Masamune Shirow (pen name for revolutionary cyperpunk visionary/artist Ota Masanori) has wowed audiences around the world with his ultra-detailed, future design works and realistic military-inspired mecha in manga works like Black Magic M-66, Dominion, Appleseed and most notably Ghost In The Shell. Many of Shirow's influential works have been adapted to both film and TV. If Vexille bears more than a passing resemblance to Shirow's cyperpunk world, then that is quite possibly intentional as both writer/director Sori Fumihiko and co-writer Handa Haruka worked on the film adaptation of Shirow's long running and much heralded manga Appleseed in 2004.
At first glance Vexille, an animated feature incorporating both traditional 2-D as well as cutting-edge 3-D animation, seems like an adaptation of one of Shirow's stories. However, it is in fact an original work by Sori and Handa that seems like a homage to Shirow's world as it has many of his trademark themes - the strong gutsy heroine, the omnipresent corporate entity/zaibatsu, the fascination with futuristic military hardware and robotics, the clash between the human and machine cultures.
Originally released in Japan during late summer 2007, it was surprisingly overlooked by audiences in Japan. Perhaps it was cyberpunk anime overkill as the genre seemed to be played to death in the last couple of years or maybe it had something to do with Sori and Handa's screenplay, which focused on an alternate reality Japan whose cybernetic/technological ambitions and industrial dominance causes the country to become a rogue government in the eyes of the world.
The story of Vexille seems to recall Japan's WWII Imperial aspirations, as Japan leads a technological revolution spearheaded by one of its leading industrial conglomerates, Daiwa Industries, and begins development of technologies relating to radical cloning, bio-engineering and human/machine integration. This outrages the international community which sees these new technological applications as perverse. The United Nations orders Japan to stop all further development in these areas but Japan retaliates by sanctioning a policy of complete isolationism from the rest of the world and goes as far as erecting an electro-magnetic barrier around its borders preventing any communications in and out of the country (reminiscent to the Tokugawa "Sakoku" closed country period between 1633-1639 from which part of the film title references).
Ten years pass and American covert operational forces intercept communication that Japan's experimentations in cloning and cybernetics has reached a new level of sophistication that can transform humans into cyborgs. A task force code-named "SWORD" is dispatched to infiltrate Japan's zone barriers to investigate this threat. Vexille, one of the commandos sent into Japan soon finds herself the lone agent who can stop Daiwa's plans of implementing this technology.
Vexille borrows liberally from countless sci-fi films from the past several decades, most notably Blade Runner, Escape From New York, Matrix and Dune, as well as other Japanese anime films including Ghost In The Shell and of course Appleseed.
Title character Vexille is voiced by the fetching Okinawan "half" (Eurasian) actress Kuroki Meisa, who made a notable movie debut in Kamyu Nante Shiranai (a.k.a. Who Is Camus). She does very good work here as the spunky heroine with the weird (French?) name. She is the typical sci-fi heroine - strong, smart, beautiful and more than a match for any man. Surprisingly, even though the character of Vexille is supposed to be American, she looks eerily like Japanese Azumi actress Ueto Aya. Similarly, Daiwa villain and henchman Saito (voiced with menacing glee by seiyuu actor Otsuka Akio) looks a lot like actor Watanabe Ken.
I was somewhat bemused by the stark character design contrasts in the film. Outside of lead characters Vexille and Maria, almost all the supporting and background people seem photorealistic in appearance, foregoing many of the Japanese anime conventions we normally see (over-expressive wide eyes, strangely colored hair, perfect complexion). I'm not sure why Sori and his design team went this route as it is strangely odd. I would have loved to have seen Vexille, Maria and Leon rendered in a more realistic fashion instead of in stylized anime perfection.
I also found it quite perplexing that most of the "American" characters looked Asian or mixed. I saw very few if any typically White Anglo-Saxon looking characters or non-Asians (African American, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, European). Perhaps this was intentional on the part of Sori (a statement against media preference for the blond, blue-eyed ideal) or maybe I'm reading too much into the film's racial commentaries of the future.
Outside of Yasuko Matsuyuki (Hula Girls, Another Heaven), who voices the sexy rebel leader Maria and seiyuu actor Toshiyuki Morikawa (Last Exile, Bleach, Inuyasha, Devil May Cry) who plays sinister Daiwa Industries CEO Kisaragi, the rest of the cast does serviceable but not particularly distinguishable voice work as supporting characters.
The CGI/anime work by Oxybot's Takata Toshinori and Yosumi Hidetaka is absolutely stunning and breathtaking, incorporating a unique blend of traditional 2-D anime style and photorealistic 3-D effects. The world of Vexille is absolutely mesmerizing and recalls similar CGI work done in Appleseed and some more recent Japanese TV anime like Zoids and Ghost In The Shell - Stand Alone Complex. In some ways it trumps the motion capture work of the recent Beowulf. While sometimes coming off as the type of cinema CGI one would possibly see in such video games like Halo, Oxybot's work here is truly eye-catching and spectacular but not groundbreaking in scope as Pixar's CGI work in its films like Cars, Ratatouille or The Incredibles.
With all its flash and fancy, Vexille is undone by its cold and emotionless story which goes through the standard motions of a sci-fi film but does not bring with it any human drama. People die but because they are cyborg/clones, there is no emotional impact. A similar criticism could be said of other CGI heavy films such as Awazu Jun's Negadon and the recent Cloverfield, both of which also had superior CGI effects but surprisingly very little human elements. Even the music by techno-trance DJ Paul Oakenfold feels too artificial and coldly produced.
As shown by superior sci-fi films in the past such as Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien and Danny Boyle's recent Sunshine, sci-fi does not need to rely on the technology to make the movie - it is rather the human stories with the underlying issues of interaction with technology that are at the heart. Even Nomura Tetsuya's Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, which also relied heavily on CGI in its story had a heavier emotional impact that Vexille, even though Vexille has the better storyline.
While I did like Vexille a bit more than Appleseed, it was still a bit of a disappointment for me considering that the film's plot had so much more dramatic potential. (JMaruyama 2008)