One thing that seems to be a universal constant of the anime world is that, if Mamoru Oshii is in any way involved in a project, it will at least try to make you think. Sometimes, he's not particularly subtle about the message he's trying to get across, though, and that can be a little offputting. Time to see how his tact and diplomacy are faring with his latest work, The Sky Crawlers'
What They Say
From Mamoru Oshii, the visionary director of 'Ghost In The Shell' and 'Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence', comes the full-length animated feature The Sky Crawlers, based on the first of acclaimed author Mori Hiroshi's five-part series of bestselling novels set in an alternative historical period and chronicling the lives of a group of young aerial fighter pilots involved in a seemingly never-ending war.
The winner of numerous international film awards, including the Future Film Festival Digital Award at the 2008 Venice Film Festival, the Jose Luis Guarner Critics Award for Best Film at the 2008 Sitges International Film Festival and the Best Animation Film Award at Tokyo's Mainichi Film Concours in 2009, The Sky Crawlers takes the groundbreaking techniques of combining traditional 2D and CGI animation developed for Oshii's earlier features and applies them to a dramatic tale of innocence lost set against a backdrop of spectacular aerial warfare.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review will contain spoilers)
There's one fairly major problem with writing a review of The Sky Crawlers: a lot of the detail about the setting, and about what's really going on in the background to the movie, isn't revealed until about three-quarters of the way through it. If I wanted to truly convey just how good I think this movie is, I would have to spoil that reveal, and that in turn would probably spoil the whole movie. There's a balancing act here, and I'll just apologise in advance in case I get that balance wrong.
Time? Indeterminate. A look at the locations and the designs of the aircraft depicted in the movie could lead you to believe it's set in or shortly after World War Two '" but other things, like computers with flat-panel displays, say otherwise. Location? Northern Europe, but again it's hard to say where '" cars in the movie have number plates that match the Irish format, but other buildings are labelled "Rostock Steel Works", and Rostock's in (East) Germany. The precise details, though, are unimportant: what is important, is that the characters we're introduced to live on an airbase, fighting a war that it eventually becomes clear is essentially endless, and as a consequence they're beginning to question who they are and why they're living this life. With no end to the war in sight, and with the war's combatants having no memories of a life before the war, these aren't questions with easy answers.
The two characters we see the most of are Yuichi Kannami, who has just arrived on the airbase as replacement for another pilot who left, or perhaps disappeared, in suspicious circumstances; and Suito Kusanagi, his commanding officer, who runs her base with a rod of iron but who seems to have issues to deal with that leave her a little bit' unstable. Circumstances, and a connection that's not revealed until very late in the movie, bring the two of them closer together as they try to deal with the world they've found themselves in, and that they have no way of escaping from.
The majority of the movie is devoted to following Kannami and Kusanagi through what is essentially a process of self-discovery and self-condemnation, as the true nature of the war and its combatants becomes clear. It's not the easiest of journeys to watch '" there's a lot going on in their lives that is downright unpleasant, and Oshii doesn't shirk on exposing us to the more unsavoury side of life. The story also positively crawls along in places, appropriately enough - but, as a consequence of both that ambiguous setting and the way that events unfold, one thing leading to another and ultimately to the grand reveal that pulls everything together, it's rarely less than engrossing. Kannami and Kusanagi are unlikely to be characters that you'll actively like, but by the end of the movie I knew enough about them to feel a certain sympathy for their situation, and to question the world that allowed it to happen. That's the Oshii effect, making me think again.
As if aware that too much of the character work could get too much for the audience, the movie also take regular breaks to show the war in action, from the viewpoints of the pilots as they take part in aerial dogfights and bombing raids. These scenes are a real contrast to the ground-based scenes: like on the ground is dark, dreary, and in some ways poorly-animated (characters are noticeably jerky when they move); in the air, though, colours are vibrant, detail is everywhere. Life in the skies has pace, a thrill to it that the ground doesn't have. That's as much a hint as to what the pilots live for as anything else, but the combat scenes also provide eyecandy for the viewer and a brief distraction from the meat of the story, stopping the relentless gloom from becoming overwhelming.
More often than not, if I put an anime DVD into the player, I'm looking for something that will let me switch off and escape the world for a while '" it's entertainment, nothing more. If you're looking for something to fill that same need, then The Sky Crawlers isn't it '" it positively demands your attention, and will make you think about the issues it raises. But that's also what ultimately makes it rewarding to watch. It's not the easiest of movies to watch, but I have to say that it's one that you should. Highly recommended.
Toshiba 37X3030DB 37" widescreen HDTV; Sony PS3 Blu-ray player (via HDMI, upscaled to 1080p); Acoustic Solutions DS-222 5.1 speaker system.