THE SKY CRAWLERS Review

Editor, Europe; Rotterdam, The Netherlands (@ardvark23)
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THE SKY CRAWLERS Review

Last weekend I FINALLY saw Mamoru Oshii's new(est) film "The Sky Crawlers", and while I wasn't planning to write a review beforehand (Twitch has some good ones already, courtesy of Todd, Kurt and recently Onderhond) I can't help myself doing it anyway.

People say "The Sky Crawlers" is supposedly Mamoru Oshii's return to the big-budget science fiction films he got internationally famous with. Having seen the movie this is a statement I can get behind.

But people also say "The Sky Crawlers" is supposed to be this big commercial movie.
Eh?
I'm not saying Mamoru Oshii doesn't know how to do commercial entertainment (especially his older television work is definitely mass-market oriented) but this movie surely isn't it. Trading in some easy spectacle to probe at something a lot more serious and, at the risk of sounding pretentious, profound, Oshii has made another movie that is typically his and his only. Adaptation or not.

So what did I make of this film?
The short version is that I think this movie is a masterpiece, and I can't wait to see it again.

The longer version is a wee bit more complicated.
It contains no spoilers (I really made an effort...), some nice pictures and it can be found after the break.

A Warning of Sorts:

Here I'm going to explain a bit about why I was looking forward to this film, and this part of the article will contain mighty little info on the movie itself. Feel free to skip forward to "The Story" for that.

Still reading? Sorry if you came here to find an objective review, but ever since I saw "Ghost in the Shell" I've been a stark raving mad fan of Mamoru Oshii and Kenji Kawai. I've done this particular rant a few times already, should you be interested the rest is here. I particularly mention Kenji Kawai because it was his music from "Ghost in the Shell" which drove me so nuts in the first place.

When I heard these two were going to release a new movie called "The Sky Crawlers" I was glad, when Todd and Kurt started to tell me how good it was I turned enthusiastic, and when Kenji-san started raking in awards for his soundtrack I got ecstatic.
Funnily enough I'm also a bit of an airplane fanatic, so when I saw screenshots in which the Japanese obsession with technically accurate design was VERY much apparent, it only added to my anticipation.
And so started the long wait until a copy would reach my little corner of the world...
...and I'm still waiting!

So far, "The Sky Crawlers" has had no general release in the Netherlands (not too surprising), no arthouse release (that's somewhat odd) and no festival play either (which is utter lunacy). Yep, it will not be at this year's "Imagine Festival" (formerly called the Amsterdam Fantastic Film Festival or AFFF) and it wasn't at the International Film Festival Rotterdam either. But at the IFFR I did encounter several people who had seen it in Venice or Toronto, and were constantly telling me it was fantastic.
Grrrr....
In the other camp were people like our own Simon Abram and GhibliWorld.com's anime expert Peter van der Lugt, who cautioned me against getting my expectations up too high. Which is always good advice, by the way.

To add insult to injury the film has already been released on DVD and BluRay in Japan but those versions do not have any English subtitles. Thankfully from May 26th onwards, English-friendly versions will be released worldwide. But that was becoming a rather aggravating wait, as I've been trying to get to see the film for nigh on nine months now.

Last weekend, courtesy of a friend who owns the Japanese BluRay (he speaks Japanese), I finally did get to see it. The procedure involved finding the right fansubs (for me), finding the right cables and a trip to the mutual friend with the best home cinema set. Getting things to work took some doing by people who are way more hardware-savvy than I am (the tangle may at one point have included a harddisc, a very gadgetty mediaplayer, a BluRay player, someones laptop and a kick-ass receiver) but in the end we had an HD-image, an HD-soundscape and English(-ish...) subtitles.
Cool! The wonders of modern technology never cease to amaze me.

Now, after such a long wait, could "The Sky Crawlers" possibly live up to my anticipation?


The Story:

In an otherwise remarkably serene and peaceful world, an eternal war is being fought in the skies. The opponents are not countries as such, but two multinational companies called Rostock and Lautern. The world is divided into "theatres of war", and in each of these regions groups of fighter planes struggle with each other for supremacy. Flying these planes are special pilots knows as "kildren", genetically enhanced to stop growing in their teenage years. This gives them undiminishing sharp reflexes and theoretically unlimited lifespans, but the very brutal air battles keep them from lasting long.

When a Rostock kildren named Kannami is transferred to a new base to replace a dead pilot, he is surprised to find the man's unharmed plane waiting for him. His new colleagues are unwilling to tell him what happened and when Kannami questions base commander (and fellow kildren) Kusanagi about it, she refuses to give him a clear answer. As the air battle intensifies in the weeks that follow, Kannami has to fight not only the Lautern kildren but also a nagging sense of deja-vu and a seemingly unstoppable adult human pilot called "The Teacher"...


The Movie:

Considering Mamoru Oshii's previous output I would have been surprised if "The Sky Crawlers" had turned out to be an exciting action adventure where in the end Kannami, against all odds, manages to wrestle an epic victory for righteous Rostock against the evil Lautern empire, blowing up its Death Star in a spectacular finale.
And Oshii doesn't surprise me here: "The Sky Crawlers" is not that sort of movie at all, so do yourself a favor and don't go in expecting one.
Even the big "Battle of Britain" like bomber-run featured so prominently in the trailers is basically a throwaway scene, more important for providing the characters with a necessary change of scenery than for providing the narrative with some exciting action.

No, the basset-obsessed director has more serious aims instead, yet by taking this path he walks a razor's edge. Because there are risks you run when using an imaginary science-fiction setting to make your point in a serious way.

For starters you might have to waste too much time explaining the imaginary world (Kildren? Rostock? Lautern?), and not be left with enough to spend on the issue you wanted.
Another risk is for the audience to get too far removed from the issues shown, especially if those are very specific. In this film for example it would be useless to make a serious point about how "evil" Lautern is or how "good" Rostock, seeing as how both companies do not exist (unless you make them straight metaphors for existing insitutes).
If on the other hand you make your message too generic, like "war is bad", it automatically becomes very commonplace and on top of that the science fiction element becomes unnecessary.

So without some entertainment-for-entertainment's sake thrown in, serious science fiction is a brainy subject and very difficult to get right. But thankfully THIS is exactly where Mamoru Oshii shines.

For when "The Sky Crawlers" begins, it feels slow and confusing. The characters you meet act weird or apathetic. And when the plot thickens the twists are signposted and not hard to figure out (the biggest one is actually told already in the tagline of the Japanese poster).
Yet the clever bit is that by the time "The Sky Crawlers" has revealed most of its secrets you feel enough empathy with the main characters to really hope they will find a solution for the situation they're in, no matter how ortherworldly it is. Which is the moment Mamoru Oshii has you right where he wants you, and uses the leverage to deliver a kick straight to your heart. This approach worked wonders with me as it kept me pondering afterwards for days, not only about the fate of the main characters but also about the issues brought forward by the movie.

And that makes this serious science fiction at its best.

Many words have already been spent on Oshii's use of animation.
During the Film Festival in Venice, he explained to the press that different styles were contemplated for this movie, with even live-action being on the list. But because there wasn't enough budget to do everything as realistic as he wanted, live-action was dropped. Also on the list was using photo-realistic 3D computer graphics for everything, but Oshii didn't feel confident they could pull off the intricate emotions necessary for some of the important scenes at the end.

What remained was 3D computer imagery for all environments and flying sequences, and traditional 2D hand-drawn animation (well, LOOKING hand-drawn at least) for the characters. This gives the movie a strange, jarring mixture of styles. When Kannami climbs out of his plane, everything behind him and in front of him is far more detailed than he himself is, while HE is the focus of the shot. It's an odd look for sure and even though Oshii uses it consistently throughout the movie you never really stop noticing it.
However, the CGI works wonders for the scenes it's meant for: the aerial dogfights, which are certainly amongst the best ever seen in a film. And the traditional animation takes care of some difficult dramatic moments which I don't think can be quite done yet in CGI. In the end it all boils down to a design choice by the director.
So was Oshii's choice the right one? Like with the abstract designs Studio 4C used for "Tekkon Kinkreet", it is possible to dislike the choice but to love the movie.

Sound is next and this is where there is no controversy whatsoever: true and absolute excellence all the way. I was surprised to see the voice-acting done by such a high-profile cast: Rinko Kikuchi ("Babel"), Ryo Kase ("Letters from Iwo Jima") and Chiaki Kuriyama ("Battle Royale", "Kill Bill") are international stars not primarily known for their voice-acting, but they do the honors here for the major characters. Sound explodes from the screen whenever planes are involved, bullets seem to go through your inner ears yet at times you can literally hear a pin drop. And then there is the score.
Kenji Kawai delivers one of his best moviescores here. Always a solid provider of music, when he works with Oshii he sometimes takes the centre stage and the result has so far always been surprising. Whether it is the medieval chanting for "Ghost in the Shell", the fully believable mock-opera for "Avalon" or the quietly heartbreaking central theme he uses here, his work complements Oshii's visuals in an important way. And the score for "The Sky Crawlers" earns every award it got.


Conclusion:

With it's serious tone and lack of speed "The Sky Crawlers" may not be for everyone, but it sure got ME! Once more I feel like I've been punched in the soul by the lethal Oshii / Kawai combo. As always I'll be wondering what happens when Momoru Oshii ever decides to make a straight action flick, as the action and fights in this one are incredible.

But this movie is not about fights.
Instead, it's about incomplete humans, their questions and their (often wrong) answers. If that interests you this film comes VERY much recommended, and as a nice bonus you'll get to see some damn good dogfights as well. For me, "The Sky Crawlers" is the movie which has affected me the most out of everything I've seen released in 2008.

Unbelievably, "The Sky Crawlers" managed to deliver on what I hoped it would be. The fact that I'm still mulling it over more than a week later is proof of that. And i can't wait till the end of May to own this film for myself, and endlessly replay some of the choice bits.

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More from Around the Web

Review by Todd.
Review by Onderhond.
...
And one of the best reviews I HAVE EVER READ, especially if you've seen the film already (but not spoiling anything if you haven't), by Kurt!

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Kurt HalfyardApril 7, 2009 1:59 AM

Ard, you are too sweet. !

Niels MatthijsApril 7, 2009 12:51 PM

Good to see you finally caught up with the rest of us. And for an Oshii/Kawai fan like you, there was no way you were going to not like this one :)

BrianApril 7, 2009 6:32 PM

Thanks for the detailed review. I'm really looking forward to it -- I was going to watch a fansub, but now I'm holding out for the R1 release.

Kurt HalfyardMay 13, 2009 8:00 AM

Watched the first 20 minutes of the R1 (standard DVD) release, and happy to report that it is GORGEOUS and sounds GREAT!