Original release: August 2nd, 2008
Running time: 122 minutes
Country of origin: Japan
Original language: Japanese
Director: Mamoru Oshii
Writer: Chihiro Itō
Cast: Ryō Kase, Rinko Kikuchi, Yoshiko Sakakibara, Chiaki Kuriyama
Ever since the beginning of civilisation – as far as we can tell – war has never been completely absent from our collective history. This perpetual state of aggression rearing its head at one place or another has to make us wonder if we will be able to live and coexist peacefully at some point in the future.
I may admit to some cynicism – or perhaps realism – the sight of “world peace” signs on display strikes me as somewhat naïve given the reality of the world around us. I can’t help but feel at times that military intervention is a better response to some of the still emerging man-made humanitarian crises than standing around telling each other that war is bad – in this geo-political climate, I don’t think war is going anywhere anytime soon.
If we think well ahead of our time, however, we can imagine a more prosperous world with humanity trying to overcome the problem of war. We may foresee an ideal world where those ‘world peace’ signs actually took to the minds of everyone on Earth and we have nothing to worry about. But maybe it’s not going to be that simple.
Mamoru Oshii – creator of the landmark animated feature Ghost In The Shell – brought a more complicated world to the screen based on Hiroshi Mori’s novel The Sky Crawlers. Oshii’s animated follow-up to Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence portrays an alternate universe where war could not be eliminated because of human nature’s inherent appetite for conflict and destruction. The solution in The Sky Crawlers was to isolate war by handing it over to private corporations and have contracted fighter pilots engage in real combat situations. As corporations go to war against each other for money, the media reports the on-going conflict to the public with no civilian life at risk.
While the general population lives in peace, death is ever-present in this curious world. The contracted pilots are seen from the outside world as heroes who are willing to sacrifice for the greater good – nevertheless, they’re disposable and replaceable. One of them is the quiet but gifted ace pilot Yūichi (Ryō Kase) working for the Rostock Corporation, who is reassigned to a new combat area after three pilots are downed by the mysterious Teacher from the rival Lautern Corporation. He’s surprised to find that the aircraft of his predecessor is intact; indicating that the pilot wasn’t killed in combat, but his new commanding officer Suito (Rinko Kikuchi) – an experienced pilot herself – dismisses his enquiries.
Yūichi’s new life is riddled with mysteries, the fate of the pilot he replaced and his arch enemy everyone calls the Teacher hold many secrets; but he also has a mystery that comes from within. His youthful appearance is due to the fact that he’s a Kildren; he will never get old and never die – unless he is killed by force. Yūichi doesn’t know where the Kildren come from or why, but quickly senses that his new commanding officer Suito is of the same class of people.
It was frustrating to see such a fascinating premise that never quite manages to realise its great inherent potential. Mamoru Oshii created a narrative dynamic between beautifully designed, breathtakingly realistic action sequences and very slowly unfolding character driven pieces. The promise of a thoughtful and artistic animated feature is so strong with The Sky Crawlers that I almost believe it still; but I ultimately missed a different kind of dynamic that would formulate when the two protagonists interact. Yūichi’s relationship with Suito is what eventually let me slip out of the zone when watching the feature. Some have complained about the pacing of the film, but the slow release of information in a story of multiple mysteries can be a very satisfying experience when we can relate to the characters.
Yūichi and Suito however, are too similar to highlight traits and qualities of the other; they are both apathetic people with great stoicism, barely talking to each other, but when they did I often wished they wouldn’t. Much of the narrative in The Sky Crawlers relies on the ‘tragic couple’ but Yūichi and Suito cannot carry that burden.
The story nevertheless takes much strength from a concept that made me think about the film long after watching it. Can we live without war? What will the West do with its almighty military when the world no longer has despots and genocidal dictators to give it purpose? I found the film’s scenario of corporations running wars as if it was some twisted version of the Olympic Games fascinating as well as really quite plausible. Once we imagine a prosperous future where all countries have come to recognise human rights and especially the rights of minorities, humanity will have start finding ways to overcome to problem of war.
I couldn’t go without mentioning the absolutely superb visuals in the film. The Sky Crawlers looks exactly like an animated feature should look like in the 21st century – I don’t think I’ve ever seen CGI merged so seamlessly and tastefully with animation. I especially enjoyed the ambient quality to the visualisation of light – natural and artificial – in the film.
Even when the source of light is direct in a scene, there’s a somewhat diffused feel to it that can make the most unassuming set piece stunningly beautiful. The battle sequences with the various fighter aircrafts are super realistic and probably the best I’ve seen on screen even when including live action counterparts. The art direction in The Sky Crawlers is ‘art’ with full capital letters.
Mamoru Oshii’s latest animated feature to date deserves a recommendation in spite of some aspects of the film being painfully frustrating to watch. When I finished watching The Sky Crawlers I was mostly disappointed as I had high expectations for the creator of Ghost In The Shell. It took me a while to learn to appreciate its mere potential without the payoff and look beyond its flaws. When I eventually did, I found an imperfect film that is worth watching nevertheless.
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.