People who aren't devotees of anime or fantasy literature will have a lot of heavy lifting to do with A Tree Of Palme, which bears the full weight of its genre origins. It's the kind of movie where characters pine for mysterious underground realms known only as "Below," and deliver backstory in hard-to-parse lines like "The Sol Tribe killed to get their hands on The Egg Of Touto." Director Takashi Nakamura has a magnificent imagination, and he crafts a shadow-world full of eye-popping wonders, like fish-shaped airships and enormous flowers that explode and shoot out clouds of luminescent dragonflies. But as with a lot of fantasy-themed anime, the images are rarely what they seem, and when the establishing shots are tough to decipher, the plot's bound to be even tougher.
Still, patience with A Tree Of Palme will be rewarded. Epic pretensions aside, the movie has at its core a simple and affecting Pinocchio story. The hero, Palme, is a robotic puppet created as a companion to a dying woman. Years after her death, he embarks on a quest to deliver a magical trinket at the behest of a blue-skinned spirit, who vaguely implies that he'll be reunited with his mistress at the end of the journey. Along the way, Palme meets a gang of urchins and a sad little girl (whom he believes might be his reincarnated mistress), and after he learns about a rare tree that could give him a real human soul, he starts practicing his humanity by learning to kill.
Nakamura draws Palme cartoonishly, which makes the puppet look all the sadder during his frequent collapses into lifelessness. Almost all the other characters have a puppet-like cast to them too, and are more rounded than most anime designs. Like his colleague (and one-time employer) Hayao Miyazaki, Nakamura lavishes as much attention on the backgrounds and weird creatures as he does on his humanoids. Nakamura's most sublime creation is the Bolas, which resemble thick, detached, pinstriped tendrils that hunt in packs and snake around their prey. In one early shot, Nakamura sends a flock of birds flapping madly past writhing Bolas, and the contrast between the natural and the supernatural creates a visual motif that runs through the rest of the film. A Tree Of Palme's resounding feeling of yearning is even stronger than its look. Palme fears loneliness and lack of affection with a desperation that borders on panic, primarily because he knows what it's like to experience loss. For all its tangled plot machinations, A Tree Of Palme's point can be best expressed in two words: Hold on.