December 06, 2007

FREEDOM (2007) - a 21st century Akira

(2007, Japan)

Dazzling anime debut, that should really dazzle more...

US NTSC region 1 DVD/HD-DVD (Honneamise)

There was considerable excitement that Katsuhiro Otomo, the writer/director of the groundbreaking anime movie Akira (1998), was again heavily involved in a futuristic anime. His last animated movie, Steamboy (2004), failed to catch the same attention, despite a huge budget and long development. Since then he's directed the live-action movie of Mushishi, but is now back on more familiar ground.

Though Freedom is directed by Shuhei Morita (Kakurenbo), the characters, machines and many aspects of the story are heavily reminiscent of Otomo's Akira. While Akira was made with painted animation cels, Freedom is rendered in a complicated 3D computer-graphic process, that eventually looks like the old 2D characters. The project retains the look of traditional anime, and the artists can still express emotions the traditional way, but the characters can interact with dynamic 3D camera moves and backgrounds.

This is all very exciting, but not totally new. The crew that produce Appleseed have achieved similar results, with slightly more realistic human figures. But have now made three movie this way - we are just about to see Vexille and Appleseed 2. It's great to see what looks like a next generation Akira - maybe they could produce a remake this way, rather than in the rumoured live-action?

But for me the downside of the Freedom project, having only seen the first episode, is that the story is far from cutting-edge. The animation is magnificent, and the intricately designed moonbase and interiors are a peek into the future 300 years from now, but the characters are pretty standard and the story doesn't hit the ground running. We get action instead. It feels like there's big money riding on this, and the producers are playing safe with the story.

Even the theme tune is a years old Utada Hikaru hit. This is disappointing - good as it is, as I'd expect brand new music for a project like this.

Further disappointment came from the realisation that the action in episode 1 looked very like the pod race out of Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace. The recent anime series IGPX had already done something more exciting in this vein, why doesn't Freedom?

The spectacular pod races dominate the first episode, but have little bearing on the plot. Three teenagers wander around the huge interiors of the moonbase, and out on the surface (in suitably Otomo-styled spacesuits). We learn little more than the Earth is no longer habitable, and that the three young men are always in trouble, probably not heading for citizenship that will enable their freedom in a few months time.

Anime fans in the west will know the anime term OVA, but have rarely encountered it in practice. Original Video Animation, refers to an anime series that is released on video in episodes, funded only by the video sales. We normally have the luxury of purchasing entire OVA series after the Japanese fans have 'paid' for it. We're not used to waiting for the next episode to be animated! The first OVA was Dallos, directed by Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell) in 1983, heralding a new way that animators could experiment free of network TV confines and censorship, catering for adult storylines.

My first OVA was Blue Submarine no 6, which like Freedom was released in single episodes on DVD in the US. That tale of undersea mutations battling land-dwellers in a flooded world, with then cutting edge 3D vehicles mixed with 2D characters has aged very well, particularly for the vehicle designs, thundering action scenes and challenging storyline - more exciting, it must be said, than Freedom's first episode.

Freedom is a hard sell in the west, only 25 minutes of episode per DVD, without the advantage of the heat of the multimedia publicity campaign that they had in Japan, where a long campaign of TV ads for pot noodles, were set in the Freedom universe. These same Cup Noodle products are also noticably placed in the episodes.

The US DVD release of Freedom episode 1 was unusually ahead of the Japanese launch. It's also on a rare format - a single-sided dual-layer twin format disc that plays in both DVD and HD-DVD players. The extras on the DVD are a preview of episode 2 and an interesting work-in-progress version that can be viewed alongside the finished episode in various configurations - enabling viewers to pinpoint the high number of computer-generated sequences.

I'll still be getting further episodes. This is superior animation from some of the best talents in Japan, but I was expecting to be really impressed. Hopefully episode 2...

Do you want to know more?

Japanese Freedom website

US Freedom website

English language blog by one of Freedom's animation staff

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