It's hard to pin down which is the best Shirow adaptation. Both Ghost in the Shell movies owe as much to director Mamoru Oshii as they do Shirow, and the various Dominion OAVs capture his humorous, looser side. Unfortunately, it's pretty easy to pick the worst: That honour goes to the 1988 OAV Appleseed, which I reviewed in fps nine years ago. Its main crime was that it removed some of the best aspects of Shirow's work and largely reduced it to a standard cops-and-robbers action movie; its secondary crime was that while it did a good job of streamlining Shirow's characters for animation, the animation itself was extremely lacklustre.
This new Appleseed, a theatrical release coming fourteen years later and hot on the heels of the second Ghost in the Shell movie, gives us more than that regrettable OAV. Like the first—indeed, like everything Appleseed—it's set in the post-war city of Olympus, a self-declared utopia where everyone's needs are catered to, thanks to the city's central computer Gaia and the bioroids (manufactured humans) that make up half the populace. The film's main character, consummate soldier Deunan Knute, has been rescued from the badlands and reunited with her old comrade-in-arms and former lover Briareos Hecatonchires, and recruited to join the city's ESWAT (Extra Special Weapons and Tactical) team.
There's plenty here for Appleseed fans, including some seriously kick-ass mecha combat, but I was disappointed by a deficiency in one crucial area: Deunan and Briareos's affection for one another. Briareos's body is more cybernetic than organic, and one of the manga's greatest strengths is the unqualified love and trust they share. In an interesting twist, Deunan's last memory of Briareos near the movie's beginning is of him as fully human; when she awakens for the first time in Olympus, she's shocked that he's alive, and that, to all appearances, he's no longer flesh and blood. For much of the movie they're awkward around each other, and there's an undercurrent of mistrust on Deunan's part which plays very well to the needs of the plot. There's a tension between what the characters feel and what they think they should be feeling, but it mostly comes out in dialogue—it doesn't come out on screen as much as it should.
This is the third all-CGI anime feature I've seen to date, but the first one with a decent story to hang onto. It's also the first to use a cel-shaded style that allows for greater visual coherence. At the same time, though, a lot has been lost. Although Appleseed's characters don't quite have the stiffness of, say, your average console game character, they do suffer from some of the symptoms of CG-itis, most notably a strict literalism that robs them of vitality. One of the great things about hand-drawn art of any kind is that the artist can cheat—stretching a limb, flattening a line, exaggerating a mouth—just enough to provide emotional impact, even if a character is momentarily distorted unrealistically. It's not that this is impossible in CGI, but Appleseed abandons these tricks and doesn't replace them with anything. The end result does nothing for character intimacy. In once scene, we get a hug that doesn't convey the sense of being wrapped up in another person, but rather just of one figure clasping another. The only time I felt really engaged was during the combat scenes, which featured mecha and bioroids—not terribly much character animation there. (However, it's good to see that Aramaki's experience on such projects as Megazone 23 Part 3, Bubblegum Crisis and Genesis Climber Mospeada—the basis for the third Robotech saga—has led him to create extremely dynamic action scenes that nonetheless are easy to follow.)
Nine years ago, I wrote that Appleseed fans expect the best. While this Appleseed is a vast improvement over the previous one, it's still not quite enough. After watching the movie, it occurred to me that a common sentiment is that great animation can't save a bad story. But in this case we have so-so animation dragging down a good story. On balance, it makes for a positive tally on the Shirow-adaptation scorecard, but he—and we—still deserve better.