Origin: Spirits of the Past

Title: Origin:  Spirits of the Past (Japanese Title: Gin-iro no kami no Agito)
Date: 2006
Director: Keiichi Sugiyama
Writers: Nana Shiina and Naoko Kakimoto
Producers: Gonzo
Distributor: Funimation
Running Time: 94 minutes

A great deal of anime is filled with what we might consider “environmental” themes, from Space Cruiser Yamato/Star Blazers forward.  However, what to Western viewers might seem to be ecologically-conscious plots or environmental messages have deep roots in and resonances with the native Japanese spirituality of Shinto or Kami-no-Michi, “the Way of the Kami.”  One of the goals of practical Shinto spirituality is to be in harmony with the “restless movement of Great Nature,” which can be expressed as <i>kannagara</i>.  Unlike the animist (and post-animist) beliefs of many people in the Western world, however, “Great Nature” is not only to be found in uncultivated wilderness or the countryside, it is to be found everywhere, and humans are an inseparable part of it.  The difficulty comes in balancing human needs with the equally important needs of other beings — plant, animal, mineral, and supernatural (both as part of and independent of the material beings already mentioned) — that exist in the world, all of which are equally part of and originate in the actions of the <i>kami</i>.

While a great deal more could be said on this and related topics, knowing at least this much about Shinto and the <i>kami</i>, and about the tradition of anime films dealing with these subjects (including several by Hayao Miyazaki), one can come to Origin:  Spirits of the Past and have an entirely greater experience of a film that is already breathtaking in its visuals and epic in its scope.

The film is the culmination of seven years’ work, and in 2006 when it was released, it not only premiered in Japan in January, but later on in the U.S., and even in China, where it was the first anime to have done so.  As a result, it is rather historic in that respect, and a very fitting film to be a part of such an occasion.

It is not an easy film to follow, in certain respects, and it wastes no time in giving in-depth introductions to the world or to the characters in it, other than through a montage sequence during the opening titles.  (Indeed, this is true of most great works of literature, and many films as well!)  However, it is very worthwhile indeed to stick with it and not fret overly much about the back-story.

There is a kind of familiarity to the post-apocalyptic milieu in which the film takes place, and yet the reasons for this situation are not nuclear arms proliferation or natural disasters, but instead a human-made acceleration of natural growth in forests, which not only caused a large portion of Earth’s moon to be destroyed, but the majority of the Earth was also depopulated and vast swathes of forest overtook most of the land.  The Forest (note the capitalization!), meanwhile, became sentient, and often antagonistic to humans.  Several groups are presented in the film as having particular reactions to this situation:  the inhabitants of Neutral City have attempted to adapt to the situation, living in the ruins of old cities and having their water rationed by the forces of the Forest, while the military state of Ragna has resorted to heavy industrial technology in order to reclaim areas of land from the Forest.

Into this situation, we find the film’s protagonist, Agito, who is the son of Agashi, one of the three principal founders of Neutral City.  Agashi, together with Yolda and Hajan, all underwent “enhancement” earlier in their lives, being empowered by the Forest to be great warriors, at the expense of eventually growing roots and becoming trees, as Agashi has already started to do.  Agito, through a misadventure, finds a hidden chamber under the reservoir of Neutral City in which a young woman, Toola, has been in cryogenic sleep for a number of years.  Once she awakes, the Forest objects to her presence, while a group from Ragna headed by Shunack — who likewise awoke from cryogenic sleep several years earlier, but underwent enhancement before he defected to Ragna — also tries to take her into their custody.  In order to rescue her, Agito likewise undergoes enhancement and pursues Toola into Ragna territory.  Shunack plots to use the raban — an electronic identification and communication device — which Toola possesses to active a gigantic machine known as ISTOK from beneath a volcano in order to destroy the Forest and reclaim the land for humans.  Toola’s father, it turns out, designed this machine, and it was Shunack himself who was careless in accelerating the growth of the Forest and causing the entire situation that prevails on Earth in the story.  Agito and Shunack have a final face-off, in which Agito releases his full rage and becomes a tree that likewise engulfs Shunack.  But, in a reversal not unheard of for many Japanese films, Shunack (the ostensible villain, both to the people of Neutral City, the Forest, and even Ragna!) becomes one with the Forest and no longer has any aggression toward anyone, while the Forest sees that Agito may be the one to lead humans toward a more balanced relationship with the Forest, and allows him to be reborn.  A sequence in the end credits also indicates that, when future humans are being born from fruits in the Forest, this harmony has been achieved with Agito as its prototype.

Something which may be of some oddity to many viewers of the film, who may be modern pagans or polytheists, is the existence of characters in the film who are representatives of the Forest, who are called Druids.  They don’t seem to have any individual identities, and they seem to serve “the Twins,” two feminine nymph- or dryad-like spirits who speak for the Forest.  I don’t know what the term used in the original Japanese version of the film for the Druids happens to be, but I suspect that the (entirely disproven and discounted) idea of “druids” being the male counterpart to “dryads” is the implication behind that choice of terms.  That having been said, it is not a major difficulty.  As the film is not claiming to be representative of any form of historical or modern Celtic spirituality, this should not present any problems for viewing enjoyment on the part of modern pagans and polytheists.  Indeed, many modern druids would actively claim for themselves a role in being environmental advocates and even guardians of nature (whether such a role is historical or not), which is what the Druids in Origin:  Spirits of the Past are, and thus would probably be quite happy with that use of the term.

While the Forest is (rather understandably!) portrayed as quite hostile to humans initially in the film, and the hyper-industrialism of Ragna (with its smoke-belching city where its inhabitants must all wear breathing masks) is clearly also not depicted as the best approach to the matter of human survival, one cannot simply state that this is a film about nature versus culture, and neither side of that large dualism is entirely unproblematic or can be identified as “good” or “evil.”  Nature is harsh and unforgiving; even in the most militarized industrial states, there are people who have conscience and will attempt to do what is right.  (Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke ends up portraying its characters in a similar fashion.)  This moral complexity, which is found in many Japanese films and anime, is extremely refreshing to encounter.  Ultimately, a balance and synthesis of nature and human civilization is what is needed, and what seems to result by the end of the film (at least for the community portrayed in it).  One may see elements that remind one of other films as well — the circular raban being the key to the ISTOK in the heart of a volcano, and its eventual eruption at the end perhaps having some visual elements in common with the culmination of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example — but this does not make the present film derivative, and it is certainly not to its detriment.  Instead, it places it in a long line of sweeping and gripping modern mythologies.

The messages of Shinto are not overt in the film, but instead are only implicit, and even apart from them, the film can be enjoyed on many levels besides.  The majority of the animation is hand-drawn (which is becoming rarer and rarer these days!), and some of it is truly spectacular.  The soundtrack is lavish and the theme song is stirring.  I have not watched it in Japanese yet, but I may attempt to do so in the future (with subtitles, of course!) in order to note some of the differences in translation that are always present in English-dubbed versions of anime.  The Blu-Ray special features include a near-hour-long Japanese documentary on the making of the film, with director, producer, actor, and creator interviews, and footage from the premiere of the film in Japan and China.

I would highly recommend this film to anyone who is interested in anime and in post-apocalyptic or environmentally-themed science fiction.

[Phillip A. Bernhardt-House is a guest professor in the history department of the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.  Phillip’s academic publications include articles in BéascnaFoilsiú,Cosmos:  The Yearbook of the Traditional Cosmology SocietyJournal for the Academic Study of Magic, and theCeltic Studies Association of North America Yearbook, as well as several anthologies and conference proceedings volumes, and articles inParabola and Thorn.  He is also the author of Werewolves, Magical Hounds, and Dog-headed Men in Celtic Literature: A Typological Study of Shape-Shifting, published in 2010 by The Edwin Mellen Press.]

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