A Tree of Palme is an animated film originally intended to be a series and took seven years to finish, it premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 2002 before being released in 2003. It was written and directed by Takashi Nakamura, one of the forces behind Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and a key player in the making of tv series Fantastic Children (2004) both of which still receive a lot of critical acclaim for their fascinating stories and artwork.
A Little Wooden Boy Trying to Find His Way in the World
A man makes a living puppet called Palme (pronounced ‘Palm’) part mechanical and part wood from a special tree to be the companion of his ailing wife ‘Xian’ (pronounced ‘Shiann’). Palme’s whole purpose in life is to care for her but when she dies he’s lost, practically frozen in grief and ‘shuts down’ becoming part of the debris at the base of the tree, held there in vines for many a year and his maker having almost having given up on him. That is, until a flying fish and a Blue woman comes their way.
His Nose doesn’t Grow and the Blue Lady is Something else…
The basic narrative of this story may sound like Pinocchio (and Palme even brays like a donkey at one point), someone not born of woman trying to find out what it is to live and perhaps even be human, suffering the highs and lows but this film is even more disconcerting and without the buffer of charismatic crickets and sing-along-numbers. I don’t personally think it suitable for very young children as it begins tragically, continues so and can be bloody/graphic.
A woman of Blue (hair and skin) is on the run, she’s carrying a sacred Blue light/’egg’ object and is on a mission. She’s a Sol tribe warrior who is and continually tries to be the boy her father wished his actual son/her brothers was. Koram, for that is her name, is from Tamas ‘the land below’ and has reached the heights of Palme’s tree. Palme mistakes her for Xian and reaches out to her, she entrusts the egg to the father ‘Fou’ to take back to Tamas. The sap harvested from the tree keeps both it and Palme alive and Palme ends up transporting the egg, he has no experience of society but is accompanied by Fou’s pet mini-dragon and a gem pendant from Xian. The rest of the film charts their journey, experiences and questioning about the meaning and fairness of life.
Oliver and Annie?
Two other film references there but as Palme is an orphan urchin it makes sense that he’s drawn to others like him and indeed those who are drawn to them. Firstly he meets a group of children in a town/city who are either ignored, disliked or sold by the adults around them. They see it as their duty to save and incorporate other kids like them though a couple aren’t human/oid, Pu (brother) and Mu (sister), and it’s those two that stick by Palme but as with any social group there’s group politics. Where Pu and Mu are accepted and active members of the group Palme is new and seen as different so is subject to suspicion, bullying and ironically even to the idea of being sold. However he has a dagger belonging to the Tamas tribe and that interests one of the leaders, Shatta, who decides to follow Palme’s mission in the hopes of finding out about his origin and mother.
Palme then meets a young girl called Popo because his pendant responds to and temporarily falls into her hands. Popo’s mother was previously noted for her fame and beauty and so is jealous of the leery attention her friend/associate gives her daughter. She generally uses Popo as an abused, poor looking servant while flaunting her own finery. It’s meeting Palme that gives Popo the will to stand up for herself and seek her own path.
Soma and Lala
There is an ecological theme running through the film, it falls behind the focus on how people treat each other but how we treat others on the planet and the planet itself is there. Popo, once free from her mother is almost at ‘one with nature’, finding comfort and ‘mutual feeling’ in ‘it’. At times Palme resents her persona-ability because he feels it holds them back or more specifically his personal quest to be human.
Soma is a being that the people from below think made the world and whose energy allows them to live, this is fine when they thrive but when Soma doesn’t want to give anymore, instead making a new creation called Lala and hence many of them die they turn on their ‘source’ and want to suppress it, to have it as a forced fount instead of an idol. This is where the egg Palme is carrying comes in and neither the tribe or the misfits really know what it is though they think they do. Lala is different so most want to prevent her from being so that they continue living, they don’t understand what Lala represents and see her as their downfall.
Acknowledgement, Acceptance, Responsibility and Belonging
Ultimately all of the main characters are trying to find others they can trust or live in safety. Palme, Koram and Shatta are driven by the need to find meaning/truth, something they’ve lost and live up to expectation. The two boys find and have friends but it’s still difficult; Pu and Mu though part of the orphan group still feel they only have themselves because they are related but Mu is very sympathetic and protective over Palme. Popo misunderstands Palme’s intentions to begin with because like with Koram he mistakes her for Xian. Reaching out to her desperately is frightening and creepy but they quickly become close with Palme being protective over her and she his ‘grounding’ support. All of the characters have nowhere to go, have lost the places they came from, know more about loneliness than solitude, are generally looked down on and hunted so need each other.
Koram may be an adult in years but I still think of her as a child because her situation has stunted her emotional growth and she’s stuck in the place where she was as a child, desperately trying earn her father’s acknowledgment and love. Everything she says and does is partially a living memory and current continuance of that aim where no matter what she does even saving his life he still shuns her. There is a lot of desperation in this film and all trying to survive and find/protect the ones they love even if it means living off/using/enslaving others. There’s little appreciation of the present, only memories and being motivated by the thought of future.
Do You have to be Human to have ‘Humanity’?
People vs People regardless of race/ethnicity/species vs those not regarded as people e.g. puppets vs ‘lesser’ animals & nature.
This film focuses on the fact that though we may be made differently and not understand each other we can all be seen as puppets or ‘different’ or inferior/superior. If we treat each other in every way possible what chance and how slow is ‘progress’ for others and what about in the meanwhile let alone their past?
There’s one point in the film that differs from the rest of Palme’s experience, where he feels superior/strong and relishes the power/control it gives him over another even though that other isn’t cruel, threatening or scared of him. Popo is saddened by Palme’s desire to be human which he believes will make others treat him more respectfully but she supports him as best she can until his experiences sink in and he realizes that being human isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and that it’s who we are/how we behave that counts.
Trees – We are a Product of Memories – Finding Home.
This is applicable to nature in general but as a species we have a lot of cultural significance invested in trees as a whole before even going into types of tree. They can signify strength, shelter and protection as well as longevity and spirituality. Even with the ‘dust to dust, ashes to ashes’ or ‘we all go back to the soil’ ethos we feel more connected to them than clay, coal, tar and rock in general – trees seem more alive to us and just look at the cultural respect given to old and big trees. Hence it’s fitting that Palme is made from a magnificent and unusual tree and that the whole ending and ‘meaning of the story’ of based on him being from that. Obviously I can’t say what happens in the end but the sentiment is beautiful in that Palme might not have a place in this world as a human but that doesn’t mean he can’t watch over or even try to protect those he loves and his memory goes on as we do, if not longer. I’ve seen trees shown in this way in other stories both visual and mythical lore portraying various other factors such as for magical/ritual properties/barriers/sealing to astronomical mapping but in this story it’s more for comparing them and people for a poignant perhaps tear jerking ending.
Beautiful Backdrops and Scintillating Sound
There’s no dearth of imagination when it comes to illustrating the world the children live in and the design is amazing in all dimensions from elements in the sky to deep within the ground, the places they visit are unique and challenge our thoughts of the way plants and animals look, sense and move. They tend to have soft, fluid motion, everything seems to breathe; there are sequences that don’t need or have dialogue as they are mesmerizing.
That said the animation quality and style of the artwork isn’t as crisp and polished as recent standards and can seem dull, even flat at times. Quite a few scenes are dark which matches the dark nature of the tale but some attention to the light and dark (contrast/shading) could really have helped especially given the moments of radiance shown by glowing plants and such on their journey. There is CGI but it’s blended in so fits the dated feel without making it seem ‘too sci-fi’. The overall picture in my opinion is atmospheric and along with the sound portrays the emotion of the plot.
The film starts with a song presumably sung by Xian, it’s a melody that haunts Palme throughout leading to moments of disorientation but also perhaps moving/guiding him along, it draws him to Popo and the he himself sings it later on to comfort Koram. Other than that the music is instrumental and also haunting in a soft, ethereal way and ‘exotic’ instruments are obviously used though when the characters are strained/upset it changes to a more recognizable and driving orchestral array/score.
There are some recognizable voices in this for those used to dubbed animes but on the whole they are incorporated into the story better than other anime I’ve heard them in which can seem like vehicles or a social get together for them at times. There are some who represent certain character types and even looks from anime to anime but thankfully it’s not as noticeable here. There were a couple of times where the dubbing seemed at odds with the picture but without comparing it to the sub-titled version it’s a nice, well enunciated dub (one of the voice actors is well known for sounding garbled half the time).
On the whole
There are other media like this in production quality and storyline from many countries including Japan but regardless of origin I found it mature and moving. I’d also say that that without an interest in arcane cultural referencing a lot of things and themes from names to portrayals of characters/concepts and chronology of events can be missed and I believe that is a major cause of the divisive reception this film gets with many thinking it is either a disjointed-mesh of other ‘fairy tales’ or ‘trippy’. That happens when symbolism and interpretation of is thought of as supposed to be personal hence dependent on our way of thinking and how much we’ve learned, it’s not so when served up to us as a narrative, it’s a study. For that reason and for it needing a few watches to see the detail of design which can be hard to catch or shrouded in darkness I’d rate this 4/5. I haven’t rated it lower because I think the story, array of characters and visuals are enough for those uninterested in the rest. It’s evocative either way.
Kaena: The Prophecy (PG) – French CGI animation – Keana is from a dying world that feeds off limited tree sap and those who control the sap control the rest. It’s about defying convention and looking beyond the barriers put on travel/finding out what’s going on elsewhere. The CGI is very well done.
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (PG) – Japanese anime – The main story is different and A Tree of Palme has a feeling of despair but some of the themes and symbolism from Nausicaa are also outlined in AToP and again the artwork/representation of animals and places is unique and interesting.
Gemma Doyle Trilogy – Young Adult US Book series – The ending of this series that is exactly the same as AToP; the rest of the story is about magic, secret societies, being hunted and learning to trust.