One of the most -- if not the most -- hotly anticipated anime titles of the year, Vexille is nothing short of a visual feast. The production team behind the hugely successful Appleseed film reunite here for a high concept, high action sci-fi thriller that asks difficult questions about the nature of humanity and is remarkably willing to criticize the current state of Japan, particularly for a big, mainstream Japanese blockbuster. Appleseed producer Sori make his return to the director's chair for the first time since the live action cult hit Ping Pong and, under his eye, the film makes two very significant improvements over its predecessor though there are also areas where Appleseed is clearly superior.
But enough generality. In the future the use of robotic technology to augment humanity becomes troubling to the global community. Worried that such technology may allow for the weaponization of the human body itself if not the subversion of the human spirit itself the UN passes a resolution declaring the use of android technology forbidden, a resolution signed in to international treaty law by all member states except one. With the urging of Daiwa Heavy Industries, the world's leading supplier of such robotic technology, Japan refuses to sign the treaty, opting instead to adopt a new policy of national seclusion. Japan withdraws from the UN, expels all foreigners from the country and installs an electronic shield that scrambles any sort of electronic or satellite surveillance. For all practical purposes, with the exception of the regular shipments of legal Daiwa robots that drive international industry, Japan simply falls off the map. No one comes in or out for ten years.
Enter Vexille, a young female operative of S.W.O.R.D., an LA based specialized military unit charged with policing the potential misuse of robotic technology in violation of the international treaty. When her unit receives a tip about an upcoming meeting on US soil involving an upper level Daiwa executive and several major international politicians the group moves in only to discover most of the politicians dead and that the Daiwa executive has become some sort of living machine, his human flesh being replaced by some sort of bio-metal. Realizing that something is happening in Japan that could pose a threat to the rest of the world the group plans a covert operation to infiltrate Japan, break through the country's electronic shield, and discover what ominous plans may be afoot in the Daiwa offices.
Yes, boys and girls, while many have written concerned articles about the apparent rise of Japanese nationalism in film like Yamato on the country's role in World War II, Vexille takes the exact opposite approach. This is a major Japanese blockbuster that clearly positions Japan as the international villain with America called on to come clean up the Japanese mess. And they mean it, this is not tongue in cheek. While the film is primarily a high powered action adventure once you scratch beneath the surface you find that Sori is himself greatly concerned -- if not repulsed -- by the nationalistic tendencies of his own country, portraying those who believe in the Japanese as a superior race as deluded, megalomaniacal, and dangerous. It is a film that asks some serious questions about human nature, about what makes us human on the most basic level and the ways in which we endanger our own humanity through our reckless greed.
But mostly, of course, Vexille is a film that blows stuff up in spectacular fashion and that's the level that most will judge it on. So, how does it look? The short answer: spectacular. The animation technique used in Appleseed has been pushed forward greatly here, the characters being made far more physically expressive with a vast improvement shown particularly in the facial expressions. Those who simply dislike the use of motion capture technology in animation will likely remain unconvinced but for those such as myself who appreciate the technology, this is a major step forward. While there is no one action sequence that betters those found in Appleseed there are several that are stunning in their own right, particular the closing chase sequence featuring a band of human rebels being pursued by Jags -- huge, spiral vortexes of voracious, partially sentient scrap metal made up of failed android experiments that resemble nothing so much as the sand worms in Frank Herbert's Dune series.
Technical end aside the film's major advance is also, ironically its greatest weakness. As he showed in Ping Pong, Sori is no slouch when it comes to writing characters and that skill is evident here. While Appleseed was often criticized for being a touch shallow there is some reasonable depth of plot, character and motivation here that makes it a far more satisfying film on that level. The flaw, however, is that in creating a large scope of fully realized characters it can be argued that Sori put the wrong one in the lead, Vexille herself being a much softer and less compelling character than the film's Japanese resistance leader Maria or the lead character of the previous Appleseed. It's not a fatal flaw by any means but with either a slight toughening up of Vexille or a shifting of focus to Maria the film could have been made considerably stronger.
In the final analysis Vexille is a film that does an awful lot of things very, very well. It is an action spectacle that is, indeed, spectacular; a film that underpins its entertainment with high minded concepts and serious concerns that will ensure it remains engaging and challenging for quite some time. Eye candy it may be but these are no empty calories.