by Justin Sevakis,
Despite the fact that few of his titles have found any measurable success in the US market, Leiji Matsumoto is one of the better known creators in anime and manga. His style is distinctive and easily recognizable, and fans worldwide have loved his expansive and epic stories that have been playing out for generations. The background of the stories is nearly always the vast depths of outer space, and his characters maintain a noble sense of justice in a time where they must constantly be engaged in battle (even if they live outside the law).
The little known 3-part OAV series "The Cockpit" has nothing to do with space or pirates. It does, however, have loads to do with war. The grand, all-consuming, life and happiness-ending war that was World War II for nearly every Japanese person of Matsumoto's generation. Somehow, in the middle of the desperation and horrors of the era, the characters still manage to maintain their sense of justice and nobility.
As Matsumoto was a child during the war, the stories in The Cockpit (themselves based on stories from his manga, Battlefield) take on imaginary WWII scenarios as if dreamed up by a child. These are not historically accurate for the most part (though they make for some interesting what-ifs), but rather whimsical set-ups that happen to work well with Matsumoto's trademark operatic sense of drama. The slight feel of fantasy keeps the sense of reality at arms-length, much like Matsumoto's sci-fi, and that slightly softens the blow of the stories, which are all indescribably depressing. It would almost be too much to think of the stories as true, because the humanity of the tales already sears through our defenses. These are, after all, tales of young men in the prime of their lives trying to come to terms with certain death -- their own and those of others.
The three episodes of The Cockpit are all stand-alone stories helmed by different directors and animated in different styles. They're not connected by any characters or themes and take place in different countries, and are effectively separate works altogether.
The first episode, "Slipstream," is directed, designed and written by Yoshiaki Kawajiri. It's a contemplative piece about the inner conflict in a German pilot named Erhart von Leinders, who has just become the laughing stock of the military by being too quick on the eject button while engaged in a dogfight. Humiliated, he's excited to have gotten an assignment to escort a team of scientists as they transport a new missile to its launching facility. Even better, the scientists involved are his mentor and an old flame named Marlena. However, his excitement is quickly extinguished upon finding out another detail: the missile is atomic. His decision -- whether or not to complete his mission -- is best summed by by Marlena's observation that those involved "will be remembered has the worst mass murderers in history."
Leinders is German, but this is not the Nazi Germany that is proper of the era. Rather, the emblems of the army are still the black cross the country utilized during the first World War. It's an interesting idea, that Germany nearly had a nuclear weapon ready to strike, and it's nice that the story does not sympathize with Nazis and their systematic genocide. The aerial dogfighting scenes are breathtaking, but Kawajiri spends much more time on the drama and the angst in the decisions behind the use of weapons of mass destruction. The conclusion is, perhaps, inevitable.
The second episode, "Sonic Boom Squadron," is directed by Gundam veteran Takashi Imaishi, with animation and designs by Toshihiro Kawamoto, and is probably the most heartbreaking of the three. The episode gets its name from an aerial assault team. The head of the team, a brooding scarred man named Nogami, has decided to become a kamikaze and fly a plane known as the Human Bomb, essentially an aerial battering ram that takes out whatever aircraft it hits, at the expense of its pilot's life.
The kamikaze has always been a difficult concept for me to wrap my head around, as I imagine it is for most individualistic Westerners, and Sonic Boom Squadron does an amazing job of putting a face on this unique aspect of history. We see the silence and confusion of those who knew Nogami and the sense of duty he and his peers bring to the importance of completing his mission. At the same time, the episode freely admits that the act itself makes no sense... but then, neither does anything else in that war. "We're all insane," admits one captain towards the end.
One thing I will never forget about this episode is how few of its punches it pulls. A pilot will be screaming for help one second, and then be shot full of holes, and the camera never even flinches. It doesn't feel exploitative, but rather has a solemn sense of duty in showing the grisly details without making them more palatable. The feel of this episode is epic and confident, and makes frequent use of sweeping camera motion and musical swells to emphasize the gravity of the already powerful story.
Finally, the third episode offers a quieter but no less desperate perspective. "Knight of the Iron Dragon" is directed by Ryousuke Takahashi of Votoms fame, and features animation and design by Hironobu Saitō. One might be easily fooled by those designs, which consist entirely of Matsumoto's short, squat "munchy" sort of characters, but this is probably the most down-to-earth and realistic of the stories. Two Japanese soldiers are stationed in the Philippines when an Allied air strike takes out the rest of their unit. A messenger boy arrives to deliver orders to a battalion that no longer exists and passes out in exhaustion. With nothing left to do but attempt evacuation, one of the soldiers named Kodai stays behind with him to fix his motorcycle. Together, they attempt to make their way to the last remaining Japanese air base.
There's a moment early in "Iron Dragon" where in the middle of an air raid, rather than watch his team get taken out, Kodai averts his eyes and stares at a group of ants on a nearby tree branch, and feeds them a dead moth. For him, staying alive also means staying aloof and maintaining a smaller sense of purpose. Seeing the big picture would simply be too painful. For this older soldier, he may have already made peace with his own death, but in the boy he's found something worth trying to protect.
Despite an all-star crew and gorgeous animation by Madhouse, it should come as no surprise that The Cockpit is not a popular anime. Matsumoto's art style (which each episode's team puts their own unique spins on) seems bizarre sometimes, especially to newer fans who are used to everyone being pretty and having huge eyes. We live in a cynical time, and in today's context the bold emotions of The Cockpit sometimes seem to flirt with melodrama. However, if any aspect of humanity deserves to be frank about its underlying feelings, it's war, in any historical context.
That, in a way, is the point of the series: that war is, in fact, an act of mass insanity that has no place among civilized people, and yet even the best of us can get swept up in it easily, becoming its instrument, feeding it. The fact that it still exists proves that we have not evolved as far as we'd like to think.
|A||Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.|
|C||Common. In print, and always available online.|
|R1||US release out of print, still in stock most places.|
|R2||US release out of print, not easy to find.|
|R3||Import only, but it has English on it.|
|R4||Import only. Fansubs commonly available.|
|R5||Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.|
|R6||Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.|
|R7||Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.|
|R8||Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.|
|Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.|
Where to get it:
Urban Vision released The Cockpit alongside a few other oddball OAVs in their second wave of VHS releases. Most of these second wave releases tanked (unlike their first few titles, these were not brand-new bloody cyberpunk titles), and The Cockpit was no exception. Copies are quite hard to find today. While I've not seen the dub, I've been told it's a fairly decent LA-based production with really bad German accents on episode 1. A subtitled version was also released. Urban Vision was too unenthused with the VHS sales numbers to bother with a DVD release, and their rights have since lapsed.
In the years since, a few fansubs have popped up (some of quite marginal quality). A complete Japanese DVD (with no English) has been released, and has since been reissued for a very reasonable (by R2 standards) price.
Screenshots © Leiji Matsumoto • TTNS
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