A Tree of Palme Review

Published by Joseph Neal on

By Noah Johnson

A Tree of Palme deserves better than to be forgotten in the western anime sphere of discussion. Internet streaming has broadened the reach of popular shows and allowed previously inaccessible works to be viewable in the U.S. Youtube and message boards like reddit further discussion and critique, potentially bringing new audiences to obscure titles. Yet, it speaks to the vastness of the relatively specific corner of animation that anime represents that a title as intriguing as A Tree of Palme could be so thoroughly left behind by the anime discourse.

Released in theaters in 2001 and on DVD in 2005 by ADV, A Tree of Palme was brutalized by critics. Derek Elley for Variety dismissed the third act of the film as “…totally incomprehensible.” Shamos Roissy for Anime News Network felt the film was, “…lost underneath layers of unneeded plot and obfuscation.” Sean Axmaker for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer referred to it as an, “…odd, awkward animated epic.” Most of the criticism centers around three basic points. The plot and worldbuilding get in the way of character development. The main character Palme is cold, annoying, and unlikable. Lastly, by fundamentally misunderstanding the point of the film as a simple Pinocchio retelling or children’s adventure movie, that it fails to stand out among other anime.

I want to explain why I don’t find these arguments accurately represent the film, and why I believe it deserves a better place in the anime community.

A Tree of Palme was directed by Takashi Nakamura. Nakamura worked as an animator for most of his career, including being animation director on Akira, and didn’t really get into directing until the late 90’s with his first feature-length film, Catnapped. Nakamura explains, “I was an animator for a long time, but I think as I went along, I had stories that I wanted to tell, and how do I do that? – I would have to direct them myself.” – (Takashi Nakamura, Interview by Andrew Osmond for All the Anime) While he was working on Catnapped, he was likely already forming plans for A Tree of Palme. The film was in the planning stages for seven years and then spent three years in actual production. A point that would be used against the film is his statement that he originally envisioned it as a television series. However, once he knew he was making a film, he shifted the focus of the story and even changed the main character from a robot to a puppet. This new concept would present a spiritual journey of the main character.


The story begins with Palme in a near comatose state. Fou, his maker, built him to help his ailing wife, Xian. At least, that was his purpose until she died. Then, Palme went into a mostly dormant existence. After Palme falls from a tree he was mindlessly climbing, Fou repairs him, and they are visited by a warrior woman with blue skin who calls herself Koram. Koram entrusts Fou with a capsule containing what she calls the Egg of Touto and a mythical tree sap called Crosskahla. The sap of the metallic Kooloop tree, like the one outside Fou’s cabin, can power technology. Palme is made from Kooloop wood and when his sap is replaced with Crosskahla, he awakens from his dormant state. Palme is tasked with delivering the Egg of Touto to the subterranean world of Tamas. On his quest to Tamas, Palme encounters Shatta, a leader of a band of orphan thieves, and Popo, a young girl that reminds him of Xian. Palme grows from having no purpose, to finding a reason to live only to be filled with self-loathing over his identity. He believes his salvation lies in Tamas.

Character development is the focus of the film. Aside from Palme’s personal journey, even minor characters like Popo’s mother, Darumaya, receive skillful characterization. In one scene she is visiting a merchant with her daughter to trade goods. Darumaya is aware the merchant has eyes for her young daughter, and before they enter his room she grabs Popo’s chest and tells her not to act cute. The merchant talks gleefully about Darumaya’s past. She was the life of any party the object of men’s desires. Suddenly, he declares he’s brought a present. The camera centers on Darumaya’s face as she grins expectantly. Jazzy music swells up as she’s filled with pride and nostalgia for her illustrious youth, but the music fades and her smile turns into a scowl when she realizes the present is for Popo.

It’s a nice way to show Darumaya’s twisted jealousy toward her daughter rather than outright explain it. The shot even lets us empathize with her for a moment, despite the fact she violently groped her daughter moments before. Another excellent shot shows Popo alone in her mother’s room surrounded by decadence and photos of Darumaya’s past. It creates an oppressive atmosphere with contrasting colors between the room and Popo and anempathetic music that reflects the fantasy in which Darumaya lives.

A Tree of Palme maintains empathy as a constant theme. Popo demonstrates it in how she cares for Palme even when he’s at his lowest point. While others, like Shatta, fail to treat him like a person. Shatta is another interesting case. He could easily pass for the archetypal scrappy orphan vagabond, but the film carefully examines the person underneath that façade. His singular pursuit of his goals often leads to negative consequences that he brushes off or ignores. He inadvertently inspires the children around him to try and grow up too fast, just like he did. He’s especially influential on Palme, to Palme’s detriment. It’s unfortunate, then, that Palme is the one that receives so much ire from reviewers.

Palme spends much of the film’s first half an inarticulate, barely sapient automaton. It is important in screenwriting to ensure that the main character acts, instead of being acted upon. Palme seems to fail this test, but viewers should remember that the first thing we see Palme do is climb a tree with such reckless abandon the he tears his foot off and snaps his own neck in half. His climb may have been misguided and fruitless, but it did have a purpose. He longs for that higher existence, he desires to truly live. That same passion is inside of him even when his exterior is cold and expressionless. We see this yearning reignited when he meets Popo, whom he mistakes for Xian.

In another deft bit of characterization, Palme is shown lovingly clawing his way into Popo’s lap when he hears her strumming a tune that resembles the song Xian used to sing. Popo is mortified. To her, all of Palme’s grasping and cooing is no different from the merchant’s. She screams and shatters her precious lute, smashing it to bits on Palme’s wooden exterior. Palme doesn’t understand why she beats him, he can’t understand. Later he is finally able to comprehend the death of Xian and apologizes to Popo. Unlike so many other wrongs Popo has experienced, someone has finally acknowledged their mistakes and tried to make amends. Someone has finally treated her like an equal.

However, this is still halfway through the film. Palme, after learning what it means for Xian to be dead, becomes fully aware of himself. He is finally able to contextualize the violence and abuse he’s experienced up to this point. He was mistreated because he was a puppet. To be alive, to be worthy of respect, is to be active, determined, and above all, human. At this point Palme’s character becomes much darker. He is obsessed with the hope that he can become human if he goes to Tamas. His desire drives him away from Shatta and causes him to hurt Popo. If reviewers had trouble relating to him before, now Palme is screaming, hurting his friends, and even killing a baby dear. It’s no wonder that he’s such a reviled point of the film.

This scene needs to be addressed. Toward the end of the film’s second act, Palme and friends have just run into a baby dear-like creature being chased by a giant lizard. Palme watches as Shatta leaps into action with his broadsword and fights off the beast. Palme, trembling, can’t even bring himself to unsheathe his knife. That night Palme takes Shatta’s sword while he’s sleeping and starts swinging it around awkwardly. He cuts through plants and some vines before setting his eyes on the baby dear. He beckons it closer with an unsettling smile, before striking it down with the sword. He stands proud for a moment after it squeals and dies. Then the reality sets in and he realizes he can’t undo his awful mistake.

Palme idolizes Shatta. He is everything a human should be, everything Palme is not. Palme wanted to know what it felt like to be his hero, to cut with his shiny sword. Death, he understands, but killing was still beyond him. He was childlike, ignorant, but all at once he has grown up, and he can’t escape it. The guilt follows him for the rest of the film. He denies killing it to his friends. When Popo asks why he doesn’t seem sad, he once again blames it on being a puppet. Palme assumes he made his mistake because he isn’t human, when that kind of regret is a very human quality.

Palme is not the main character of a typical children’s adventure story. He is not going to take up a sword and start bravely fighting monsters. He is plagued by anxieties that can torture any human being. He has internalized the abuse he suffered. He hates himself because of his body. He cries out for Popo whenever she’s away because he can’t stand to be alone. He says cruel things to her because he’s afraid of being unable to find salvation. It’s unfortunate Palme is so widely considered unlikable when I found the growth of such a conflicted and troubled character to be extremely compelling.

Reviewers have mischaracterized A Tree of Palme as, “…essentially Akira set in a children’s surrealist dream world,” (Carlos Ross, Them Anime Reviews) or more frequently, “…a sci-fantasy Pinocchio.” (Sean Axman, Seattle Post-Intelligencer) These oversimplifications are distressing because it isn’t too difficult to summarize what A Tree of Palme is about. It tells the story of a being reaching spiritual balance and understanding fundamental truths about themselves and those around them. Palme begins the film ignorantly, a near blank slate. He learns to recognize himself through his outward appearance, and this misunderstanding misguides him and fills him with anxiety.

Pinocchio is more about how to be a well-behaved child. Nakamura certainly took inspiration from the fable, but only so far as the idea of personal refinement. As he puts it, “Pinocchio is a story filled with allegory, about a psychologically underdeveloped soul who strives to become a better human.” He sprinkles in some homages like Palme being called a puppet, (or Ningyo in Japanese, which can refer to a puppet or doll) braying like a donkey when he’s snared in one scene, or him growing a long vine from his nose in another. Palme is not a simple retelling, the core themes are similar, but A Tree of Palme applies them more universally than just for misbehaved children.

The youtube channel ManMode made a solid recommendation video for the film, but he presents an interpretation of the film that I disagree with despite what I’m sure were his best intentions. ManMode describes the main theme of the film as, “…what makes us human, and maybe we’re actually the bad guys.” This is another common summary of the film, and it isn’t necessarily inaccurate. However, I find ‘what it means to be human’ to be such a cliché that it describes every theme and no theme at the same time. Palme learning to value himself and see himself beyond others’ prejudices is not objectively the correct takeaway from the film but it at least is a more specific reading of the subject.

This review functions as a defense of the film as well as a recommendation, but it would be disingenuous not concede some points about the film’s quality. While I maintain the character development is handled well, the film’s worldbuilding can be delivered stiffly. The world of A Tree of Palme is unique and alien, and this necessitates exposition about its structure and history. This exposition can be delivered through straightforward dialogues that don’t get revisited. Whether this type of exposition bothers some people, or they simply don’t quite grasp it that first time, it can alienate viewers. Much of the world serves a symbolic purpose for growing the characters, and its mysteries are not even entirely understood by those who live there. Some ambiguity is welcome, but nevertheless, this can be a sticking point.

The film is animated well and is a beautiful late holdout of cell animation. However, viewers comparing it to the very best of the industry at the time will likely be disappointed. Background elements are visually separate from the parts of the scene that will move, and in one instance (only one as far as I can tell) a character is drawn out of proportion with the doorway in which she’s standing. Nakamura’s visual style can also put viewers off. His characters are more abstract than other anime titles which leads many to believe they’re specifically aimed at children. Thus, they express confusion when the film opens with gruesome violence. I found the designs appealing without considering them child-like, but the cute and violent contrast might find an audience in a time when titles like Made in Abyss are popular.

There are also many scenes of still, environmental shots, which some claimed were to save on animation budget. I don’t deny these scenes were likely easier to animate, but they serve a point instead of unnecessarily padding the run-time of an already two-hour movie. What makes A Tree of Palme stand out visually is its captivating world and aesthetic, inspired partly by Renee Laloux’s Fantastic Planet. Accompanied by the captivating and eerie score featuring the Theremin-like tone of the Ondes Martinot played by composer Takashi Harada, A Tree of Palme has an uncanny feel unlike any other anime of its time.

With an ambitiously realized world, compelling themes, strong characterizations, and a bizarre aesthetic, A Tree of Palme belongs in the admittedly benign category of cult classic. At least that would be better than its nearly seventeen years of utter neglect. I made this without giving away any important spoilers with the hopes that more voices recommending this film may give it the attention it deserves. A Tree of Palme is worth examining not just by me and one other youtuber. If anyone has seen the film or will see it and wants to know more about my thoughts on it, I also wrote an extensive analysis of it that I hope can expand the base of knowledge about this cool movie.


Categories: Anime


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