Format: Cinema

Release date: 8 May 2008

Distributor: Momentum Pictures

Director: Fumihiko Sori

Writers: Haruka Handa, Fumihiko Sori

Japan 2007

109 mins

Coming across as a greatest hits package of both recent animé and science fiction movies in general from the last 25 years, Vexille combines the clichés of Japanese manga and cartoons – soldiers in mecha suits, androids who debate the nature of humanity, evil conspiracies demonising the Japanese nation – with over-familiar imagery such as giant sand worms that eat everything in their path (Dune, Tremors, Beetlejuice etc.). You could over-intellectualise this conceptual thievery – most technological advancements are based on retrofitting previous knowledge or machinery – but just because the self-consciously hip soundtrack (Paul Oakenfold, Basement Jaxx, DJ Shadow et al.) is from a genre that uses samples and repetition to create something new, it doesn’t mean the plot should follow the same principle.

The story is set in 2077. Japan has been incommunicado from the rest of the world for a decade after refusing to comply with a world ban on android technology – it’s OK for us to use machines to better ourselves, but not for them to start looking like us – and no one has been able to penetrate the electronic shield raised around the country to see what they’ve been up to. After ten years have passed, a representative from the most powerful corporation in Japan arranges a meeting on American soil with leaders of the UN and it’s not long before Japanese android terrorists are fighting it out with SWORD, the UN’s special-ops division. Yet again, the self-destructive nature of Japanese culture during WWII casts a long shadow on that country’s speculative fiction. It seems almost perverse for a Japanese movie to cast Americans as the heroes and themselves as the villains – perhaps this is a comment on the loss of national identity in the face of soulless corporations, but the script isn’t subtle or incisive enough to make that idea apparent.

In the film’s defence, the action sequences are terrifically exciting, which is the very least you might expect from the director of the live action manga adaptation Ping Pong, a movie that presented a table top sport competition like a scene cut from The Matrix. The choice of Fumihiko Sori as director clearly indicates that Vexille is a project aiming to compete with live action blockbusters, and at times the film just about holds its own against the likes of last year’s Die Hard and Transformers updates. However, for a CGI film to be as successful as live action, (particularly as Robert Zemeckis’ motion-capture films are blurring the distinction between the two) everyone involved has to be at the top of their game, and too many scenes of this film are indistinguishable from generic inter-level sequences in computer games. Aesthetically, the high-contrast shading of the animation gives the CGI a distinctive look that is more pleasing to the eye than computer graphics that strive for perfect realism (pace Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within) but this look could have been pushed further, perhaps along the lines of the under-rated Renaissance.

Since the writer, producer and composer all collaborated on the recent remake of Appleseed, it’s difficult to understand why they didn’t pick a dated animé or an as-yet unfilmed manga for a CGI update instead of lavishing their efforts on such a derivative ‘new’ story. Central to the problem is the eponymous lead character: just like her Hollywood sisters Lara Croft and Catwoman, female agent Vexille is not much more than a fighting doll. Aside from a few exceptions – The Long Kiss Goodnight and Nikita come to mind – Hollywood doesn’t seem to realise that strong female characters need to be defined by more than pert breasts and a catsuit. Unfortunately, the makers of Vexille are so keen to emulate American blockbusters that they simply reproduce their most glaring failings.

For thirteen-year-old boys who’ve never seen a CGI or animé film aimed at them, this is passable entertainment. However, the choice of director and composer for this project suggests that the filmmakers wanted this movie to exceed the limitations of the medium, apparently unaware that they needed more than regurgitated clichés to achieve the sublime mastery of a Hayao Miyazaki or Mamoru Oshii. Sadly, Vexille will only confirm animé critics’ worst fears and stereotypes.

Alex Fitch