For October, I intend to follow what many other film fans/bloggers/podcasters have done and watch 31 films for all 31 days of the month to celebrate Halloween, writing short reviews of them as soon as possible after the viewings. Realising the lack of experience I have to partake in attempting this, I decided to ‘train’ for it. This review was more successful in that it was planned and completed the day after viewing the film. It may be a little messier and stream of conscious in nature, but it was great to write it especially when the film reviewed has changed for me on this viewing of it after probably a year or more. If there are any technical mistakes about the film in this let me know and they will be corrected.
Set in an alternative world of conflict, this anime film by Mamoru Oshii (director of Ghost In the Shell (1995), Patlabor I and II (1989 and 1993), and the criminally unavailable Angel’s Egg (1985)) portrays a war involving modernised bi-planes and perpetually teenage pilots known as Kildren, who cannot age and take to the skies to fight the opposite side in dogfights. Enter Yūichi Kannami (Ryō Kase), a transfer pilot who becomes obsessed by the absence of another pilot who existed at his new base before him, leading him to his higher up Suito Kusanagi (Rinko Kikuchi, who Western film fans may know from her performances in films like Babel (2006) and Rian Johnson's The Brothers Bloom (2008)), a female Kildren who has seen the aerial battlefield far more than the others and has gained personal baggage more complex than her perpetually tween appearance shows. Dogfights take place, but like his most famous film Ghost in the Shell, Oshii is a cerebral filmmaker who concentrates on long, moderately paced scenes that allow you to ponder the themes and complex ideas. Fittingly, without seeing more than a sliver of his work myself, his personal history is as complex. Originally destined to become a Catholic minister, his crisis of faith channelled into the minimalist post apocalypse film Angel’s Egg, he started as a well regarded director of comedies before Ghost in the Shell solidified and engulf the rest of his career as a serious minded director who scrutinised grand themes, as evidenced by the fact that I have not seen any of his ‘funnies’ from his early period and that they are not available in the UK to see.
The mystery of the plot is blatantly spoken aloud by a character at the end, probably too much information on my part but something that needs to be said first time viewers, is obvious if you actually think about it, and is flimsy as the main draw of the film on a second or multiple viewing when the clues are as vague as water is wet. The concern for Oshii and screenwriter Chihiro Itō, based on a novel by Hiroshi Mori, is the unending dirge of the present the Kildren have to go through and how it is a metaphor about war. Stuck in a never ending conflict which they may die in, facing by an enemy which includes a mysterious pilot called the Teacher who decimates anyone who crosses him, and stuck in bodies that never age, the Kildren are unable to do anything else except fight to the death in the skies and casually past their times between said mission, their youth masking the minds of adults who have nothing else. They are puppets in a war that may have no real purpose to it, and in one scene, they and their whole base is gawked at by tourists as if it’s all a game. That they are teenagers is contrasted by the fact that they drink, smoke, and have open sexual relationships with each other and sex workers, their child bodies somewhat of a sick joke when they have seen more of the world through conflict then the physically adult people around them. In one of the only comedic moments in the film are seen two Kildren on ride-on aeroplanes you would find outside supermarkets to occupy toddlers and small children, the contrast perfectly summing their situation in its ridiculousness. This is personified by Kusanagi, a young teenage girl who, with her guarded demeanour and constant smoking, has lived longer than the others and has both become wise from it and psychologically scarred. With actress Rinko Kikuchi twisting her voice between a young girl’s and an adult’s depending on how scenes play out, she is a battle hardened women, late 30s or early 40s, who would be promoted to giving the pilots their orders rather than fight in the planes, stuck inside the skin of a teenager between twelve and fifteen, not taking into account the sides of her that are revealed in the plot.
It’s a blatant war analogy, but in contrast to Ghost in the Shell’s constant pontifications between its sci-fi action sequences, this has the ideas expressed through the characters’ mindsets and sequences of complete silence bar a few lines of dialogue and plot expedition that, rather push a conventional narrative film forward, lines down further bread crumbs for viewers to consider the ideas more. It will not be for someone in a mindset for action the night they put it into their DVD player, far from the ‘beer and curry’ anime that Manga Entertainment, who released the film in the UK, once pushed that were about guns, explosions, and for the period when they pushed anime as ‘adult’, bloody violence and sex. The combat scenes are elaborate in the short amount of time they take of the film, and can be quite bloody in brief moments, but their mix and exhilaration and chaos are needed to depict the endless war that the Kildren are faced with and are done well in idea. The story itself cannot help me but think of my minuscule knowledge of Japanese history in World War II and the American Occupation afterwards, and how the painful stagnation and endless violence the populous must have felt can be compared to the mood of The Sky Crawlers. With its mix of languages, settings and the bi-planes however I cannot help as well but think of the Battle of Britain, as an Englishman taught it in college history, in which British planes like the Spitfire fought the German Luftwaffe in the same war for air dominance, especially the massive aerial campaign that takes place in the centre of the film and introduces another female character, pilot Midori Mitsuya (Chiaki Kuriyama, who will be known by many for Kill Bill Volume 1 (2003) and Battle Royale (2000)), who becomes the horrified spectator of the Kildren’s existence. I also think of World War I, bloody battles between countries in the centre of Europe where hundreds of soldiers on both sides died in the trenches only for little progression to take place except one’s trench capturing a small piece of land forward or retreating back by a few yards.
It took another viewing of the film, but it does show that Oshii, despite the apparent flack he has taken for the pretentiousness of his later work, which I’ve yet to see, is still able to take obvious ideas but give immense depth to them, helped here by a good script and quality animation. Only the fact that the dogfight sequences are CGI is a potential issue. It was amazing, after seeing much older hand drawn anime recently, how it has changed now digital software is used. You do not need to know about the technical aspects of animation to see this, and can be shown to you if you take a film like The Sky Crawlers made after the introduction of digital assisted animation in the late 1990s and hand drawn animation from before it. Some shows and films are still hand drawn in Japan but they are rare, and while the dogfights work in their content, their CGI nature against the rest of the film does detract technically from them. Oshii was unable to find animators who could hand animate aerial combat sequences, which has been openly discussed in additional materials for the film, leading him to having to use computers. It’s disconcerting for the anime industry to know this, but thankful despite the technical flaw of this, they still work regardless and are still a small piece of a superior animated film, one which seems criminally forgotten despite not being that old. One fears the dogfights tricked people into thinking this would be another action film, or that it would be another Ghost in the Shell, when in fact it’s an interesting gem who has to be watched in its own considered pace. Like the character Kusanagi, she is a methodically paced film who shows moments of combat when needed but sits back to ruminate the damage done around her.