Devotees of Japanese anime features may proclaim “Spriggan” a masterpiece of the genre. It was made under the “supervision” of Katsuhiro Otomo, the maker of “Akira” (1988), which is widely considered the goliath among anime flicks; it’s based on the comic book “Striker!,” which was inspired by Otomo’s film; and it’s directed by Hirotsugu Kawasaki, a protégé of Otomo who’s obviously following in the master’s footsteps. And, to be sure, some of “Spriggan” is extraordinary. The background art is extremely impressive, with drawings of mountain peaks and snow-covered tundra that are extraordinarily beautiful (even if the camera does tend to linger on them overmuch, presumably because the director is understandably hesitant to shortchange landscapes that must have taken enormous effort to create). Some of the animated science-fiction effects of blinding light and multi-dimensional transport are well-done, too.
But that doesn’t compensate for character drawing which remains rudimentary at best and, even more importantly, for a storyline that’s confused, derivative and ultimately very silly. The overarching spy-versus-villain plot has to do with the discovery of Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat, which turns out to be (I think) an ancient alien vessel with the power to control the weather and, thereby, earth’s destiny. The artifact is being investigated by scientists associated with a group called Arcam, an international entity apparently dedicated to protecting the planet against terrorist efforts to destroy the world, especially by using powers unleashed by archaeological discoveries. But their control of the Ark is challenged by a bunch of meanies called Machine Corps, apparently funded by a secret, evil part of the Pentagon and led by the weird Colonel MacDougall, a sinister child in a baseball cap whose brain has been artificially enhanced and who possesses special telekinetic powers. The bad-guys’ efforts are resisted by a couple of super-warriors or spriggans, the Japanese teen Yu Ominae and the Frenchman Jean Jacques Mondo, who (we learn late in the picture) are genetically-engineered soldiers. They do battle with MacDougall and his cyborg henchmen (one of whom is Yu’s old commander, purportedly deceased) in a spectacular finale inside the Ark, which MacDougall intends to use to wipe out humankind.
This precis should be taken only as provisional–much in the narrative remains murky even after one has sat through the picture–and it’s hardly complete, since there are all sorts of ancillary story elements yet unmentioned (a prologue in which Yu’s school is blown up, a flashback to his unhappy youth, a chase he must endure through the streets of what one presumes is Ankara, lots of talk about environmental dangers, and so on). But though “Spriggan” manages to be both ludicrously convoluted and peculiarly childish, its worst fault is that it’s mind-numbingly violent. It’s filled with explosions, battles, fistfights, and mass slaughters; more blood spurts and gushes in this picture than the entire Schwarzenegger oeuvre, and though it’s cartoon blood, it’s just as red and disgusting as the real stuff. Anime is supposed to be animation for adults, and in this case it’s certainly inappropriate for children; the “R” rating is well-earned.
Even grown-ups enamored of this sort of picture, however, are likely to find “Spriggan” tough going, simply because the hero is such a dreary creation. Presumably the viewer is meant to identify with him–his name is Yu, after all–but not only is he a brash fellow without any strategic sense, but even after he’s fitted with what’s called Orihalcon battle armor, an unbecoming suit that’s said to increase his strength thirtyfold, he’s regularly beaten to a pulp or simply zonked into unconsciousness by whatever foe he’s put up against. Yu is reported to be Arcam’s best agent, but on the evidence of his exploits here, he’s an incompetent whose only tactic is to rush in with guns blazing, blithely oblivious to the realities of the situation. Simply put, Yu is an dumb little twit, and it’s impossible to care about him, let alone like him. By contrast Mondo is a trifle more intriguing–as far as snooty, arrogant Frenchmen go–but he’s no world-beater, either. As for MacDougall, he’s simply creepy. It will hardly surprise anyone that at the film’s end, the world hasn’t been destroyed (don’t count that as a spoiler), but the prospect of a sequel, implied by the open-ended close, is hardly welcome.
The sole reason to see “Spriggan” is a technical one: some of the background animation is lovely to look at. But its flaws in plotting and character development are fatal. Except for really extraordinary level of violence on display, in these departments it’s not much better than Saturday-morning TV.