Anime and Manga — Reviews and Previews
The only thing I knew about Origin: Spirits of the Past before watching it through Netflix was that it was an animated movie, and that it had a haunting opening theme song that people seemed to gush over. Figuring I had watched other shows for far less than that, I gave the movie a shot after a long day of work, hoping for something entertaining to help me wind down enough to get to sleep. What I got was a visually beautiful but cerebrally dull hour of disconnected fight scenes.
The story is an environmentalist’s wet dream: some sort of plant-based experiment on the moon goes haywire, shattering it into a million pieces and raining mutated plant-life down on the Earth. This plant-life develops into a sentient and angry forest that begins to exert its dominance over the few remaining humans by withholding water from them. In response, the humans break into two factions: the people of Neutral City, who decide to live in harmony with the forest, and the militaristic faction of Ragna, who want to retake the world by force.
Three-hundred years later, matters are complicated by the reawakening of a couple people who survived the original catastrophe by being placed in cryogenic storage. The man who awoke first and main antagonist, Shunack, eventually sides with Ragna; the second survivor, a girl named Toola, is torn between her friendship with Neutral City boy (and movie protagonist) Agito and her desire to get revenge on the plants. The futuristic device Toola holds is the key to determining the fate of the world, and so both factions fight to either control her or allow her freedom of choice.
It’s a weird premise that requires a lot of suspension of disbelief (sentient plants, after all), but it’s easy enough to get lost in the world thanks to lush animation, gorgeous backgrounds, and liberal application of CG wizardry. The characters are a little boring in the design department, but they’re always drawn on-model and are distinct from one another.
What isn’t easy to get lost in, however, is the nonsensical story. There are too many minor characters, most of whom could be axed from the film entirely without consequence. To compound matters, the characters who are important get nowhere near enough screen time to establish their motives or personalities. There’s one instance in which Shunack betrays a compatriot – one who followed him throughout the movie and had multiple spoken lines, but who was never given a name and was given only the flimsiest of histories. This woman was literally the second most important antagonist of the film, and I have no idea why she was there, where she came from, or what she was trying to accomplish.
There are forest spirits and plant-people that seem to be the original antagonists of the film – except they never do anything other than whisper about danger and destruction. There are Neutral City village elders (people enhanced by the forest with super strength) who do nothing but posture and worry about Agito. Agito has childhood friends who fill in the necessary rival and love-interest roles, but never expand beyond that. It’s all very incredibly shallow and frustrating.
There’s always a risk when you pop in an anime movie that you might be getting something based off an obscure manga, visual novel, or short story – something with an established fan base that knows the characters and mythology of the world into which you’re just beginning to explore. These movies tend to jump right into the meat of the action without anything like “exposition” or “backstory,” leaving new-comers to wonder just what the hell is going on while they try frantically to stitch together some sense out of what they’re presented.
Half-way through Origin: Spirits of the Past, I started to wonder if this wasn’t the case here as well. It would explain so many of the flaws I found in the film: the slap-dash story, the clearly fleshed-out but relatively unexplored world, the important characters who are never formally introduced or even given names. If this movie were based on something else, wouldn’t the director and producers have expected people to come in knowing these (not-so-small) details?
Unfortunately, after a little research (read: Wikipedia), I discovered that Origin is based on nothing at all, which means the flaws are just that: flaws that could have been avoided by paying attention to storytelling basics. I suspect this is a matter of too many ideas being crammed into too short a timeframe – if given a full season of screen time, I imagine the story would have had a cohesiveness that it is otherwise lacking.
Regardless, the rumors I’d heard about the opening song are completely true. It’s haunting and evocative in a way all anime openings should emulate. It knows it’s subject matter and hits all the right notes to expand upon, rather that distract from, those themes that the movie explores. Watch the opening [here] to see what I mean, and stick around at least until the halfway point before you pass judgment. The song begins slowly but picks up, and the animation matches this progression.
Ultimately, my recommendation is this: watch the movie if you want to see some great artwork, but don’t expect an earth-shattering story. It’s a good distraction to wind you down from work or while away an hour, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone looking to see anime at its absolute finest. If you’re looking for something to share with anime beginners, skip this and grab a Miyazaki film instead.