The Palme of "A Tree of Palme," an anime epic released in Japan three years ago and only now getting a run at the Brattle, is a doll that longs to be a real boy. He's on a quest to meet the female entity who can grant his wish. Like Pinocchio, he's made of wood. Unlike Pinocchio, he's also made of circuitry.
Writer and director Takashi Nakamura's movie is also an uneasy combination of wood and wires, lurching through some portions and then giddily speeding through others. This might be a fitting way to tell the story of a manic-depressive robot, but it can be a chore to sit through, despite the lovely visuals.
You see, Palme suffers from an undiagnosed mood disorder. He's borne of a special "kuroop" tree, one that draws on the memories of civilizations long buried in the soil. He was created by a man to help him look after his ill wife, Xian, and after she dies, the life-loving Palme goes catatonic with grief, as though a piece of him has died, too.
But after a mysterious woman gives him a mission to deliver a sacred orb to some faraway place, Palme finds a renewed reason to be. His adventure is fraught with all kinds of people and critters out to exploit him for the coveted oil running through his circuits. Eventually Palme recruits Popo, a girl about his age and size who's abused by her bitter mother. She helps awaken in him a roiling personality crisis whose cause is the desire for boydom and whose solution is its attainment. Palme apparently falls in puppy love with Popo (she also reminds him of Xian), flying into protective rages when she's threatened.
In the film, Nakamura merges many of anime's typical concerns about our loss of corporeal and spiritual humanity amid a deteriorating ecology. For an anime fan, however, Palme is a true test of one's interest in these themes. An unfeeling cipher one minute, a deer-slaying maniac the next, his personality is hard to keep up with. Without his oil, he's even prone to root himself wherever he is; the movie's metaphors about nature and civilization literally take over his body.
But while Palme's half-natural and half-technological status and human limbo make for a compelling drama, Nakamura just ladles on action sequences. Often he'll see to it that something pretty or innocent makes an appearance -- banal things like flowers and clouds -- to go along with the shootouts and deadly arboreal monstrosities. (The movie's score even suggests a mash-up of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and "When You Wish Upon a Star.") The ecological woes aren't fully explored either -- they're just part of the movie's dyspeptic landscape, suggesting that all films, at least cosmically and politically, share the same planet regardless of what each calls it.
Measure for measure, none of "A Tree of Palme" really goes anyplace that fairy tales or anime haven't previously been. However, it is likely that Palme would need way more post-puppet therapy than Pinnochio.
Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com.