-evening with its beautiful artwork, unforgettably dreamy soundtrack and a story that predictably but satisfyingly progresses towards its climax.
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.