Dir: Shinji Aramaki. Japan. 2004. 103 mins.

Japanese animation is insinuating itself into everything from Kill Bill Vol. 1 to kiddy cartoon channels on US cable. Unlike makers of Japanese live-action films, whose total annual exports wouldn't underwrite one middling Hollywood movie, Japanese animators can strike it truly rich abroad - the millions raked in by the Pokemon franchise being only one example.

Seeing animation as the safest film industry bet, Japanese corporate investors have underwritten new projects by leading anime auteurs that have the potential to break out of the cult ghetto once and for all. Malls of America here we come.

Among the most innovative is Appleseed, an SF animation based on a 1985 comic by Shirow Masamune, who is best known abroad for Ghost In The Shell. Directed by newcomer Shinji Aramaki and produced by Sori (formerly known as Fumihiko Sori), a visual effects whiz who directed the 2002 indie hit Ping Pong, Appleseed - the title may change for international release - is an amalgam of conventional anime character design and state-of-the-art CG effects. In other words, 2-D meets 3-D.

Unlike the makers of the all 3-D flop Final Fantasy, who rendered their human characters as realistically as possible, right down the wind-tossed hairs on their heads, Aramaki and his collaborator have opted for a look like that of the more advanced arcade games, especially their wide-eyed, perfectly sculpted women.

Also, using motion capture technology they have created action sequences that combine realistic movement with a breathtaking dynamism far beyond the ability of humanly operated cameras.

Though it probably won't give Pixar execs any sleepless nights, Appleseed, which was released in Japan last weekend, should convince even sceptics that the Japanese are pushing back boundaries in this medium even faster than their Hollywood counterparts, if from a radically different angle.

It begins in the year is 2031, after the world has barely survived an apocalypse. One of the few remaining humans, the blonde, beautiful warrior Deunan (Ai Kobayashi), is captured after a titanic struggle and spirited off by cyborg agents to Olympus - an urban dreamscape that dazzles with its futuristic glamour.

This, Deunan learns, is a utopia ruled by a council of Seven Elders - gnome-like geezers who float on round balls around a crystalline super-computer. Her guide is Hitomi (Yuki Matsuoka), a sweet-voiced young women who is a bioroid - a race created by Olympian genetic engineers.

Despite their human appearance, bioroids have none of our messier emotions, including destructive rage. Making up half the population, they serve as the social tranquillisers needed to make Olympus an architectural drawing brought to life - all surface harmony and peace.

Deunan also reunites with Briareos (Jurota Kosugi), a fellow warrior and former lover who, after nearly dying in battle, has been transformed in a hulking, faceless cyborg. He is aware, however, of what he has become - and lost.

All is not well in this best of all possible worlds, however - rebel humans who hate the bioroids attack the care centres where they undergo the "longevity processing" necessary for their survival. Deunan becomes a member of the Olympus SWAT squad dedicated to stamping out the rebels. The Elders, however, have an agenda that they are keeping secret from their defenders, including Deunan.

These plot tropes, which might have been fresh in 1985, are by now familiar, but the film takes them to a new, eye-goggling level, on a $3 million budget yet. Studio Ghibli president Toshio Suzuki is probably correct when he said that Appleseed "will revolutionise the Japanese animation industry." And, as he added, "faster than anyone could have imagined" - though it may be a while before bioroids start selling tickets at the local multiplex.

Prod cos: Micott & Basara, TBS, Geneon Entertainment, Yamato, Toho, TYO, Digital Frontier, MBS
Int'l sales/Jap dist:
Micott & Basara
Exec prod:
Sumiji Miyake
Hidenori Ueki, Naoko Watanabe
Associate prod:
Norio Konishi
Creative prod:
Sori (formerly known as Fumihiko Sori)
Haruka Hanada, Tsutomu Kamishiro
CG prod:
Yusaku Toyoshima
CG dir:
Yasuhiro Otsuka
Character design:
Masaki Yamada
Music prod:
Shin Yasui
Main cast:
Ai Kobayashi, Jurota Kosugi, Yuki Matsuoka