We cant rightly have a month of cyberpunk and not do anything by Masamune Shirow. As the creator of Cybercity Oedo, Black Magic M-66, Dominion Tank Police, and a little something called Ghost in the Shell amongst others he basically is THE master of cyberpunk in Japan, and Appleseed is his magnum opus. Its been adapted several times over the years but for something he holds close to his heart, have any of the adaptations actually been any good? Lets try and find out.
In 2133 World War 3 broke out, that while nuclear weapons were avoided still resulted in the deaths of over half of the worlds population and widespread devastation to much of the landmass. As a last resort people began congergating into giant city-states, with the biggest and most prosperous being Olympus. Olympus has the “edge” as its comprised of over 80% Bioroids, artificially manufactured human clones who have been designed to serve mankind while also not being subject to emotions of hatred or anger so as not to start conflicts. Deunan Knute is a human who is brought in to Olympus along with her former-human-now-cyborg boyfriend to be a part of its special ESWAT team responding to various terrorist incidents and other crisis.
Appleseed (1988 OVA movie)
The first adaptation came fairly early, only a couple years after the manga debuted and at the height of the OVA boom leading to its release as a short, 68-minute movie. For a long time this didn’t have a great reputation, especially once the later movies came out, so I rewatched1 it to see if my 20-year old memories were accurate. No… but also yes? This movie gives you a brief text crawl explaining the world and then kinda dumps you into the middle of things, but not too far as Deunan and Briareous are still normal police not joining ESWAT until almost halfway through. Overall its a mostly functional movie that desperately needed another 20-30 minutes to flesh some story beats out, the two main antagonists especially are woefully underdeveloped in their motivations and goals which makes the third act stakes kinda weak. Despite being the only one of these to come out in the 80s, it has the least cyberpunk look of all the adaptations with the vast majority of events happening in the middle of the day and a city that looks closer to the 20th century over the 22nd. This does give it some hilarious 80s designs in places which is probably the most enjoyment to get out of this, an artifact of a long ago time thats a cute diversion but not worth seeking out for anything deeper.
Appleseed (2004 movie)
Released with much fanfare was this all CGI movie that was meant to skew much closer to the original feel of the manga, its suitably dark and with the kind of mechanization you expect in a cyberpunk world. Its release knocked out most of the OVAs remaining defenders into having to admit this was better, but its kinda not? This thing makes the least effort of any of the entries to actually explain what is going on in the world, youre dumped into Deunan fighting in some wasteland before shes practically kidnapped and brought to Olympus, most of the backstory of the city and the world at large is glossed over in a hurry and while the movie makes a big deal about Deunans parents with everyone she meets connected to one or the other, you never see either of them which makes for some rough storytelling as you dont understand whats motivating all these people. In this fragmented mess of a story the action is kinda bad, it absolutely loves to go into slo-mo whenever someone is doing a move so half of any fight scene is slow motion, an effect which loses its potency quite quickly, and the overall early aughts CGI comes off looking like a video game cutscene (really a cel shaded one at that with the way hair is done) so its gone from being cutting edge at its release to not aging well at all.
Appleseed Ex Machina (2007 movie)
A direct sequel to the 2004 movie this one brings back all the staff of that one plus adds John Woo as a producer. Whether its the lessons learned from that movie or Woo’s influence is unknown but this is a vastly better movie, managing to do a better job setting up the world than its predecessor and simplifying a lot of the character interactions so they function in the context of this film. It streamlines a bit of the plot too, dropping the various feuding factions of 2004 for a single, not entirely secret bad guy, all while ramping up the quality of the CGI and the fight scenes so its much more impressive to look at. My biggest quibble here is theres a tendency in more mundane conversations to have characters move around a lot and mug for the camera which calls to mind 1920s silent films, but its much less of a distraction that most of the directorial choices in 2004, despite having the same director.
Appleseed XIII (2011 TV series)
The most recent entry (outside of a 2014 “alternate telling” of the 2004 movie… whatever that means) this series is divisive. Its main issue is it tries to do its full 3D CGI on a TV series budget and half the time this works, and half the time you’re diving into the uncanny valley. Screenshots are especially bad looking, so while the action stuff is better done its a bit of a hurdle to get people to even try it out. My biggest gripe is actually with its story telling, there’s some weird direction choices where it frequently cuts from people talking to mythological imagery that doesn’t seem to connect to anything other than episode titles and its really jarring, not to mention long pauses and dead air that break up plot momentum undercutting what its trying to do. The action is good I’ll reiterate, its more of an abstract as to why its not as strong as it could have been which is a shame.
So were any of these worth my time rewatching this last week? Ex Machina certainly was, its easily the best of all of them as well as being the easiest entry point into the franchise. If you really liked it then XIII is fairly decent as a continuation of the same characters and/or the OVA to try and have a little more time in the world. Really the 2004 movie is the only one I would strongly suggest you skip unless you really love the show as its hard to recommend much anything about it.
Where to watch: The OVA is actually on Amazon Prime which is a surprise as the DVD is long out of print.
Neither of the movies appears to be on any service in their normal form (note I cant check Netflix which is the most likely place to have at least Ex Machina since its a WB release) but Prime does have the Alpha reimaging of the 2004 movie.
XIII is on Funimation streaming as well as pay-per-episode on Prime.