Saturday, June 18, 2011

REVIEW: Origin: Spirits of the Past

銀色の髪のアギト (Gin-iro no kami no Agito)

Released: 2006

Keiichi Sugiyama

Starring (voice talent):
Ryo Katsuji
Aoi Miyazaki
Yuko Kotegawa
Masaru Hamaguchi
Toshikazu Fukawa

Running time: 95 min.

Reviewed Marc Saint-Cyr

Following my previous Pow-Wow review of Mamoru Oshii’s "Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence" comes this one for Keiichi Sugiyama’s "Origin: Spirits of the Past." The order seems fitting: both are well done animes, one science fiction, one an interesting blend of sci-fi and fantasy. While "Innocence" is the better of the two (and a hard one to beat), "Origin" still has quite a lot to offer to the unsuspecting viewer. Its story takes place 300 years in the future on a drastically altered Earth. In its past, a cataclysmic event occurred in which a giant Forest Dragon made up of biologically advanced plants split open the moon and crashed into our planet with tremendous force. The long-term result was the rise of dense, sentient forests that the humans have reacted to in various ways. One society that occupies Neutral City, a metropolis made up of old, crumbling buildings, seeks to coexist with the trees and plants while the military state of Ragna would rather destroy them. Agito, a young man of Neutral City, discovers a giant hibernation machine from which emerges Toola, a girl who originally lived in the time before the arrival of the Forest Dragon. It eventually becomes clear that she bears the means to gain access to a massive system her father built to annihilate the forest and restore the world to a state of normalcy. Thus, both Ragna and Neutral City become involved in a struggle for the future of their link with nature.

While viewers could come up with any number of fantasy epics "Origin" is likely to evoke, I think one in particular is especially suitable: 1977’s "Star Wars," very likely the most influential one of them all. The comparison is valid in one respect for the vastness of imagination being displayed in both films’ worlds. While "Origin" closely follows in the footsteps of works that have come before it, it is still fun to discover the various specific facets that make up its realm: the different cultures, technological gadgets, designs of buildings and vehicles and so on. The moon that hangs above this Earth is a shattered husk surrounded by debris, yet it is still a constant presence in the night’s sky – and, at the same time, a unique visual reminder of that world’s specific history. Another resemblance to "Star Wars" comes from the skillful and surprisingly lightweight way in which expository information is presented to viewers. For it is worth remembering that, regardless of his infamous prequels, George Lucas sure managed to tell a story through film correctly back in the 1970s. In "Origin," the viewer is first presented with a credit sequence showing the initial Forest Dragon disaster, then introduced to Agito and his friend Cain as they race each other from the top levels of Neutral City’s towering buildings all the way down to a cave-contained well where the community draws its water. This sequence marvelously eases the viewer into the detailed environment, practically inviting them to appreciate the surfaces of green moss and red roots and character designs of the city’s inhabitants and the Zruids, the hooded, staff-wielding guardians of the forest.

Many of the character types in the story will seem extremely familiar. Looking beyond Agito and Toola, obviously the virtuous, romantically linked heroes, there is Yolda, the representative for Neutral City and one of a few silver-haired individuals who possess special powers and serve as communal mentors. On the Ragna side, there is an armored, Vader-like figure named Shunack who tries to sway Toola over to his side so as to eliminate the forest once and for all. Perhaps my favorite character is Agito’s father, a wizened old man half-transformed into a tree due to overuse of the forest’s power. Forced to dwell in one spot in his home while covered with moss and branches, he is wonderfully designed and serves as a fascinating voice of guidance for Agito.

"Origin"’s narrative arc eventually reaches the expected areas involving high stakes and overwhelming odds, pitting an army of AT-AT-like war machines against, of all things, a mobile, heavily armed volcano. All of the familiar tropes and elements could have made the film a terribly disappointing trudge and an unwelcome reminder of the rampant lack of originality in today’s cinema, but instead they provide a comforting effect as the tried-and-true tropes of fantasy are put to good and entertaining use while throwing a few new, genuinely interesting things in the mix. It is a relief, too, that the pro-environment message never becomes as preachy as seen in "Avatar" – first and foremost, "Origin: Spirits of the Past" is set on telling its story in a fun and engaging way. In that humble goal, through both classic devices and sparks of originality, it nicely succeeds.

Read more by Marc Saint-Cyr at his blog

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