Avalon Japanese-Polish 2001 Directed by Mamoru Oshii, Screenplay by Kazunori Ito, Malgorzata Foremniak as Ash. 107 minutes. Streaming on Netflix
I’m a lover of virtual reality movies. Think Existenz, The Thirteenth Floor, Dark City, The Matrix. I’m not sure why. Probably because they play with reality. The trouble is, after reality is played around with, the filmmakers inevitably want to leave us with a twist ending that exemplifies the question: Main Character, are you sure you’re in the real world?
That’s all very well and good but if that’s all the story is going to devolve into, then all the stories pretty much feel the same. The Matrix stands out by being about dehumanization. Dark City is just so haunting. Besides, it’s about aliens and we have a happy ending. The Thirteenth Floor works because it does the thirties period so well.
So what about Avalon?
Well, like most virtual reality movies, it’s a gritty, dingy, world. There’s a brownish tinge over the world, like dusty vaseline on a camera lens. Yet the lines are stark, like rotoscoped anime. There’s a Big Brother meets post World War Eastern Europe vibe. And, as is common in much Japanese anime, there are sprinkled references to Western legends and myths that really don’t amount to much. This time the references have to do with King Arthur. Hence the title.
The main character is a woman named Ash. She’s an ace player of an illegal game called Avalon. She has no other life except this game. The game, itself, has benefits. People in this world seem to be poor with rationed diets, but the top role-playing gamesters make good money.
In the past, Ash belonged to Team Wizard but she supposedly shouted “reset” in a game and that broke up the team. Although burdened with that false accusation, she wants to advance to a new level. However, the Game Master tells her that she needs to be part of a team to go to the new level. It’s simply too dangerous to advance alone. Ash believes the powers-that-be simply find it easier to track of a team rather than a single individual.
Suddenly, up comes a new player who is taunting her and one of her old teammate tells her about Murphy who is an “unreturned” and about a Ghost Girl who is a neutral character who pops up in the game, a little girl who might be an easter egg or a bug in the system. The little girl is the key to going to a level called Special A. Special A has benefits that are off the charts. Plus it might just might lead to freedom from the game. Murphy had chased the ghost and well, he’s now catatonic and in an asylum for all the “unreturned.”
Ash is curious. Who is behind this virtual reality illegal war game? Does the game have an end? When did it begin? She sets out on a mission to find Murphy and to convince him to return to the real world. In that way he can leave his catatonia behind. She finally reaches Special A which is Avalon, or a beautiful bright reality that Murphy lives in. Or perhaps he has created it for himself. Or maybe the game makers created it as its own false Zion, ala Matrix. Whatever it is, it is a world of beauty, music, brightness, and harmony. Quite unlike the dingy, war-torn game-levels Ash and other players have had to jack into. But when the movie ends, we find ourselves wondering if Ash was ever real in the first place.
As I’ve said, Japanese worldbuilding is often full of references that make no real sense. We have hints of The Once and Future King, the Nine Sisters who supposedly created the program, and Avalon. But the computer interface Ash speaks with is an eerie looking guy in a clerical collar. And then there is that dog.
It’s a movie full of sound and fury but which ultimately states what all these movies typically say, “Reality is what you make it.” Nothing new there.