September 13, 2008

Mamoru Oshii's latest film is an adaptation of Hiroshi Mori's novels of the same name, and tells the story of an ageless pilot, Yuichi Kannami, who transfers to a remote airbase controlled by a cold, self-destructive young girl named Suito Kusanagi afflicted with the same condition that keeps him eternally youthful. They also share an affinity for aerial dogfighting, and the relationship between the two ace pilots deepens as Yuichi slowly recollects fragments of his mysterious past and gets to know the odd denizens of the surrounding countryside.

The plot for Oshii's latest film sounds strangely peaceful for a film about war, and it is. The film unfolds at a leisurely pace (it lasts a lavish 122 minutes), with plenty of time to show the viewer intimate details about the alternate Europe that Yuichi and his fellow pilots inhabit. Oshii clearly holds high regard for Mori's fictional environment and sough to reproduce it with love and attention. The simple but startling beauty of the countryside, the quiet shadows of an abandoned city, and the cramped quarters of a converted manor house all resonate sharply in photorealistic animation and perfect sound.

And, of course, there are the dogfights.

Oshii's films, even his live-action work, are known for their sudden swerves into shockingly elegant violence. This is no different. The title is apt: these pilots are insects crawling across a sky that is vast and deep, limitless and unforgiving. While the dogfights are less visceral, perhaps, than the first scene of Innocence, they do communicate the dizzying, nearly nihilistic quality inherent to aerial combat: Yuichi survives because he is a good pilot, not because he's an arrogant flyer who likes to show off. This isn't Top Gun or even Macross Plus: Yuichi has no special moves, no prototype plane, nothing but skill and experience.

But his experience is the heart of the film, as we discover that there is more behind the "Kildren" -- people who, like Yuichi, remain eternally adolescent -- than a simple genetic disorder. There are clues layered throughout, and Yuichi's realizations come slowly but surely, a story that he pieces together rather than a sudden, shocking recollection. The film's ultimate conclusion is surprisingly hopeful for an Oshii film: eternity is not a life sentence, but a chance to start again.

However, there are some standard Oshii issues: a striking lack of exposition, and a lyrical pace that favours characterization and setting over plot or coherence. The story is secondary to the sentiment, but the story is also pure Oshii: a dreamlike exercise in issues of memory, identity, and the role of the military in a peaceful society. Along the way we get a heartbreaking love story, an endearing environment, and several references to Oshii's past work and anime in general (even the afore-mentioned Macross Plus). The story is not about an alternate universe; rather, the universe is the story.

Thankfully, The Sky Crawlers manages to avoid the long, drawn-out mindgames that feature so prominently in Oshii's other work. Gone are the painful, film-interrupting chunks of classical quotations, and gone are the belaboured references to Oshii's beloved Basset Gabu. (Don't worry; Gabu shows up, but as a dog and not an advertisement.) We get a tiny nod to Camus, but the script is remarkably clutter-free.

Featured above is the six-minute promotional trailer available at the Ghibli Museum. Studio Ghibli worked alongside Production IG on the film, and the whole film is infused with expertise from its auteur director to the Skywalker Sound work. Sony Pictures just picked it up, so hopefully we'll see distribution soon.

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Oshii's releases never fail to inspire me, even if they are sometimes frustratingly opaque or cynical in execution.
Great review. I always become a bit wary/curious when a notable director of original content begins to adapt material for a film (in animation), so I'm really interested in seeing how this particular movie plays out. I'm an Oshii fan, perhaps blindingly so, but the opportunities this particular story holds, intrigues me.

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