A Tree of Palme
Palme is your typical android with a heart of wood
Amy Harlib · October 15, 2003 | Director Takashi Nakamura's most recent feature offers a dazzling allegorical science-fantasy tale rich in entertainment value and meaning. Having considerable experience doing animation work for, most notably, Hayao Miyazaki (specifically art production and design for Nausicäa), and having worked on Akira, Neo-Tokyo and Dagger of Kamui and having helmed Catnapped (among others), Nakamura's latest effort noticeably shows the artistic influence of the towering talent of Miyazaki yet retains a distinctness of its own.

A Tree of Palme takes place on a distant otherworld populated by humans living side by side with numerous other humanoid species using technology ranging from early-industrial to very advanced, with the highest tech belonging to a mostly antagonistic subterranean civilization. All must cope with an exceedingly intricate and diverse indigenous ecology composed of many seemingly intelligent, exotic-looking organisms.

The titular character Palme turns out to be an artificially intelligent robot created by a botanist, employing a unique blend of circuitry and a special kind of local wood with rare energy-conducting capacity. Palme's appearance, resembling that of a young boy, suits his intended function—to assist his builder's dying wife Xian. After Xian shuffles off this mortal coil, Palme loses energy, becoming barely operable until the arrival of the fugitive warrior woman Koram (Yurika Hino), on a mission bearing a package containing a crystal filled with an oil legendary for its soul-restoring properties. Entrusting Palme with the parcel that must be kept from those wishing to use its contents for malign schemes, Koram eludes her pursuers and gives Palme a galvanizing purpose for his existence. He becomes determined to take up Koram's quest to deliver the uncanny substance to its source: the center of the planet, threatened by the same destructive foe.

Palme, swiftly benefiting from the life-bestowing powers of the object in his care and thoroughly awakened, makes his way toward an urban center where he can find help to achieve his goal. In the bustling, confusing, cosmopolitan city, Palme falls in with a band of several orphaned youngsters of diverse genetic backgrounds who he helps escape from cruel slavery. These grateful children, used to a bleak existence of scavenging and pilfering to survive, join Palme on his journey, a change in their lives that also offers them hope for a better future. During their travels, the youngest urchin Pu (Mika Kanai) becomes closest to Palme while the leader Shatta's (Daisuke Sakaguchi) attitude toward the protagonist progresses from suspicious rivalry to warm companionship. Palme also forms a bond with Popo (Megumi Toyoguchi), a young girl resembling Xian, who is running away from her bitter, widowed mother's abuse.

Along the way to the exciting, transcendent climax, Palme and his friends must evade pursuit by Popo's mother-from-hell and by the advanced underground culture's faction that desires the item in Palme's care for their own selfish, exploitative purposes. The quest soon takes on a layered significance while the plucky band encounters the various environs and their myriad inhabitants flourishing on their world; many of the most bizarre-looking creatures frequently prove far more benign than the antagonistic humanoids that most resemble Palme. Amid these adventures, Palme notices the crystal he carries exerting a transforming effect that will have profound consequences on his spiritual growth and his final fate. It likewise affects his friends.

A Tree of Palme
Toho Company, 2002
Directed by Takashi Nakamura

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The theme of Palme's desire to become more human, while initially bringing Pinocchio to mind, soon develops divergent, more imaginative and emotionally poignant ramifications, especially in their ultimate effect on Popo in addition to their effect of the protagonist. The characters, all quite colorful and vivid, mature and grow throughout the absorbing story that unfolds against a stunning backdrop of gorgeous alien landscapes. Whether the vicissitudes of their voyage takes the heroic youngsters into the air, on the ground, into forests or along rivers, the sense of wonder and interest in the outcome rarely flags except in one or two spots in the over two-hour–long narrative.

A Tree of Palme features spectacular visuals and subtexts involving personal maturation, the meaning of humanity, and the benefits of learning to live in harmony with a complex environment, but they never interfere with the movie's entertainment value. This charming science-fantasy cinematic saga owes much to the influence of Hayao Miyazaki, but Nakamura's story treatment tends to be lighter (exceptions being the frothy My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service), with the message leavened by lots of humor in the interactions between Palme and the younger protagonists and in the slapstick moments during their adventures. Enhanced by a haunting, atmospheric score, this film, so rich in content, with its own style despite its homages, blossoms in the minds and hearts of its viewers and deserves to flourish in the anime field and to propagate in the wider world.
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