AKA: Palme no Ki
Genre: Dark Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Adventure
Year Released: 2001
Distributor: Unlicensed (DVD formally available from ADV Films)
Running Time: 136 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: TV-14
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Green Legend Ran, The House of Small Cubes, Kino’s Journey, Howl’s Moving Castle, Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, Astro Boy, Pinocchio, Fantastic Planet, Key the Metal Idol, Children Who Chase Lost Voices
-The Japanese language track was used for this review.
-A Tree of Palme is the debut work from the now defunct Palm Studio (note the name). Their other works consisted of the 2004 Tetsujin No. 28 anime (better known stateside as Gigantor), the Genshiken series (which also includes Kujibiki Unbalance), and co-animated Master of Epic with Gonzo.
-This was directed by Takashi Nakamura who also directed Catnapped!, Robot Carnival, and Fantastic Children. He has also helped animate Yatterman, Nausicaa, and Akira in addition to directing.
-The ending theme “The Blue of the Sky” was sung by Akino Arai. You might know her for having songs in Kurau: Phantom Memory, Spice and Wolf, and she did both ending themes for Outlaw Star.
-Hilarious in Hindsight: Roualt and Popo are voiced in the Japanese version by two members of the Straw Hat Crew from One Piece. Roualt is Kappei Yamaguchi (Usopp) and Popo is Megumi Toyoguchi (Nami), and it gets very awkward when you consider the former holds the latter hostage at one point.
Much like the original Battle Angel anime, I have had this on-and-off habit of watching several series and movies that I remember seeing trailers of years ago. I didn’t know anything about this movie besides what I saw, so I walked into this one blind (well, besides what I saw back in the day). Obscure anime movies can be great and it certainly fits in the concept of Iridium Eye on so many levels. If it has an experimental bent to it, then I’ll certainly pay more attention to the film since at least it’s going to try harder than whatever isekai series, harem show, or to be brutally honest what Shonen Jump is doing.
Will this tree bring cinematic fruit for this review? Let’s find out.
A Tree of Palme takes place in a fantasy world with a desert punk setting (no, not THAT Desert Punk) with peculiar cities, mystical trees, and bolas which are walking cacti that attack people. In this world lives an old widower who gardens and tinkers around with woodwork. He’s accompanied by a mechanical puppet named Palme who is barely functioning after not handling the death of his adopted “mother” Xian. On one fateful day, a mysterious woman named Koram visits Palme and tells him to go to a faraway city. He mistakes Koram for Xian and breaks free from his trauma to go on this mission. He meets various orphans in the city and an abused girl named Popo whom also reminds him of his late mother figure. Palme eventually wants to protect Popo and wants to know what it’s like to have emotions and to be human.
Let’s start with the obvious about A Tree of Palme. This is based on Pinocchio even with it’s avant-garde art style. To be fair to this anime movie, at least it’s superior to certain other sci-fi takes on that story with that titular puppet who wanted to be human (I’m looking at you, AI: Artificial Intelligence!). The art style was extremely creative with the cityscapes, flora, and fauna around. It reminds me of some futurism mixed with surreal and neoclassical art. The animation style held up really well after it was created eighteen years ago. There is plenty of fluidity going on and so much detail is there for the characters. I’m surprised no one is putting this film on some lists with quality animation. Oh, I know why. It’s because a name like Hayao Miyazaki, Katsuhiro Otomo, or Makoto Shinkai aren’t attached to this movie. Come on, you know I’m right. Besides that issue, the lead characters worked very well. Palme starts out as a barely functioning wooden automaton (figurative and literal), but slowly opens up as he meets more people. As he tries to “act human”, his flaws show up such as morbid curiosity, baseless anger, and lying. Bonus points for his nose NOT growing when he lies or else it would’ve killed the mood for how bad and brutal the lie was. Popo (no, not that stupid Sambo-looking character from Dragon Ball Z) was a character that I thought would be a damsel in distress who deals with her seriously abusive mother, but I really liked her character development as she eventually sees the good in Palme and later on in the story, she tries to save him no matter how much she gets scarred in the process which was great. One character that should be mentioned is Koram. She has such a complex role as she has a connection with Palme albeit an indirect one and she has her own troubled past which has parallels with Popo in such a tragic way. It was amazing how those parallels and intersecting plots surprisingly worked during the climax where Koram plays a significant role. A Tree of Palme was a fascinatingly dark take on that old story with lots of twists and good characters.
There was a highlight that I wanted to talk about: the music. Seriously, the soundtrack got my attention multiple times with it’s usage of instrumentation. Besides the symphonic works by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, there were other instruments such as the harpsichord, the lute, and the theremin which shows up a lot to fit with the bizarre landscapes without sounding like a cheesy 50s sci-fi B-movie. Before all of that happens, music plays a huge role in the movie as the film starts off with Xian singing acapella and that motif shows up multiple times in flashbacks and in one critical scene where Palme himself sings it to someone to emotional effect. Akino Arai should be commended for her singing Xian’s Song and for the ending theme which was an experimental pop ballad that incorporates the harpsichord as a lead instrument amongst a symphonic backdrop, theremin, and a slight drum machine. The lyrics fit so much with the themes of Palme wanting to protect Popo and to be human. I might have to go find the soundtrack for this movie and this might be up there with Haibane Renmei in terms of how powerful the music was which is something I can rarely say about movie soundtracks animated or live action.
With all of that being said, A Tree of Palme could use some pruning here and there. While most of the animation is wonderfully hand-drawn work, the CGI flowers used when Popo shows Palme one of her favorite places looked incongruous. The lead characters were fine, but some of the background characters such as most of the orphans besides Shatta were either just warm bodies or get dropped not even halfway through the film. Roualt looked like he was going to get a decent amount of development and has a clear goal of getting rich, but after Palme is attacked by Roualt, he just falls by the wayside. Pu and Mu did have a point at first by being with Palme, but they just felt like dead weight later on. Also, am I the only person who thinks they’re like a mix between the twins from Thundercats and The Littles? I’m just saying. A Tree of Palme is a dark story, but there are times when they overdo it with that scene that caused Palme to lie which I won’t spoil, the implicit and explicit child abuse elements, and there’s a body count in the final act of the film. A Tree of Palme was a long film which could work with a larger cast, but I couldn’t remember multiple people from the tribes from Below. They could’ve cut some of the background characters and the story would’ve been more streamlined.
A Tree of Palme was a hidden gem of a film that was the dark fantasy Pinocchio that no one knew they needed. The art style is amazing and the animation has aged well for most of the scenes. The unique take on the original fairy tale has way more emotional gravitas than any other adaptation I’ve seen and puts the Disney version to shame (yeah, I said it). The music is phenomenal with it’s creative instrumentation and wonderful songs. I do wish a bunch of the background characters had as much of an impact compared to several of the leads though. I’m thankful to have rented the DVD from Netflix and someone needs to re-license this film pronto. While it’s not the best anime movie I’ve seen, it’s still better than so many others and it’s a shame that people don’t know A Tree of Palme. Definitely recommended.
Adjustable Rating System:
Add 1 point if you like experimental anime or dark fantasy stories.
Subtract 1-2 points if you prefer your animated movies to be lighter and softer.
-Great lead characters
-Amazing soundtrack and scoring
-Unique plot twists and character development that goes beyond the original Pinocchio story
-Some lackluster CGI despite great 2D animation
-Under-developed background characters
–A Tree of Palme gets way too dark at times
Final Score: 9/10 points
Content Warning: A Tree of Palme may look like something Ghibli could’ve made if they wanted to be more artistic, but that TV-14 rating does make sense on the DVD. There’s a good amount of violence where people and animals do bleed and die. There’s mild profanity, but that’s relatively tame as I’ve seen PG movies with worse swearing. There are disturbing images that happen throughout the movie. Child abuse is a plot point as Popo’s mom emotionally and physically assaults her and another character was a victim to abuse as well. The scene with the dresses given to Popo and her mother gets very creepy as the man giving those clothes is implied to be a pedophile and the way he talks to Popo is quite unnerving.
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. A Tree of Palme is property of Palm Studio. The DVD cover is from Amazon and is property of ADV Films.