Mamoru Oshii is one of anime's biggest directors, an industry heavyweight that is part of an elite group of animators who have reached the point of near total creative freedom. Few others could have created a film like Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, an arty and densely philosophical sci-fi thriller that boasted a budget usually reserved for action titles, and fewer still could have directed The Sky Crawlers.
Based on a novel considered by many to be unfilmable, The
Sky Crawlers is set in an alternative reality where an aerial battle between
rival nations is conducted in lieu of real war. The protagonists in this
battle are Kildren, genetically engineered humans who are unable to age past
their mid-teens. Although Kildren are not slaves they are destined to a
life of battle, their perpetual youth giving them an edge in the skies, and they
live on the airbases to which they are assigned. The film starts with the
arrival of the pilot Yuichi Kannami at a new post, although quiet and reserved
he soon settles in and strikes up a good friendship with fellow Kildren Naofumi
Tokino whilst proving himself to be a talented and reliable airman.
However, there are some things that he finds strange. Normally when a new
pilot takes the place of a someone who has not been killed in action his or her
predecessor is expected to greet them, but his predecessor is nowhere to be
found and no-one seems particularly keen to discuss him, least of all base
commander Suito Kusanagi. Her cold and withdrawn demeanour intrigues him,
but there are bigger issues to face than an emotionless commander. The
danger from the enemy increases from day to day, but even worse is the news that
a legendary fighter ace known as the Teacher has been spotted in the area.
The Teacher is feared as one of the most deadly fighters in the sky and is
rumoured to be an adult rather than a Kildren like the other pilots. His
arrival causes a change in Suito who seems to be harbouring some personal
demons from the past, but what are they? Suito has an edge that draws
Yuichi in, but rumours abound about her - was she involved in the disappearance
of his predecessor? And what has caused her to withdraw from the other
Kildren on the base?
The Sky Crawlers is a difficult film to describe. The problem is that not a great deal overtly happens, the film is very slow paced and pretty understated, with much of the real drama coming right at the end. To start with Yuichi spends much of his time flying recon missions and hanging out around the base and a nearby café, getting into some complicated relationships as the film progresses as he slowly tries to unravel the mystery of what happened to the pilot he has replaced. The animation and art is superb, but generally as
understated as the story with only the aerial battles and planes rendered in stunning CG, whilst the music - from long-time Oshii collaborator Kenji Kawaii - is both ethereal and haunting. Much of the story and plot development is tucked away under the surface, with hints given throughout the film to the final revelation at the end.
Whilst a film about flying aces may give the impression of
hi-octane action, the reality is far more cerebral. The Sky Crawlers is a
sci-fi film first and foremost, and it's a damn good one at that. The
mystery of Suito's past and the quiet despair she feels towards her position is
beautifully conveyed. Like all good sci-fi the film has a very interesting
premise at its core, and the exploration of the truth about the Kildren and the
battles they take part in is what drives the story. The concept has
a slight air of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four about it, but it
feels like a story from sci-fi's golden age - clever, thought-provoking, and
above all intriguing. The action, when it does come, is stunning.
The Sky Crawlers features probably the best aerial combat sequences in anime
since Macross Plus, throwing you into the cockpit with the pilots as the
sky wheels around them. You can hear their frantic breathing as they
search for their enemies, almost feel the pain and disorientation as they battle
the g-force of their high-speed manoeuvres. The battles are both
spectacular and particularly visceral, with no mercy shown to pilots who are
targeted even as they fall from their stricken aircraft. The contrast
between the stunning battles and the slow paced life on the base is marked and
deliberately jarring, brilliantly conveying the pilots' start/stop life.
If there's anything that does let the film down it's probably its slow pace and minimalist design. Whilst the planes and aerial battles are jaw-droppingly realised in stunning detail, the character designs are pretty simplistic. Suito Kusanagi looks much like her Ghost in the Shell namesake and Yuichi Kannami and his fellow pilots are pretty flat, the shapeless airmen's uniform they all wear not really helping to provide variety. The scenery is, like the characters, somewhat featureless, mainly focusing on the remote airbase and a nearby
café until the last quarter of the film. The pace is glacially slow in places, with repeated scenes that may help to cement the film's central theme but will alienate casual viewers and severely try the patience of action fans. However, these things add to the strangely elegiac feel the film evokes, almost pining for a lost past of flying aces that never actually existed in the first place. The scenes of the base's mechanic and dog standing on the airstrip listening for the sound of returning aircraft is haunting, more reminiscent of a 1950's film about daring World War 2 missions than a modern sci-fi film. It may be old fashioned in some ways, but the marriage of retro style with a futuristic premise creates something that just doesn't feel much like anything else.
The Sky Crawlers is a very good but somewhat languid film, the animation is great and the aerial battles are absolutely stunning. The general lack of action and slow pace may put some viewers off, but if you have the patience The Sky Crawlers is easily one of the best sci-fi anime of recent years. The story is both thought provoking and intriguing, whilst the characters - who initially appear to be a bit two dimensional - really develop over the course of the film. At the end of the day this film really isn't for everyone though. It's slow-paced, minimalist in character design, sparing in its use of locations and quite restrained in terms of dialogue. However, it is an excellent sci-fi title that frequently evokes the feel of an old war film, its restraint and understated style is punctuated by a sparing use of action and emotion that is all the more effective for its infrequency. The Blu-Ray print is very good, with the stunning CGI dogfights brought vividly to life via the clarity of the high-definition format, but whilst the CG scenes are enhanced on Blu-Ray the majority of the film doesn't look massively different. The visuals are often deliberately minimalist so whilst it does look better in HD it's not as striking an improvement as a deeply detailed and CG-heavy film like Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. Blu-Ray buffs will be pleased to know that it does carry some additional extras over the DVD version though (see below). The Sky Crawlers is a must-buy for any self-respecting sci-fi fan, it's a beautifully paced exploration of an intriguing premise and whether you buy the DVD or the Blu-Ray it is a film that is worth your patience.
Good stuff here, as well as the trailers for the film the disc also includes a 15 minute interview with Mamoru Oshii, whilst the Blu-Ray edition also includes two lengthy documentaries about the animation & sound design and animation research. Keep watching after the credits too for a bonus epilogue to the film.