The Sky Crawlers Review – The Earth is Not a Cold, Dead Place
Before we begin, I should make something clear: I don’t like Mamoru Oshii.
Sure, Ghost in the Shell was brilliant, but with source material like that, how can you go wrong? And the weakest parts of the film—namely, the meandering and unnecessary philosophical conversations that went nowhere and contributed little to the film—were pure Oshii excess. The second Ghost in the Shell film, Innocence strayed even further from the source material, and was even worse in terms of tedious philosophizing (and, it should be said, I generally enjoy philosophizing, however pointless, in films).
That said, I really wanted to like Sky Crawlers. It might have something to do with my love of powered flight and fighter planes, a love that got me hooked on anime in the first place (through mecha anime, descended in many ways from the tales of ace fighter pilots and their beloved machines), and the lure of World War 2-era dogfights gorgeously rendered in CG.
That just shows that Sky Crawlers had a successful marketing campaign (was it marketed at all? I only heard about it through the tie-in Wii game, developed by the same people who make Ace Combat), because riveting aerial combat is not the point of the film. Or, rather, riveting aerial combat is the very antithesis of the film.
Because, you see, Sky Crawlers is a film about the tedium of endless war. It’s about Yuichi Kannami, a boyish-looking pilot sent to an airbase in a vaguely European (although everyone has Japanese names) alternate history version of World War 2. There, he meets Suito Kasanagi, a female officer who was apparently once an ace pilot, but now mostly works behind a desk, due to some mysterious past.
Actually, everyone in Sky Crawlers has a mysterious past. Yuichi can’t remember anything prior to his arrival at the airbase. The entire film takes place in a murky haze of apathy and vague despair. Nothing is connected to anything: things just happen, without consequence, for the film’s entire 122-minute run time. 122 minutes is an eternity for an animated film, which, like Asian cinema in general, tend to run closer to the 90 minute mark, but Oshii fills it with tiresome trivialities.
Shots linger for seconds at a time, setting a languid pace that stays even when the action seems like it’s about to pick up (it never does). Characters fade in and out, small vignettes representing a variety of mundane daily dramas unfold quietly, without comment: Yuichi sleeps with a strange woman he meets, and has a conversation that could only occur in an Oshii film. He meets Suito’s daugther, who is surprisingly mature considering Suito herself looks scarcely out of her 20s. Events reoccur with increasing frequency, creating a dull cyclical narrative that goes nowhere and takes what seems like an eternity to get there.
Anything that might have affect, that might arouse even the slightest spark of emotion in the viewer, or be of even marginal interest, is suppressed in favor of fuzzily remembered conversations and scenes designed to drain any sort of pathos from the film the minute it begins to rear its dramatic head.
Even the aerial sequences, despite being gorgeously animated, are devoid of anything approaching dramatic tension. Air battles quickly become anticlimactic, routine patrols are recreated in loving and tedious detail. These scenes, like the rest of the film, become a dreamy blur, free of affect or interest.
I hope by now I’ve managed to establish just how dull and miserably boring Sky Crawlers is. So I will excuse your shock and surprise when I tell you that the next few paragraphs are going to be devoted to how much I appreciate it.
I want to warn you ahead of time because, in order to explain what makes Sky Crawlers worth writing about, I’m going to have to spoil the end. But, you see, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. My colleague had the film spoiled prior to watching it, and enjoyed it a lot more as a result. I’m sure that, were I able to summon up the courage to watch 2 hours of boring anime over again, I would find I appreciated the film on a second viewing much more than on the first.
So what I’m saying, in effect, is that Sky Crawlers is a film that needs to have its basic premise revealed ahead of time in order to be considered a worthwhile film. That is, in itself, a damning statement from a storytelling standpoint. If your story requires prior knowledge in order to be fully enjoyed, then you have failed miserably as a storyteller. However, in the interest of giving the film its proper due, I need to spoil the premise.
If you want to watch the film for yourself, untainted, or have some moral objection to knowing the details of films prior to watching them, I ask you to skip down until you see the paragraph that begins with the sentence, ‘See, isn’t that kind of cool?’. I should stress, though, I think you are making a bad decision.
Anyway, the thing that makes Sky Crawlers is that it’s supposed to be boring and affectless. The pilots are killdren (killdre, or kill-dolls in Japanese): people genetically engineered to be immortal unless killed in battle. The cyclical nature of the film is intentional, because the world war of Sky Crawlers is an endless, corporate one, killdren living and dying for the amusement of their spectators.
The pilots themselves drift along in endless ennui, unable to achieve anything or escape from their torment. They leave a meaningless directed existence that serves only one purpose: to fight and die for the entertainment of others.
And even death is no release. At the end of the film, aware of his fate, Yuichi purposefully loses his life in battle in order to end his endless existence. After the credits, if you sit through them, you’re treated to a nearly identical recreation of the initial scene, where a mysterious individual who has the same voice as Yuichi but a different name, whose face we never see, make his entrance to the base.
The killdren themselves are emotionally stunted as a result of their conditioning, unable to mature emotionally or physically because of their immortality. This is why they always look youthful, faces full of baby fat, and why their lives outside combat are the kind of mindless hedonism that typifies young adults forced into a situation where their lives are in constant jeopardy.
A review I’ve read takes it even beyond that, arguing that Sky Crawlers is Oshii’s critique of modern anime culture, glorifying a meaningless, idle youth and the kind of immaturity that comes from an intentional ignorance towards the responsibilities of adulthood. The dull spectacle of the air battles, with boyish pilots battling each other for a meaningless supremacy, becomes a scathing commentary on the very mecha dramas that initially drew me in as a boy.
See, isn’t that kind of cool? Isn’t that the kind of novel, creative thinking that’s so often devoid of anime?
You don’t have to worry about the execution, either. By creating a movie full of ambling, disinterested conversations, populated by dull scenes entirely devoid of affect, Oshii is playing to his strengths. He’s doing what he does best, with the mastery of a veteran director who knows exactly how to play to the kind of effect he wants.
So, Sky Crawlers loses massive points for being a dull, tedious movie unless the audience knows the basic premise ahead of time, but gains a lot back by showing the kind of creativity that’s utterly lacking from just about any other animated production coming out of Japan. Don’t get me wrong: it’s still a dull, tedious movie, even if you know what’s going on, but if you’re the sort of person who can sit through something like that, I think you’ll find it rewarding.