I first heard about this movie a few months ago (it debuted last November in theaters) as a CG-animated film which was heavily influenced by Japanese culture. Being a fan of both CG and Japanese culture, I had to see it, although I waited until it came out on Blue Ray last month.
The story involves two brothers, Tadashi and Hiro, with Hiro into creating robots and using them in underground battles. Hiro’s older brother Tadashi is a student at a prominent technology school. Without giving away much of the plot, I’ll just say both of them get involved in developing some amazing technologies, which are in a sense the real main characters of this movie.
One of the movie’s biggest Japanese elements besides the protagonist’s Japanese names (and apparently bloodlines) is the city the movie is set in: “San Fransokyo”, which as you can probably tell from it’s name is a (futuristic) mix of San Francisco and Tokyo. This setting was done quite nicely with ultra-realistic CG. I’ve been into computer graphics from way before I became interested in Japan, and this movie’s CG is without a doubt top-class (with a decidedly ‘top-class’ budget of $165 million). My only problem with the visual direction is the character design, but that is more a personal preference. Most american CG movies (unlike some of the Japanese ones) elect for funny-looking ‘comic’ like characters, which typically lack realism in one way or another. But since that was clearly a conscious decision taken by the filmmakers, I can’t really hold it against them.
Besides the CG, the other awesome thing about the movie was the action scenes – and boy there was many of them. Most of the fight scenes, and much of the movie itself, felt like cut scene or boss battle from a really, really great Japanese game. Even though I only saw one or two Japanese-sounding names on the credit’s roll, it’s clear many of those involved with this movie were very familiar with popular Japanese gaming culture. In fact, more than one part of this movie (especially some of the character design, such as hairstyle or clothes) reminded me of the Kingdom Hearts games. The bosses were also decidedly Japanese in the way they visually manifested and attacked.
As for other aspects of Japanese culture in the movie, there were a bunch of things that were Japanese-like but clearly thought of by a non-Japanese person. For example, there was strange placement of Torii gates throughout the city, and parts of the Golden Gate-ish bridge themselves looked like Toriis. Although I didn’t mention it at the time, seeing some stills from the movie previously is one of the things that inspired this post about these traditional Japanese gates and their usage in pop culture.
The fact many things weren’t authentic didn’t bother me too much, since I had the feeling the movie was more about fun and action than a documentary about Japan’s culture. There was little actual Japanese language in the movie itself except a few signs throughout the city in Japanese.
All in all, for an American CG movie it was pretty entertaining, with great action scenes, a good dose of comedy, stunning visuals, and a story that, while it wasn’t a masterpiece, did have some emotional moments. I think that the average person, adult or child, would really enjoy this film.
(Note: if you want to see a really great CG movie with better plot and masterpiece action sequences, you can check out the slightly old but never outdated Advent Children.)