Reviewby Theron Martin,
The Princess and the Pilot [Premium Edition]
In a world where combat is ruled by hydrogen fuel-powered airships, the continental Levamme Empire being at war with the Amatsukami Imperium does not stop Levamme's young Emperor from coming to the distant island territory of San Maltilia to meet and propose to the island's beautiful and proper princess, Juana del Moral. The Emperor's plan to wed her “in a year” once the Amatsukami have been dealt with proves unreliable in the face of an unexpectedly intractable foe, however, due in no small part to the Amatsukami having the Shinden, the war's most superior fighter plane. Even worse, the Amatsukami decide that the Empire's future Empress is a viable target. To safeguard Juana, a daring plan is formulated: she will be sent via an unescorted two-seater scout plane to Levamme while the rest of San Maltilia's air force serves as a decoy. Juana's plane is the top-of-the-line scout plane Santa Cruz and her pilot is a reviled “bestado” (a derogatory slang term referring to a part-Amatsukami half-breed) mercenary who also happens to be the most skilled pilot available: one Charles Kirano, who secretly knows Juana from their childhood. Together the two must make a harrowing 12,000 km (roughly 7,500 mi) journey across open water with the forces of the Imperium seemingly actively looking for them.
As anime movies go, this light novel-based 2011 production is about as simple and straightforward in its plotting as they come: an outcast pilot must transport a princess across thousands of miles of open water using a plane that mostly conforms to WWII-era scout planes. Due to a security snafu, the enemy is actively looking for them rather than being distracted by the decoy actions. Various harrowing complications ensue, and a combination of circumstances and a chance past association bring the two together, although the pilot is careful to keep his distance and place. And, for the most part, that's about all there is to it.
The details, of course, are not quite as simple as that, but the story diligently avoids getting more involved than its roughly 100 minute running time can handle. As a result, the writing brings up some heady issues but never tries to make a point with them or establish them as prevailing themes. For instance, racism definitely plays a significant role in the story and is certainly portrayed as a very ugly exercise, but it is more a backdrop and explanation for why certain things happen the way they do at the end than a compelling statement. And given that the characters subject to the racist treatment are members of the race that predominate the enemy forces, the racism is not without reasonable foundation even if it is unjust.
More subtly handled is Juana's situation. Without ever directly saying so, the story gives the impression that Juana is a classic “caged bird,” a woman who exists to be pretty and put on display but has no real freedom despite (or perhaps because of) her position. Her life is micromanaged down to the slightest detail, and she seems to have resigned herself to letting others direct her along her path even though she yearns for the freedom of the open skies and ocean. Thus when circumstances practically demand that she take the initiative, she does not hesitate, and her plea to Charles at one point to run off somewhere with her has a feel of desperate abandon, as she seems to realize full well how foolish what she's proposing is. The whole experience with Charles does allow her to grow, however, and helps her to realize the steely determination that, according to the epilogue, served her well later in life.
One has to feel for Charles as the story progresses, though. While he clearly has friends and supporters willing to judge him on his merit rather than his race, the prejudice he must calmly endure is harsh indeed. The story, tellingly, never lets the reader know exactly how he feels about Juana, either; his understanding of what his status and role is suggests that he knows nothing could ever come of loving her, so he carefully prevents whatever affection he might have for her from showing (beyond a couple of brief expressions) and gently avoids any attempt by Juana to make something happen. The one time we get a clear inkling of what he may feel is in one fantastic scene at the end, where he reciprocates Juana's earlier attempt to teach him how to dance by showing her how the Santa Cruz can “dance” in the hands of a skilled pilot. Moreso than any other scene in the movie, it is the one that makes the movie truly memorable.
The setting is interesting enough that it practically begs for further elaboration, as this essentially being just a two-character story for nearly a full hour in the movie's middle limits what can be told about the setting. (Notes in the included Flight Log indicate that the director deliberately did not spell out everything because that is the way he personally prefers seeing movies done.) Though this is a fantasy/sci fi setting – an ocean divided by an immense waterfall, for instance – the production team made a specific effort to ground the details in reality as much as possible. The Amatsukami Imperium is basically a stand-in for Japan, Levamme is basically a stand-in for Europe, and San Maltilia is implied to have a Spanish influence (in naming conventions, anyway). Some greater details on why the war between Levamme and Amatsukami is happening in the first place might have been welcome, but they are not strictly necessary for purposes of the story. Plane designs are, for the most part, based on actual World War II-era planes; the Shinden is an extrapolation of an advanced fighter prototype Japan built in the waning days of the war, while the Santa Cruz uses a mix of elements from a Nakajima A6M2-N sea plane and a British Spitfire. The massive airships that effectively replace the role of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers are partly based on their naval counterparts, too. The notion of the planes being powered by hydrogen fuel, and thus able to refuel directly from taking in ocean water, is a more fantastical element but not too implausible against the idea of such massive airships traversing the skies.
Although the focus of the movie is not on aerial duels and derring-do, such exploits are nonetheless a featured part of the movie's second half and can definitely dazzle. The tense scenes where the Santa Cruz must maneuver amongst enemy airships and dodge enemy fighters which generally have better specs are reminiscent of the dogfight scenes from Star Wars but pack a much greater sense of desperation, since standing and fighting simply is not a feasible option for Charles and Juana. Madhouse's animation effort shines brightest in these scenes and is respectable but less than perfect elsewhere. The artistry is at its best in its excellent background art, whether it be the ostentatious interior of the del Moral mansion, the massive waterfall, or pretty shots of cloud-strewn skies, and in its attractive, clean depictions of Charles and Juana, both before and after she cuts her hair; a distinct drop-off in detail and rendering quality can be noticed in crowd scenes and depictions of trivial supporting characters, however, and on the whole the artistry is not quite as sharp as a top-of-the-line anime movie effort. Extensive (but not exclusive) use of CG is made in plane and airship design and animation. Graphic content is limited to one scene where Charles gets bloodily injured in an aerial fight and another where he gets pistol-whipped and fan service is limited to a bit of cleavage-baring on Juana's part during an island rest-and-repair stop. Hence the movie has a 13+ age rating, and that feels accurate.
The fully-orchestrated musical score is innocuous for much of the movie but does come through with more dramatic sounds during the action scenes. It is at its best with the sweeping, cinematic sounds backing the aerial dance at the end and is effective during occasional poignant moments. Closing theme “Toki no Tsubasa” by Seiko Niizuma, who also voices Charles' mother in one flashback scene, is a melodic number which fits well with the sentiment of the movie.
Japanese dub work is not the sharpest. Ryunosuke Kamiki, who also did leading roles for Summer Wars, The Piano Forest, and The Secret World of Arriety, does a perfectly fine job as Charles, but then-16-year-old anime newcomer Seika Taketomi, who is apparently more prominent in live-action TV acting (she has done no anime roles besides this one), is a disappointment as Juana. The problems with her performance are especially noticeable in a late scene where she has to show her determination to Levamme military officers and instead comes off sounding pouty.
This being a NIS America release, it naturally does not have an English dub. It does get the deluxe treatment that their releases typically get, however. The only on-disk Extras are some promo clips, but it does come with a hardcover booklet containing interviews with the original author and assorted production personnel, concept art with commentary, background art (including some truly beautiful pictures), and assorted bonus artworks typically featuring one or both of the lead characters. Both it and the Blu-Ray case come in a long, sturdy box typical in size for NISA releases, one which features very appealing box art; one could easily see a casual browser being drawn in by the cover art if this was ever available in a physical store. The disk offers both DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and LCPM 2.0 audio tracks, which offer little discernible difference if you don't have a top-end audio system, and the 1.85:1 aspect ratio 1080p transfer is clean and sharp.
Given that this only includes a 100 minute movie and accompanying book, the $44.99 MSRP seems a little on the high side. Still, the movie provides generally good production values, a solid story, a wonderful final sequence, and an epilogue that, while somewhat bittersweet and perhaps a disappointment to romantics, nonetheless feels exactly right. It may not dazzle, but it does impress.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : A-
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Nice background visuals, excellent character designs and flight action scenes, the dance of the Santa Cruz.
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