Vexille by Fumihiko Sori (Review)

Vexille’s CGI strives for powerful sci-fi storytelling but frequently lands in the uncanny valley.
Vexille - Fumihiko Sori

It’s an undeniable fact that CGI has changed the face of animation. Whether you’re talking about the style and aesthetic, the production methods, or simply the time and effort involved, the impact of computer animation has been huge. In fact, I daresay that it’s becoming difficult for some folks to think of animation as anything other than computer-generated, thanks in large part to a little company called Pixar.

As a longtime fan of the art form, I find myself both distressed and fascinated by this change. On the one hand, I have nothing but the utmost respect for the “traditional” methods of animation, the painstaking attention of detail that is required, the long hours and even physical cost that is involved in putting together even the shortest of titles, and simple artistic-ness of it all. And when I watch titles from even a decade ago, when CGI was minimal at best, I find that there’s a warmth and solidity about hand animation that CGI, with its all-too-obvious perfect, just can’t quite match.

On the other hand, I’m also a geek, and I’m incredibly interested at the technology involved; I’m fascinated by the complex software, algorithms, and technical knowledge required to render what a human can draw in fraction of the time — in short, by our constant desire to simulate reality as realistically as possible. At its best, CGI allows for an entirely different sort of attention to detail, and makes possible a level of realism — or of unrealism, for that matter — that is simply impossible for human hands to achieve.

This isn’t necessarily apparent when watching the sort of computer animation that flows into most American theatres (again, I’m thinking primarily of Pixar’s movies). Here in America, animation is still widely perceived as a medium for children, and so I don’t find it surprising that even Pixar’s films — however wonderful, entertaining, rewarding, and well-made they might be — still aim for a “cartoonish” aesthetic. For something that aims for a different aesthetic, you need to cross the Pacific, to Japan. Here, where arguably you still find the world’s finest animators — e.g., Hayao Miyazaki, Mamoru Oshii, Satoshi Kon, to name a few — we find animators pushing the envelope, adopting CGI in ways that are moving, however slowly, to the more realistic end of the spectrum.

Vexille is the one of the latest in a recent line of CGI anime, all of which push the boundaries when it comes to using ones and zeros to create an intricately detailed, realistically visualized and rendered world. Directed by Fumihiko Sori, who burst onto the scene with 2002’s Ping Pong, it’s a mish-mash of clichés that should be familiar to anyone who has watched a decent amount of anime and sci-fi, enhanced by some often eye-popping visuals.

It is the year 2077, and Japan has been in virtual isolation for a decade. The world, reacting to the rapid advancement of robotic technology, has enacted a series of laws limiting its development. Japan, however, refused to abide by these regulations and effectively sealed itself off from the rest of the world, both physically and electronically. The only exception is made for Daiwa Heavy Industries, Japan’s most powerful and influential company, who still sells some technology to the outside world.

After ten years, though, the rest of the world — and especially the U.S. — has grown anxious as to what is going on behind closed doors. After a covert operation reveals that Daiwa’s officials may be involved in some shady dealings with leaders of several countries, a strike team is organized to infiltrate Japan’s defenses and reveal the reality of what’s happening. After sneaking into Japan, one of the team members — a young woman named Vexille — is separated from her allies in an ambush, and finds herself in the middle of a walled in Tokyo. But what she finds there is unlike anything she — or the rest of the world — could have imagined.

Story-wise, it’s difficult to not think of Vexille as a hybrid of Ghost in the Shell and Appleseed, both seminal works that have experienced recent animated revivals. Like Ghost in the Shell, Vexille contains meditative moments in which Vexille, experiencing the inconceivable truths of Japan, reflects on the nature of humanity, on our relationship with technology, and on the spiritual impact of modifying our bodies with software and metal. There are also ruminations on geopolitics and the unhealthy affair that can exist between big business and government that are fairly surface-level but still make for some interesting resonance with our own headlines. And finally, it’s surprisingly sober; honestly, I wasn’t prepared for just how grim Vexille gets, such as when Vexille’s newfound allies are forced to execute their own to prevent Daiwa’s nefarious schemes. (Indeed, the grimness is so thorough that the film’s final, uplifting moments feel almost hypocritical.)

But like Appleseeds recent CGI incarnations — the first of which was produced by Sori — Vexille also wants to be an adrenalized, action-oriented title. Hence all of the mecha and robot-enhanced combat, particularly in the film’s opening and closing scenes, where Vexille wreaks all manner of havoc in her battlesuit.

Put the two goals together and it makes for an awkward pairing. The desire for lots of mecha action and big explosions means that the more meditative moments don’t have as much oomph as they might’ve had. Meanwhile, the film’s slower middle portion contains most of the thematic weight of the film, as well the surprising revelations, but it also means the film is, well, quite a bit slower for much of its length. Such that you find yourself itching at times for something — anything — to blow up, and blow up real good.

This is where the film’s CGI visuals solves some of the dilemma. There are some truly stunning images in the film: Vexille wandering around the strange-yet-familiar Tokyo markets, which are always bathed in a gorgeous golden glow; the mysterious “jags” that swim around in the deserts outside of Tokyo’s walls like sandworms composed of swirling bits of scrap metal; and the futuristic Los Angeles cityscapes that Vexille calls home. When the film does explode into some action, the CGI is also of great benefit: the battlesuits that Vexille and her teammates wear, as well as their robotic enemies, all look cooler and than cool, and there’s enough slow-mo and intricate action sequences to make even the Wachowskis a little green with envy.

But the CGI, as great as it is, has its limitations. When the explosions subside, and the film begins to wax a little more lyrical, we inevitably find ourselves heading down into Masahiro Mori’s “uncanny valley.” True, there are moments when the film effectively blurs the line between the real and virtual, and the characters’ movements and expressions are so lifelike that you forget you’re watching animation. Indeed, they almost achieve a sort of “hyper-reality.” But then a truly emotional moment comes along and the film’s artifice smacks you in the face; watching two CGI characters kiss has about as much passion in it as mashing a couple of dolls together, if not less.

In their review of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within — the first CGI anime full-length — Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp note that:

…[the film]’s characters never advance beyond the level of automatons. It will be interesting to see whether future creations within the medium will ever be able to invoke as much in the way of pathos or anxiety as their human counterparts.

Well, here we are, several years later, and the answer is, almost unequivocally, “no.” That’s not to say that there’s no value to CGI in animation. It is, like anything, ultimately a tool, and neither good nor bad in and of itself. There are plenty of examples where its use has been an enhancement (I’m thinking specifically of its use in Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away). As of right now, though, true full-length CGI films like Vexille — those that strive for the ultra-realistic aesthetic — still feel more like proofs of concept and technical demos than actual films. I find myself agreeing with Mes and Sharp’s final comments in their Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within review:

Whilst Final Fantasy [or Vexille, for that matter] undoubtedly raises the stakes in the field, ultimately it lacks a heart beating beneath its surface… For the field to develop further beyond the mere slavish emulation of live-action cinema into an art form in its own right, however, the risk-taking must come at a more conceptual level. Until then, it’s clear that the medium is far better served by Disney’s more humanistic approach of simplification and anthropomorphism.

Perhaps some day, I’ll watch one of the films that will inevitably follow in the wake of Vexille and its like, and my “animation fan” side and “geek” side will be able to enjoy it together. But right now, I have to admit that my geek side — the one that, when it’s in the “uncanny valley”, sees not a disturbing lifeless simulation of reality but rather a technical challenge to be overcome with innovation, inspiration, and processing cycles — is the more satisfied and enthralled of the two.

This article originally appeared on Filmwell on April 26, 2009.

Read more reviews of Fumihiko Sori.