.hack//Beyond the World [Dotto hakku: Sekai no mukou ni] (2012)

For those of you just tuning in, I will point out that .hack is an Anime franchise which to date has produced several series and this movie, none of which seem to be directly connected to each other or have much in common, for that matter.  As most of the earlier entries seem to have taken place in the near future (the far away world of 2014) it seems even odder that this one is set a full decade later.

It revolves around an MMORPG game called “The World” which bears strong resemblances to such real world online fantasy worlds like “Runescape” and “Wizards of Warcraft”.  It isn’t quite as all-pervasive as OZ, from Mamoru Hosada’s incredible Summer Wars, nor is it illegal, like Mamoru Ohshii’s Avalon, but it’s quite hard to watch Beyond the World without thinking of either of those films (in particular, one of the first glimpses we have of The World, a soaring, Cathedral-like space, reminds me very strongly of Oshii).

My first impression was that Beyond the World looked like cut-rate Miyazaki.  Most American animated films these days try very hard to look Pixar, while Anime seems to be trying to look like Studio Ghibli.  Which is rather sad when you think of it as one of the main reasons to animate films is to create a unique look for the film.  Fortunately there still are a few exceptions, although most of them come from Europe (Just to mention a few at random, A Town Called Panic, Moon Man, A Cat in Paris, or The Secret of Kells).

As the film is computer animated, they achieve this look largely through rendering.  The colors are seriously desaturated and everything has a rather flat and unreal quality about it.

But once we get our first glimpses of The World, that changes dramatically.  It is a vast crowded, colorful place, full of flying vehicles, and fantasy creatures and characters of various sorts.  Perhaps my eyes just “adjusted” to the style of animation, but I got the impression that the real world scenes became more intense and colorful as the movie progressed as well.

This would make sense, as the underlying story is the familiar one about the outsider girl at school who is the only one who doesn’t (fill in the blank) – in this case, play online games, particularly not The World.  She goes from being introverted and cut off from the others to opening up and blossoming at the same time as the film’s real world seems to get more colorful.

The story?  Well, you’ve got your classic Japanese schoolgirl story, a touch of Avalon with the rumors of the mysterious, ghost woman some gamers have encountered, a finale where the gamers team up to defeat a dangerous adversary (as in Summer Wars).  But it sounds more derivative than it actually is, and while it really doesn’t explore any new territory, it does what it does with considerable charm.  The design of The World and its characters is lush and well developed – and the final battle, with its fleets of flying ships is dazzling.  I particularly liked how appropriate many of the alter egos proved to be, with the enigmatic David’s guise as Anubis perhaps the best.

All too often these days, Anime movies seem to have devolved into nothing more than the movie version of successful anime series, with only a few original efforts mixed in.  While .hack is yet another of the same, it at least offers an original story line with little connection to the various series.  You have to give it a lot of credit for that.

It may not be perfect.  But it does offer a solid hour and fifty minutes of entertainment.

Which is, after all, an entirely admirable accomplishment.

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