Those who wondered what all the fuss was with “Appleseed” will be even more mystified by “Vexille,” which reunites many of the creators of Japan’s first full-CG anime in another computer-generated futuristic actioner. Again combining realistic 3-D backgrounds with traditional-looking 2-D characters (with 1-D personalities), “Vexille” comes up short on the script front, with an original story rather than an adaptation of an existing manga by a name scribe. Clumsily structured, dawdling yarn, which lacks the dime-novel philosophy of the great Japanime to elevate it beyond its by-the-numbers robotics plot, looks to tread water theatrically beyond Nippon.
However, even ho-hum Japanime has its own audience, especially in Japan, where the pic goes out big Aug. 18, following its (HD-projected) world preem at the Locarno fest. Name of VFX whiz Fumihiko Sori, who exec produced “Appleseed” and takes the helming reins here, will be an extra assist, though the pic looks unlikely to top the hunky numbers of “Appleseed,” which sold a reported 300,000 DVD units in the U.S. alone.
Fifteen-minute pre-credits sequence sketches a future, in 2077, when Japan has withdrawn from the U.N. and the world community in general — the film’s original title means “Fortress Japan 2077” — after being castigated for illegal robotics research. For 10 years, the country, sealed off by an electromagnetic field with the acronym RACE, has been off-limits to all foreigners.
Meanwhile, from the Land of the Free, comes SWORD, a high-tech commando unit in RoboCop-like suits which launches an attack on a secret conference held by villainous Nipponese zaibatsu Daiwa Heavy Industries. Well-staged sequence ends with SWORD commando Vexille (voiced by Meisa Kuroki) almost nabbing head Daiwa android Saito (Akio Otsuka).
Post-titles, the pic settles down into some clunky exposition (complete with unnecessary flashbacks) as background is filled in. Upshot: SWORD sends a secret mission — with no official U.S. government backing — to penetrate the shield around Japan and get as much info about Daiwa’s super-advanced robotics program as possible in 72 hours. Unit is led by Vexille and her b.f. Leon (Shosuke Tanihara).
Saito, however, is waiting for them, and Vexille is soon separated from her unit, waking up in a barrio-like city that once used to be Tokyo. Hooking up with a Japanese resistance fighter called Maria (Yasuko Matsuyuki), who once had something going with Leon when he visited Japan on a secret mission years earlier, she helps lead an attack on Daiwa’s artificial offshore HQ.
Pic finally picks up some momentum during this high-octane assault on the artificial island, but the finale is very so-what. Script by Haruka Handa (“Appleseed”) and Sori never develops the story’s intriguing politics, in which Japan has developed a xenophobic fortress mentality while the U.S. is the champion of freedom, and only peripherally touches on the fierce nationalism that even Maria spouts at one point. (“It’s an internal matter, between Japanese,” she says to Vexille.)
Vexille herself makes for a bland lead, far less interesting than the attitude-heavy Maria — and the script’s moral politics, which decide who lives and dies, seem much more Hollywood-conservative than Japanime cutting-edge. Shortage of pedal-to-the-metal action, combined with a storyline that offers up little fresh in the robotics field, makes for OK results at best.
Score by Paul Oakenfold (“The Matrix Reloaded,” “Shrek 2”) has occasional moments, with moody Wagnerian brass, but yields to pulsing techno-rock during action sequences.