Imagine what would happen if you mixed the cyberpunk society of Ghost in the Shell with the frontier-like desert planet of Trigun and the giant mecha of Gundam. You’re in luck! It has already been animated and shown in Japanese theaters under the title Expelled From Paradise.
Expelled From Paradise follows Angela, a girl in her twenties, who was raised in a Matrix-like computer system on a space station orbiting a post-apocalyptic Earth. But after a hacker from the devastated planet below breaks into the system, she is tasked with finding and stopping the hacker in the real world. To do this, she is transferred into a clone body, given a mech, and told to meet up with Dingo, an agent living on Earth.
Thus begins her fish-out-of-water tale as she not only finds herself in a strange land she knows nothing about but also has to deal with a life trapped in a body that, unlike her digital one, requires food and rest. Together, Dingo and Angela travel across the frontier-like ruined Earth, trying to solve the mystery of the hacker’s identity and his true goals.
Because of its setting, Expelled From Paradise manages to be a western, cyberpunk, mecha, sci-fi, and comedy film, all at the same time. The mixing of all these genres into one cohesive narrative is one of the film's strongest points.
Angela is a member of a space colony whose inhabitants live with their consciousnesses downloaded into a virtual world. They don't even have real world bodies most of the time, just DNA records—and in the event you need to leave the colony, a clone body is simply grown for you to inhabit and your consciousness downloaded. The virtual world is a paradise with no war, hunger, or strife of any sort.
But as much as it is a utopia for the people living there, it is also a dystopia. When a child is born, its potential is measured as it is plugged into the matrix. This potential determines not only the child's role in life in the VR world but also how much RAM their consciousness is allowed to take up—as computer space is a finite resource. Of course, this means there is effectively an upper limit on personal and intellectual growth from the moment of birth.
Moreover, the system is largely static and unchanging—which stands in stark contrast to the lawless Earth below. And so while the space colony populace enjoys a level of technology far grander than that on Earth, it feels threatened by any change—and something as major as someone from Earth hacking into its systems and addressing the populace is something that must be prevented at all costs.
For the past decade or so, there has been a steady change in animation from the traditional (and vastly more time consuming/expensive) 2D style to the 3D style which uses 3D computer models to, in essence, replicate the 2D style. While most mecha are done flawlessly with 3D models these days, it is still easy to tell when a human character is animated this way. Yet as evidenced by Arpeggio of Blue Steel to Knights of Sidonia, the 3D style is clearly improving all the time. Expelled From Paradise is the new high water mark of the 3D style as it manages to look indistinguishable from 2D animation more than half the time. And as for the mecha battles, well, they just look amazing—especially since making them in such quality with traditional 2D art would be impractical if not impossible.
When you really get past all the great ideas the film explores, it's easy to see the film's true structure. Like Avatar, Pocahontas, and The Last Samurai, Expelled From Paradise is basically Dances with Wolves. All these films have the same basic plot: People from another culture (that is thought superior) are forced into a situation where they interact with the natives of a different land. Then, over time, they come to realize the true qualities of the natives and overcome their prejudices. But eventually, when a conflict arises between the two cultures, it falls to the enlightened foreigners to protect the natives from their own people—often through force of arms.
Of course, while the basic framework of all the above “stranger in a strange land” films is the same, the specifics, settings, and storytelling purposes are all quite different. Expelled From Paradise also tweaks the formula a bit by having us—i.e., normal humans—being the barbarian natives instead of the supposedly enlightened foreigners. So while the plot structure is hardly anything new, the contents within easily allow the film to stand on its own.
Following the trend of Yamato 2199, Gundam Unicorn, and Ghost in the Shell Arise, Expelled From Paradise was available for purchase at the theater after the movie. While I didn't really think about it at the time, I found myself on the way home wishing I had bought a copy then and there. Expelled From Paradise is a fun, though often predictable, film that blends several different genres into a cohesive plot and builds an amazingly well-thought-out cyberpunk/post-apocalyptic world. While not truly groundbreaking nor much like the dark, depressing works screenwriter Gen Urobuchi is famous for (Madoka Magica, Fate/Zero, Psycho Pass), it is nonetheless one of the best—if not the best—anime experiences I've had at the theater this year. If you like cyberpunk, space western, mecha, sci-fi, or fish-out-of-water comedy anime, Expelled From Paradise is well worth your time.
Expelled From Paradise was released in Japanese theaters and on Limited Edition Blu-ray on November 15, 2014. There is currently no word on an international release.
Kotaku East is your slice of Asian internet culture, bringing you the latest talking points from Japan, Korea, China and beyond. Tune in every morning from 4am to 8am.