Still dazzled by the CGI-powered imagery of Short Peace and Knights of Sidonia, I went back and dusted off Freedom, another Katsuhiro Otomo project from seven years back. That project pioneered much of the same look in the service of an adventure that's as heartfelt in its intentions and epic in its imagery as it is goofy in its particulars and jerry-rigged in its plotting. But it works, if only because it dreams absurdly large, and because the particular dream it offers up is one I think we could all do with a little more of in these pusillanimous times: reach for the stars or die trying.
Some anime date with dismaying speed, whether because of the production design or because the approach itself was a product of a too-transient moment in time. By many standards Freedom should have dated very badly indeed: the advancing pace of CGI, for one, or the fact that the project was essentially a promotional puff piece for Nissin Cup Noodles. But the graphics are still impressive, and if you ignore the product placements — some of which are shoehorned in against all logic and coherence — there's an entertaining story here, at least up until it fizzles out in the home stretch.
The dark side of the moon
Freedom is set on the moon some hundreds of years hence, after humanity rendered the earth toxic and uninhabitable. A self-sustaining colony of several million people on Luna, named "Eden", provides all who reside there with a high standard of living — as long as they don't rock the boat. Strict curfews and disciplinary punishments are all enforced by the cast-iron fists (clad in velvet gloves) of the colony's administration. But there's just enough leeway for kids to be kids — as is the case with Takeru, the brash young chap whose passion for bike racing leads him to violate a curfew in the name of one-upping his rival Taira. The connections here to Otomo's earlier AKIRA are more than casual: Takeru even looks a whole lot like that movie's antihero protagonist, Kaneda, and being busted for scrapping with a rival gang helps set the plot's wheels in motion.
Takeru is sent outside the dome for several hours of community service, and while bopping around on the lunar dunes he comes across a freshly created crater. There, at the dead center, lies a cracked-open cornucopia of artifacts that are entirely out of place: sea shells, trinkets, and a photo of a dark-skinned girl frolicking with a gaggle of children in the surf under a blue sky. Written on the back is a message of startling force: Earth is well. See you soon. And sure enough, in the dead sky above him, the Earth itself shines blue and whole.
How is this possible, when Takeru has been told since birth that the Earth is a dead place? But Takeru, being fifteen and a guy, doesn't start there. Rather, his first thoughts are: Who is this knockout angel in the picture, and where the heck can I meet her? It doesn't take him long (although it takes him a lot longer than it really should) to figure out she's from Earth, and that the goodies he scooped up from the lunar surface were courtesy of a rocket fired from Earth as well. Just finding out that much puts him in touch with Alan — a garrulous old man who lives in a sort of squatter's town deep inside Eden, and remembers a time when mankind was reaching out to the stars and taking risks, not hunkering down and cowering.
Takeru's determination to find the girl in the picture leads him to dragoon his handyman friend Bismarck into helping him find one of a number of escape-pod rockets concealed around Eden. This they pilot back to Earth, with Takeru's lunar buggy (and a case of Cup Noodles, ha ha) secreted away in the cargo hold. It's at this point Freedom turns, hilariously, into an homage to road pictures --something I chalk up to screenwriter Dai Sato, whose fondness for American popular culture could also be seen in Eureka Seven when he named the main character "Adrock". Here, it's one part Mad Max (ruined landscapes), one part Easy Rider (especially when Takeru and Biz encounter a busful of friendly hippie types), and one part of what I guess could be called "post-idyllapocalypse", where despite everything haven fallen apart, people still manage to eke out a life, save the pieces, and keep hope alive. I suspect audiences hardened on how a collapsed future necessarily entails roving gangs of loot-'n'-shoot marauders will giggle condescendingly at this part of the story, but I found the change-up refreshing, and I suspect everyone is likely to get a laugh out of the shot of Takeru and Biz peeing into the Grand Canyon.
Earth, the final frontier
Takeru and Bismarck's road trip leads them to Cape Canaveral, where the launchpad still stands — although it's in rather wretched shape — and where a small village scrapes together what they can find to periodically launch rockets baring cargo along the lines of what Takeru found. They believe the human populations of Earth and Luna alike can be reunited, and when Takeru finds the girl in the photo — Ao is her name — he's naturally head-over-heels for her, and the way their relationship becomes more than one-sided dumbstruckery on his part is charming. Bismarck, too, has a crush of his own: a velvet-voiced older woman whose radio broadcasts (between playing what few scratchy LPs apparently remain on the face of the earth) allowed him and Takeru to home in on their settlement.
Where the story goes from here, though, is both inspiring and frustrating. Inspiring in the abstract, because it's heartening to see something, anything, that encourages us to lift our eyes from the mud and look up at the stars. But frustrating in the specific, because the whole way Freedom arrives at its climax is through one annoying contrivance after another. I'm not talking about the way Takeru inspires Ao and the others to help build a rocket to send them back to the moon; the show's already established such absurd feats are part of the territory. I'm talking more about what happens afterwards, which is driven by plotting so foolish it's barely a step above characters pulling off rubber masks and laughing. Most badly fumbled is the motivations for Eden's repressive administration. It's one thing to say that tired old men who run things with an iron fist exist in real life, but just dumping them as-is into a story doesn't automatically make them worthy of being a motivating force, or a good component of a work of fiction.
Even the coda is both great and stupid at the same time, and for many of the same reasons. The idea is fine, but the execution, the specific details of what we see, are ruinous. Spoiler alert: the whole way Takeru returns to Earth at the very end — that is, the whole mechanism by which Eden's administrators lose their grip on the populace — is never dealt with directly in any way. It's just shrugged off, which is a little like having someone go on trial and then cutting abruptly to a scene of them being found not guilty by reason of insanity. If you're going to cheat the audience, at least cheat them on the details that don't matter, instead of the details that do? It's all the more disappointing to see this come from the pen of the same guy who gave us some of the best things about Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. That said, frustrating as it is for Freedom to develop Act III engine trouble, it does build up enough goodwill before then to make its final installment worth the effort.
If nothing else, Freedom is essential as a chapter in the understanding of how CGI has been gradually supplanting hand-drawn animation, and how the challenges faced in doing so have only advanced incrementally In the seven or so years since Freedom began its release cycle. CGI makes some things easier and other things harder, and nowhere are those tradeoffs more evidence than in how it's used to put characters on the screen. The faces of the characters of Freedom look surprisingly expressive, even when it's clear they are digital creations. Backgrounds and environments, too, are remarkable. But it's the characters' bodies and movements that scream "fake!" in most every shot. I was reminded, and not in a good way, of Gerry Anderson's "Supermarionation" technique (as used in Thunderbirds, etc.).
There is something about the plasticity of hand-drawn animation, the way it encourages us to suspend our disbelief, one frame at a time, about the way a body (or a face, or a thing) can change shape and move and manifest itself. CGI doesn't replicate those things well — at least, not yet — and it's for that reason, among many others, that I wince at the way CGI elbows aside hand-drawn animation. After watching Freedom, I went back to Sidonia and compared the two, and felt there was just as much evidence to claim the state of the art in CGI-driven animation had advanced a great deal as there was to claim it had advanced very little. The way I see it, with CGI, animation runs the risk of becoming more about expressing what the tools allow you to express most conveniently, rather than about what you actually want to express.
I haven't said much about the product-placement aspect of the project, if only because it seems like an easy target. I should note that write these words after returning from Otakon 2014, during which I saw no less than three different discussions about the way crowdfunding is becoming all the more useful a way to bring older properties back to new audiences, as well as give a leg up to maverick projects that might not be able to find conventional funding. I suspect now that such things are familiar and used by pedigreed creators (e.g., Studio Trigger and Little Witch Academia), it'll be all the more convenient to bash on commercially-funded work and throw around lines like "sell-out" in conjunction with it. I'm not sure this is wise, though. Some creators might see it as being a fair exchange to plaster a little branding on a project in exchange for the kind of money they might not be able to raise on their own, or raise in a timely enough fashion to matter. I don't agree with such a view myself, but then again I've never had anything that big dangled in front of me to say definitively that I would turn it down.
When I began this essay, I wanted to make a point out of how Freedom's underlying optimism is something it seems we see less and less of each passing year. What future we will have seems to consist more and more of dystopian disaster areas, with the rest of the universe apart from planet Earth left out of the picture entirely. But that might be too facile a reading: even something like Sidonia has its own brand of dogged optimism, albeit one registered more in the strength of endurance manifested by the characters rather than anything in the setting itself. Maybe that is the most realistic kind of optimism to yearn for in such a story, but I confess there's a part of me that smiled at Freedom because of, and not in spite of, the way it insisted on even the darkest parts of the future it saw still having bright spots.