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The Sky Crawlers (2008): Review


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.

9 thoughts on “The Sky Crawlers (2008): Review”

  1. I just watched this recently on dvd (they only had one blu-ray copy at the local rental store and its always rented out) and I have to say I was rather ambivalent as to whether I liked it or not, though I was hoping to lean towards the former as many of my colleagues at PPI worked on the show.

    I was definitely not awed, nor had that sense of satisfaction as say, when I watched Patlabor II, but it wasn’t downright dislike either. Maybe I couldn’t understand completely some of the more complex conversations the characters were having ( I watched it with no english subtiles ) so I hope to have another go at it, though not too soon I think. :]

  2. Fantastic review! I watched this very recently as well, and it took me more than one viewing to really start to appreciate what it was trying to say to me. As you mentioned in the review, the incredible desire to get a glimpse at the next battle was just overwhelming.

    But, it goes about it in a way that is not glaringly obvious to the audience. I am glad it also ended on the note it did. It could have gone many different ways, but the route chosen was a good one.

    I was absolutely blown away by the overall production quality. The sound in particular added a great amount of depth to each individual scene. The dogfight scenes are just beyond words really, probably some of the most well executed scenes of aerial combat that I have ever seen.

    Thanks again for the excellent review. You will be doing one of Genius Party Beyond sometime soon right? Right?? You need to personally contact me as soon as that happens, haha.

    . . . I am serious


  3. @Blauereiter – I understand what you’re saying – maybe do give it another go with some English subs if you get a chance. It’s a typical Oshii film in the sense that you do need to not only watch it more than once but sit and think about it for a while afterwards. Well, I do anyway 🙂

    There’s a lot of interesting things going on – Oshii has a lot to say with this film, I think. One thing I noticed on a second viewing, that I didn’t mention in the review, is how the characters all have to talk in English when speaking to the media or public. I wondered if this was a commentary on successful anime directors feeling the pressure to try and impress Hollywood and foreign markets….?

    @Andrew – Thanks again man! I have been planning a write up on both the Genius Party collections, but still can’t track down some of the first episodes and can’t find Beyonf anywhere. Any tips?

  4. Hi, It’s my first time here and I must say this site seems like another bookmark addition. Oshii’s always been one of those directors that just keeps being astounding.

    Since visiting this other blog with the scans of the artbook, the moment I saw the extensive detailing on the cigarette packs, somehow I just assumed, the movie will be even more of an exploration of how detached people can be because of its’ echoing of old chinese and japanese world war era print designs and packaging.

    I’ll have to wait patiently till they ship a copy to me.

    Your take on the themes as to how it relates to anime’s constant recyclings of themes and children-character archetypes is interesting. If there’s anything to be regretted that’s associated to any of his work, is the fact that a hollywood adaptation of Ghost in The Shell is on its’ making. Hahah.

    This was a good read! Thanks for whetting my appetite for this movie!

  5. Hi Weigy, thanks for the kind words, and i hope you enjoy the site.

    I just watched the film again a couple of days ago, and it still had quite an impact on me. It’s typically Oshii in that although it’s quite slowly paced and spaciously packed, there’s actually a lot going on ideas wise. I think you’ll enjoy – but when you have seen it please do come back and let me know what you think.

  6. Oshii’s films seem to have more than one possible interpretations, but to one that feels right seems often instinctive and the risk to dislike the whole project by way of missing one of the functioning lines of interpretation is always high.
    Obvious flaws and quirks (easiest recognizable in his live-action) encourage many viewers to rate the films low.
    Well, it’s strange.

    But without having seen Sky Crawlers yet, the answers seem actually obvious, even straightforward to me, and I wonder why this film has such a mixed reception. Well, I’ll see.

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