Gonzo don’t make many feature films. Indeed, despite once being known for their wildness and experimentation, these days it’s quite hard to pin down what defines them as a studio. They went from being that experimental studio who took risks on things like Gankutusou, Gantz and Last Exile to churning out the likes of Rosario + Vampire and Strike Witches. These days they mostly either revive an old property or quietly slip under the radar, which is a shame. Other than this one, their feature films are limited to some cute-looking piece about a kappa I haven’t seen, an Afro Samurai follow-up that looks just as artificial as the original – but also Brave Story, a classic and charming little work I very much enjoyed. So I was curious about Agito, which is after all quite well-marketed in English territories and usually put next to the Ghibli DVDs to make it sell better (which used to be the strategy for KumoKaze, though that one at least looks like Ghibli).
So today I finally got around to watching the 2006 film, hoping for some of that old Gonzo edge. But it was not to be found here. Yes, they had their very-nearly-working-without-quite-fitting-in CGI machines that always make me think of Last Exile. Yes, they took it very seriously and went for the epic about the dangers of meddling with Mother Nature. Yes, the characters were pretty and the action was impressive. But Agito left me cold. It really just has very little heart. Its characters are underdeveloped, its world is unconvincing and its pacing is haphazard. It wasn’t dull and I’m glad I’ve seen it, but I wouldn’t recommend it and I doubt I will ever want to rewatch it.
In a dystopian future a few centuries from now, an experiment on genetically-engineered trees on the moon has gone awry. The moon itself is split now, with debris arcing across the sky (an image I’m sure is not original to this, though I can’t think where else I’ve seen it), and the plants – which rained down like nukes – have forced humanity into a corner. A militarised state retaining a good degree of the technology of the time before the disaster plans to wipe the forest out, while the forest itself is capable of attacking any who breach its perimeter – and to communicate with humans with creepy avatars. In the middle of this is Neutral City (at least, that’s the English name) which stands in the middle, and where our hero Agito lives with his friends – and with his debilitated father, who with some others made a pact with the forest and was given superhuman powers to establish this new status quo, at the cost of slowly turning into a tree.
Water is very scarce and cheeky Agito is on a run to get some more for his father when he is washed into a mysterious underground structure, and awakens a girl from the past. As girls from the past usually do, this one has a McGuffin – a device around her neck that can locate and activate a great weapon against the forests – and as girls from the past also usually do, she ends up having to make a moral choice between saving the world and maintaining the lifestyles of some people in a village who showed her kindness and just want to carry on as they are. Agito gives up his humanity to go to her rescue, but of course doesn’t have to make the same sacrifices as everyone else who does what he does because he has some very strong feelings. Rather than an uplifting end to his story arc, this just makes all the decisions he had to make seem shallow overall. Essentially, it’s Laputa with a volcano instead of a flying city, and with all those personalities Miyazaki manages to sketch so quickly removed…and the one point where they could have bettered Laputa – with a complex and deep villain – they basically have the same person.
They also managed to have a voice actor in the main role who for the first time in a very long while I felt was entirely inadequate in Japanese. With his very limited credits in 2006, I assume this seiyuu was a drama star who could pull in a teen audience, because he certainly isn’t a veteran of the scene and it shows badly. He has such a flat performance, and when he’s supposed to be screaming for his life or scared out of his wits…he just sort of says, ‘ahhhh…’
I wanted to like Agito. I liked the world, and the clothes, and the fluid movements and pretty much everything about the aesthetic. I liked the concept and the moral questions raised. But it just didn’t manage to develop in any gripping or satisfying way. A shame.