Reviews

Fumihiko Sori

Japan, 2007

Credits

Review by Katherine Follett

Posted on 01 May 2008

Source 35mm print (dubbed)

Categories The 2008 Independent Film Festival of Boston

Somewhere out there is a nerd flowchart. You follow the statements of geekiness down the page until you find the last one that is true for you. I am a little proud and a little ashamed to admit that the last line of geekiness I crossed was, “You insist on watching anime in the original Japanese with subtitles, instead of dubbing.” And while this is my final line, it is a very firm one.

In Japan (and the minds of many geeks film connoisseurs), anime is not a genre but a style. It happens to be heavy on nerd-happy action, sci-fi, and fantasy because these genres are popular, and they tend to be much less expensive to produce as animation than live-action. In Japan, anime is at least as beloved as live-action films, and filmmakers can easily afford the best voice talent. But in the States, anime is usually a niche market, and excepting a few large releases (Princess Mononoke, Ghost in the Shell), the dubbing actors they hire are little better than your standard Saturday-morning-cartoons-circa-1986. To give the IFFB credit, I overheard one of their volunteers recounting that the only subtitled print of Vexille was in San Francisco, and when offered the dubbed print, he initially said, “No.” Competent voice talent would definitely have made Vexille a better film. But that does not mean it would have made it a good film.

Vexille is entirely CGI. But rather than fall into the uncanny valley of hyper-realistic computer animation (Beowulf, The Polar Express, etc.), director Fumihiko Sori chose to keep his human characters stylized in something like the familiar doe-eyed anime look. Their faces are smooth, their hair chunky, and their movements governed by few simple gestures. While backing off from super-life-like rendering might be a good instinct, the result was terrible. The human characters looked like they had been lacquered, even their clothes, and the limited facial features – and therefore limited facial movements – left them utterly inexpressive. Everything else, though, was rendered with exquisite digital sharpness, leaving the film looking like the world’s best cinematographers got together and directed a movie in which all the actors are RealDolls. This is unfortunate, because as in other anime, Sori was able to imbue his lovingly drawn robots with squeaks, lights, and postures that make them almost cute. It shouldn’t be the case that the machines are more relatable than the people. Combine these wooden characters with wooden American dubbing actors, and the result is a plot you care nothing about. In a way, this makes the clunky exposition, questionable sci-fi premise, and trite storyline less of a problem.

But this is not the kind of movie you go see for its characters or plot. You see it to watch giant robots blow shit up. And if the movie fails along predictable action-film weaknesses, it also succeeds wildly along predictable action-movie strengths. The action scenes are blisteringly choreographed, and leave you staring even if you couldn’t actually give a shit if the characters live or die. The robot technology is inventive and skillfully done, with CGI’s ultra-smoothness giving the machines an enviable grace. And the Tremors- and Dune-indebted metallic sand-worms are quite simply beautiful. The sound design was almost distractingly excellent, giving substance and weight to the animated action. But in the end, one finds it difficult to care that the main characters might turn into androids, since they are already mask-faced avatars who speak in action-movie one-liners.

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