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Raiders of the found ark

Inexplicable Spriggan goes giddily over the top

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If there were a Disney World for Japanese animation, what would it contain? No doubt there'd be a playground for all the psychic mutant schoolchildren, a laser-gun shooting range, a post-apocalyptic pavilion and a haunted house of writhing metallic tentacles. Every ride would break the sound barrier, speakers would play tuneless techno pop and at the end of every day, the whole place would blow up, as the visitors run to their cars in slow motion.

Anime does consist of more than freaky cyberthrillers, Pokemon and "Sailor Moon" superheroine fantasies. Hayao Miyazaki, creator of Kiki's Delivery Service and Princess Mononoke, crafts characters so subtle as to put U.S. animation to shame. But since 1988's Akira broke through to American audiences, the vast majority of anime available here is the weird, ultraviolent adolescent stuff, with the new import Spriggan being a prime example.

Supervised by Akira director Katsuhiro Otomo, Spriggan takes its plot from a dense, popular manga of the same name. The film bites off a mere fraction of the comic book story, but it's still dizzyingly complicated, like walking in on a movie sequel without having seen the original. Fortunately, the stock characters and their missions are so by-the-numbers that you've always got an idea of what's going on, even if you couldn't explain why. Pace at the expense of clarity is part of Spriggan's charm, as it loses momentum whenever it stops to explain itself.

So this secret organization called ARCAM, chartered to contain ancient evil forces on Earth, discovers the subterranean resting place of Noah's Ark. The Ark site falls under attack by sinister commandos and heavily armed cyborgs, so ARCAM calls in a "Spriggan," one of their elite superagents. Their motto appears to be "I'm not dead yet," as uttered by two Spriggans on separate occasions. Maybe they're big Monty Python fans.

"Japan's No. 1 Spriggan," we're told, is 17-year-old Yu Ominae (voiced by Christopher Patton), a high-schooler in his off-hours. We don't quite grasp why one of his friends explodes himself, or why Yu gets huffy with his superior officer afterward, but soon Yu's on his way to Turkey to help defend the Ark excavation site at Mt. Ararat. Shortly after arriving in Istanbul, he gets in a breathless chase scene that out-Bonds James Bond, moving from highway to marketplace to rooftop, dodging gunfire and outmaneuvering swordsmen. It's a showy, bravura moment, boasting intricate backgrounds, extreme zooms and simulation of a hand-held camera.

The requisite woolly haired professor and his statuesque blond daughter oversee the sprawling Ark excavation site. It gets attacked by "Fat Man and Little Boy," an oversized bionic soldier (with a link to Yu's past) and a leaping, giggling nutjob with a sneaky wire weapon. Fortunately Yu has a "moderately bulletproof" battle-suit, not to mention a French Spriggan looking over his shoulder. But the most dangerous foe is "Col. MacDougal," a psychic boy with turned-around baseball cap and a messianic complex.

Spriggan's villains come from "U.S. Machine Corps -- military cyborgs working for rogue division of Pentagon." That the bad guys are explicitly American could indicate the unfavorable opinions of the U.S. in other countries. But it seems more like a kind of imitation of Hollywood action movies like Rambo or Enemy of the State, in which military conspirators are the bad guys.

But you don't look to this kind of anime for political insight or even thoughtful sci-fi metaphors. Though not nearly as extreme as the repulsive Overfiend films, Spriggan is all destructive spectacle, with armored vehicles sliding off snowy cliffs, fight scenes that defy gravity and even a thawed-out dinosaur in the film's last minutes. The Ark itself proves to be a flying, weather-controlling artifact like something from Disney's recent Atlantis movie, only more memorably rendered as an alien environment with its own kooky rules.

With 11th-hour revelations about Yu's history and cavalier disregard for its own logic, Spriggan's ending doesn't satisfy, and the film as a whole fails to equal tighter anime like Akira or Vampire Hunter D. But one can take pleasure in such touches as its cliche-ridden dialogue -- my favorite new line of pulp tough talk is: "Just tell me where he is!" Spriggin's many action scenes go completely berserk, and with this kind of Japanese animation, that's a compliment.

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