Adapted from a series of novels by Mori Hiroshi, The Sky Crawlers is set in alternate historical period where groups of eternally young clone-like fighter pilots known as the Kildren engage in daily dogfights above the clouds as part of a seemingly endless war. Teenage air ace Yuichi Kannami (voiced by Ryo Kase) arrives at his local airbase and is immediately intrigued by his equally ageless commanding officer, Suito Kusanagi (Rinko Kikuchi, Oscar-nominated star of Babel (2007)) who is rumoured to have shot their last hotshot pilot, Jinroh Kurita, after a torrid romance. While Kusanagi and the other pilots steel themselves to face a supposedly adult enemy ace known only as the Teacher, Yuichi’s curiosity about his past leads him to question his purpose in life.
Aside from the iconoclastic Hayao Miyazaki, Mamoru Oshii is the only anime auteur with an international profile and that is largely because he conforms to what the critical mainstream believe a “serious” animator ought to be. Yet his output is anomalous to the rest of the anime industry: introspective, pallid and sedate where many genre landmarks are hyperkinetic, vibrant and impassioned. Early into his career, Oshii gave us gems like Urusei Yatsura - Beautiful Dreamer (1984) and Mobile Police Patlabor (1990), but after virtually inventing the existential science fiction action movie with Ghost in the Shell (1995) (which of course, god help us, spawned The Matrix (1999) and its sequels), his animated and live action films have grown increasingly nebulous and obtuse yet perversely ensure his critical standing is on the rise. Part Jean-Luc Godard, part Lars von Trier, Oshii is anime’s prankster auteur, forever denying his work has any hidden layers yet making films that proclaim their pretensions loud as a gospel choir.
While The Sky Crawlers has been well received by the Oshii faithful, opinion remains divided as to what it is really all about. Some maintain the film is Oshii’s rousing cry to disaffected youth, others cite parallels to the generation who have grown up with the War on Terror, while a growing number of genre critics are adamant that the dour, disaffected characters are lampooning anime fans and what he perceives as their instantly disposable culture that has infected Japanese society as a whole. A case of Oshii seeking to trash the very culture that spawned him. Youchi’s deadpan riposte when an older officer accuses the Kildren of lacking maturity (“Do people who might die tomorrow have any need to grow up?”) seemingly supports this interpretation, while those who see this as an anti-war parable may wonder what to make of the scene where Kusanagi attacks a grieving old woman for “insulting a dead soldier with her pity.”
Set in an odd amalgam of Japan and the United Kingdom with British pubs and news broadcasts, Oshii’s usual reliance on talking heads and moody stares, with a colour palette so drained it’s practically monochrome requires a degree of patience from those unfamiliar with his signature style. Aside from jovial pilot Tokino Naofumi (Shosuke Tanihara) and Kusanagi’s impish daughter Mizuki (Megumi Yamaguchi) every character inhabits a pit of existential despair that extends to vague subplots concerning hotshot girl pilot Midori Matsuya (Chiaki Kuriyama, from Kill Bill (2003)) and androgynous prostitute Fuko (Mabuki Ando). Conceptually similar to the John Frankenheimer classic Seconds (1966), and similarly bleak in its assessment of humanity, whatever satirical point Oshii is trying to make is somewhat muted by the passivity of his hero. Contrary to the press write-up, we see little evidence that Yuichi is questioning his existence, since he responds to the suggestion he is Jinroh’s clone and Kusanagi’s cynical opinion that mankind relies on war and universal suffering to sustain civilisation with the same dry quip: “Well, that’s an interesting view.” At least, in his own quiet way, Yuichi opts to live keep on living rather than resign himself to despair, although tellingly the moment he does so fate throws him a curveball.
We learn nothing about the cause of this war or anything about the enemy, who are confusingly referred to as either the Skly or the Lautern. The aerial combat sequences are very striking and the fusion of computer graphics and traditional animation is beautifully done, even breathtaking at times. Strangely, characters speak muffled English inside the cockpit but the dialogue is often impossible to decipher. Keep watching after the end credits since a postscript offers the closest thing to a resolution this story is going to get. Ultimately, The Sky Crawlers will either enamour viewers with its refusal to conform to conventional storytelling or else bore them out of their skulls.