Join Animefringe as we journey alongside a wooden puppet in a breath-taking world of fantastic beauty and sublime sounds in A Tree of Palme.
Takashi Nakamura has been involved in many of our favorite anime classics. From Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind (Key Frame Animator), to Robot Carnival (Director, Screenplay, Character Design), to Akira (Animation Director), Nakamura knows what makes an animated feature great, and A Tree of Palme (Original Story, Screenplay, Director) just adds to his impressive portfolio.
Botanist Fou builds a puppet to assist his sick wife, Xian. Made of the kooloop tree, Palme requires sap as his lifeblood, or he will turn into a kooloop tree. He has a mother-son relationship with Xian, and when she dies, he immediately stops functioning, as a grieving reflex. Over the years, Palme reactivates, but never completely. Not until he meets the blue fairy.
A mysterious woman appears in Fou's house, carrying the Egg of Touto, and a sack of crosskahla, the mythical blue sap that Xian dedicated her life to finding. She names herself as Koram from Tamas, the Land Below, and entrusts Fou, now an old man, in delivering the Egg of Touto, the Land Above to Tamas. Palme awakens during this conversation, calling Koram Xian, over and over. Koram disappears, and warriors from Tamas appear, hunting for Koram and the Egg, giving Fou a mortal wound while he protects the now silent Palme. As he dies, Fou inserts the Egg into Palme's body and replaces Palme's sap with the crosskahla, charging Palme with Koram's request. He dies and the quest begins. On the surface, it seems to be the usual quest motif used in fantasy, but it is really a metaphor for Palme undertaking a quest of spiritual growth, changing from a mere puppet into an independent being.
Along the way, Palme acquires friends: the rabbit-creatures Mu and Pu; a warrior descendant of the Sol tribe of Tamas, Shatta; Popo, a human girl who resembles Xian; and the mini dragon familiar of Fou, Baron. Through the first two-thirds of the film, Palme is more of a secondary character. Things happen to him, and he reacts. It is only near the end of the film does Palme really evolve into a character of his own, reflecting his slow but steady inner growth as a human being. The first big hurdle for Palme is understanding death; he just can't understand how Xian could be alive for one minute and then be gone, thus Palme cut himself off from this confusing and impermanent world. Koram explains to him how Xian isn't really gone; Palme's memories of Xian will always keep her alive. This revelation of the power of memories leads to the philosophical conclusion of A Tree of Palme, namely that you don't need to have a human body in order to have the spiritual qualities that comprise humanity at its core. Palme's quest ends with him finding inner peace and satisfaction with his self, not with the physical delivery of the Egg.
The film's backgrounds are amazing, reminiscent of such classics as Castle in the Sky and Grave of the Fireflies, with their muted colors and organic feel. This is only natural, as Mutsuo Koseki, the art director of A Tree of Palme, also worked on those films. It is also worth noting that the film almost entirely uses cel animation, giving this piece a wonderful retro feel to it. One scene in particular is where Palme and Popo are in a boat as selene flowers (giant water lilies) begin to bloom all around them. Screen captures cannot do this film any justice.
The music is another highlight of A Tree of Palme. Within the first few minutes, Takashi Harada draws the viewer into this alien world with his haunting melodies, composed on the Ondes Martenot, an electronic keyboard instrument played with a ring. The importance of sound carries thorough the film, as the sound of Xian's pendant, made to imitates the sound of crosskahla sap, and the song that Xian sings during the opening credits act as an aural connection for Palme in remembering Xian.
The story itself might be the weakest link. Using the story of Pinocchio as a template, Nakamura explores the process of growing into a fully actualized adult from being essentially a tabula rasa --a child, pure of all intentions, as Palme is at the beginning of the film. However, this is a long, internal process; not very good material for a feature length film. Nakamura tries to inject action into the film with the Egg of Touto and Palme's quest to bring it to Tamas, but even that turns inwards when it morphs into Palme's quest to become human. If you have little patience with philosophical themes in anime (Neon Genesis Evangelion, End of Evangelion, Akira, and Ghost in the Shell, to name a few titles that share this trait), then the plot may wear thin for you.
Nakamura spent seven years planning A Tree of Palme, and three and a half years in production, and it shows in the amount of detail present in making Palme's world feel real.
This world is divided into three levels: Touto, Arcana and Tamas. Touto, the Land Above, lies on the other side of The Roof, the rock canopy sky for the people of Arcana, the Land. The people of Arcana believe that it's a land of gods, hence the mystic powers of the Egg of Touto. Arcana itself is a weird place, with giant fish and jellyfish in the skies, giant plants and a widely diverse terrain. Tamas, the Land Below, contains an advanced society, based around a huge pool of crosskahla sap and a giant and ancient kooloop tree named Soma, who has ingested the memories of many ancient civilizations, turning into an inorganic supercomputer tree. The three lands interact only at the six pillars that support The Roof over Arcana and reach down to Tamas.
The only unfortunate side effect of this descriptive geography is that we want to see more than what the movie presents for us. We want to see mythical Touto and its inhabitants, the other fantastic animals, plants and animal-plants that inhabit Arcana, and just what happened to Tamas after the movie's conclusion. This world is just too rich to leave so soon.
A Tree of Palme is a visually and aurally beautiful movie with a story that will make you question your personal beliefs about the human soul, and we can all benefit from some meditative anime in our diet.