It is 2077. Ten years after Japan has withdrawn from a United Nations treaty restricting work in biotechnology and has cut herself off entirely from the rest of the world with a satellite-proof electromagnetic shield, US special forces agent Vexille and her crack unit infiltrate the mysterious country to investigate claims of a WMD programme. Ambushed and left for dead, Vexille (Meisa Kuroki) is rescued by local rebel Maria (Yatsuko Matsuyuki), and is shocked to learn that, for all the unimaginable technological advances of the nation’s leading DAIWA corporation, Japan has gone backwards rather than forwards and Vexille will have to work fast with Maria and a rag-tag team of insurgents to prevent the rest of the world meeting the same sinister fate.
Blame Akira. In 1988, Tatsuhiro Otomo’s feature-length dystopian anime set the world ablaze, introducing a whole generation of Western adolescent males to an amped-up mode of epically apocalyptic SF made possible by state-of-the-art advances in animation. Fantasies of empowerment, the merging of man and machine, themes of alienation, and lightning-fast chases in super-sleek environments yep, Akira seemed to offer exactly what every growing boy needs.
Then, inevitably, along came the clones. Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (1995) had enough ideas (either original, or at least borrowed from Blade Runner) to stand out (and inspire The Matrix), while Korea’s Sky Blue (2003) rather emphatically did not; Appleseed (2004) offset its one-dimensional characters with some impressively labyrinthine plotting and full-CG animation, while Oshii’s sequel Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004), the first and only anime ever to be selected for competition at Cannes, achieved such lofty heights with its stunning visuals and convoluted Cartesian musings that anything following in its wake also seemed doomed to be left in its shadow.
Which brings us neatly to Sori’s Vexille. Made by the same writing/producing team behind Appleseed, it pays due homage to Akira near its beginning with a high-velocity motorbike chase and while it never quite ascends to the frankly unmatchable level of GITS 2: Innocence, it nonetheless holds its own against its rivals with its more-than-half-decent script (in a sub-genre whose dialogue can often induce painful cringing) and with its impressively photorealistic CG backgrounds (something of a necessity in this sub-genre, but still so easy to get wrong).
What is more, even though Vexille is all too aware of its own unoriginality, it does its best to turn this belatedness into a virtue, by overtly referencing all manner of disparate influences. For, not unlike the beautifully realised creatures in it called ‘Jags’, formed from unstable masses of scrap metal, the plot here has been cobbled together out of cast-off elements from Metropolis, Star Wars, Dune, Escape from New York and The Road Warrior – and it ends up seeming (just a little) more than the sum of its parts. If the flatness of the characters irks, at least there are politics to be digested, in the form of a hard-hitting look at the dangers, past and future, of Japanese isolationism and megalomania. And only the most carping of critics would find fault with the film’s undeniable sense of spectacle, to be best appreciated on a very big screen even if, after a full-throttle build-up, the film’s final sequences seem oddly anticlimactic.