Anime Spotlight: The Sky Crawlers Released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment on Blu-ray and DVD May 26th
Buzz has it that the Sky Crawlers is one of Mamoru Oshii's more accessible movies. Compared to his other works in recent years, it is certainly less cofoundingly referential than Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. This isn't AS wordy as some Oshii films - there's A Camus reference, A Shakespeare reference, a few short conversations with speakers not looking at each other. At the same time, its Battle of Britain dog-fought over a hyper-Europe is certainly more internationally ready than Tachiguishi Retsuden: The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters - a pseudohistory documentary of dine and dash con-artists from his Kerbero Panzer Cops alternate time line. It might be helpful to think of the Sky Crawlers as Oshii's Hayao Miyazaki film (the two anime directors have exchanged barbs over the years), considering its idealized European setting, its concern with flight and its sentiment that there is a less than genuine character to modern living. In that final regard, the Sky Crawlers specifically sets its sights on long standing anime fans. In its targeting of arrested development, not only does it feature a story that concerns patterns in the lives of perpetual teen-agers, screening press notes explicitly drew the comparison to hikikomori - the Japanese term for shut-ins who completely withdraw from social interaction. The movie's hook is obsessively detailed propeller aircraft, painstakingly rendered through their flight into lethal duels. At the same time, it's using recognizable character types and personality traits to engage and critique an audience who's seen more than their share of anime, who might wish to envision themselves in the cockpit of those fighters. For even a casual student of the medium, The Sky Crawlers is inseparable from its director. Mamoru Oshii is a phenomenon. He came to prominence in the field directing a bit over a hundred episodes of the anime adaptation of the zany comedy Urusei Yatsura. The first mega-adaptation of the first mega-work from Rumiko Takahashi (InuYasha, Ranma 1/2), the series followed the hijinks of congenitally unlucky, chronic girl chaser Ataru and Lum, an alien green haired girl with tiny horns, clad in a tiger striped bikini, modeled after the look of Japan's traditional oni-ogres. It's an early example of anime's pairing of a hapless guy and exotic girl, charmingly animated by a director who rose to the challenge of keeping quirky slapstick funny episode after episode. Despite the inclusion of a few sci-fi tropes, it's not the kind of story associated with Oshii. Brian Ruh's Stray Dog of Anime notes Oshii has said "I had to struggle with the ideas and views of the original writer. I only met with Takahashi a few times - there is no friendship between us." After kicking off the direct to video OVA market with the sci-fi Dallos, Oshii began popularizing his trademark themes and vision with works like his retelling of the Japanese Rip Van Winkle story Urashima Taro in the second Urusei Yatsura movie, Beautiful Dreamer. In the movie, Ataru, Lum and their gang of friends began spending long hours together preparing a "Third Reich Decadent Coffee Shop" for their school festival (militarism, and especially fascist militarism being one of Oshii's reoccurring themes). Eventually, the group realized that the long day that they've spent together is the same one, played over-and-over again in someone's dream. Many of the themes and motifs of this movie would also begin reoccurring. Along with the military hardware, these dreams, and distorted, seeking gazes into the nature of reality would occur throughout Oshii's body of work. Oshii's popularity in North America has been powerful, but unconventional. Lum was once one of the primary mascots for anime in North America (though that credit would probably have to be pinned to Takahashi rather than Oshii). His political, initially goofy, police robot series Patlabor attracted the attention of early sci-fi minded anime fans. Later, Oshii hit big in the opening strike of the anime boom with his adaptation of Masamune Shirow's cyborg elite law enforcement team in Ghost in the Shell. While the original movie wasn't a smash in Japan, its international popularity became an enabling feather in Oshii's cap. As Brian Ruh said in Stray Dog of Anime "At the time, it garnered more attention in the western media than any previous anime film, save perhaps Akira. Ghost in the Shell has become one of the most analyzed anime films by Western Academics. For better or for worse it has become an ambassador abroad for Japanese animated film." It was a template for the Matrix, it rekindled the popularity of anime for the VHS tape buying audience of sci-fi fans, and it made Oshii an internationally recognized name. Yet, while Ghost in the Shell showcased complex, painstakingly rendered locales with action that sprung off the potential of the medium, the on screen dialectics and slow moments of simply working with the perception of an environment made Oshii the object of plenty of ambivalence. This reaction would become a hallmark of his work. Urusei Yatsura and Patlabor still have enthusiastic fans, but other Oshii works seem to be admired rather than embraced. While he is still one of the most recognizable names among the anime conscious in North America, the announcement of a new Oshii work is often greeted with intrigued trepidation. As with other recent Oshii films, the premise connected to an adaptation of Hiroshi Mori's Sky Crawlers novels offers equal potential for blistering action and disappearing down a philosophical rabbit hole. For some bearings, Mori is best known as a writer of rikei (novels that present puzzles of mathematics and other sciences). Though the Sky Crawler books represent something of an outlier in Mori's genre allegiances, they were published out of chronological order, tasking the reader with piecing together information about what is being presented. In that vein, it's been said to think of the Sky Crawlers movie like a mystery. Teenage Yuichi Kannami (voiced by Letters from Iwo Jima's Ryo Kase) drops down on an idyllic airfield. The veteran mechanic at the installation informs him that, on orders from higher ups, Yuichi is to exchange the fighter that he flew in on with one from the base. He'll be replacing one of the base's former pilots, but no one will tell him why the outgoing pilot is not present for a handoff, or even the plane's former pilot's fate. The Sky Crawlers use of anime's common conceit of teenage warriors is given an explanation. Yuichi, his cheery, slightly hedonistic wing man Naofumi Tokino and their commanding officer Suito Kusanagi (voice by live action star Rinko Kikuchi - Babel, the Brothers Bloom; Kill Bill/Battle Royale's Chiaki Kuriyama also has a supporting role) are Kildren: unaging eternal teenagers tasked with fighting aerial battles in their assigned "theatre" of a war between corporations. They drink, they smoke, they visit the local brothel, and they sortie off into fights with squads from the opposing company. Sometimes they die, and when that happens it's often at the hands of the "Teacher:" an ace of aces, recognized by the black leopard painted on the nose of his plane. You know what they say about movies with cute kids and dogs? This is the Oshii film with both... Given that it's one of his trademarks, it shouldn't be surprising that The Sky Crawlers features a basset hound trailing the characters and barking at launching and landing planes. In addition that mascot, this might only the Oshii film with a moe character; a cute younger sister who expresses wonder at the sparks set off during welding repairs on a plane or gives the heroes earnest looks. A precious innocent adopting the lead as a surrogate big brother does lend credence to the suggestion that hard-core geek otaku culture is the Rosetta Stone to Oshii's intentions for The Sky Crawlers. There's a rationalization articulated in places like black geek comedy Welcome to the NHK in which a 2D girlfriend is said to be superior to a real one. Where as a living person has their own flaws, needs and priorities, the girl of the dating sim game or anime is an idealized reflection of what the consumer is looking for. The Sky Crawlers presents the 2D girlfriend version of war. It takes the need for aggression and productizes it into a refined, repeatable package. Like the otaku looking to vicariously capture some affection with iteration after iteration of the bland guy, finding love in a sea of colorful girls, The Sky Crawlers is set in a world in which a chronicle of a well demarked war isn't just in the newspapers and TV, but accessible via tours of the bases. (Unlike the Japanese named, Japanese looking Kildren, these tourists look Western and speak English - shades of Akihabara?) So, the audience of the war might weep and rend at the sight of a loss, but the conflict does not actually have a direct impact on their lives or the potential to endanger them. The not-quite past of The Sky Crawlers doesn't have the machinery and scale of post World War II military industrial complex. Instead, there's plenty of remora business. It's a model not unlike sports. The Kildren pilots/star talent lives well, if not safely. This parallel even extends to the hard to quantify mix of self interest and philanthropic outreach, as demonstrated in a scene where an ace questions whether a party scheduled for the eve of a major offensive will be cancelled, sitting that the event is thrown for the local kids on a regular basis. The teams/leagues seems to be doing fine. Then, there's all the auxiliary business. The tours of the bases and eateries around them, not to mention all the media coverage on TV and in the papers. As products and participants of this idealized version of war, the Kildren are divorced from anything other than filling a niche in the war's pattern. They aren't cared for and don't take care of family. They don't have friends, lovers, or even really enemies - The Teacher is more of a nemesis. They smoke with no regard for health concerns. For that matter, they don't seem to regard time like it counts for much either. Even in regards to the war, they're more often than not just going through the motions. When a tourist asks Yuichi if he marks his plane to record enemies he's shot down, he responds that some pilots do, but that he's never been interested. Another time, he spots a squad of enemy bombers flying towards the base. He phones in a report, then begins heading back. He's passed on his scooter by the pair of prostitutes that he and Naofumi frequent as they zip towards the base in their convertible to watch the happenings. They stop and ask if Yuichi wants a ride, but he declines, mentioning that the scooter needs to be brought back since it's a loaner. Oshii's anime movies are gorgeous, often punctuated by dynamic, sharply crafted action sequences. However, the direction is rarely intent on exciting the audience. Patlaborís fun, almost fan-service, scene of the team gearing up for battle is rare in a filmography full of professionals laboring to get the job done. A lack of visceral excitement is imprinted into the genetics of The Sky Crawlers. I'm reminded of "Shaking Tokyo," Joon-ho Bong's hikikimori segment of the triptych Tokyo! As that short opens, its apartment bound hero is so apathetic that he struggles to cause himself to react to physical stimuli. The Sky Crawlers' heroes are naturalistically distant. Especially compared to characters like Gundam's emotionally disturbed Amuro Ray or Zeta Gundam's possibly autistic Kamille Bidan, it's more an internalized detachment than anything showy. There's a scene in Sky Crawlers in which Naofumi bowls a strike and spins into a pirouette victory dance. Like the depicted move, the fluid animation itself is quite an achievement, but the film immediately levels the mood. Kusanagi doesn't turn to face Naofumi , and simply exhales a puff of smoke from her cigarette. Yuichi holds his beer and looks past Naofumi, towards the wall at the end of the bowling lane. Sky Crawlers itself is more in the spirit of Yuichi rather than Naofumi. There's little self congratulatory exhibitionism in its achievements. Interiors shots are lavish, from the baroque design of the base HQ to the motorsport ephemera on the wall of the local road side eatery frequented by Yuichi, Naofumi and their escorts. Location shots are similarly travel programming beautiful. The flight and aerial combat spectacularly mix Oshii's interest in bending perception as the pilots exchange up for down and back in their mid-air turning with a sense of logical mechanism in solid reality of the planes. Filtered through the Kildren's lithium soaked view, the Sky Crawlers does not sell the excitement of seeing the places or the mid-air feats. The movie is rarely actively negative. If you bring your own enthusiasm for aerial combat to the movie, the film will not actually try to dissuade you. However, whether it is beauty or exhilaration, The Sky Crawlers applies its coating of malaise. In statements about the movie Oshii explicitly points the finger at the modern, first world where "In our peaceful country, there is no more starvation, revolution, or war. We have a society where we can live out our allotted spans of lives without ever having to feel deprived of food, clothing, or shelter...Isn't this comfortable life that we have achieved, a monotonous purgatory that doesn't end until we die?" This is a "media is the message" social critique. There are hundreds of anime series produced in a year (288 in 2008), but anime movies that aren't annual franchise products (the Pokemon movies, the Dragon Ball movies and so on), are actually few and far between. Like many of these movies, Sky Crawlers is a gem of a technical achievement. However, it's also an expression of dissatisfaction with the whole business of anime. It's probably no accident that most of the movies voice actors and its writer (Chihiro Ito) aren't from the field. If the anime-fan viewer identifies with the Kildren, The Sky Crawlers places them as a party to an unproductive, false system. If the viewer isn't an anime fan, The Sky Crawlers puts them into the seat of the gawking tourist, eyeballing a struggle that they helped to stage, but in which they don't have a real stake. If the film leaves you feeling a bit empty, irritated or disquieted, that was probably a mark of the its success. By the way, watch the Sky Crawlers past its credits. I'm not convinced its necessary, but the solution to the mystery and the message are emphasized in a final scene.