Review for Origin: Spirits of the Past
There are a couple of firsts associated with Origin: Spirits of the Past. For one thing, back in 2009 this was one of the first, if not the actual first Blu-ray title released by Manga Entertainment. Coming from the visual powerhouse that is Gonzo animation, it's a tantalising title to kick off Manga's high definition revolution, although it would help if there were more to it than just pretty looks. It's also Gonzo's first ever feature film, although at this point that isn't saying much. It was made in 2006, at the peak of the last anime boom, when licences were selling for silly money, and anime producers had more of that silly money than sense. Television anime specialists Gonzo decided to branch out into feature film animation, and Origin was their first attempt. Not long after, the bottom fell out of the industry, and Gonzo in particular suffered a severe contraction. In fact it's only now that they are once again releasing television anime on as regular a basis as they once did. In fact, I can think of only one other Gonzo feature film that was released in the UK, Brave Story from Optimum Entertainment, and that is it. Brave Story was really quite good, if underrated. Origin got all the hype, so I'm hoping that it will be even better.
Mankind had reached the pinnacle of technology and achievement when the world ended. The moon shattered, fragments fell from the sky, and civilisation was obliterated. With the rocks came the new forest, intelligent, sentient, malevolent and lethal, and it began reclaiming the land that man had previously conquered. Now the survivors of the human race live in an uneasy truce with the forest, creating settlements in the ruins of fallen cities, depending on the munificence of the forest for precious water. It's a scamp of a water thief named Agito that discovers the lost technology deep in the ruins when trying to escape from some irate druids. In suspended animation is a girl named Toola, sealed away since before the fall of civilisation. She reawakens into a world unrecognisable from her own. Even though she befriends Agito and the other children in Neutral City, part of her longs for the world that she lost. Unbeknownst to her, she holds the key to restoring the world to the way it once was, and there are people in the military state of Ragna, which opposes the forest, who want to 'help' her accomplish that. In opposition is the forest itself, and those people that have finally learned to live in harmony with it.
Manga Entertainment's first Blu-ray release is a pretty decent effort. The 1.85:1 widescreen image is 1080p, as it should be, and the Gonzo animation comes across clearly, with rich and vivid colours, and a sharpness and clarity that reveals all the finest details and nuances in the image. The only issue with the transfer is the prevalence of digital banding, which at times is almost as visible as that on DVDs. Gonzo's animation is excellent, particularly in the opening sequence, but the character designs are simplistic and forgettable, the backgrounds may be colourful, but they are also pretty generic and unimaginative at times, although the oil painting style to them is evocative. Worst of all, Gonzo make no attempt to blend the 2D elements and the 3D CGI elements together, making it a jarring incongruity that is even more obvious than that of their television anime of the same period.
You have the option of Dolby TrueHD 5.1 English and Japanese, with a translated subtitle track to go with the Japanese audio. The first thing to say about the Japanese audio track that I opted for is that it is loud. I had my volume down to two-thirds of its normal level, and I kept having to nudge it down a tad more during action sequences to stay on the right side of my neighbours. The surround is put to good use bringing across the film's action and ambience, while the film's music has a Disney-esque operatic whimsy to it that doesn't quite match the visuals and tone of the story. The same can't be said for the opening and closing themes from Kokia, which are haunting and unique. I sampled the English dub, which was of suitably high quality for a feature film, but I did notice it drift out of sync ever so slightly for the middle third of the film, which just isn't good enough. The final nail in the coffin of the English version is a lack of a captions only track, which is necessary for the opening sequence to translate the onscreen text.
The disc starts with the upscaled Manga logo born from flames, indicating just how old a title this is. The animated menu suits the film well.
On the disc, all of the extras are upscaled from 576i SD, presumably taken from the DVD. You get 9 minutes worth of Japanese promo spots, and the original Origin trailer lasting some 90 seconds.
The big extra feature is the 52-minute long Making Of featurette, which takes us behind the scenes of the film, offering interviews with the voice cast and the crew, as they recount the 7 year process to get the film onto screen. There are clips from the film, but the speakers are little more candid than you would expect from your usual EPK fluff. It was interesting to see that this film's vocal track was recorded US style, with the actors alone in the booth to record their lines.
Origin got all the hype, and it got the Blu-ray release, but ultimately I find that Brave Story is the better Gonzo movie. Origin: Spirits of the Past is typical Gonzo, exhibiting failings that I find in so many of their television shows. It's visually breathtaking, you can see every yen on the screen, the love, attention, and effort invested in the movie by the animators, it's replete with action, it's fast paced, energetic, and entertaining. It's also weak and muddled when it comes to the story, the characterisations are thin and un-involving it's treading on ground that Miyazaki excels in with films like Princess Mononoke and Nausicaa, and quite frankly it just can't compete. It's a damned pretty movie. It's also pretty vacant.
Worst of all, it blows its budget on an absolutely stunning opening sequence, setting up the fall of civilisation. The moon shatters, shards of rock come plummeting to the Earth, and with them comes the Forest Dragon, heralding the malevolent and intelligent forest that will inherit the Earth, and leave humanity's survivors clustered in isolated communities, relying on the forest's questionable goodwill for their continued existence. Coupled with Kokia's haunting vocals, that opening sequence will leave your jaw hanging to the floor, half convinced that you have never seen anything of its like before, and never will again. You'll be right, as the rest of the film never approaches the visual and aural intensity of the film's opening, and everything that follows seems like a damp squib in comparison.
The story initially has some appeal to it, with a 'loveable scamp' hero rescuing a girl from the past, and awakening a threat in the process. Toola finds her existence in the future difficult at first, and quite understandably looks for some way to reclaim her past. But we never really get to know Agito and Toola well enough to empathise with them, and while the film does spend a fair while exploring the world, it is replete with concepts and ideas to the point where none of them are developed to satisfaction. It will reveal an aspect of the future world that is interesting, but will refuse to explore it, moving onto something else. In that respect it's quite similar to the recently released ICE OVA, although the production values are considerably higher.
Origin almost fools you into believing that it is smarter than it actually is, its eco-message is not simplistic, and balances its negative view of man's arrogance and pride as so called inheritors of the Earth, with the questionable symbiosis that is struck between the survivors and the intelligent forest. It's almost a role reversal, as the forest becomes the gamekeeper and the human race its charge. Given that unconventional relationship, you'd expect someone like Toola to try and restore the world she once new, which is where the film's villain comes in, Colonel Shunack. Similarly resurrected from suspended animation, his dealing with the world of the future is far more military in thinking, and he declares war on the forest. But his actions are motivated more by plot than by character, and the decisions he winds up making make no rational sense.
Of course when you see the ultimate weapon that films like this usually have, you realise just how dumb a movie Origin: Spirits of the Past actually is. Fortunately, Origin wasn't just a dead end for Gonzo, despite the cutbacks and the apparent end of their movie division. They would later return to this eco-sci-fi storyline in the TV series Shangri-La, much more satisfying in terms of story and character. Alas it has yet to be licensed for physical release in the West (probably because US audiences don't buy eco-messages), but you can view it on Crunchyroll. As for Origin: Spirits of the Past, it's one to buy for the pretty pretty, but don't, whatever you do, actually contemplate its content.