This was 100% unintentional in relation to my Captain Kronos commentary (in fact, I’m mildly shocked by the coincidence), but I just watched Vexille, which though animated and by a largely Japanese team isn’t really anime.
It’s not a particularly bad action movie, and it’s certainly good looking, but I just didn’t get the “anime” vibe from it. As I’ve written in the past, I will argue for as long as anyone is willing to disagree that anime is defined by a nebulous collection of factors of which visual style is only one, and being Japanese is none. Vexille has a not-particularly-anime look to it, but it’s certainly close enough—VHD Bloodlust or The Tale of Genji were both just as unconventional looking, and it’s more traditionally anime-like than, say, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (which was also not anime if you ask most people). Rather, the plot and style felt more like a Hollywood movie (or Japanese live-action, not that it makes any difference), and the characterization didn’t say “anime” to me, either.
The story is basically about a special-ops team of mech pilots from the US (though they seem sort of UN-sanctioned or something) in a mid-distant future where Japan has completely sealed itself off from the outside world to become an apparent robo-topia, though since there’s an impenetrable shield around the country no one is sure. The only contact is the stream of uber-tech Daiwa Industries robots shipped out of the shield. Eventually said team is sent to infiltrate Japan and find out what sort of evil Daiwa is up to. Very, very bad things, of course.
The setting is neat from a sort of neo-Tokugawa perspective, and the eventual reveal is pretty good for a twist. It also keeps the tech on the reasonable side—there are powered suits, but no Ghost in the Shell-style pervasive net or reality-bending at all.
Otherwise, passable action movie. The main strength is beautiful CG visuals, particularly the settings and mechanical design. There are some small-scale powered suits that manage to more or less make sense physically without being a total copy of a Shirow Landmate. (The human operator’s arms stick out, then line up with the suit’s raised mechanical arms at the hands—this makes sense from a fine motor skills standpoint and would also let the human’s strength augment the relatively small suit’s.) Characters are nice-looking, though only marginally anime-style (very detailed character art, however, and particularly intricate eyes). I do like the cell shader—definitely not hand-drawn style, but has a pleasingly smooth look to it.
Definite negative, however, is that the character animation is either motion-captured or might as well have been (I didn’t watch through the special features yet, but I assume they’ll say). I really don’t care for motion capture, even when it looks good (such as in this case). A particular negative is that the characters don’t solidly interact with each other—they have that “pantomiming contact rather than really touching” feel, even when they do something like put an elbow on their own arm. The one brief kiss in the film was a particularly glaring example. If you’re gonna do motion capture, hand tweak, please.
The action is also pretty, though apparently full-CG animation comes with some sort of requirement for occasional Woo/Matrix-style slowdowns during intense action. It doesn’t go overboard in that department, so no biggie. The big shock, though, is that there’s almost no mech combat. Yes, a movie about a mech pilot going up against a robotics mega-corp, and there’s essentially one good mech-based action scene at the beginning. That was just weird, and the end felt like it was all set up for a huge free-for-all against robot legions… and nothing.
Instead, we get worms. I’m giving away the big reveal here, but these are my notes, so: Japan was devastated by an intentional nano-plague that as a nasty side-effect produced giant worms composed of metal that blindly chase and consume anything else metal. They look fantastic—the particle dynamics used to create the sort of swirling tube of scrap that they are made out of is something else—so I can see why they wanted to spend so much time looking at them. But when you have a mech-action movie where most of the action is running from giant nanoplague worms, that’s just sort of disappointing. On the particle physics note, the fire effects are very pretty too.
Otherwise there’s not a whole lot to say. The film works to set up the outside world as a clean, shiny place where human interaction has fallen by the wayside, then contrast that with a slum filled with androids clinging to the remains of their humanity that is otherwise incredibly low-tech but full of life and vibrant. Interesting contrast, certainly, and it does a decent job of setting up the slum as a lively place, but the contrast with the outside is limited to essentially one shot of the protagonist going to work and a brief rooftop conversation that really does zip to establish the other half of the dichotomy. (Also: Why do all rooftop conversations involve one character leaning back on the railing looking up at a roughly 30-degree angle and the other standing to their side facing the opposite direction and looking down? Again, it’s like there’s some kind of rule, though I never really thought about it before.) When Vexille eventually comments on how full of life the slum is, I just found myself thinking “Gonna have to take your word for that, since you never showed us anything but your apartment and commute.”
The characterization is otherwise fine. Notably decent bits are the interesting contrast between the two female leads and their relationships to the same man, though again so little time was spent establishing it it didn’t feel particularly well-developed. Also some fun stuff with the stock megalomaniacal villain and his relationship with his main henchman, though he only shows up at the very end. (Note: Never underestimate the power of raw spite.)
The pacing is notably relaxed after the Matrix-y, slightly hyperactive opening sequence. Doesn’t seem to be in a hurry at all, nor does it drag, though really when you look at the gaps in establishing the setting I kind of wished they’d picked up the pace a little to fit more in. Felt almost like there was a filler/establishing scene missing between the intro action piece and the launch into the big operation that takes up the rest of the film.
Only other thing to comment on is the acting; I watched it in Japanese, which was apparently the original language, but the casting and acting didn’t seem terribly in synch with the characters on screen. Even odder since the lip-flap was way off, which for a motion-captured movie you’d expect not to be the case (and contrasted with another very anime-style full-CG thing I’ve been watching recently, Freedom Project, which does have good lip flap, almost unheard of in anime). Given that half the characters are American it probably should have been either English only (a la VHD: Bloodlust) or maybe bilingual (a la Blood), though they never did explain why the US folks could understand the Japanese ones.
So basically, beautiful CG, interesting setting, good action, not nearly enough mechs blowing stuff up, not particularly anime in storytelling and emotional style. On average a decent action movie, but nothing to get too excited about.