Otaku USA Magazine
Isolation Nation

I’m gonna cut right to the chase. Did you enjoy the 2004 Appleseed EX movie? Guess what: you’re going to enjoy Vexille, end of discussion. Why are you even thinking about this? You could be watching Vexille right now. There is no need for you to read beyond this point, because what you should be doing is taking steps to purchase the FUNimation DVD release of Vexille •. unless of course it’s coming out on Blu-Ray. Is it coming out on Blu-Ray? It better be.

The opening narration sets the scene: in the future, Japan is KING SH*T OF THE WORLD, just like it was in the 1980s! No, this is not the sequel to Angel Cop, unfortunate as that may be. Thanks to mega-corporation Daiwa Robotics, Japan is the undisputed world leader when it comes to high technology, which for most sci-fi action pieces set in the future translates to “robots that will murder you.” This is no exception, and so for the sake of ensuring the Will Smith version of I, Robot doesn’t come to pass (AW HELL NAW), the remaining countries of the world forbid the creation of androids that resemble human beings. The Japanese do exactly what you’d expect them to do in the event some foreign power tried to deprive them of the potential to create advanced biotech robot girlfriends: they withdraw from the UN, seal off their borders, and completely isolate themselves from the rest of the world. They even put up an optical cloaking device so nobody can even see the country.

This is the world of Vexille, a 3-D CGI anime released in Japan during 2007. Our titular heroine Deunan Knute Vexille Serra is part of an elite US Navy Special Forces unit known as ESWAT SWORD. As members of SWORD, Vexille and her partner and lover Briareos Leon Fayden wear powered armor suits and shoot the ever-loving crap out of robots using missiles and machine guns. A life consisting of paradropping through windows, blasting away robots, shacking up with someone (who ALSO destroys robots), then wrecking MORE robots? No wonder this movie takes place around Christmas time, because those are the presents I always ask for every year.

After storming what I can only assume is Dracula’s mansion since it explodes immediately after the big boss is routed, Vexille and Leon must do what nobody has been able to do for the past decade: infiltrate Japan, find out just exactly what the heck is going on over there, and put a stop to Daiwa and their freaking robots in a world devoid of Old Glory Insurance. If androids, dune buggies equipped with harpoons, massive enemy strongholds, and especially Chopper Daves (HOOOOOOOO!) end up freaking exploding in glorious detail along the way—and they most certainly do—so be it. It’s so hard in this world of the future, what with all the gangs and rap music, but what about the robots? Oh, in the world of Vexille, robots are everywhere! I don’t even know why the scientists make them. I can only assume that they eat old people’s medicine for fuel, and the SWORD organization exists because people need to feel safe from the threat of robot attack. That’s harder and harder to do in the world of Vexille, because robots may strike at any time. And when they grab you with their metal claws, you can’t break free.

Because they’re made of metal. And robots are strong.

Vexille looks, sounds, and feels an awful lot like the 2004 CGI anime feature film adaptation of Appleseed. That’s no coincidence: aside from Shinji Aramaki who opted instead to direct Appleseed: EX MACHINA, many of the creative talents behind Appleseed worked on Vexille afterward. Haruka Handa co-wrote both screenplays, and noted techno/electronic/string-together-some-words-and-call-it-a-unique-music-genre-you-pretentious-music-snob artist Paul Oakenfold, who did the music for Appleseed, lent his talents here as well. Appleseed producer Fumihiko Sori also co-wrote, produced, and directed Vexille, so even though it’s not based on a Masamune Shirow work, that “FROM THE CREATORS OF APPLESEED” banner that’s plastered all over Vexille‘s advertising is not just some tenuous connection.

That Vexille and Appleseed are so similar implies that they both suffer from many of the same flaws: cardboard cutout-like characters, a generic sci-fi setting, angst-ridden ruminations on what it is to be truly human, and the fact that even though CGI technology continues to advance by leaps and bounds—the visuals here are a decent upgrade over the original Appleseed‘s—there are still times when the character movements, facial expressions, clothing behavior, or shadows are ever-so-slightly odd enough to take you out of the movie-viewing experience.

But who watches action movies for the plot and characters, anyway? The IMPORTANT thing is how good things look when stuff blows up, and Vexille delivers in this regard. Action scenes are peppered with lots of debris, smoke, shattered glass, and sparks as machines are blasted to bits. That alone sells me on the continued viability of making theatrical anime films instead of 13-episode TV series. You just don’t see that sort of attention to detail as often as you used to. Extra violence is always welcome, but Vexille is not terribly graphic so any remaining hopes of Angel Cop-osity left over from the opening narration should therefore be abandoned like nuclear waste in Hokkaido. I blame the PG-13 rating for action movies losing their edge. One of the characters in Vexille is such a hardass, he freaking cuts off his own leg to elude capture. Yet the amount of life sustenance that gushes forth from the wound is but a few small drops. What’s up with that? Give me the 2008 anime movie equivalent of the 2008 Rambo movie, damn it!

Vexille looks quite impressive (most of the time), but I’m still not fully sold on the whole 3-D CG thing. Even though we’re starting to see more and more fully 3-D animated works from Japan, much of the 2-D conventions still carry over. While I generally approve of this approach, some effects that work two-dimensionally can look somewhat odd in 3-D. Vexille attempts to blend the realistic-looking backgrounds with the shadowing techniques and faces commonly seen in 2-D anime, and the end result is not that the latter elements look “stylized” in contrast to the realistic look of everything else, it’s that they look “fake” by comparison. In regular anime you don’t bat an eye at the fact that character faces remain largely frozen in place for long stretches of time, but once you see it in 3-D the effect is downright bizarre. But again, the only reason it stands out so much is that everything else looks so good by comparison. Thankfully, Vexille doesn’t opt for a cel-shaded approach; sorry to those who are fans of Freedom Project, but whenever I see cel-shaded CG anime I think, “Boy, they sure spent a whole lot of money to make something that looks like Naruto for the Gamecube.”

Vexille came out in Japanese movie theaters a mere two months before Appleseed: EX MACHINA did. I liken this turn of events to 10 years ago in 1998, when Deep Impact came out in US theaters and Armageddon came out two months afterward, but I’m not quite sure whether Vexille is the Deep Impact of the two because it came out first.

Perhaps Vexille and Appleseed EX MACHINA are both Armageddons in their own right, for better or for worse. It’s generally accepted that most movies made by a particular country are going to paint said country and its denizens as the heroes. In Hollywood movies, it’s only natural that Americans save the world from things like asteroids the size of Texas or attacks from Zilla (God was completely absent from that Roland Emmerich movie, make no mistake). Likewise, in Japanese animation, the fact that it’s Getter Robo stopping the Dinosaur Empire instead of Texas Mack is par for the course. So it’s a bit of a curve ball to see a Japanese movie where Americans are the heroes. SWORD and its allies invade Japan to open up its borders and sabotage its global economic dominance, and this is a GOOD thing! Moreover, the villains are the largely unseen ones who presumably exhibited the sort of jingoism one would typically attribute to the sort of people who drive around Japan blaring the theme song to Space Battleship Yamato from the speakers of a van [ultra-conservatives]. The right-wing policy of “expel all the foreigners, fence off the borders, and keep Japan for the Japanese” is a recipe for extinction in this movie, so if you insist on looking for social commentary in your action movies, then you might not want to watch Vexille if you’d like to see similar policies enacted in the US.

I wonder whether Vexille was made to appeal more to foreign audiences than to the Japanese themselves? Sci-fi action anime like Ghost in the Shell, Appleseed, and Cowboy Bebop don’t exactly have a giant following in Japan, where the otaku would much rather violate their life-sized Tiny Snow Fairy Sugar pillows than watch post-pubescent women commandeer heavy weapons from robots for the purpose of destroying expensive military hardware. Perhaps that’s why Fumihiko Sori’s harsh vision of Japan after several years of isolationism and android development is so drastically different from the utopian vision of Masamune Shirow’s Olympus. There’s something to be said about the fact that it’s Los Angeles, not Tokyo, sporting the look of the “metropolis of the future.”

It seems that we haven’t been getting a whole lot of theatrical anime released in the US lately outside of the ones that are movie versions of established properties such as Pokemon or Naruto. Where is my US release of Mind Game, or the three new Fist of the North Star films, anyway? Part of it is might be that the Japanese haven’t really been making quite as many animated films as they used to, but Vexille shows we shouldn’t count them out just yet. Still, if anime’s going to continue down the CGI route, creators should accept that videogames are far, FAR more advanced than they are when it comes to rendering polygonal boobies. Vexille won’t win any awards for originality, but sometimes you just want to watch robots explode. Note: for me, “sometimes” is “always.”

[Excerpted from the June 2008 issue of Otaku USA magazine]