Review for The Sky Crawlers
There's a war in progress between Rostock and Lautern, and in the middle of the conflict, pilot Yuichi Kannami arrives at his new posting. But it's a curious welcome. Getting out of his plane, he's struck by an intense feeling of déjà vu. More curious is the fact that he is supposed to fly the plane of a previous pilot, Jinroh Kurita. The plane's intact, meaning it wasn't shot down, and the tradition is that the previous pilot meets the new pilot to get him up to speed on the machine's particular idiosyncrasies. But Jinroh Kurita is nowhere to be found. It turns out that there is much more to this than meets the eye, most of it revolving around the base commander, Suito Kusanagi, and she isn't at all that forthcoming about Jinroh's whereabouts. Besides, there are bigger questions too. Rostock and Lautern aren't countries, they are companies, and the 'Kildren' doing the fighting are employees. And what kind of war is fought solely with air forces, and why don't the local residents feel any need to rush to an air raid shelter when enemy bombers fly overhead? As Yuichi investigates further into his predecessor's disappearance, the war intensifies, and the dreaded 'Teacher' arrives in the battle arena, an ace pilot that no Kildren has been able to down.
I got the movie, barebones and quite compressed on a single layer DVD-R. For what it's worth, the screener was NTSC-PAL 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen with Japanese stereo and burnt in subs. Fortunately, I saw The Sky Crawlers in the cinema back in February, so I have some un-pixellated memories to inspire this review. The DVD should have the usual DD 5.1 soundtracks in Japanese and English, as well as an interview featurette with director Mamoru Oshii. There is a Blu-ray release on the same day, which will have additional featurettes on the animation and sound design, as well as location scouting. Personally, I'd go for the Blu-ray release, especially if the DVD has the same standards conversion as the screener disc. It's not that it's a bad conversion, far from it judging from the image quality of the screener, but The Sky Crawlers is a film that really delivers in terms of visuals, and you want to see them at their best. Incidentally, Play.com is doing a Blu-ray/DVD combo of The Sky Crawlers for the same price as the Blu-ray alone.
Question: How do you know when you've seen too many Mamoru Oshii movies?
Answer: When you've figured out the twist to The Sky Crawlers in the first half hour of the movie.
There I was coming out of the screening as the end credits rolled (missing the post credits coda along with everyone else), and most everyone was shocked, stunned, blown away, thrilled, excited, cheated, betrayed, and countless other reactions at what had just transpired. Myself, I couldn't see what all the fuss was about, as I had figured it all out, less than a third of the way through the film, and it transpired mostly as I expected it to. Of course I'm not going to tell you what happens at this point, as quite frankly, The Sky Crawlers has just two things going for it, the twists and turns in the story, and the visuals. With just the visuals, it's not likely to hold the interest for two hours. Incidentally, if you are thinking of getting this movie after reading the review for it in The Independent, don't bother, as that review really does give it all away.
So what do you have to look forward to? The Sky Crawlers is the most aesthetically rewarding anime feature I can recall. Both in terms of visuals and audio, it is unparalleled. It's a painfully beautiful film, with gorgeous animation, effortlessly blending 2D and 3D, with a carefully designed pastel autumnal palette that just glows. The character designs are simple and childlike, but the world design is lush and intricate. So much thought has gone into this animation, the designs on wallpaper and carpets, the patina on furniture, the reflection in a tabletop varnish, that you end up wanting the real world to look this detailed. The action sequences are astounding too. The film opens with an aerial dogfight between two propeller driven fighters, reminiscent of World War II movies, that leaves your mouth gaping wide open at the sheer scope and audacity of the animation, and the sound design is such that you feel the reverberations from the engines, experience every shell hitting fuselage. Then on top of that all is Kenji Kawai's evocative and haunting soundtrack. It's a film that draws you in and almost hypnotises you with its magnificence.
As for the story, that is typical Oshii, slow, measured, accomplishing more through implication and inference than any direct narrative, and working on several levels at once. The trademark basset hound is there as well. It's a story that requires full attention from the viewer, it's rich in philosophy and is deeply thought provoking, although nowhere near as blatant as Ghost in the Shell: Innocence. It's the story of one man's investigation of a mystery, trying to find out what happened to his predecessor, and in the process learning more about his own nature as well. But just like the Ghost in the Shell films, the central question comes down to the definition of the human soul, of what constitutes intelligence and free will, how much we are defined by our memories and how much is subject to our specific circumstances. There's also time for a comment or two on the nature of warfare, especially warfare in the modern era, and how it relates to the twenty-four hour news-feed society, questioning whether humanity actually needs war as part of its psychological make-up. It's could have been pretty dry and academic stuff, but it's delivered in an engaging and dramatic way. However, I still find it a little distant and impersonal, and while there are moments of humanity and warmth, such as Yuichi's developing relationship with Suito, and one scene where Yuichi and his wingman are bouncing on a couple of children's playground rides, ridiculously outsized but intensely serious, these moments are few and far between.
I found Sky Crawlers to be cold and not all that engaging, it's also a little pretentious, and given that it covers ground that the director has already explored in earlier films, not a little redundant. It may have flying aces and dogfights, instead of cyberpunk and cyborgs, but the underlying themes are the same. I found it predictable, but your mileage may vary. But it's a movie that is insanely beautiful and ethereal, visually evocative, the sort of anime that you just can't tear your attention away from. It's not a movie to enjoy; it's a movie to appreciate. Mamoru Oshii has created an anime work of art. I can see this DVD and Blu-ray on countless collectors' shelves, but I can also see it not getting that much repeat play.