Reviewby Justin Sevakis, Dec 22nd 2008
In a world very similar to ours, there are children who do not age. They're known as "Kildren," and they're fighting a war. Against whom, and to what end is not important. One such boy, a young fighter pilot named Yuichi Kannami, arrives at his base out in the country, assigned to a small battalion. He's never met these people before, but soon finds himself in an alarmingly familiar routine, acting out relationships that seem predestined. Of course, this has all happened before.
There's a movie that's getting a lot of Oscar buzz this year, called The Wrestler. It's an intense character study of a washed-up professional wrestler, now approaching middle age, broken bodied, feeble minded and with a grown daughter. For the duration of the film we watch as this man-boy tries to break out of the selfish eternal adolescence that has become his nest of comfort, the one place where he can feel important, simply because he has over time destroyed everything else in his life.
I bring up The Wrestler because without it, in retrospect, I probably would not have appreciated (or understood) Mamoru Oshii's new film The Sky Crawlers to the extent I did. Although I'm quite sure neither one was produced knowing of the other's existence, the two films seem to go together like a yin and a yang in their portrayal of those who have indulged in what makes them happy, avoided what might have allowed them to grow and advance, and are now stuck in a cycle of what was once pleasure, and is now quietly destructive routine. But while The Wrestler portrays the obvious side of this, dysfunctional relationships, physical injury and other obvious failings; The Sky Crawlers is far more obtuse about its subject matter. It could be said that while The Wrestler is about a man coming apart on the outside, The Sky Crawlers takes place entirely internally. That makes it much more challenging viewing, because like a dream, what's happening on the surface has little to do with what the film is actually about.
The mainstream film press, or at least the ones that approach those mysterious Japanese cartoons with an open mind, are sure to love The Sky Crawlers. It's a remarkably self-assured work that bills itself as an attempt to break through to a growing culture of those who refuse to grow up, who cocoon themselves into a shell of post-industrial creature comforts, never evolving, never building or achieving, and self-medicating their inner needs with their choice of instant gratification. It's convenient to say the film is about these people, because the idea of a generic malaise overtaking the youth of Japan like a cancer has been the subject of myriad tabloid news shows and editorials for about a decade. As a growing number of young adults give up the idea of being a contributing member of society and either stay working menial part-time jobs or become the shut-ins known as hikikomori, the mainstream has entered an era of communal naval-gazing, wondering where it all went wrong.
I say it's a convenient story because it's only partially true. While the film and its themes could be applied to anybody living in disconnected modern society, living their lives of quiet desperation, it's glaringly obvious to anybody with an intimate knowledge of anime and its surrounding culture that this film is about otaku. It's an intense and angry piece, quietly resentful of both a dead creative environment (the industry) and the people that mindlessly feed on the same decades-old garbage repackaged in different colors (the fans).
In a vaguely familiar world that could be the World War II era (but isn't), we meet Yuichi. We see him, a bulbous-faced teenage boy fighter pilot with a quiet, pensive disposition, as he goes about a routine of “being young” and all its perceived vices: he smokes like a chimney, drinks little other than beer, and has occasional casual sex with a beautiful prostitute. He arrives at his small European country outpost (consisting of his 4-man brigade and a cold female commander) with no memory of what came before and little regard for what will come later. He, and nearly everyone else at the base, will not grow old. They are "Kildren," those who will not age or die of disease unless they want to. He rebuffs the possibility of being anything more than he currently is with the proclamation, “I'm just a kid, after all.” Why would he grow up when he could die at any moment?
But Yuichi is not a kid in any sense other than the physical. His entire existence as described above begins when he arrives at the base, and he falls into all of these roles for the first time in practiced, unsurprised fashion, as if he's been doing all of these things for years and they are largely expected. Conversely, his base commander, Suito Kusannagi, is cold and indifferent to him, but in that way people are indifferent because they're trying to be.
Once every few days, the crew of four is called out on a dogfight. Yuichi quickly becomes the brigade's ace pilot, but there's one enemy plane -- nicknamed "Teacher" -- that nobody ever seems to be able to lay hands on. (Engage him, and you're pretty much beyond anybody's help.) These fights don't seem to accomplish much, and the pilots seem to pay them little attention. Their days are spent in mostly quiet killing time, or giving occasional tours to the English speakers, who continually laud them with appreciation while asking them the same inane questions day in and day out. Yuichi smiles and explains his work politely, placating them by acting as though his is the most interesting job in the world.
Throughout all of this, small cracks begin appearing in the veneer. A fellow pilot that is killed in battle is replaced by another boy with a different name, but identical face, hair and mannerisms. Suito treats Yuichi differently from the others, with a special sort of contempt. He learns that she had a lover, and killed him. That boy looked (and acted) just like Yuichi. She's been driven nearly insane (or at least, to a deep depression) by what has become a Groundhog day of experiences, pilots under her command, a single love affair, all on endless loop. She eventually confesses to him that she did kill him, and did so out of mercy: it was a way out. As things heat up with Yuichi, as if things are set to repeat again, he has another plan. He will strive towards a goal. He's going to take out Teacher.
It becomes pretty clear over the course of the movie that the real target of Oshii's scorn is the anime itself: a curiosity to foreigners, but really little more than the same old thing repeated ad infinitum, with seldom an echo of originality. And anime fans, long since settled into a complacency with this repetition, are used to having such boy pilots as their avatars, exploring these worlds that have echoes of our own, but are in fact fantasy worlds. Most of them are interchangeable, and the characters themselves are milquetoast and free of personality, as Yuichi is. Like the avatar of a dating simulator, the expected things seem to just happen to him. And, indeed, nothing else will happen to him until he realizes that his way out is to strive towards something.
The distinguishing characteristics of an Oshii film, from the token basset hound to the long-winded scenes of expository dialogue are all here, but they seem less prominent than we've come to expect. The dogfight scenes are gorgeously rendered in CG, but take on an intentionally banal and meaningless tone. The film is more about the mood than anything else, of people in the prime of their lives, yet content to let those juicy bits of life go to ruin by being allowed to sit on the back burner, simmering until there's nothing left. The voice work is especially notable, despite some hard-to-decode Engrish exchanges over the fighter jets' radio system. As is increasingly common among high profile anime films, prominent live action actors make up the cast, and this one features Ryo Kase from Letters from Iwo Jima, Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi, and Chiaki Kuriyama of Kill Bill fame.
The Sky Crawlers is an intense experience, and a level of artistic expression far beyond the levels even the best anime strives towards. The layers will, to some, prove impenetrable. Those in the film press will laud it for being an audacious societal critique, but they are not its audience, and likely know nothing of its real subject matter. Most American anime fans, true youth that has not yet dead-ended but are merely seeking the adventures of the latest shonen action hero du jour, will dismiss it without the contemplation necessary for its digestion. But to those of us whose youth is waning as we stay up late watching our cartoons, we are likely to see ourselves behind the avatar of Yuichi. Not doing the things he does, but watching relentlessly, ceaselessly. Fooling ourselves into surprise every time. Fooling ourselves that this is a life.
There's a scene late in the film where Suito finally breaks and begins to explain, in more typical Oshii expository dialogue, the scientific and speculative reason behind the existence of Kildren and why they do what they do. As we listen to her, and the screen zooms in on her face spouting all of this, we begin to realize that it's all utter gibberish. These explanations do nothing but attempt to rationalize the existence of something that shouldn't exist to begin with. It's that moment when The Sky Crawlers truly takes a stand and declares that this vicious cycle is unacceptable, and that those living these meaningless lives simply must do something. It's the antithesis of The Wrestler, for it has little sympathy for those caught in a destructive loop of life. Rather, Oshii knows that something can, and must, be done.
Note: Stay through the credits. The epilogue is a sly bit of cynicism indeed.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Animation : A
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Incisive and intelligent. A well-placed jab into the inflated ego and cynicism that comes from otaku lifestyle.
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