Spriggan Anime Review
US Release By
Yu Ominae seems, to most people, like your average Japanese high school boy. Most of the time, perhaps he is. But when the mysterious ARCAM Organization requires his talents, he is also a Spriggan--a superhuman weapon of the highest order, like his comrades gathered from around the world. ARCAM uses the Spriggans to fulfill their unusual goal: Heed the wishes of a long-dead civilization by keeping the incredible technological artifacts they left behind from destroying humanity. When an artifact identified as Noah's Ark is discovered and someone launches a direct attack on Yu, he is again called into action. Since just about every government in the world is out to get their hands on the long-hidden power within the Ark, Yu's considerable talents will be necessary, particularly since it has the potential to give the one who controls it godlike power over the Earth... including the ability to wipe out humanity! Faced with the most evil and powerful of US operatives, only the Spriggans might have the ability to stop them.
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Spriggan has all the bases covered: a big budget, slick visuals, hard-hitting action, a dark, metaphysical plot, and even a dose of Indiana Jones-style "archeology" and adventure. Sadly, it squanders a lot of its potential, never managing to feel like more than a very slick action movie due to underdeveloped characters (if you haven't read the manga, anyway) and a mostly cliche story, and even as an action movie it bogs down severely in endless metaphysical villain-babble when the closing scenes should be heading for a climactic showdown.
To Spriggan's credit, there's lots of slick, expensive, and exciting action in the first half of the movie--grounded in reality enough to give it a distinctive feel, but with enough creative superpowers to keep the Ninja Scroll-loving camp happy. Between that and the gorgeously detailed international backgrounds, Spriggan is an impressive movie to watch. If only it hadn't gotten downright boring later on, it'd have been quite a ride.
Action fans and people familiar with the manga (aka Striker) will almost certainly find enough to love in Spriggan, as will folks who just can't get enough Indiana Jones, biblical references, and apocalyptic lost technology. Just don't come looking for anything particularly original story-wise, don't expect the premise to ever be fully explained (blame that on its manga heritage), and be prepared for the movie to slow down quite a bit after the halfway point.
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Spriggan is the sort of movie that anime fans love to get worked up about; it's got a big budget, slick visuals, hard-hitting action, a dark, metaphysical plot, and it has Otomo's name attached to it (as producer, in this case). Considering the success of other films that fit those criteria--Jin-Roh, Ghost in the Shell, even AKIRA--it's not surprising that Spriggan generated plenty of hype. Sadly, Spriggan barely even registers on the worthy anime scale, managing to distinguish itself as little more than a half-decent action movie with the standard problem of manga-based movies doing a poor job of accommodating the uninitiated. Considering what was there to work with, I can't call that result anything but disappointing, and it's no surprise it was quickly forgotten.
What went wrong? At the beginning, very little. The movie opens with a nice mysterious scene involving something ancient and dangerous. Although the premise is poorly-explained (unexplained, really--who exactly are these ARCAM guys?), we're thrown violently enough into some sort of espionage thriller setup that the momentum keeps things interesting. The story seems to jump around a little abruptly, but an absolutely beautiful and impressively realistic-looking action sequence involving everything from a car chase through a middle-eastern town to wild Kung-Fu-fighting more than makes up for anything the plot might've been lacking. Action worthy of a classic Hollywood spy movie with with an extra kick of believable superhuman prowess is rare, and combined with a liberal helping of Indiana Jones-style mystery and adventure it might be worth the price of admission.
Unfortunately, things start to go downhill rapidly from there. Once the plot kicks in, the characters start to feel cheesy, and the superpowered villains and gore are a little too close to the Ninja Scroll school of action to feel at home in a spy thriller. Worse, it becomes apparent that if you haven't read the manga (of which this story is the second arc) they're not going to bother establishing the characters or explaining what the heck is up with all these secret organizations. Even so, there's plenty more high-budget action to go around. Given the impressively realistic intro, I would've preferred at least a little more realism and some depth to the characters, but at the halfway point it was still looking like a quality action movie.
Then, right about when we're getting into big, fancy showdown territory, the movie grinds to a screeching, techno-babble-and-metaphysical-nonsense-filled halt. Maybe there was some sort of mix-up or disagreement among the production staff, but in all seriousness about a third of the movie is spent listening to the insane villain ramble on about purging the earth of humanity or evolutionary dead-ends or pushing the cosmic reset button or... something. I've heard just about as much ranting by maniacal anime villains trying to kill everybody on earth because humanity is worthless as I can take--I was desperate for the hero to get it over with just because it'd get the villain to shut up. Yes, humanity deserves to be wiped out. We know. Will somebody please throw a grenade or something now? (Actually, that's pretty much Yu's take on the situation. Too bad he didn't get around to it soon enough to save the film.)
Oh, and as if that weren't bad enough, the movie suddenly tries to bring in some backstory on Yu to fill out his personality. Not only is it too late by that point, but there isn't even any guy with big guns to have a final, cheesy shoot-out with at the end--that happened halfway through the movie. Nothing but a brainiac psychic ripe for a dramatic and fairly predictable showdown. To top it off, the story ends abruptly and with an entirely unsatisfying conclusion. That might have been fine where this story fit into the manga, but felt exceedingly weak if you look at it as a standalone movie.
Enough about the plot. Let's move on to one thing I'm pretty sure just about anybody can agree on: Spriggan is one fine-looking film. From start to finish, it has the expensive look of movies like Ghost in the Shell, with abundantly-detailed, true-to-life backgrounds, sharp art, realistic character designs, and ultra-slick action.
The backgrounds and action are where Spriggan shines. Some of the real-world settings have a wonderfully rich feel and impressive realism that add tremendously to the first half of the movie, giving it a nice international-spy-thriller flavor. Even the second half, though set in considerably more sparse locales, presents some eerie and creative lost technologies. On the animation end of things, the action, as I already mentioned, has a superpowered touch (the Spriggans are quite capable fellows) but enough grounding in reality to set itself apart--hard-hitting, smooth, and (mostly) exciting.
Ironically, the impressively realistic visuals hurt the movie for me; since the manga the story is taken from did not have particularly realistic art, the superhero-like abilities and cheesy characters don't feel as out of place as they do in a movie that starts out establishing a very realistic feel. Too bad the production team didn't do more to make the story work with the style they chose.
Apart from that, my only nitpicks with the visuals are that the character designs are a bit inconsistent in a few scenes, or at least look funny when drawn from certain angles. Also, several chunks of the movie are just too dark to see clearly.
The voice work didn't stick in my mind all that much, but is solid enough in both languages. I personally preferred the Japanese version on account of slightly better acting, but the accents in the English dub add a bit of extra flavor, and in truth English dialogue is more realistic (in the Japanese version you pretty much have to assume the characters are speaking English for most of it). I definitely don't have any issues with the music--grand and orchestral, it's a lively and appropriate accompaniment to the movie.
To wrap up, I'll put it this way: The opening caught my attention, and I was having a good time by the middle, but by the time the credits rolled, I was glad it was finally over and wondered how things could have gone so wrong. I've seen a lot of anime movies that start strong and finish weak, but Spriggan is near the top (er... bottom) of that class. Fans of the manga will probably have a great time, and there'll be plenty of people who haven't read the manga and will still get a kick out of either the action or the lost technology and Biblical tie-ins. Personally, although I did enjoy it overall, it seemed to squander a tremendous amount of potential, and the story never goes anywhere that hasn't been well-traveled by both anime and Hollywood before. At least it looks great.
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Despite a very different heritage, Fatal Fury: The Motion Picture probably has a more similar feel to Spriggan than anything else. Among the movies it is more frequently lumped with, it's hard to say whether Ninja Scroll or Jin Roh is a better fit, but both share similarities--the former being more splatterfest, and the latter far more cerebral, and both being more consistent. Other dark action movies like Ghost in the Shell, Akira, Street Fighter II, and Kite share some elements as well. If you like biblical tie-ins, Crystal Triangle, despite being weird, has a lot.
Notes and Trivia
Spriggan is based on the second story arc of a manga series written by Hiroshi Takashige, with art by Ryoji Minagawa. This explains quite a bit of the under-established characters and rather inconclusive story. Fortunately, the manga is available in English from VIZ (under the title "Striker: The Armored Warrior"); unfortunately, it was never very popular, so a lot of people who ended up watching the heavily-hyped movie had never heard of the manga.
ADV also released the soundtrack on CD in the US.
US DVD Review
The DVD is a solid disc. The basics are covered with a clean, anamorphic video transfer and 5.1 soundtracks in Japanese and English. The video seems rather dark to me, but that may be the fault of the original film, not ADV's transfer. For your pleasure, ADV kicks in some production sketches, as well as commentary by Matt Greenfield on the English dub.
ADV later released a special edition DVD; it doesn't list any substantial changes from the older disc.
Rated 17+ by ADV on account of some graphic violence and harsh language.
Violence: 4 - Though the bloody scenes are brief, there is plenty of gore, and a lot of fighting.
Nudity: 0 - Nothing of note.
Sex/Mature Themes: 0 - Not even any romance.
Language: 2 - Some strong language.
Staff & Cast
Original Japanese Cast
Yu Ominae: Shoutarou Morikubo
MacDougall: Ryuji Arigase
Dr. Meisel: Kenji Shiroyama
Jean: Takehito Koyasu
Fattman: Kenji Takano
Little Boy: Katsumi Suzuki
Margaret: Sakiko Tamagawa
Yamamoto: Kinryuu Arimoto
English Dub Cast
Yu Ominae: Christopher Patton
MacDougall: Kevin Corn
Dr. Meisel: Ted Pfister
Jean: Andy McAvin
Fattman: Mike Kleinhenz
Little Boy: Spike Spencer
Margaret: Kelly Manison
Yamamoto: John Paul Shephard
Mr. Smith: John Swasey
Intelligence Officer: John Gremillion
Turkish ARCAM Agent: Paul Sidello
Tanaka: Andrew Klimko
Pentagon Black Ops: Ralph Ehntholt, Bob Elliott, John Kaiser, Rob Mungle, Frank Page
Classmate A: Brett Weaver
Classmate B: Kurt Stoll
Flight Attendant: Amanda Winn
ARCAM Explorers: Markham Anderson, Ralph Ehntholt, Phil Ross
ARCAM Guard 1: Vic Mignogna
ARCAM Guard 2: J.D. Hawkins
Customs Inspector: Rob Mungle
COSMOS Yu: Ross Bautsch
Narration: John Paul Shephard
Additional Voices: Markham Anderson, Bob Biggerstaff, Victor Carsrud, Kevin Charles, Jason Douglas, Jennifer K. Earhart, Bob Elliott, Brian Granveldt, Todd Greenfield, John Gremillion, Tiffany Grant, Hillary Haag, Jay Hickman, Junie Hoang, John Kaiser, Andrew Klimko, Donl Johnson, James Marshall, Vic Mignogna, Frank Page, Phil Ross, Kira, Randy Spakrs, Greg Stanley, John Swasey, Adam Talyor, Brett Weaver, THE FOLEY GANG, The SPRIGGAN Ice Cream Social Club
Based on the comic by: Hiroshi Takashige, Ryoji Minagawa
Executive Producer: Akito Yamashita, Hiroo Takimoto, Shigeru Watanabe, Masamichi Fujiwara
Producer: Ayao Ueda, Kazuhiko Ikeguchi, Kazuya Hamana, Haruo Sai, Eiko Tanaka
General Supervisor and Screen Story Structure: Katsuhiro Otomo
Director: Hirotsugu Kawasaki
Associate Director: Norihiko Sudo
Storyboard: Hirotsugu Kawasaki
Screenplay: Hirotsugu Kawasaki, Yasutaka Ito
Music: Kuniaki Haishima
Orchestral Score: Muneo Teruya
Character Designer: Hisaishi Eguchi
Animation Director: Hisaishi Eguchi
Art Director: Mutsuo Koseki
Director of Photography: Hisao Shirai
Sound Director: Yota Tsuruoka
Gun Designs: Tensai Okamura
Mechanical Designs: Kimitishi Yamane
Director of Mechanical Animation: Masahito Yamashita
Theme Song: "Jing Ling"
Music: Kuniaki Haishima
Formerly vailable in North America from ADV Films on bilingual special-edition DVD, and prior to that available on a regular-edition DVD; both are out of print as of this writing.
At last check RightStuf still had a bit of stock of the special edition.