A Tree of Palme (Parumu no Ki)

A Tree of Palme (Parumu no Ki) 2002

Over at Iridium Eye Reviews a little while back I was talking with Curtis about A Tree of Palme and he described it as an ‘avant-garde anime Pinocchio’ and I reckon that’s a spot-on description of the film, so I’d like to borrow it!

(You can check his review here :D)

I finally had the chance to see this one late last year and it was compelling. It’s a complex story and deserves a more detailed write up than I’m going to manage, but it’s also not without some flaws for me.

But! I want to nudge those off to the side for a bit and get back to what I enjoyed – first and foremost, the art and the way it fed the world-building was fantastic. It’s a mostly sombre palette with lots of shadow and blues but there’s still variety. The animation is detailed and fluid and character designs stand out too, which is most welcome in a story with a big cast.

Probably no surprise from me here, but I’d have loved more world-building detail! On the other hand, it would have been tough to fit much more into an already long movie, which has a fairly epic storyline.

The music too was moving, from the orchestral to the more sparsely arranged moments. Above all, I think I remember the Theremin most. There’s a piece below that generally signals the atmosphere of the film – and atmosphere in A Tree of Palme is indeed its own character; I think the music fits the narrative and visuals in a way that adds to the fantastical and unnerving setting.   

A Tree of Palme was directed by Takashi Nakamura, who was behind (among other things) the excellent ‘Chicken Man and Red Neck’ from Robot Carnival. If you’ve seen that short you might get a vague feel for the storytelling tone, which can be frenetic and even jumpy – that’s not instantly a problem either, but here I wanted a little more of a conventional narrative at times.

And I’m not sure I even should desire that as a viewer, because the non-linear and multi-part structure is part of what makes this film memorable.

Pushing back against that thought is the feeling that some of the sharp cuts between competing storylines don’t give me enough of either thread or character. Overall, Palme’s quest to become human seems too quickly absorbed into the far bigger story at play, which appears as a vague mythology, for one example. At other moments I wanted a bit more context around some of the competing interests in the movie too*.

Finally, I had a bit of trouble warming to Palme himself – now, I’m only one viewer so you certainly don’t have to take my word for it but in my mind, he’s more of an antagonist than hero. Part of my reasoning there is that he is powerfully selfish – or, if I were being kind, driven.

There’s a key moment in the latter half that’s really important in terms of showing onscreen growth, of showing that this is a robot struggling to figure out how to be human, but far earlier we’re shown something that soured me on him right away.

In the film’s opening we witness Palme’s cold dismissal of his creator, for what seems to be years at a time. The wooden/mechanical robot is meant to be grief-stricken to the point of shutting-down completely, and his single-minded desire to find his missing mother often turns him into a problem for those around him, especially Popo.

Now, what is clear to me despite what I’ve mentioned above, is that a big part of my problem is that I’m clearly projecting my expectations of human behaviour onto a robot, and that’s not going to fly. So whether you feel Palme is a selfish machine or a troubled character given human characteristics by the narrative, might fluctuate and change as the film goes on.

Still, I’d recommend this if you’re interested in long fantasy epics and great production values in anime – but not if you’re looking for a lean narrative more in line with a Disney adaptation, because A Tree of Palme is certainly far more challenging!

4 Stars

* Related to this, I think I would have enjoyed the story just as much or more if it had actually been told completely from Koram’s POV.

Robot Carnival (Robotto Kānibaru)

Robot Carnival (Robotto Kānibaru) 1987

This anthology really started something great and while for me, it’s not as strong minute-to-minute as one of Otomo’s later anthology-releases Memories, it’s still a must-see for fans of anime history, or science-fiction anime.

Just like with all anthologies out there, not everyone will enjoy every single short in the collection, but out of the nine here you’ll definitely find something to like if you dig robots. For most people, a short called Presence tends to be the favourite but I’ll come to that in a little while.

Instead I’m going to quickly mention (with spoilers for shorts 4 and 8) something from each of the other pieces, some of which basically focus on the exploration of the medium and technique, rather than narrative (but that’s not necessarily a negative at all):

1 Opening

At times, the Opening (and Ending) evokes a demented, terrifying Fantasia and as impressive as it is, it’s a kinda depressing first note.  

2 Franken’s Gears

Obviously a mechanical Frankenstein – like many of the pieces here it reveals a fantastic level of detail. And, like a few of them it’s played a bit like a silent move in terms of dialogue at least.

3 Deprive

This one feels like a straight up action sci-fi (and it is) – short and to the point, I’d have loved dialogue but all the storytelling is still there and there’s some great character designs.

4 Presence

See below 🙂

5 Star Light Angel

Watching this today it kinda feels like the perfect film-clip to a city-pop love song, and the existing music in the episode already gives off that vibe, actually. Elsewhere, musical giant Joe Hisaishi ranges from action-synth or haunting piano pieces.

6 Cloud

Occasionally folks report this animated series of illustrations as their least favourite and sure, it’s not action-packed but it has the most intense visual representations of a storm; it’s worth seeing for that passage alone.

7 Strange Tales of Meiji Machine Culture: Westerner’s Invasion

This one plays as a kinda goofball comedy or parody of a propaganda film (and most of the cast is amusing) but the lead hero is pretty tedious, as his answer to every problem or question is essentially to shout “shut up”.

8 Chicken Man and Red Neck

This is fairly harrowing and again evokes a more sinister Fantasia as robots in a futuristic city rise up to party during the night – it’s incredibly complex and often frenetic, and another highlight.

9 Ending

(As above :D)

4 Presence

And finally the most compelling of the stories, for me and many folks over the years it seems, which is Presence by Yasuomi Umetsu.

Now, there’s lots to like the fourth short film, from the clever introduction to the world and its robotics, to the lush colours and distinctive character design or the memorable storyline, but I think a lot of reviews miscategorise this one as a tragedy.

For me, it’s more of an extended vignette of a villain and a coward.

The protagonist is an ungrateful sap who has refused to accept the things which should make him happy, and attempts to replace his loneliness with a robot companion. Whether the girl (whose design is reminiscent of Holiday-era Madonna) provides companionship, sex or both, becomes almost incidental as the story takes a turn.

Once she dares to request a life of self-direction, he freaks out and attacks her. After this act, he seals his creation away and just returns to his life, continuing to ignore all the things he has and worse, things which he denied to the girl he built.

At the end, after a couple of time jumps, he commits his final act of cowardice and cements his role of villain, as someone truly worthy of the viewer’s contempt.

And that’s part of what makes it such a great short film – it evoked a strong response 🙂

Okay, there we go – spoilers over! And can you believe that I set out to make this a short review? I suck at that lately!

4 Stars

Harmony (Hāmonī)

Harmony (Hāmonī) 2015

Just a short review today:

A little while ago I mentioned some context around production of three films released until the ‘Project Itoh’ moniker (which you can see here) and I suspect that Empire of Corpses is my favourite, but that isn’t to claim that Harmony was unenjoyable at all (or Genocidal Organ for that matter).

I will say that I didn’t find Harmony quite as atmospheric as EoC, but stylistically it’s definitely memorable, at times dream-like, and similar to the other films based on Satoshi Itō’s novels.

In all stories the speculative aspects were probably the main hook for me, both interesting and disturbing. Harmony especially, I think placed questions on what a relentlessly health-obsessed society would look like in the forefront, over character or story.

And while the oppressive elements of EoC or GO are balanced by either the boldness of the mash-up or relative calmness between skirmishing and slaughter, Harmony seems to balance the darker aspects with a somewhat half-hearted exploration of a lesbian relationship.

There, the villain manipulates the heroine, told largely via flashbacks in an ecchi style and maybe misses the chance to develop the characters. Or perhaps I’m just being too hard on the adaptation and the novel gives the relationship extra care?

Still, I think if you like stories that explore free will then you might find enough to enjoy here – there’s also some great costuming, a bit of action and intrigue but mostly, things like the use of colour and the time spent on the settings, the exploration of a futuristic world, that I enjoyed most.

(And also I should mention that the creepy performance from Reina Ueda as Miach Mihie really stood out too.)

3 Stars