The Sky Crawlers
I’d better put the Anime Disclaimer out here again, since it’s been awhile and I fear that this review could open me to anime fan ridicule. I found The Sky Crawlers quite by accident at the library, picking it up when I saw that Oshii Mamoru directed. Oshii helmed the groundbreaking Ghost in the Shell, a personal favorite that remains his most famous production outside of Japan. (Not so in Japan. My wife has only heard of Ghost from me, but knows Patlabor and Urusei Yatsura quite well. I haven’t seen either of them.) The cover promised Oshii brilliance and a lot of airplanes, all packed into just 120 minutes, so I gave it a try.
Sky Crawlers is not what I expected. No cyberpunk, some action but not wall to wall, and much more subtlety than the cover suggests. This reaction is partially a reflection of my ignorance, but my wife was also surprised, knowing as she does only his older TV work. While watching the movie, I couldn’t decide if I liked it or not and had to trust that Oshii would deliver in the end. It’s not a film that reaches out and grabs the viewer, but instead goes on its merry way and is happy if someone wants to sit down and watch. How one reacts to the final ten minutes or so will likely determine the final opinion.
Things start with a dogfight that showcases the visual wizardry to come and promises frantic action. The pace changes almost immediately after the credits, however, as the main character Yuichi arrives at his small airbase, meets the others, and settles into his new routine. From the first frames, something is not quite right. It’s difficult to pin down what exactly feels wrong, but everything is just a little off-kilter. The pilots are detached, mostly expressionless, and completely out of touch with the people around them. We learn early on that they are basically children who know full well that their entire purpose in life is to fly airplanes and die. In a striking scene, a military leader (a regular adult) is complaining about one pilot’s immaturity. “Of course,” responds Yuichi. “If we’re going to die tomorrow, what’s the point of growing up?”
Feelings of unease aren’t limited to the characters. There is the mystery of the pilot Yuichi replaces, who obviously wasn’t shot down because his airplane is intact. Rumors swirl about his possible murder. The war raging is only vaguely outlined, with no clear purpose and an enemy who isn’t mysterious or hidden, but never defined beyond “the other guys.” We may wonder who the good guys and bad guys are, but nobody in the movie ever asks or explains. It also never explains why all of the pilots appear to be Japanese mercenaries fighting in England. A vague sense of menace permeates every scene, between the possible murder, the war, the strange soldiers fighting it, and the way they seem to fall into roles and situations as though reading from a well rehearsed script. Finally, while the airplane scenes are fluid, lifelike, and rendered in flawless CG, the characters on the ground move in jerky, unnatural ways, as if they aren’t completely conscious, or even alive.
But the planes! The airplanes are amazing. Part WWII vintage, part Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, part modern-day prototype, the airplanes are beautiful. Everything is prop driven, no jet engines here, but are obviously highly advanced. The propellers might be in unconventional locations on the fighters (the back) or in impossibly massive ranks on the bombers (picture a prop driven B-2 stealth bomber the size of a B-52). The pilots use only guns, so the fights are close, personal and brutal. None of the distant, high speed tussles over heat seeking missile lock here. Pair this with the hyper-realistic CG, and we have some breathtaking set pieces. The largest campaign, that I thought would fill up the entire back end of the film, is a brilliant feat of animation. (It was much shorter than I expected, alas.) This reminded me of why I used to drool over military aviation.
But then the flights end, the characters go back to hanging out at the base, and all the tension returns. It’s very subtle, so much so that I didn’t realize it was there until the tension suddenly released itself. I knew that I felt uncomfortable, but couldn’t put a finger on why. The only comparison I can make is to music: Oshii introduces hidden dissonance little by little, that winds up the suspense without ever actually showing its hand, that leaves the viewer fidgeting but unsure of why sitting peacefully is impossible. And then, with just a few minutes left in the film, Oshii resolves the dissonant notes with one abrupt action, and a sound that was all tritones becomes perfect fifths. That moment was when I knew I was watching something brilliantly crafted, when in an instance, the tension drained suddenly out of the characters and out of us, into a situation that, while not happy, is consonant.
Of course, things continue a little longer after that, introducing a new twist to the story that I didn’t initially appreciate. Without spoiling anything, I will just say to watch through the closing credits. The epilogue draws everything to a close that is necessary after the final scene.
The Sky Crawlers is not, perhaps, for everyone. It is slow, contemplative, and obtuse. Oshii mostly eschews simple moralizing, even when his characters might be presenting his philosophy in monologue. (It’s hard to take drunk child soldiers as reliable narrators.) A quick sample of Internet commentary ranges from “work of genius” to “wow, that was boring.” This review goes into spoilery interpretive mode about how Oshii is using the film to roust Japan out of its strange cultural malaise, cajoling people to fight against complacency and make something of their lives. Then it explains how the movie is actually a scathing condemnation of the anime industry and culture, which is an interesting, if self-absorbed, take. I tend to believe that Oshii has bigger fish to fry than anime fans, but I make no claims to know what I’m talking about. I do think I see what the author’s point is, though, about finding meaning in what we do, creating something of value even if the day to day seems pointless and monotonous. Still, what I will remember is less the Important Message and more the dogfights, and that one moment when Yuichi deflated the angst that built up for 100 minutes.
Rating: One of those matches that drags on 0-0 as the crowd gets more irritable and antsy, until someone scores a sudden goal in the 90th minute and everything goes crazy.