Frequent talkback contributor "Johnno" has graciously sent in a report from the first screening in North America of Ghost in the Shell director Mamoru Oshii's latest film 'The Sky Crawlers' at the Toronto Film Festival
Hey folks! I managed to get some friends together and go check out the North American premiere for the new animated movie ‘The Sky Crawlers’ by Mamoru Oshii based on a novel by Mori Hiroshi. I’m a big fan of the man’s work and Sky Crawlers meets my expectations for an Oshii film. I caught the first showing at noon at the Scotiabank (formerly Paramount) theatre. Anyone else in or near Toronto that’s interested can catch another at the same location around the same time on the 13th of this month. I greatly enjoyed the film and by the end I was left quietly sitting in my seat reflecting on it while the credits rolled by. Those who wish to stay after the credits will be rewarded with a short but significant clip. The film begins by showing off an aerial dogfight between two squads of fighter aircraft. The fighter planes in this film are like modified versions of WWII aircraft. They rely on propeller engines but their designs are like futuristic takes on old fashioned Hellcats and Warhawks. After downing the enemy and returning back, one of the pilots finds himself transferred to another base. He is the main character of the film ‘Yuichi Kannami’ and upon arriving wants to meet the pilot whose place he is taking. However he is not allowed to meet him and everyone avoids talking about him. They will not even confirm as to whether that person is dead or alive. However since his plane is still fine and perfectly operational, it’s obvious that he wasn’t shot down. What then has happened to him? And why is everyone so uneasy to refer to him or answer Yuichi’s questions? Like all of Oshii’s work, the film begins with this mystery and it takes its time to unravel at a slow and deliberate pace. There is no spoon fed exposition or any immediate explanation as to what this world is like. The characters in Oshii’s films are used to and have been raised in this world and so they will behave and speak about things in complete normalcy that are common and conventional to them, but not for the audience. Things are kept mysterious and the world of Sky Crawlers itself is kept intriguing for as long as possible until some visual clue or lines of dialogue provide a clue or a context. A moment of philosophical discourse will suddenly pull back the veil on how this world works and what the startling revelation is that lies beneath it. It is a character driven story, and the landscape that houses them and their duty to perform in staged warfare remains in the background to motivate them into action as well as a reason for them to exist in the first place as youngsters bred for the sole purpose of living for war. Fans of Oshii’s work know what to expect. It has everything from the beautiful scenic moments accompanied by the mystical music of Kenji Kawai, which is much more subtle and such scenes are many, shorter and interspersed this time around throughout the film, to the appearances of Oshii’s delightful basset hound. If I were to compare this film to any of Oshii’s past works, the film that Sky Crawlers is best like is ‘Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade.’ The animation is bathed in a dull color palette with much contrast between light and shadow. Overall a feeling and shadow of weariness is created through the expanse of scenery and through the way the characters live and react around each other as if they have lived long enough and are wrought with boredom whenever they are on the ground. The film gets upbeat and fast paced whenever the characters begin to soar through the air and engage in combat. The air combat is handled using CG so as to follow the planes as they swoop and soar through the air, the clouds and above the sea, through sun and rain as they fire at each other, outwit the enemy through aerial maneuvers and especially when it’s their turn to get shot up and explode. On the other hand, anytime the story returns back to ground level everything returns to hand drawn 2D. Occasionally the two methods will combine for when they will cut to a character in his cockpit or disembarking from his aircraft or performing repair work. It’s seamless and both the 2D and 3D elements work together well but we should expect nothing less from the talented people at Production I.G. While everything I’ve said above is enough to convince me to check out this film with a sense of intrigue, many of you must want more details as to what this film is about… So without spoiling anything major I’ll do my best to explain it in this paragraph. The world of Sky Crawlers is one much like ours. The setting seems to take place in Europe a long time after a great war ended and the world has finally achieved true peace and nations no longer fight with each other. However in place of actual reasons to go to war, humanity has instead found a form of cathartic entertainment value through war; so corporations conduct war games performed like reality television using real people and costing real lives. Yuichi Kannami along with his squad mates are called ‘kildren’ who are young of age and raised specifically to fulfill the roles of soldiers to engage in this sort of warfare games for the public. Created by a Japanese contractor amongst many worldwide companies, they live in a state of an adolescent cross between being an adult and a child; however they behave like beings that are neither, they feel awkward around normal adults and display none of the liveliness and charisma of normal children. They tend not to form close friendships with each other knowing that they could die at any time, or they might be transferred to some other bases around the world; but they gladly take whatever doses of happiness and pleasure they can get from joking and conversing with each other, to drinking, eating and sex without too much general attachment. As Yuichi begins to settle into his new place, he befriends one of the more aloof members there and finds himself drawn to the female base commander ‘Suito Kusanagi’ who strikes me as being a deliberate and eerie resemblance of Ghost in the Shell’s ‘Motoko Kusanagi.’ Much of the tension in the story revolves around Suito and Yuichi’s relationship with each other. Suito Kusanagi also seems to have had some strong relationship to the mysterious pilot whom Yuichi was sent in to replace named ‘Jinroh.’ (Come to think of it, with names like Kusanagi and Jinroh in the Sky Crawlers I’m now starting to wonder what other little things I missed that might be littered throughout Sky Crawlers that could be little shout-outs to Oshii’s past works). As Yuichi becomes more entangled in the affairs and lives of the base members and their neighbors, the European company they are contracted under is preparing for a large scale engagement with their competitors using large scale bombers and fleets of aircraft. However on their competitor’s side is an ace pilot nicknamed ‘The Teacher’ who is said to be unbeatable and unlike any of the kildren. It is under this theatre of warfare that Yuichi lives and it is a destiny that he is bred for and cannot escape. This is the world of the Sky Crawlers. Oshii describes his intent with the film as being a message of hope to the youth of today’s Japan who are raised in a society that is fairly secure in peace with enough provisions of food and necessities and good living standards for the vast majority of people. However it appears that because of this comfort that some may devalue their lives and those of others; while many will disregard the importance and significance of their futures and fall into a state of everlasting adolescence fostered by consumerism and thus being spoilt in this manner will refuse to ‘grow up.’ Furthermore, one could interpret the Sky Crawlers as being Oshii’s criticism of humanity’s fascination of the spectacle of conflict and the ensuring violence and death and perhaps it is because of this that war continues, whether in our real world or simulated through film, television and games. The Sky Crawlers is perhaps the most straightforward and simple of Oshii’s films thus far. It’s easy to follow and understand so long as you’re patient and interested enough to sit through it. Of course it’s likely that those who find films like Jin-Roh too slow will not appreciate the pacing of Sky Crawlers. It’s slow pacing and reuse of images we’ve seen before is used to foster empathy for the kildren’s sense of how long they’ve lived and the feelings of déjà vu and the repetitive nature of their existence. In a way it reminds me of how ‘There will be Blood’s direction was utilized to suggest the lonely and tiresome but driven life of Daniel Day Lewis’ character through the use of scenic images and general pacing. There are also Oshii’s signature extreme straight-on close-ups of faces and still unmoving shots of characters that deliver that uncomfortable and unnerving feeling that something doesn’t feel quite right. Kusanagi often rekindles that feeling of looking at the Locus Solus gynoids from Innocence: GITS2. However this film is nowhere near as dense or complex as GITS2. Ignoring the Patlabor films, Sky Crawlers is perhaps the less alienating and more easily grasped of Oshii’s artsy moody works that include GITS and Jin-Roh. Fans of Oshii’s stuff will definitely feel right at home here. Perhaps on the negative end some fans may wish Sky Crawlers was more dense and convoluted. The film won’t stand out nor break any ground in the pantheons of anime classics, however it is a subtly beautiful film that I’d love to re-watch and definitely purchase upon release. I enthusiastically recommend it!