It is really unfortunate that there aren’t too many anime moves, much less good anime movies that aren’t a part of a televised franchise. So when a standalone anime film is released, I feel compelled to view it. The Sky Crawlers was released about two years ago. I’ve know about it for a while but just got around to picking it up. As a general warning, it’s not really a film made for the mainstream audience; If you are looking for a quick war romance or action flick, it is probably not for you. The Sky Crawlers is an intellectual and unconventional film with a deep message that can be pretty difficult to penetrate. However, if you know what to expect from a Mamoru Oshii film, then it really shouldn’t come as a surprise. In fact, The Sky Crawlers is arguably one of his more accessible films.
On the surface level, this movie is gorgeous looking: The aerial combat is fantastic and the scenery is top notch. I usually dislike blending 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional effects, but in this case it works fairly well, even if there are a couple of graphically awkward moments. I don’t know if it is because the film was granted a higher budget or if it is because technology has progressed to a point where we can do stuff like this and not make it look like 90s cheese. I suspect both. Either way, it’s pleasing to look at.
I’m on the fence about discussing the plot, even though I probably will. It’s not really that hard to get the gist of what The Sky Crawlers is about (I’m pretty sure the back of the blu-ray packaging summarizes it), but I feel as if the movie should be treated almost like a mystery. In some sense that is what it felt like, to me at least. The film begins with a few clues and very little background information. As the narrative progresses, bits and pieces of the story are revealed. The characters themselves have no background; Everything that we learn about them is revealed through observation.
The character designs are simplistic and austere to a point, with heavy, if not exclusive focus on interaction. The Sky Crawlers illustrates a world in which immortal children or “Kildren” are trapped in a bleak, meaningless cycle of never ending, never progressing destruction and conscious ignorance. The pacing of the mirrors the characters’ mindset: A dreary haze that reiterates itself day in and day out. If the sprites within competitive online games, Team Fortress 2 for example had lives, this movie would be a pretty close approximation to what I would expect them to be like: Unending, repetitious conflict void of meaning and context. It’s a cruel version of ground hog day.
On one level, The Sky Crawlers seems like an anti-war film, we have the tired soldier and the bloody war. But if you take a closer look, it becomes pretty clear as the film progresses that Oshii is painting a very critical picture of the modern day anime industry. The scene with the foreigners and the fact that Oshii has made this film so self referential (Jin-Roh, Kusanagi) makes it pretty apparent. The outsiders look at this “fantasy world” and at the Kildren, a race completely disconnected from modern society, with fascination and udder adoration, not knowing that the pilots themselves are doomed to a cycle of unending, drab repetition. The pilots, like most anime series are literally interchangeable: One dies and is replaced by another pilot who is like in appearance in mannerism, differing only in name. No one cares, no one questions it. They represent the drudgery of escapism.
Oshii’s message penetrates the media so much in terms of pacing, atmosphere and length, almost to a fault. Though very strong, the action scenes are far in-between. Essentially, The Sky Crawlers is a 2 hour feature film of slow and deliberate “slice of life”-ish scenes of people going about their daily routines. It is a film of subtle gesture and emotion. Many important points of the story are narrated with little more than an odd glance between characters. If you don’t get the overall message and how it applies to the film thematically and mechanically, The Sky Crawlers is going to come across as dull and painfully slow.
It is a very good film intellectually, but perhaps not so much from an entertainment perspective (though I really really did like the plane fights). Even so, if you know what to expect and can appreciate it, The Sky Crawlers is a solid movie and well worth a watch. Oh and make sure to watch the movie through the credits. There is a scene afterwards.