If you’ve read this site before, or even just glanced over it’s archives, then my appreciation and admiration of director Mamoru Oshii is clearly laid out. As such it would seem not only redundant but also somewhat self indulgent to elaborate further on my love of his tense political sci-fi dramas Ghost in the Shell and Patlabor, or his low budget, live action masterpiece Avalon. Ever since his latest feature film The Sky Crawlers was first announced I have been gripped with excitement and anticipation – although, as always, resigned to the long wait us western fans must endure before we are granted an audience. This week that wait finally ended, and putting aside my deep rooted fanboy allegiances for just under two hours, I was able to sit down and see if anime’s most esteemed auteur could still deliver the goods.
Based on a series of novels by Japanese author Hiroshi Mori, The Sky Crawlers takes its time in revealing it’s true nature to the viewer. Oshii is famous for never rushing his narratives and giving his viewers time to indulge in his slowly paced cinematography, but tSC takes its time in revealing even it’s true setting. Much of the truth about what is happening in the world it’s characters inhabit isn’t made clear until it’s final act, and as such it makes it hard to elaborate without drifting into spoiler territory. Simply put, it is set at a time – possibly the future, or equally maybe an alternate past – when humanity has decided that the only way to avoid war is to stage an artificial, and seemingly endless, one. As a result an eternal air conflict is fought between two rival corporations using WWII style fighter planes and bombers, just to fill the war cravings of the global media, economy and watching public.
This concept is not a new one for Oshii, it being the main driving theme of his second, complex Patlabor movie. Then the subject was how small scale, but very real, wars were allowed to rage unhindered in the less developed parts of the world so that the industrial nations could create the illusion of a lasting peace, and made in 1993 it gives a chillingly clairvoyant portrayal of how easily this cosy illusion can be broken through acts of terrorism. To Oshii war is a vital force in modern capitalist societies, the secret fuel that drives their economies and cultures, but while Patlabor 2 meditates openly and explicitly on this train of thought, tSC is all the more subtler. Throughout it’s duration it only hints at it’s thematic backdrop, preferring instead to focus it’s other unique ingredient; it’s characters.
If eternal, staged war is the formula for peace, then one huge moral question faces the society that puts it into practice: who will do the fighting? For the tSC the answer is the ‘Kildren’, apparently genetically engineered clones of teenage children, raised to do nothing but fly and fight for the corporations that mass-produce them. It is through their eyes that we slowly learn not only about their world, but also the abusive psychological effect it has on them. Raised to know nothing but war, they fly routine, daily sorties while filling the gaps within with drinking and mindless, detached sex. In fact everything appears detached to them; their lives are so routine – the war so endless – that even the thrills of partying and combat seem to bore them. The fact that they are designed to never age – forever staying young, knowing that they will only, inevitably, die in battle – only compounding their increasing alienation from both each other and the world they are supposedly fighting for.
The image of robotic, innocence stripped children being used as weapons in this way is a disturbing one, and one seen to devastating effect in Madhouses‘ groundbreaking 2003 series Gunslinger Girl. Now, as then, it appears the target of critique is anime itself, and perhaps to some larger extent Japanese culture as a whole. For decades anime and manga have made children their assassins and war heroes, and both Gunslinger Girl and Oshii attempt to deconstruct these respective memes, showing instead the brutal reality of how that could manifest in real life. tSC goes a stage further though, coupling this with the earlier theme of the need for perpetual war, and perhaps turning it into an attack on the endless repition of anime subject material, the boredom of the characters representing Oshii’s own disdain at the stale offerings much of the industry produces. At times it even feels like an attack on himself; the use of character names from his previous works is jarring to any watching fan, and coupled with his frequent visual signatures it is almost as though Oshii-san is looking back at his portfolio of work with disappointment at his own lack of originality. If The Sky Crawlers reassures his audience of only one thing its that he shouldn’t be so harsh on himself.
Visually, the film is sumptuous and intoxicating as we have come to expect from the director and his highly experienced creative team at Production IG. The green fields and cloudscape filled blue skies mark a refreshing change of palette from their usual dark, urban environments – but while also maintaining the director’s trademark cold, stark and lonely atmospheres. While the character design is suitably minimal compared to previous IG works, the mechanical design is as phenomenal as expected, the retro-but-futuristic fighter planes betraying a Miyazaki-like fetishism towards WWII aircraft engineering and attention to detail. The dogfight sequences themselves are breathtaking, and again show IG’s mastery of the use of combining CGI and traditional cell animation. Here they had help from FX studio Polygon Pictures, whose recent portfolio shows they are clearly industry leaders – and I don’t say that just because I know someone that works there.
In fact, the opening and regularly punctuating dogfight sequences are perhaps Oshii’s greatest trick. Not only do they break up the mesmerising monotony of watching the Kildren’s routine lives unfold, but they also make the audience participants in their world. The action sequences are so exhilirating, so beautifully choreographed that the viewer ends up almost craving them to return to the screen, and thus becomes the gawping, voyeristic, war-demanding public of the Kildren’s world, and thus ultimately the guilty abuser. It’s a master stroke of manipulation, and a subtle one that perhaps doesn’t truly reveal itself until the films final, bloody dogfight.
Despite it’s deeply thematic nature and social commentary, The Sky Crawlers is perhaps Oshii’s most accessible film since Patlabor. Gone, thankfully, are the philosophical ramblings of GiTS 2: Innocence, instead the discussion is more subtle, the plot more linear. In many ways it feels that Oshii, although rapidly becoming what is considered a veteran filmmaker, is still learning from mistakes and honing his skills. Plus, as always with his work, it’s nothing else if not a visual masterpiece, the imagery and score from Oshii’s long time composer of choice Kenji Kawai combining again to make a compelling and memorable viewing experience. It’s not an easy ride at times, but The Sky Crawlers is certainly one you can’t afford to miss.