I came across this animé on Netflix, and thought it looked interesting, so I gave it a watch. When the movie begins, large dragons that seem to be made of leaves strike from the moon and attack the earth, shattering the moon to pieces and leaving earth devastated. We then join the main action, some centuries later, and man lives in the ruins of the old world. The main character, a young boy named Agito, is swept away to an underground chamber while scavenging for water. A large, complex machine lies inside, containing a young girl woken from stasis, named Tula.
If you're unfamiliar with animé, this plot sounds nice and simple, but if you are, then you know you've seen this before. The plot of a boy from one place, either a different world or the distant future, finds a mysterious girl from another place, and she turns out to play an important part in the world's destiny. It's been seen in Hayao Miyazaki's "Castle in the Sky", Osamu Tezuka's "Metropolis", Mayumi Azuma's "Elemental Gelade" and others. Often, the boy's world is a more ragtag, harsh world, and the world the girl comes from is usually considerably more advanced.
The setting we find ourselves in is subject also to the cliché of nature and technology out of balance and at war ("Princess Mononoke", "Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind", "Blue Gender"), and our main cast lives in a place called Neutral City, between The Forest, populated by superintelligent plants, and Ragna City, basically a giant military base. The plants in the Forest can bond with humans, giving them great strength and wisdom (and white hair, which makes them easy to identify), but if they overuse the Forest's power, it consumes them. This happened to Agito's dad, who when we see him, is covered in vines. There are other supporting characters, including Yolda, the silver-haired matriarch of the city, Minka, the crazy redhead that likes Agito, and so on. Most of these characters don't do much, but they're fun additions to the story.
This film plays with the conventions of this genre, though. For instance, "the girl" in this sort of story is usually very wise, stoic, powerful, special, meek and vulnerable, and is the key to everything. Tula has most of these qualities, but a key few are missing: she's not all that wise or stoic: in fact, she's incredibly normal and can be kind of a bitch sometimes. She feels threatened and confused by this world she's woken up in, and in a twist uncommon to this genre, goes to the villain's side willingly, as soon as the second act starts. The leader of Ragna City also has silver hair, and is from the past, like her. Her father developed a weapon that could take out the forest and allow the earth to "return to normal", which to us sounds like a perfectly obvious bad idea, but Tula, in a uniquely naïve way, wants things as they were.
In another twist, Agito wants to save Tula from the military city. To do this, he goes into the Forest and asks for its power, like his father did. The leader of the forest are two small girls, who speak without moving their mouths and dart in and out from behind trees, speaking with a childlike sense of urgency. It was disappointing that we didn't see more or find out more about them, because they were a unique addition, but they give Agito the power of the Forest, which turns his hair from red to white.
Spontaneously, he develops extraordinary powers, including superhuman agility, incredible strength, and so on. His action scenes as he flies around and punches trains in half (which, hilariously, start as SOON as the Forest gives him the powers, not even giving him time to find out what happened) are amazing to watch, but it makes his character takes an unfortunate turn, and I'm not even entirely sure why. The hero of this genre is usually incredibly courageous (usually without superpowers), but when Agito gets the power of the Forest, it turns him from the likable, playful scamp at the beginning to a dead-serious zen master, still perfectly likable, but the change was so jarring. He bounces back a tiny bit at the end, but I never quite got the impression that he became "fun" again.
This all sounds well and good for him, as now he can get shot in the chest by a tank and not feel a thing, but he must remember what happened to his father: he let the Forest overcome him. If he's not careful, he will lose his human form. Some of the transformations he undergoes look uncannily like the end of "Akira", and the power gradually consuming him resembles Ashitaka's cursed arm from "Princess Mononoke". These similarities are mainly visual, though, and don't come off as a knockoff.
Agito's power is a dangerous balancing act, however, as he must use all the power he can to save Tula from the clutches of the military, and stop her from activating their superweapon. The villain has the same power he does, though, which could have been a more interesting conflict than what we got. Interestingly, he's not as unscrupulous as the villain often is in stories like this, which is novel.
Tula grows as a character from her somewhat bland and timid beginnings, especially near the end when things really start going nuts, and her character development is probably the most satisfying of the movie.
This movie doesn't have the emotional depth of other movies of this genre, like Castle in the Sky and certainly Metropolis. It is, however, visually spectacular, has some unique things about its story, and though a lot of it is things animé fans will find familiar, it still offers new and incredible sights and sounds that make it well worth seeing.
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