When you take a peek at the rear cover of an anime movie on DVD you've received to review and see that its running time totals around two and a quarter hours, it's difficult to know exactly what to expect. Will it be a non-stop roller coaster ride that makes the time fly past, or a long, dull and laborious task? Such was the question facing me as I slipped the review copy of A Tree of Palme into my DVD player.
The storyline of A Tree of Palme centres around (unsurprisingly, given the title) Palme, a puppet of sorts, made from the wood of Kooloop trees and created as a companion to a woman called Xian by her husband. When Xian dies, Palme ceases to function, reverting back to a tree form in his despair, which is where we find him at the beginning of the movie. Things soon change rapidly as Palme's creator is visited by a mysterious woman, who entrusts him with something known as the Egg of Touto while giving him instructions to take the Egg to the woman's homeland, Tamas. However, it soon becomes apparent that the Egg of Touto is valuable to more than one interested party, leading Palme's creator to make the Egg part of Palme while reviving the dormant puppet thanks to Crosskahla, a sap which had been considered as all but mythical previously, which acts as Palme's lifeblood and brings him back to life.
From here on in, Palme begins his journey to Tamas, under the constant threat of those who desire the Egg, as well as Palme himself, potentially valuable puppet that he is. The rest of the tale is an almost Pinocchio-esque story of sorts, as Palme finds himself a number of travelling companions, learning valuable lessons about what it is to be human as well as question his own value as a 'mere' puppet.
If there's one thing that immediately strikes you about A Tree of Palme, it's the landscapes, cityscapes, and the world that Palme and company inhabit in general. In a word, it's sumptuous, with the movie containing numerous breath-taking scenes from beginning to end. This kind of show of imagination should perhaps come as no surprise, considering that this piece was both created and directed by Takashi Nakamura, best known as the animation director for the infamous Akira. Having said all that, this movie is not one to be trifled with visually - For all of its occasional beauty, A Tree Of Palme delights in also frequently delving into nightmarish territory, picturing the kind of world that brings to mind some kind of cross between the subconscious of Terry Gilliam and Salvador Dali. Indeed, the juxtaposition of such unnerving visuals with the more bright and cartoonish look of many of the main characters only serves to reinforce the eerie feel of the movie as it progresses - Even during its lighter moments, you can't help but feel a little uncomfortable in the knowledge that more unsettling times are most probably on the way. This visual 'trickery' (for want of a better word) is also firmly backed up by the movie's music score, which delights in digging in those nightmarish feelings yet further. Overall, this combination of picture and sound works superbly, and gives A Tree of Palme a dark, depressing feel when suitable without resorting to large amounts of violence or truly horrific imagery, preferring to stick with its more subtle unsettling overtones.
Having mentioned that juxtaposition of backdrops and characters, I have to admit that personally, I didn't much care for most of the character designs on show. It's hard to put a finger on exactly why I have issue with them, but they simply didn't 'work' for me in the same way that Fantastic Children's character designs disappointed - Incidentally, that series was also the design and creation of the very same Takashi Nakamura, and there are certainly some striking similarities in places between the two works.
Aside from the audio/visual treat that is A Tree of Palme, the storyline of the movie is solid without ever being sensational. At times the pacing of the story feels a little off, with some scenes that felt more deserving of time to build being almost rushed through, but overall things keep moving quickly enough to keep your interest. Certain aspects of the back story could have done with more explanation however, and that lack of explanation somehow made it a little harder to care for the plight of characters, or even to decide who you should and shouldn't be feeling sorry for. Similarly, Palme's character swings rather quickly between bewildered and silent and agressive, leaving the viewer with little time to gain sufficient feel for the 'real' Palme to symapthise overly with his desires and emotions.
Perhaps it's the artist in me, but despite the overall rather average impact of the storyline as a whole, I enjoyed A Tree of Palme, if only for the simple fact that I was hugely impressed by it visually. Quite simply, this anime is a lesson in breath-taking world and scenery design, and perhaps more importantly it's a lesson in atmosphere. While A Tree of Palme isn't violence-free by any stretch of the imagination, it unsettles and provokes by way of scenery, colour and shadows alone, coupled with a wonderfully expressive soundtrack - Exactly the kind of thing you hope for from top-notch animation.