Spriggan, based on a popular, long-running manga (Japanese comic book) series left Kawasaki, Itô, and Otomo with adapting a sprawling, multi-character, multi-plotline, multi-year series into a single, feature-length film. Some manga-to-animé adaptations, like Otomo’s Akira, are more successful than others. Alas, Spriggan belongs in the second, less successful category, due mainly to a derivative approach and execution, which focuses on action to the detriment of everything else. Casual moviegoers can play spot the reference (or homage, depending on your perspective), including Raiders of the Lost Ark, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and even Universal Soldier. Spriggan also shamelessly lifts several ideas and character types from Akira.
The protagonist in Spriggan, Ominae Yu, is not your average high-school student. Ominae Yu is a highly trained (are there any other kind?), covert operative (i.e., a Spriggan) for a super-secret, international organization, ARCAM. ARCAM has been tasked to locate and protect ancient artifacts, while keeping other super-secret organizations, foreign governments, and the general public unaware of their existence. ARCAM's has discovered the Ark of Noah (yes, it's called the Ark of Noah and not Noah's Ark in the film for no obvious reason) inside Mount Ararat, Turkey. The discovery, in turn, has unleashed a low-intensity conflict between ARCAM and a Pentagon splinter group, the Machine Core. The Machine Core, following the template for super-secret, nefarious organizations everywhere, is out to obtain the Ark of Noah, and use the Ark’s non-human powers for their own, power-hungry ends (i.e., world domination, of course).
After Ominae Yu (every other character in the English dub curiously refers to him by both names) narrowly escapes an attempt on his life, Ominae Yu races to Mount Ararat, presumably to secure the ancient artifact from the Machine Core. Landing in Istanbul, Ominae Yu is greeted by other ARCAM agents (except they’re not, they work for the Machine Core). Before he can settle in and take a breather in his hotel room, he’s kidnapped at gunpoint. Ominae Yu’s military training comes in handy, as the audience is treated to a whiplash-inducing action sequence, including a foot chase across roofs and in the cluttered cul-de-sacs of Istanbul’s ancient quarters.
The extended sequence in Istanbul gives viewers a taste of things to come. At Mount Ararat, Ominae Yu discovers a not-so-secret facility operated by ARCAM. There, he meets Dr. Meisel, an ARCAM scientist, his assistant, Margaret, and Jean-Jacques Mondo, a fellow Spriggan, who hails from ARCAM’s French office. Since the plot unfolds at almost breakneck speed, it’s not long before the ARCAM facility comes under sustained attack by Machine Core’s commandos, including Fat Man and Little Boy, two cybernetically enhanced super-soldiers (Fat Man and Little Boy are named after the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States at the end of World War II). Fat Man’s armor and cybernetic enhancements makes him nearly invincible. Of course, Fat Man and Little Boy aren’t counting on ARCAM’s answer to the Machine Core’s super-soldiers.
Fat Man and Little Boy, however, are only secondary characters. An oddly familiar pre-adolescent with telekinetic powers, the quizzically named Colonel MacDougal (due to his age and clothes, it's hard to imagine him as a "colonel" in any military), turns out to be the principal villain. Colonel MacDougal, the end product of super-secret government experiments, can generate thought-based psionic blasts. Colonel Macdougal has been "borrowed" whole cloth from Akira (Akira featured the product of super-secret government experimentation, telekinetic children, all unstable). MacDougal, of course, has a nasty messianic complex (i.e., of "the world must be destroyed to be saved" variety). Ominae Yu and Colonel MacDougal, of course, head toward an explosive confrontation inside the revived Ark. Although the outcome is never in doubt, Kawasaki and Otomo make sure to keep the audience entertained with a colorful lightshow, even as the characters exchange heavy-handed dialogue about science, technology, human nature, and ethics.
On a technical level, Spriggan combines traditional, hand drawn animation (for the character designs) and computer animation (for the backgrounds and action set pieces). On the plus side, Kawasaki’s animators created distinctive character designs, markedly departing from the norm in animé: here, the characters are recognizably Japanese, Turkish, and European-American. The highlight of the film, however, comes when the audience is treated to a computer-assisted tour of the Ark and its many wonders. On the minus side, murky nighttime animation makes the action scenes difficult to follow.
Spriggan's reliance on running gun battles, massive explosions, and bone-crunching hand-to-hand combat predictably results in an excessively high body count (most of them faceless “extras”). For the non-initiated, it can be disturbing to see an overabundance of mayhem and violence in an animé film, even if the characters exist only in an animation cel or on a computer hard drive. Ultimately, however, Spriggan can only be recommended for Otomo completists and hard-core fans of science fiction/adventure animé. Everyone else will be better served by revisiting Otomo’s Akira or his most recent, superior, if flawed, animé project, Steamboy.
© Mel Valentin, 1st April, 2005
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