Funimation // 2003 // 625 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Steve Power (Retired) // June 11th, 2009
What Lies in the Furthest Reaches of the Sky?
Originally released on the 10th anniversary of the critically acclaimed Studio Gonzo (Samurai 7), Last Exile was intended to be a celebratory showpiece for the studio, and in that regard it certainly succeeds. It's a sweeping, lavishly animated fantasy adventure story, but is it everyone's cup of tea?
Last Exile takes us to the world of Prester, where retro-futuristic sky vehicles called Vanships (aircraft that move through air like a boat through water) dominate the skies. Claus, a young Vanship racer, and his fiery navigator Lavi spend their time between races as sky couriers, with dreams of succeeding where their fathers failed, they hope to be the first to cross the Grand Stream in a vanship. When the high flying duo encounters a young girl named Alvis, they are thrust into an adventure that puts them into the middle of an endless war between the countries of Anatoray and Disith. Lives will be lost and legends will be forged, as they discover what lies at the heart of the Grand Stream, a vicious current of wind bridging these opposing nations.
Last Exile's greatest strength lies in the absolutely stunning art design, courtesy of renowned artist Range Murata. There's really nothing else out there that looks quite like it, save perhaps some of the earlier entries in the Final Fantasy video games. The whole show is steeped in Jules Verne's typically Victorian aesthetic, crossed with some high fantasy flourishes which could only have come from Japanese animation. The Vanships stir up images of WWI-era biplanes crossed with steam powered riverboats or submersibles, but move with a degree of speed and grace that makes the flight sequences unfurl like a cross between the battle of Midway and a Pod Race out of Star Wars. Murata's character designs are also excellent, from Claus and Lavi, with their earthy bush pilot sensibilities to the stark black SS-like uniforms of the Silverna and her crew, to the otherworldly sophistication of The Guild, this is a visually diverse bunch of characters, representative of the clashing cultures of the series' setting.
All of this would be for naught, if the world of Prester fell flat or the plot were limp. Thankfully neither is the case. Every square inch of Last Exile's unique world feels well thought out and fully developed, from the technical workings of the airships and vanships, to the disparate societies that fill the spaces of the hourglass shaped world.
The plot starts up simple enough, with a war between two nations, our heroes caught in the middle. Disith and Anatory fight a chivalric battle between rows of riflemen, only here they stand on airship decks instead of crossing open fields, until Disith pulls a fast one and the Mad-Thane fleet of Anatoray finds itself on the losing end. The Guild pulls away from the battle, seemingly abandoning their post as arbitrators. All hope seems lost until the sudden arrival of the Silvarna, an independent and formidable airship that decides to turn its fire on the treacherous Disith fleet. This is only a small taste of the sweeping epic that follows, but it does a fantastic job of setting the stage and capturing the interest of the viewer. The majority of our time is indeed spent with our intrepid young pilots, who act more as witness to events for the first chunk of the series before really taking center stage. In traditional anime fashion, things do get a tad insane as the series rolls on, but Last Exile never falters, it remains as entertaining an action romp as one can get throughout the 26 episodes it runs.
Gonzo has always been a studio of some quality, even their early work on shows like Hellsing and Blue Submarine No. 6 has shown a studio with a lot of technical skill and consistency, and Last Exile is probably the finest looking production these guys have churned out. The animation is beautifully fluid, with CG blended in almost perfectly. The muted colors create a very unique feel, and the quality remains consistent, unlike some other recent efforts (Samurai 7, I'm looking at you.) From a visual standpoint at least, anime doesn't get much better than this.
Last Exile, when initially released in 2004, was handled by Geneon (formerly Pioneer) and packaged on seven DVDs, which in turn were collected into a pretty expensive boxed set. Funimation, having picked up Geneon's properties after they folded their North American tents a few years back, has done a great service to anime fans by repackaging this fantastic series in a much more affordable manner. More than just ports of the original discs, Funimation has completely re-authored the series, giving us snazzy new packaging and some newly redesigned menus. The series now spans four discs, but picture and audio are identical in quality to the older versions. The 2.0 English and Japanese tracks are pretty equal in terms of quality, front loaded, but clear and boisterous at times. Neither will rock your living room, but the roar of engines and machine gun fire sounds fine. The English dub works well enough, and the Japanese audio is there for those who prefer to go that route. The video is good across the board, with no noticeable issues.
While the story gets off to a very strong start, towards the tail end of the show, things in Last Exile get downright strange. I don't want to spoil anything here, but the story definitely changes gears, and some of what makes the first part of the show so endearing gets tossed aside, which may turn off some viewers. The final act also has a few issues in terms of pacing, and the denouement may not be quite what many would be satisfied with. That said it never reaches that Evangelion level of "WTF, Mate?" These issues are compounded by a translation that can be spotty at times as well. Certain lines of dialogue feel as though they come out of nowhere, or otherwise don't really fit with the conversation happening on screen. It's not a major issue, and it really only pops up once in a while, but when it does, it can be a tad off-putting. At any rate, these issues are more common than uncommon when it comes to Anime in general, and while they are present here, they hardly ruin the series.
Also worth mentioning, the old Geneon discs did contain a few extra features on each volume, even if they were only textless openings and endings for the most part. None of that material appears here. There are no extras whatsoever.
Last Exile is a gorgeous series. While it isn't necessarily the ideal choice for someone new to anime in general, it is certainly a stellar representative of the genre. Funimation's budget minded repackaging shaves a nice chunk off the cost of the old Geneon set without compromising this awesome series, and is a fantastic package...even if it is light on extras.
Review content copyright © 2009 Steve Power; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Japanese)
Running Time: 625 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated