Before I became otaku, I was your friendly neighbourhood action movie junkie. The bigger the explosions, the faster the car chases, the more numerous the gun battles, the better. And I wasn’t particularly picky about where I got my fix (yes I was that one person who actually enjoyed Godzilla 2000). It didn’t even often matter if the plot was non- existent or the acting was bad, as long as the action was good.
And then I discovered anime.
And then I saw Spriggan, and my life came full circle.
Well, alright, not quite. I need to point out, before I go any further, unashamed action flick though Spriggan is, there is a plot. Perhaps there is not as much characterisation as Akira, Supervisor Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 masterpiece, but the pace and the visual impact of this 1998 film do Otomo’s other work no offence and make the lack of deeper character development only a slight disappointment. The hero, Yu Ominae, is about as heroic as they come and the main villain is bigger than Dr No, minus cat but sporting some very cool, colour coded cyber implants in the back of his head and a serious psychic chip on his shoulder. The territory of the film over which they end up facing each other, a weapon of definite mass destruction and disturbingly vague, religious origins. The guns are big, the chases are recklessly fast and people die by the score. Honestly, what more could a girl want?
The more reviews you read about this film the more you will realise there is a general consensus. This anime could have been a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster. I’ll tow that line, but I’ll add my two cents (self professed action movie junkie that I am) — it would have made an excellent action movie, a lot better than some of the best. That’s because, as action movies go, Spriggan‘s got pretty much everything.
Firstly, and my favourite, the tortured hero with a dark past and astonishing abilities that make him generally dangerous to be around. This is a lot more standard for manga and anime than Hollywood. Standard too is the hero’s relatively youthful age. Like all good heroes, Yu is a divided person living two lives. One part of him is a sixteen year-old high school student, the other a killer trained from the age he could load an M-16. An ex-military experiment gone horribly wrong (or perhaps from Yu’s point of view, completely right), Yu is trying, as most heroes do, to keep his two halves from overlapping. And as most good stories go, destiny has other ideas.
Yu’s counterpart, and almost as awesome as the deadly hero himself, the equally deadly villain, this time in the form of a child with powerful psychic abilities, a weapon created but never really controlled. In the tradition of many manga and anime (Tetsuo in Akira definitely comes to mind here), this young antagonist, going by the name Colonel MacDougall, pays a price for his abilities. A victim of the same military power that created Yu, MacDougall suffers on a different level, not emotionally but physically. Without the drug that keeps him alive, his enhanced grey matter will melt, painfully.
The government that made MacDougall and Yu, The Machine Corp, have little concept of exactly what it is they have created and this is a theme throughout the film, a moral if you care to listen. Some things are better left alone, some powers are too great to wield. Be it genetic experiments, military puppets or mysterious, otherworldly artefacts, men are NOT gods, and the price for believing otherwise is more than we can pay. It brings to mind a quote attributed to J Robert Oppenheimer upon the first detonation of an atomic weapon during the Manhattan Project in 1945. It is a line from the Bhagavad-Gita.
“Now I am become Death (Shiva), the destroyer of worlds.”
If the Ark in Spriggan is the weapon, then MacDougall’s efforts to become a god will end not in life, but in death. Yu is salvation, the human element in this equation, his vulnerability, his beserker rage and personal-level emotions a representation of the anger and fear experienced by those of us with no power to influence what ‘great men’ do, what faceless organizations scheme. But Yu has power. Perhaps it is the power to give his own life trying, but he has it nonetheless and ultimately, it is what defeats his foe. Yu’s violent determination is more than a match for MacDougall’s ruthlessness and the power of his vision to cleanse the world him and the final desperate battle between them is satisfyingly violent (Cringe Factor 9 on the Ouch That’s Gotta Hurt scale…).
Between the two of them and the peripheral characters (like French Spriggan Jean Jacques Mondo, who plays a semi-cameo as Yu’s protector and mentor), they do some damage and the action is relentless. It’s possibly the most breathtaking thing about the film – the pace and the animation. Like the cartoon equivalent of high speed film, the characters seem to be Rotoscoped onto the background, making the action sequences both hectic and fluid, a visual roller-coaster ride which on the big screen sometimes has a similar effect! But in contrast, there is a sense of scale in the scenery that supports the grandeur and mystery of the Ark. These are the quieter moments of the film, the contemplative sojourns into life, meaning, purpose and the use of 3D in cell animation (a fairly seamless combination in this case and thankfully not overused). Technically, the English voice-overs are good, and the dialogue is natural. The music, by Haishima Kuniaki is moody and grand, with smatterings of Turkish horns and Gregorian chants over a modern drum beat that evoke both place and space.
The details of the story sometimes get a bit lost and the motivations of the characters are sometimes a little ill-defined, but it’s already been established, from the opening sequence, that this is anime of the action kind. A case of what you see is what pretty much what you get and it is indeed such a case. In the end, all you’re really supposed to do is hang on and enjoy it. Not something that is hard to do, when heroes, villains and destructive cosmic forces abound. You may not leave the cinema any wiser than you went in, but you will find yourself looking for a place to sit down for five minutes to get your breath back.