Mamoru Oshii is a giant of anime history - this is not in dispute. His work on the original Ghost in the Shell alone has made him something of a legend in the world of animation. However, his adventures in the live-action realm have fared nowhere near as well. Garm Wars: The Last Druid attempts to mitigate this by blending the extremely beautiful animation techniques of Project I.G with a more conventional live-action setting.
A sort of fantasy/cyberpunk hybrid, Garm Wars takes place on a planet much like our own which was once cared for by a now departed god and has since descended into internecine warfare between the three remaining tribes of its original eight. We follow fighter pilot Khara, who actually dies right away but is quickly “reborn” through downloading into a new clone body to become Khara 23. She links up with some kind of priest, Wydd (played by Lance Henrikson), who is travelling with a Druid (long thought to be extinct) and a holy deity, the Gula, who is (you guessed it) a basset hound. Later, this slightly less than merry band picks up the mercenary Stellig who ends up warming to Khara’s rebellious charms.
To be honest, you’ll get the most out of Garm Wars if you just ignore the entirety of the dialogue and focus on the visuals alone. Full of the most generic full-on fantasy jargon, it’s extremely difficult to follow all of the different ideas and symbolic layers which attempt to construct Garm Wars’ post-apocalyptic landscape, and all but those who particularly love over-the-top fantasy language will find themselves cringing at its lack of finesse. Oshii has been developing Garm Wars since the 1990s and it may be the case that The Last Druid is simply one of its many chapters, just not the first - the viewer is perpetually left feeling slightly lost with the wealth of disjointed information which is imparted mostly via straightforward exposition.
In essence, what Oshii has tried to do is to create a live action anime. It does beg the question as to why he thought this was necessary at all if he could have just made this more satisfactorily in animated form, but almost everything in the film that is not actually alive or attached to something alive is constructed through CG animation. Production I.G’s work here is often impressive even given their generally high level of quality, but sits uncomfortably alongside the presence of the real live actors.
Oshii also opts for a highly stylised approach in which the actors are reciting their lines in a very deliberate manner. It would be easy to criticise their performances in this regard but, as all are adhering to the same style, it seems to be a deliberate choice perhaps meant to evoke a more classical, theatrical feeling. Unfortunately, this acts as another alienating technique which, along with the heavy CGI intrusion, makes it difficult to key in to either the characters or the story.
Garm Wars’ biggest weakness is that it plays like a string of video game cut scenes in which someone has inexplicably decided to skip the actual gameplay. Undoubtedly full of often beautiful and striking imagery the central narrative never really kicks in, offering a feast for the eyes but an unsatisfying smorgasbord of ideas for the mind. Garm Wars will most likely play best to longtime fans of Oshii who will be best placed to recognise his recurrent themes and the concerns which run through the entirety of his work, but for those less well-versed in the director’s oeuvre, Garm Wars will most likely prove a frustrating, if intermittently entertaining, experience.