Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Shinji Aramaki
Running time: 103 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens April 17
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Japanese animation is edging into the mainstream internationally, while insinuating itself into everything from “Kill Bill Vol. 1” to cartoon channels on U.S. cable TV. Unlike makers of Japanese live-action films, whose total annual exports wouldn’t underwrite one middling Hollywood movie, Japanese animators can strike it rich abroad — the millions raked in by the Pokemon franchise being the most obvious example.

Seeing animation as the safest, most profitable film-industry bet, corporate investors have underwritten ambitious new projects that have the potential to break out of the cult ghetto. Malls of America here we come.

Among the most innovative, technically at least, is “Appleseed,” a SF animation based on a Shirow Masamune manga that has become a cult classic. Directed by Shinji Aramaki, whose credits include the “Bubble Crisis” TV anime series, and produced by Fumihiko Sori, an SFX whiz who directed the 2002 indie hit “Ping Pong,” “Appleseed” is an amalgam of traditional character design and 3-D animation. In other words, 2-D meets 3-D.

It may strike anime traditionalists who reject everything Pixar as heresy, while American audiences used to the rubber-faced, lifelike mugging in “Shrek” and “Finding Nemo” may have trouble getting their minds around the film’s simpler, more abstract character designs, including those for its heart-faced, perfectly sculpted women. It is as if Ridley Scott had used animated Barbies in place of human actors in “Blade Runner.”

The creators of “Final Fantasy,” the most ambitious previous attempt to integrate the anime aesthetic into a 3-D world, tried to render its human characters as realistically as possible, right down to the wind-tossed hairs on their heads. Unfortunately, they looked less animated than returned from the dead.

The approach of “Appleseed” is more satisfactory (and less creepy). After shifting mental gears during the high-impact opening sequences, I never looked back. When all is said and done, the film is still an animation — but one that should convince even skeptics that the Japanese are pushing back boundaries in this medium even faster than their Hollywood counterparts, if from a radically different angle.

The plot tropes, which might have been fresh in 1985, are by now familiar. The year is 2031 and the world has barely survived an apocalypse. One of the human survivors, the blond and beautiful warrior Deunan Knute (voice actor: Ai Kobayashi), is captured after a titanic struggle and spirited off by cyborg agents to Olympus — an urban dreamscape that dazzles with its futuristic glamour, something like Roppongi Hills to the nth power.

This, Deunan learns, is a utopia ruled by a council of Seven Elders — gnomelike geezers who float on balls around a crystalline supercomputer called Gaia. Her guide to this new world is Hitomi (Yuki Matsuoka), an even-tempered, sweet-voiced young woman who is a bioroid — a race created by Olympian genetic engineers. Despite their human appearance, they have none of our messier emotions, including destructive rage. Making up half the population, bioroids serve as the social tranquilizers needed to make Olympus an architectural drawing brought to life — all surface harmony and peace.

Deunan also reunites with Briareos (Jurota Kosugi), a fellow warrior and former lover who, after nearly dying in battle, has been transformed into a hulking cyborg with four red eyes. He is aware, though, of what he has become — and lost.

All is not well in this best of all possible worlds, however — rebel humans who hate the bioroids attack the care centers where they undergo the “longevity processing” necessary for their survival. Deunan becomes a member of the Olympus SWAT squad dedicated to stamping out the rebels. And the Elders have an agenda that they are keeping secret from their defenders, including Deunan.

“Appleseed” is a talky, heavily plotted film in the SF anime tradition — but the clunky, static animation that was the industry norm when Masamune first published the manga in 1985 is nowhere to be seen. The action scenes, made using state-of-the-art motion-capture technology, have a fluidity and dynamism to equal anything out of Hollywood. Deunan is a dazzling fighter who makes the moves of most human action heroes look obvious and simple. It’s the difference between a college gymnastics meet and the Olympics. Now that human actors in SF shows have become little more than templates for CG wizards to manipulate, it’s a valid comparison, I think. Animated or not, it’s all 3-D entertainment, isn’t it?

“Appleseed” is not just a futuristic fantasy but, as Studio Ghibli President Toshio Suzuki recently told me, the future of animation. And it’s coming faster than anyone could have imagined, though it may be a while before bioroids start selling tickets at the local multiplex.

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