The Sky Crawlers Review
'Sky Crawlers' was released in 2008 and was directed by Mamoru Oshii. Japanese cinema is famed for its thoughtful, challenging and technically impeccable animated features, and Oshii has produced one of the best. The movie in question is the amazing 'Ghost in the Shell' (and indeed its sequel), which inspired 'The Matrix' and featured ground breaking animation. Forever the pioneer, Oshii went on the re-master this seminal classic in 2008 (check out the Blu-ray review in our database), with improved CGI techniques. The inspiration for 'Sky Crawlers' came from a series of novels by Hiroshi Mori, which follows the lives of fighter pilots engaged in a titanic global struggle in an alternate version of our world. So, it seems as though the master craftsman has the materials to make another epic and exciting picture.
Set somewhere in a future version of Europe, the movie revolves around a band of highly skilled fighter pilots, who are engaged in an epic struggle with the titanic Lautern Corporation (they fight on behalf of the Rostock Corporation). However, for the inhabitants of this strange world constant hostility is the only way of life they know and we quickly find out that this publically televised “war” is staged with the purpose of making them feel comfortable. When a new fighter arrives at the base to take the place of a fallen comrade, he meets with his wingman, Tokino, and ice cold boss, Kusanagi. His name is Kannami and he is a young teenager, as are the rest of his crack team of killers. It transpires that Kannami and the other fighter pilots are immortal and can never grow old and die. They are Kildren, a specific breed of human born for fighting, with death on the battle field standing as the only doorway to the next life.
Kannami seems to enjoy the playboy lifestyle that his flight prowess has brought him and oozes confidence and knowledge for such a young man. His skills are seemingly innate and he reacts with lighting reflexes in the sky, while treating his new surroundings with unusual familiarity. Openly questioning his team with regards to their background and the pilot that he replaced, a sinister aspect to his existence begins to surface. But the constant call of the skies distracts and alleviates his concerns. Mounting a huge initiative to take out the Lautern Corporation once and for all, the enemy retaliates with their secret weapon, The Teacher. He is akin to the Red Baron, a seemingly indestructible fighter pilot, who is different from all others as he is a fully fledged adult. Becoming closer to Kusangi, who is beginning to fall apart at the seams, Kannami vows to take out The Teacher and change his destiny and the destiny of his fellow pilots.
The cast is a mix of experienced and novice actors, a couple of whom (namely the girls) you may recognise from Western Cinema. The first Japanese actor to be nominated for an Oscar in fifty years, Rinko Kikuchi ('Babel',) provides the voice for Kusanagi. Chiaki “Gogo” Kuriyama, famed for her part in 'Kill Bill Vol. 1', takes on secondary role here, voicing Mitsuya. Relative unknown Shosuke Tanihara, provides characterisation for Tokino, with Ryo Kase ('Two Letters from Iwo Jima') playing the main character, Kannami.
I have to say that this movie just did not gel with me at all. While I am a huge fan of the 'Ghost in the Shell' movies, this effort from Oshii was a little disappointing to say the least. The main problem is the sprawling nature of the plot. Although I was most certainly expecting slow plot progression, I was not expecting the snail's pace at which this movie unfolds. As the credits rolled, I felt as though the time invested in the hefty two hour run time was not rewarded. Although a lot of time is spent on characterisation, I just did not connect with any of them at all. This is probably due to the aloof, distinct and almost robotic way in which they interact with each other (and the inclusion of a faceless, inert public body did not help matters either). The entire piece has a real nonchalant and listless atmosphere, which just does not work. Oshhii slowly leaks subtle hints and key plot concepts, such as hints that Mitsuya has been through all this before, but the plot is also shrouded in mystery and you get the impression that there's a lot more story to tell. This would have been completely acceptable if the story that Oshii chose to focus on was substantial enough to carry the movie but in my opinion it is not.
Plot aside, one aspect of the presentation that is thoroughly enjoyable and exciting are the aerial encounters. One on one dogfights and epic battles involving hundreds of planes are included and they are a joy to behold. Fight planes pull off amazing acrobatic manoeuvres as they engage and unleash hot steel at their opponents. The 3D animation during these portions is impeccable, very fluid and has tangible quality and weight (and thus injects realism). Oshii takes the opportunity to include plenty of camera angles and uses his cavernous inventiveness to make every dogfight different from the last as we view the action from many different vantage points. That being said, some of the animated portions did appear to be recycled (such as those of planes taking off/landed), although this could have been a factor of the slight boredom which overcame me midway through the presentation! The background animations of the sky are wonderful and the cinematography has a real expansiveness and depth to it. As we leave the skies, we return to traditional Japanese animation, and this aspect feels distinctly flat in comparison. I suppose that this is the director's way of showing that it's in the skies where the Kildren really come to life, living monotonous and repetitive existences on the ground.
This really is a thinking man's movie. Although the combat sequences are highly impressive and thrilling, it's the story and characters which are the focus of the piece, particularly the Kildren's struggle with mortality (or rather immortality). The only problem with this approach, as mentioned above, is the drawn out plot and obtuse and elusive characterisation. If the story of the Kildren was something that we had not see before or indeed contained some revolutionary theoretical ideas surrounding their existence, as Oshii has provided in the past, then maybe this movie would have been more successful. Unfortunately, it's the case here that we've seen it all before (albeit dressed a little differently) and more dogfights should have been included to remove some of the substantial padding. Intending to provoke wonder, inquisitiveness and sympathy for the plight of the Kildren and their miserable and ultimately doomed existence, the complete lack of character connection, and the imperceptive manner in which the Kildrens' world is projected, means that this effort from the master anime director falls well short of the mark and is actually a little disappointing.