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Appleseed Sentai Selects Blu-ray Anime Review

15 min read

Appleseed Sentai Selects CoverSame film, brand new encoding.

What They Say:
Plucked from the last battlefields of the final war, mercenary Deunan Knute finds herself pressed into duty with the ESWAT, defenders of the Utopian city of Olympus. But serpents lurk beneath the peaceful surface of this apparent Garden of Eden, and new seeds of destruction have already been planted! Now it’s up to Deunan and her former lover, the now-cyborg Briareos, to unravel a deadly web of plots that threaten to bring down Olympus from within!

The Review:
With the way this show was first released by using lossy DVD grade audio tracks, it’s definitely welcome to see Sentai Filmworks step up here for a priced-down re-release and do things right. The audio presentation brings us the original Japanese language track in DTS-HD MA 5.1 form as well as the two English language tracks that are included (the original and the redub). The result is a far more engaging design and mix overall that brings the film to life with a lot more impact and nuance. The action sequences naturally make out the best with the weapons, the explosions and just the footprint of the characters and mechanical aspects. But the dialogue side is well treated at the same time as placement feels stronger and the forward soundstage is richer. Naturally the throws to the rear channels are better as well and the impact we get from the subwoofer steps up a few notches. All in all a much stronger presentation for this film.

Originally released in 2004, the transfer for this film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and is in 1080p using the AVC codec. Changing from the VC-1 encoding from years ago to the now standard AVC may not seem like much but it does at least present that this is a new encode and cleaned up a bit, or as much as can be considering the layered and gradient-heavy source. Appleseed is definitely a film that plays with different styles depending on the setting as we get a very different looking film when it shifts from the opening segment where it’s a full on fight in the ruins to the lush and beautiful setting of Olympus. The opening has a murkier and grainy feel at times while the Olympus pieces feel much cleaner and more vibrant, which is all about setting the atmosphere. The colors, in general, hold up very well with a variable bitrate that’s all over the map, which is a good sign as bits are assigned where needed. There’s a whole lot of detail that’s far more visible this time around, especially in the opening shots of Olympus where I felt like you could see more of what’s behind the large glass panels than ever before. All in all, it feels like a small but strong enough upgrade visually.

Released in a standard Blu-ray case, Sentai has gone for a good traditional image for the show with the main shot of Briareos all covered in weapons and ammunition as he carries Deunan with her arms wrapped around him. The backdrop of the ruined city looks good with its charcoal grays and indistinct look that adds to the haunting effect of it all. The logo along the top is as we’ve seen before and they run with the predictable John Woo quote along the bottom which ties nicely to the second movie since he was involved in that. With this being the first Sentai Selects series title, we also get that branding, which is an additional stripe along the top in gray for it and a black border surrounding the artwork. It’s here where most of the format and corporate logos go so they’re at least placed outside of the artwork.

The back cover is very, very text heavy with only one piece of art from the show with a shot of Deunan’s training landmate in motion. A few choice quotes adorn the top while the center has the basic premise for the film and a plug for the new dub that was made for it, highlighting the continuity with the Ex Machina sequel since they use the same actors. The discs features are clearly listed while the remainder is given over to the production credits and the technical grid which covers both formats cleanly and clearly. The cover does have artwork on the reverse side but it’s not a cleaner version of the front cover without the Sentai Selects banner like some may hope. Instead, it’s a darkened city view at night with the tank moving through it as the landmates move about it.

The menu design for Appleseed is definitely better than I expected as it does a decent job with a top level menu that has the good pairing image of Deunan and Briareos together side by side looking all tough while against the backdrop of the green/gray ruins of a city. It sets the atmosphere nicely along with the navigation strip along the bottom that also serves as the pop-up menu. That menu uses the look of the glass half circle buildings of Olympus as its backdrop while having a solid black strip across it where the actual navigation is. The color scheme works well with the black, white and blues while also tossing in a little red that catches the eye nicely. Everything loads quickly and the layout is solid though I would have preferred a language menu that went up and down rather than left to right.

There’s a nice selection of extras on this release though arguably the best one is the inclusion of the original dub which did not have its cast carried over to the Ex Machina movie. Having this original work here is very welcome since it’s solid overall and good to have preserved. The commentary track with the director and producer is kept as well, encoded at 320kbps for those curious, while we also get the “Birth of 3D Live Anime” documentary which runs about thirty minutes and shows what went into the production when it comes to how they created the look of it. The Staff Profiles section is a nice bit that highlights some of the top level people behind the film with a good rundown of some of their accomplishments and who they are.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Originally out in 2004 and released in the US by Geneon in 2005, the title which spawned a sequel that Warner Bros. distributed (which was dubbed by the now defunct ADV Films), Appleseed previously hit the Blu-ray format but had a number of problems with it that kept it from being up to snuff. It was a bad release in that it worked off of the Warner release which was originally authored to be dual format as an HD DVD release was planned, which meant it had no lossless audio and it couldn’t take advantage of what the Blu-ray format had to offer with its encoding (or codec). Thankfully, Sentai’s fully re-authored this release with present day encoding guidelines and codecs so we get a proper and stronger release here.

I’ve long enjoyed the Appleseed franchise as the original manga done way, way back in time was one of my first exposures to manga. There’s certainly some nostalgia there but also a real sense that manga simply isn’t done that way, or if it still is, it’s not getting released over here. While it’s been quite a few years since I last read the manga, there are plenty of changes to accommodate what is a large political and sociological thriller that’s combined with mecha action into a more compact movie form. The introduction of the characters is altered and the overall initial storyline is adjusted as well, but many of the same elements remain. In a way, I’m sure this is one of those reasons that I was able to enjoy the movie as much as I did since I was mentally adding in things I knew to it. Unlike the Ghost in the Shell movies which have leaned towards pushing the heavy philosophical and sociological aspects of their source material as the focus, Appleseed takes that material as its launching point and background story but intends to be an action movie overall.

The world of Appleseed takes place in some near future within the next fifty years or so. The world was at global war once more and humanity is pushed once more to the brink. In the ruins of one of the cities we meet up with a small group of humans who are fighting against what appear to be completely robotic warriors and tanks, but robots with a good idea towards stealth and deception. The fight between the two sides in this darkened ruined city is quick and dangerous and very well choreographed, but it all comes down to one character, a young woman named Deunan Knute, who survives only thanks to the arrival of an airship that has a crew of human piloted mechanical suits that are overly powerful.

As Deunan learns, she’s been scouted by a young woman named Hitomi to have her brought to the city of Olympus, the center of what’s really left for the future of humanity. Deunan’s shocked to see this massive sprawling city that’s a glittering utopia, filled with happy people, children and a working civilization. The realization that the war she’s been fighting has been over for years now is evident. To her surprise, one of her oldest comrades in that war who was lost well over a year ago is also here in Olympus. Briareos, the tall masculine can-do man, lost it all in one battle and has found himself rebuilt as a cyborg, the kind in the style that only Shirow seems able to design. Though a bit colder in his approach now, he’s there to help Deunan adjust to Olympus as well as bring her into the ESWAT group.

Olympus isn’t a normal city by any stretch of the imagination. In the aftermath of the war and using research from just before it, the seven Elders who seemingly run things have created an interesting system but one that is easily seen to cause fear in the hearts of many men. Half of the cities population is made up of Bioroids, human looking creations that are flawless in appearance but lack certain key things. The main thing missing is their ability to reproduce; they must be grown in a factory like style. Due to this, they have no sex drive and therefore are already cut back on some key human emotions. Others are tightly controlled which lead to the Bioroids being a race that lives and co-exists with humanity in an attempt to help calm down the angry fires of humanity and to help them become the proper stewards of the planet and life in general.

The city itself is overseen by the Intelligence Network dubbed Gaia, a supercomputer that works in consultation with the seven Elders as they go through continual debates on the best course of action that will ensure humanity’s survival. The military is placed under the command of humans and operates relatively free of Gaia outside of ensuring that the city is safe in itself and well protected. But Gaia has its own set of strengths that have been growing in recent years. Under the guidance of Governor-General Athena, a Bioroid herself, she’s created an ultra police squad called ESWAT that can perform much of the same duties as the military but it’s a pared down specialist organization that uses personal combat mechas called Landmates to operate with.

Back in the 80’s, things like the Landmates were impressive and interesting visions of how personal body armor would evolve in the future, especially with regards to cybernetics and more. In 2004 when this was made, never mind 2010, they’re admittedly not as revolutionary as they once were but they’re still a really neat element to them in how they move and interact with their surroundings. They’re an interesting tool that the ESWAT team uses to fight off the various problems that show up in a place like Olympus. Deunan is instantly attracted to them and is naturally very adaptable to them once she gets into it and her loner nature makes it easy for her to spend time with it and figure out how to use it. Of course, field use is the best way to learn for some and with Deunan being targeted for death the minute she came into the city; she gets to use it pretty fast.

Various factions within the city-state are trying to achieve their goals. The high ranking leader of the Regular Army is trying to ensure humanity won’t be enslaved by the Bioroids as he believes that’s the plan. Athena is trying to ensure that the Bioroid race isn’t sent into the history books too early as there’s a failsafe virus within Olympus that will cause all of them to die within a certain period of time should it be released. The seven Elders and Gaia are looking out for the best interests of both parties but also see the potential of a third race being the true path to the future. And while it’s cliched, Deunan’s arrival is the spark that lights everything up and pushes everyone to go forward with their plans and attempt to control Olympus.

There are a few things that I want to cover in regards to this movie and a lot of it just comes from me being familiar with and like the Appleseed property. As mentioned early on, the movie for the most part really avoids the heavy philosophical and sociological questions that do arise from such a premise because going after that would either be a longer and more talk-talk movie. The intent is instead to use it as a backdrop, albeit one that’s important, to what’s essentially an action movie. Depending on your opinion of action movies in general, this is either going to a be a series of cliched action sequences strung together where you can figure out what’s coming next before it happens or it’s going to be something where you just get into the flow of it and enjoy it. I’m not huge on action movies but I’ve certainly seen my fair share in my lifetime of movie going and I ended up going into this movie with no expectations other than hoping it was better than the old anime OVA and I came out from it extremely pleased and very happy with it. The action sequences are fast and engaging and highly detailed. While there isn’t a lot of blood violence to the movie since it’s a lot of mechanicals fighting against each other, there’s a lot of destruction built into ruining them. During one sequence where some cyborg assassins are after Deunan, when they get ripped apart there’s a large amount of detail into how a ripped arm comes apart and all the pieces inside are there.

One small detail that I have to say something about as well in making a small mental leap in keeping up with the disbelief. There’s a moment in the movie where Briareos, a cyborg himself, is severely wounded and lying on the beach. His body is dealing with the problems that the fights incurred and even though he’s mostly made of metal parts, his body convulses with a small fit of “coughs”, even though he’s got nothing like a mouth or even a humanoid head. I just mentally shook my head at it because I thought it was one of the things that the Appleseed and Ghost in the Shell properties both do so well and that’s to look at what humanity is giving up at times when they become cyborgs. The “phantom limb” theory applies very easily to this scene and it was the first thing I thought of. Briareos is still human inside and his brain and whatever parts of his human body still reside within the cybernetic casings still react to memories. There are so many things people do without conscious intent that they don’t need to do that something like this was just self-explanatory.

The style of animation used here, with the cel shaded design, was very new at the time and has been built upon pretty well since then, though it hasn’t become common. There was a ton of debate back in 2004 about whether this would work, but I found the style to be fascinating to watch as one of the big steps where things could change. They look of the film certainly was something that you could do with material like this, more so than a high school romantic comedy to be sure, and now six years later and a sequel later I still have a real enjoyment of this style. I want to keep seeing it refined and built on, though not to replace what we have for animation but rather to complement it since there are shows it can work well for.

During any of the scenes done outside of Olympus, the feel of things was much rougher, darker and grimier. Other than some of the clean looking outfits from those from Olympus, you’d be incredibly hard pressed to make comparisons of the shows look to anything else except maybe an incredibly high budget cut scene. When the show shifts into Olympus, it becomes much brighter, much shinier in its feel. But that’s also the point. Olympus is called Utopia. It’s filled with the biggest and brightest buildings, lush park systems and lots of very happy people. The city is designed to be very human friendly. Just looking at the highway system where it all works on hover cars of sorts, the reflective look of the road is just another piece that’s used in the science fiction aspect of it but at the same time can look like it’s out of place since you expect “roads”. Some of the outfits come across as a bit glossy and plastic as well, particularly some of the Regular Army commanding officer outfits where the blues really don’t seem to work as well. And for the most part, the faces of the characters continue to be the last area that really needs work for moving this kind of animation forward. The lip-sync in general was fairly decent and not terribly noticeable but there were some areas that were really off and the emotional side of the characters, while getting much better, still needs more work.

In Summary:
It’s been a few years since I last saw the film and I’ll still admit that I’m hard pressed to say whether this movie has aged well or not – especially in contrast to the Ex Machina film which had the advantages in story terms by being a sequel. What we get here is a movie that started to do something new with a classic property and did it pretty well in my book as I enjoyed it when I first saw it in the theater. I have a real love of Appleseed so I understand that my enjoyment of this film will not go over well with other die hard fans. But I found this to be a very, exciting and very enjoyable adaptation of the original material that doesn’t detract from it in the slightest. I love the music, I like the animation style a whole lot and the pacing and action are solid throughout. And now I feel like I’m finally able to get it the right way at home thanks to this new Blu-ray edition with the better encoding both in video and audio. The end result is probably the strongest the film will look at this point and the fact that they brought it out cheaper with a complete reauthoring is pretty welcome all around. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea due to the animation style but as we’ve seen that style evolve in the last ten years I’m still hopeful for more installments of the franchise in some form. This feature reminds me why.

Japanese DTS-HD MA 5.1 Language, English DTS-HD MA 5.1 Language, Alternate English DTS-HD MA 5.1 Language, English Subtitles, Audio Commentary, The Birth of 3D Live Anime, Staff Profiles, Original Japanese Trailer, Special Japanese Trailer

Content Grade: B+
Audio Grade: A-
Video Grade: B+
Packaging Grade: B
Menu Grade: B
Extras Grade: B

Released By: Sentai Filmworks
Release Date: September 8th, 2015
MSRP: $19.98
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Video Encoding: 1080p AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Widescreen

Review Equipment:
Sony KDL70R550A 70″ LED 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.

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