Thursday, September 11, 2008


(Japan, 2008)
Directed by:Mamoru Oshii
Written by: Chihiro Itō
Voice Cast: Rinko Kikuchi, Chiaki Kuriyama, Shosuke Tanihara, Ryo Kase

Produced by the renowned Tokyo animation house Production I.G.--perhaps best known to North American audiences for the epic Ghost In The Shell series and the animated sequences in Kill Bill--The Sky Crawlers stands out against the glut of anime not so much for its visual invention, but for its quiet, contemplative pacing and ambitious mixture of genres.

In a futuristic world where war has been eradicated, the human hunger for bloodshed remains, and is sated by mock conflicts staged as entertainment. Two different "companies"--Rostock and Lautern--have been engaged in a long-running campaign without any apparent political or social motivation. Born into battle are a unique race of humanoids called Kildren, adolescents who do not age past their teen years and would otherwise live forever if they were not inevitably killed in combat. In the opening skirmish, a young pilot engages a superior foe whose plane is marked with a black panther insignia.

Yuichi Kannami lands at Urisu base to report for duty as a fighter pilot. He soon makes friends with Suito Kusanagi, the airbase commander and also a Kildren, who feels they've been destined to meet for quite some time. But all Yuichi can remember of his past is that he's an expert flyer. Although he is denied his request to meet his predecessor, oddly, Yuichi is assigned his plane. Even the mysterious pilot's friends and lover (a prostitute) can't determine whether he's alive or dead.

Yuichi befriends his fellow pilots and they become close during their candid meets in and out of the barracks, including a local diner and even a brothel (!), even though what he really wants it to get closer to Kusanagi. Eventually Kusanagi admits that she killed the pilot he's been drafted to replace, in order to free her former lover from the cruel cycle of meaningless violence. The other pilot, bearing the black panther logo, left her company to join his rivals with the promise that he could become an adult. Aware of Yuichi's skills, she pleads for him to kill her in battle and free her, too. But he cannot.

The stakes of the game eventually find Yuichi taking the skies against the black panther, now an "adult man" who proves to be almost supernaturally unstoppable. His moment of truth arrives just as he he becomes aware of the lies behind the sport and his love for Kusanagi. But if his skills and aircraft fail him, another pilot will surely be on the way....

Oshii takes an oft-mined Rollerball/The Running Man scenario and plays up the existential ennui with expansive vistas and ambient soundscapes that threaten to suffocate the diminutive characters as they wait out their doomed lives--there's as much Malick in play here at there is Miyazaki.

Like the replicants of Blade Runner, the Kildren were initially bred for mankind's benefit but eventually developed human emotions and an awareness of their mortality. They're a lot less violently "proactive" than the likes of Roy Batty and Pris--rather, they're a mopey, melancholy lot, prone to longing gazes and hushed conversations punctuated with even longer silences. Their simple cel-shaded renderings make them seem a lot like anemic androgynes sporting identical faces and emo hair cuts--thankfully, the retro costumes handily preserve "his" and "hers" accoutrements to help tell some of the characters apart.

The aircraft design is inspired and convincing, like Bruce McCall versions of vintage WW2 Spitfires and Corsairs. They're showcased in a series of pulse-pounding dogfights that burst off the screen with gut-wrenching 3D choreography and impressive photorealism. The theme here is as schizo as the imagery: the whammo factor, for some, will seem an odd fit with the obvious social commentary at the heart of its admittedly timely premise--children bred for warfare, flag-waving propaganda copped from classic Hollywood war films, European imperialism has gone awry, and videogaming's clean violence without consequence. And yet the tone is too prosaic to express any real outrage.

But the pretty pictures and sheer oddness of it all will keep anime enthusiasts and euchronie readers engrossed for its lengthy, 2-hour-plus running time.

Sony Pictures will distribute the film in North America and will reportedly submit The Sky Crawlers as their entry for Best Animated Feature consideration for 2009's Academy Awards.

©2008 Robert J. Lewis