'Garm Wars: The Last Druid': Tokyo Review

Garm Wars: The Last Druid
Courtesy of Tokyo International Film Festival
Spectacular visuals set to Kenji Kawai’s heavenly choirs lend a dreamy atmosphere to an incomplete extravaganza

Japanese anime director Oshii Mamoru combines live action with animation techniques in an apocalyptic English language sci-fi adventure

Oshii Mamoru’s 1995 cyborg police yarn Ghost in the Shell made him the cult king of Japanese anime, and though his later work like the sequel Ghost in the Shell: Innocence and The Sky Crawlers didn’t reach these heights, they scaled the peaks to competition in Cannes and Venice respectively. Garm Wars: The Last Druid, a live action/animation hybrid set on worlds at war, is premiering quietly out of comp in Tokyo. It feels like an excerpt from a much longer and more complex epic with a lot of story missing. The director's usual humanistic anti-war message is telegraphed boldly, but there is often a sense that this is more an exploding video game more than a narrative film.  

Not surprisingly, sci fi and graphic novel fans will find a feast for their eyes and imaginations in the extraordinarily poetic visuals of warplanes like iron butterflies and shapely, capable space fighters, alongside Hobbit-like druids, a basset hound, and assorted cyber punk fantasies. But the director’s notoriously weak characters and storyline prove a painful obstacle to understanding what it’s all about and being interested in the outcome.

True to Oshii form, the tale opens with a blazing-fast action sequence of alien planes chasing and attacking each other, under the cool command of an old granny queen in futurist Goth attire, her decisive but misled general and his nervously barking subordinate. The info comes thick and fast in geek-speak, but a quick-witted viewer can get the gist.

Their world is at war. It circles around a blue parent planet that looks a lot like Earth. There, eight tribes once reigned and fought until five were exterminated. Now the remaining three – the Columba who control the air, the Briga who control the land and the Kumtak who control IT -- are fighting for supremacy, heedless of the tragic fate of that blue planet up there in the sky. Adding to the audience’s information overload is the oddly deja-vu presence of the long white-haired Kumtak priest Wydd (a gravely menacing Lance Henriksen from the Alien franchise) who is able to control upper-level IT systems, a doll-like female druid named Nascien who hides her intentions behind a funny metal mask, and their sacred (yes, sacred) basset hound, one of the few remaining Gulas (dogs) left. Under interrogation, Wydd blows up two stadium-sized conference halls and forces the young Briga pilot Stellig (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) to fly him, Nascien and the Gula out of danger. 

Also along for the ride is the most attention-getting figure in the film who emerges, a little late, as the main point of view: ace fighter pilot Khara22 (graceful Canadian actress Melanie St-Pierre in her first major role) who wears a red catsuit and cape and fights on the side of the Columba. Not only can she fly an attack plane, she is also adept at space-age martial arts. Unfortunately she gets killed in action in the first scene; fortunately she is soon re-cloned as Khara23 in a magical sequence shot with mirrors. Like Major Kusanagi, the cyborg protag of Ghost in the Shell, Khara wonders who she is and where she comes from. Fittingly for a woman, she asks Stellig what his first memory is (his dull answer: target practice) and why there are no human babies around anymore. Good question, whose answer is not forthcoming.

Landing on what seems to be the blue planet, or maybe elsewhere, they cross marvelous vistas of pristine forests and seas in search of the nature of their existence, fighting monstrous mechanical giants on the way. But the ending has an abrupt, cut-off feeling that broadly hints at a sequel in the making, one that will hopefully fill in the missing pieces in the story.

Little time is wasted on developing character here, the maximum being Khara and Stellig’s timed shift from tribal hostility to self-sacrificing affection. Though made up like a space Barbie, St-Pierre is a strong, mature protag whose military competence is matched by her quest for self-understanding. The more physically-minded Stellig takes a backseat to her lead, having to negotiate unfortunate geek lines like “We fight, we die, we download,” delivered straight. As the truth-seeking old Kumtak, Henriksen acquits himself with Shakespearean aplomb in a stereotyped role.

This is the first film Oshii has shot in English. He began developing the project in the mid-Nineties but needed modern digital technology to create the film’s highly layered fantasy imagery and spectacular aerial battles. All the tech work from his international crew is up there with the genre’s finest efforts. Composer Kenji Kawai again delivers haunting, ethereal music that takes the visuals to a soulful level.

Bandai Namco Games and I.G Films presents a Production I.G, Lyla Films coproductionCast: Lance Henriksen, Kevin Durand, Melanie St-Pierre, Jordan Van Dyck, Summer H. Howell, Andrew Gillies, Dawn Ford, Patrizio Sanzari, Martin Senechal
Director: Oshii Mamoru
Screenwriters: Geoffrey Gunn, Mamoru Oshii
Producers: Makoto Asanuma, Tetsu Fujimura, Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, Lyse Lafontaine
Executive producers: Michiru Ishikawa, Peter Tuovi, Shin Unozawa, Nancy Welsh
Director of photography: Benoit Beaulieu
Production designer: David Blanchard
Sound director: Tom Myers
Editor: Atsuki Sato
Music: Kenji Kawai
Casting directors: Bruno Rosato, Orly Sitowitz

No rating, 92 minutes