Don’t be shy: who else kind of forgot this film existed?
The brainchild of heart-smashingly talented key animator Takashi Nakamura, A Tree of Palme was released in 2002, played at that year’s Berlin Film Festival, was released on DVD by ADV a few years later and quickly forgotten thereafter. Just some theories of mine, but the character designs don’t feel anime enough for anime folk, but too anime for everyone else (“doesn’t stand out among other animes,” said G. Allen Johnson in the San Francisco Chronicle, which is grammatically questionable and also wrong)1, at 136 minutes it’s darn long, especially for a cartoon, which G. Allen Johnson, to his credit, did point out — and finally, it’s just, like, kinda weird, man.
Takashi Nakamura, who worked on the script for Palme for seven years (source: some random website), comes from a key animation background, having done some intensely detailed and fluid work on Labyrinth Tales (the Katsuhiro Otomo-directed segment, also known as “the best part”) “Chicken Man and Red Head” from Robot Carnival, and a film only half of the audience at a recent panel we did had heard of (I checked), Akira. He shifted focus to direction in the 90s with episode four of Hakkenden and Catnapped! before starting work on Palme.2
A Tree of Palme is basically a take on Pinocchio — 136-minute story short, Palme is a robot created to care for a dying woman and after she dies his new purpose becomes turning into a real boy — but it’s got a lot more going on. Actually, Palme only begins his Pinocchio-esque quest halfway through the film, and that’s after we’re introduced to revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries, giant flying fish, pedophile merchants, lots of mommy and daddy issues and desert-crawling monsters that look, honestly, like dicks.
Like I said, there’s a lot going on.
Palme could not have been a cheap film – some of its 10-plus year-old CG looks a little clunky, but the majority of the film is hand-drawn and there are many superbly done cuts (a lot of them by Nakamura himself, I assume, but I’m no Ben Ettinger). The character designs by Toshiyuki Inoue — which, again, might have been a stumbling block for some potential viewers — have that kind of Osamu Tezuka, early Disney thing happening. I’m not a huge fan of the look myself, but it does have that effect, as it did in Metropolis or Kaiba, of making the violence a bit more shocking, as if Steamboat Willie-era Mickey Mouse is going around stabbing people.
You can feel Nakamura directing the heck out of every scene here, as if he’s thinking, “I may never get another chance to do this.” That may just be hindsight talking: certainly no one’s given him the green light for anything nearly as ambitious since.3 There are lots of riffs on ideas from other directors Nakamura obviously looks up to. Some environmental themes midway through Palme’s journey recall Nausicaa, and when Palme starts transforming into a tree at the conclusion (spoiler? it’s in the title!) it’s like the wood version of the end of Akira.
That’s the scale Nakamura’s going for, but all the influences and big ideas don’t always gel, or get used once and thrown to the side quickly. As does our poor main man Palme, who might be the least interesting — and almost certainly the least likable — character in the film.
I don’t think A Tree of Palme is particularly great, but it’s hard to fault its ambition. Even if things feel cobbled together, it’s kind of an interesting look at what happens when someone consciously tries to make something epic in scope. Without getting quite all the way there, Palme is still yet more proof ambitious failures are more interesting than milquetoast successes.
1My favorite contemporary review, though, was definitely Derek Elley’s in Variety for its unironic use of the word “Japanime” in the year 2002, which can generously be described as quaint.
2All via Anipages’ Charisma Animators guide, perhaps the single most useful page on the internet.
3This looks pretty great, though.