I had the pleasure to attend a screening of The Sky Crawlers in NY the other night. It was part of the bid for Oscar nomination, I am guessing, that included a required LA screening for one week, which was this past week. I'm just glad to be able to watch the film in a theater, because it was quite the visual feast.
The film is an adaptation from a series of novels by Hiroshi Mori, about an alternate present-day war with WW2 fighter planes along the lines of Ace Combat 6. The catch is that the war is between two corporations, put on for show. Kildrens, who are never-aging, immortal children, are sent in as the dogs of war.
As usual with director Mamoru Oshii's films, the pacing is steady and deliberate. The themes are highly contemplative and it can be slightly confusing. The music, by Kenji Kawai, is more enchanting than their usual collaboration. The focus of the narrative is on characters, twisting and turning to unravel some kind of mystery. And of course, there is a Basset Hound--his favorite.
The visuals to The Sky Crawlers are plainly awesome. I am not the biggest fan of World War II era aerial combat, but the details and the computer generated animation are simply gorgeous. I've not seen this kind of thing anywhere. Plus, the integration of the 3-dimensional CG elements with more traditional 2-dimensional art came off fluidly and hardly at all jarring. Aside from the drop-off in details between 3D to 2D animated elements and perhaps the purposefully reused animation elements in some shots, the visuals are close to flawless. I guess one could nitpick at some of the character designs, but I found them more otherworldly enchanting than jarringly unreal.
The focus of this film is more so on characters and their relationships than on the subterfuge that characterizes the average stories Oshii animates. However both are important and both aspects of the film play off each other. The result is a little confusing because it takes a bit of thought to untangle the facts and make the necessary inferences to understand it all.
At the Lincoln Center screening, the audience were greeted with a short video message from Oshii, who explained the social commentary aspect of the film. He talked about that the youth of this generation don't want to grow up, and this is a film that showed one of the possible consequences. Honestly, I didn't know what to think about that, but this is the kind of work that can be interpreted in more ways than one thematically. I guess that means I have to go watch it again...
One thing that struck me about the film was the unreal expressions and how exotic some of the girls in the film looked. Between Fooco and Kusanagi, I think Oshii is aiming at some kind of fetish. At any rate, it is definitely thrilling at times despite the methodical pace and build-up. There seems to be little in terms of climaxes however, including the very end of the film when everything is revealed. There is build-up, there is tension, but they are not well-resolved as you would expect.
Speaking of which, if you do get to watch the film (its next showing is in LA), be sure to stay until the end credits are done rolling! Kusanagi's expression in that scene is worth a thousand words.
One last thing to note: While anime feature films tend to get a more mainstream voice cast, The Sky Crawlers features popular Japanese actors such as Rinko Kikuch, Ryo Kase, Shosuke Tanihara and Kill Bill's Chiaki Kuriyama. It's rare to see such a star-studded cast for an anime.
In the end, this is the deep, contemplative visual-fest that you would expect of Mamoru Oshii and Production IG. It is definitively not for everyone. I had a blast, but that may be because there is something about this film that struck a chord with me--among the visuals, the girls, and the awkward runway romance. Still, The Sky Crawlers is a film that picks its audience, so it's worth a try if just for the dreamy visuals as long as you don't expect too much.
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