IT CAME FROM HULU: Origin: Spirits of the Past

Sometimes, it's beneficial to look at failures of the past. Occasionally, a movie is misunderstood and it simply wasn't what the audience had in mind. Perhaps it had some splendid points that got overshadowed by flaws that were considered more serious. Maybe the audience simply wasn't ready for it. I assure you, NONE of these will be the case in this column's subject: Gonzo's woefully inadequate Miyazaki knockoff Origin: Spirits of the Past. Sometimes, as the movie suggests, it's probably best to leave the mistakes of the past buried.

When anime producer Gonzo was in its heyday of the early-mid 2000s, they were extremely busy bees. The studio got a lot of cred and cash from its anniversary project Last Exile, so they tried to maintain their status by releasing a large volume of high-profile series such as Trinity Blood, Samurai Seven, G.I. Joe Sigma Six, and Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo. With so much work to do, the engine started to overheat around 2006 with the graveyard of botched ideas Glass Fleet and Origin. That its adaptation of Welcome to the NHK came out in the same year is a minor miracle.

From everything I've heard about Gonzo before it severely cut its output, the success of a series from the company usually revolved around being lucky enough to pin down the talented staff members before they were sent off to another project. Judging by Origin: Spirits of the Past's talent pool, its fortune was equal to a Powerball ticket with one correct number worth absolutely nothing. Strange, considering this was supposed to be their big blastoff into the world of cinema. It was screened at film festivals and everything. While director Keiichi Sugiyama has done some credible work on Neon Genesis Evangelion and The Twelve Kingdoms, he wasn't exactly a big up-and-comer waiting in the wings. Character designer Kouji Odada worked with the underrated Boogiepop franchise and little else. That the duo of screenwriters have this listed as their only credit on the Anime News Network database is fairly telling. 

Perhaps it wouldn't have been so notable a misfire if its ambitions weren't so high. As I've said, Origin is at its heart an environmental epic trying as hard as it can to be a Hayao Miyazaki movie. The story starts in the future when green dragons made of genetically-altered vines shatter the Moon while escaping a bio lab and completely ravage the Earth, taking over all plant life and eradicating most of the human population. If it sounds silly, believe it or not, the first five minutes of the film are easily the best. The opening song sets an eerie tone and even if there were about a dozen problems with sentient plant life migrating through space, it's honestly something I've never seen before and a legitimately intriguing curtain-raiser.

There are small pieces of what's wrong with the movie scattered throughout the early portions, but it takes awhile for it all the set in. The first few glimpses into a post-apocalyptic society are always fun for me, seeing how they molded a ruined world to survive, what society is like, and so on. In this world, there is Neutral City, a hovel of collapsed buildings and wind turbines at the edge of the sentient forest. Its dwellers keep the peace with the forest and the forest grants them water in exchange. If the members violate the agreement, the Zruids of the forest take away their water (And because it's the future, they can't just call them druids). We never get clarification of what exactly the Zruids are. Sentient plants molded to look like people?  People who allowed themselves to be altered by the forest? More on human/plant hybrids later.

Neutral City wouldn't be very neutral if there wasn't a force that was less so. The village keeps the forest divided from the industrial state of Ragna, which is an orgy of everything hated in these environmental message movies. Billowing towers of coal smoke, an aesthetic design of pipe mazes and steel, and a militaristic society bent on taking back control of the world by force. A curious detail is every scene that takes place in Ragna's giant halls features hundreds of troops on standby and until very late in the movie, they never do anything. Is it literally their job to clock in and stand in the middle of the room for eight hours in case they're needed for something?

Anyhoo, the main story starts with Agito of Neutral City being the average rapscallion of most anime adventures as he and his best friend Cain race to sneak water from the well without anyone noticing set to a jaunty orchestral score. The effort fails as they're noticed by the Zruids, but during his effort to escape, Agito stumbles into a cryogenic sleeping chamber where he awakens Toola, a girl who lived well before the disaster. The forest believes her revival will mean for disaster for the world, but Ragna-and especially their leader Shunack-believe she is the key to getting back the lost world of the past. Agito only wishes to do whatever he can to protect Toola. As for what Toola wants? She wants whatever the plots decides she wants. This sets in motion the usual action and adventure in which the fate of the world is in jeopardy. To approximate what they're going for here, imagine if you smooshed Laputa: Castle in the Sky and Princess Mononoke together, and then took out all the character and had some of the color leak out.

I've heard whispers about how infamously bad this movie was, but the sad thing is its biggest fault is the most common of all bad things: It's crushingly derivative. Aside from Gonzo's usual problem of its 3D CGI sticking out horribly against its 2D surroundings, there's nothing technically wrong with the animation, but there's absolutely no artistry to it. The only original dressing this movie has to add to a post-apocalyptic landscape is red vines that exist under the forest that resembles brain matter. A nice touch, but it hardly makes it up for the rest of the plainness. The character designs utilize the bright, solid colors of studio Ghibli, but are otherwise unmemorable. When a movie has a skyline of a shattered moon as well as eventually features a floating volcano fortress armed to the teeth, and it's still the definition of bland, not enough effort was made.

The characters also have a severe lack of any texture that defines them as people. While the plot doesn't specifically need to rip off the usual headstrong female protagonist of a Miyazaki movie to work, Toola has almost no defining characteristics as a human being. She bends to whatever
the character she's listening to is arguing for, and she wants to hold onto the past world even though she never really has any thoughts of what her world was like before her cryogenic sleep aside from a brief and banal flashback to the day of the disaster. If she was in New York City on 9/11, the beginning and end of the story would be, "I was shopping." Remember in Spirited Away when Sen sits down and has a rice ball, and because it's first quiet moment she's had since she got transported to the spirit world, the emotional realization of everything that's happened hits her like a ton of bricks and she bawls her eyes out. Do not expect such thoughtful character details from this. Toola just has a device called a Raban around her neck as a symbol of her past. No points for guessing what eventually happens to it.

At least the music's good. Remember when I said this movie was a lottery ticket with one number correct? That number would be composer Taku Iwasaki. It's not one of his greatest scores, but it is the only thing in this movie striking an emotional chord. The main difference between this and his pieces for Now and Then, Here and There and Read or Die is in this case, he's doing most of the heavy lifting for the characters, the visuals, and the action.

Getting to the most criticized aspect of this movie: How laughably stupid the concept of plant hybrid "tree people" are. If The Happening had come out at around the same time, it would've been considered the anime iteration. However, I would've been more than happy if it had taken ideas of a sentient plant-centered society and ran with it. The idea of what a plant would think and feel if it were sentient is fascinating and to its end, Origin does feature eccentric twins who are anthropomorphic representations of the forest. However, where it really messes up is the humans who are given the power of the forest and somehow become unstoppable juggernauts.

To explain, in order to develop the city without machinery, members of Neutral City can strike an agreement with the forest and become "enhanced humans." Their hair turns silver and they receive superhuman strength and speed, but in exchange, become part plant and if their powers get out of their control, they turn into trees. It would've been an insane masterstroke to have plant-related superpowers and actually pulling it off. To refer back to Read or Die, telekinetically controlling the form and attributes of paper sounds laughable ON paper, but the anime makes the idea sing like Jennifer Hudson. Alas, the powers here are restricted to generic superhero abilities. Even still, it does open up the idea of an entertaining climax as Agito becomes an enhanced human to help Toola. He karate chops a Ragna tank in half almost like a knife through butter as a demonstration of his new abilities. At least for a few seconds, it feels like this film is going somewhere exciting. Sadly, Agito gets caught ridiculously quickly after getting his abilities and his dialogue for the rest of the movie is reduced to mostly chanting "Toola..." over and over. Even when he gets a showdown with Shunack, an enhanced human who turned his back on nature, the climax lacks any sort of grace, spectacle, wonder, or excitement. Not helping either is Agito's "hero" outfit featuring a cutoff tank top with a leather choker. When I think superhero garb, I don't really think a rejected costume from Hackers.

What really stinks about the waste of the enhanced human subplot is its existence practically undermines the message of the whole thing. It's the usual spiel about man being in tune with nature, but in this case, the meaning is LITERAL as the solution to many of the movie's problems is people joining the collective consciousness of the sentient woods. That is pretty much an impossible goal for mankind to strive for unless you want to start making intelligent plant strains on the Moon. The environmental anime Arjuna uses harmfully inaccurate information to get its point across, and many of its pro-environment characters nastily talk down to the main character and snootily refuse to teach her anything about her abilities even though she's the key to saving the world. Yet Arjuna is still more effective about getting its pro-environment message across than Origin.

I shouldn't be disappointed in this movie as I already expected the worst given its reputation, but I still feel let down that it settled for simply being mediocre. Origin: Spirits of the Past can be accurately described as a product, a wannabe Ghibli with no soul and little artistic flare. I may not have been the biggest fan of Makoto Shinkai's Children Who Chase Lost Voices, but at least I can see his own artistic vision while he's attempting an earnest tribute to Miyazaki. Shinkai simply has much more loving interest in all the nooks and crannies of the hillside town at the beginning of the movie than he has of all the adventure in the underworld that follows.  Origin feels like something that has none of the passion of the great Ghibli movies, but wants all of the success. It doesn't work that way. Well, unless you're Tales from Earthsea....


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