Did Terrence Malick suddenly acquire a taste for animation? You’d think so from the lush, elegiac feel of THE SKY CRAWLERS. Set in an indeterminate future-past (HD TV and flatscreen computers? Yup. Prop planes and classic cars as well? You betcha), the film tells the story of Yuichi (voiced by Ryo Kase), a young fighter pilot who contends with the perils of aerial combat (including one formidable enemy called “The Teacher”) while trying to sort out the meaning of life on the ground. That the air-bound battles are portrayed in stunning, near-palpable CG and then contrasted with quiet, delicate scenes in which the pilot ponders his existence and tentatively courts Suito (Rinko Kikuchi), the air base’s female commander, suggests the fine hand of a director who can distill beauty from strikingly disparate situations.
It doesn’t take long to realize, though, that this is clearly the work of Mamoru Oshii, anime’s master of sublime mystery. Yuichi isn’t just young, he’s ageless, one of a group of immortal “kildren” locked in a permanent childhood that can only be escaped through violent death. In fact, the bulk of the air corps, including Suito, shares Yuichi’s condition, and thereby hangs the film’s central conundrum. The war — a battle whose goals are not readily apparent — is corporate-sponsored, and treated almost as a sporting event by the general public (in one astringent sequence, Yuichi gives a group of effusive tourists a tour of the air base, posing for photos as if he was the hometown champion). The base itself seems oddly isolated — as the battles continue and the character interactions take on a strangely recursive nature (SKY CRAWLERS’ narrative approach turns out not to be as distant from GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE as one might first suppose), questions begin to arise about whether the combatants exist to justify the war, or vice versa.
In an introduction recorded specifically for the film’s Lincoln Center debut, Oshii emphasized that his vision of unending childhood extended far beyond the film’s war-bound setting. I presume he’s leaving us to suss out whether the film’s ultimate goal is to address the conversation that’s currently going on in Japan about a pop culture that seems willfully determined to invoke emotional regression (helloooooo, Takashi Murakami!), or if the aim is towards something larger. (That the pilots speak English in combat, as do most civilians, seems to suggest associations with Japan immediately post WWII — a topic Oshii has addressed before.)
While I know there are people out there who will be disinclined to indulge the director his customary, read-between-the-lines approach to delivering subtext (one critic previously called INNOCENCE “motionless,” an accusation that, to the best of my memory, hasn’t been leveled at a film since the first STAR TREK feature), others who are willing to engage Oshii on his own terms — which of course includes the contention that Basset hounds are the Greatest Things on Earth — will be in for an experience both dynamic and startlingly intimate. The aerial sequences demonstrate how the director’s long-time animation team, Production I.G, continues to push its dominance in digital animation: Despite the fantastical nature of the aircraft — ranging from football-field-sized flying wing bombers all the way down to one-pilot attack planes with rear-mounted, nested propellers (I imagine Oshii calling Hayao Miyazaki at two in the morning to cackle wickedly into the receiver before hanging up) — the dogfights have an immediacy and believability that the producers of FLYBOYS could only dream of. That action is neatly contrasted by drama that grows in intensity as the characters begin to fully comprehend their situation: Towards the end of the film, Oshii stages more and more confrontations so that the participants address the camera directly, allowing us to glimpse past the warrior’s stoicism into fears and vulnerabilities that are almost painful to behold.
The effect is closer to Kurosawa than GUNDAM — pop adventure, yes, but smart, and unafraid of inviting the audience’s active engagement. THE SKY CRAWLERS finds Oshii bringing all his strengths as humanistic storyteller and anime visionary to the fore. It’s his best work since the original GHOST IN THE SHELL, and proof positive of anime’s unique ability to excite and enlighten.
The Sky Crawlers (Sony Pictures Classics, 2008; 121 mins.) Directed by Mamoru Oshii. Voice Cast: Ryo Kase, Rinko Kikuchi, Shosuke Tanihara.