Our reviews of Last Exile: Positional Play (Volume 2) (published April 29th, 2004), Last Exile: Discovered Attack (Volume 3) (published September 30th, 2004), and Last Exile: The Complete Series (published June 11th, 2009) are also available.
"You can just screw your stupid chivalry!"—Lavi
[Note: This review is based on a test disc that differs from the upcoming release in that it only contains two of its four episodes, and lacks subtitles and special features to be included in the final version of the DVD.]
The latest entry in the popular "steampunk" subgenre of Japanese animation (which also includes the Escaflowne series, as well as Nadia: Secret of Blue Water and the upcoming Steamboy feature by Akira's Katsuhiro Otomo), Last Exile gives us a quasi-Victorian fantasy straight out of Jules Verne, in which vast steam-powered airships dominate the skies, crewed by musket-wielding soldiers. Two nations in this Industrial Age world, Anatore and Dusis, have declared war upon each other, and far above the combatants, the mysterious Guild watches and directs the course of events.
Into the midst of this fray tumble our young heroes, Claus and Lavi, vanship (a small cargo aircraft) pilots who eke out a meager living as air couriers. Claus and Lavi dream of someday reaching the Grand Stream, a powerful jet stream separating Anatore and Dusis, and flying above the clouds, a feat their fathers died trying to accomplish. For now, though, their biggest challenge is making enough money to eat. When a routine letter delivery lands the pilots in the middle of a fierce battle between the Anatore and Dusis fleets, Claus and Lavi are drawn into the grandest adventure of their young lives.
I've been a fan of the steampunk genre ever since reading the seminal steampunk novel, The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. It wasn't even the story itself that grabbed me, so much as the brilliant premise—an alternate-history collision of the Information Age and the Victorian Age. There's something about this anachronistic, inherently impossible joining of high-tech and low-tech that contrasts delightfully with the chrome-and-circuitry of most futuristic visions.
Last Exile implements the steampunk sensibility beautifully. While other anime series in this vein, such as Escaflowne and Sakura Wars, have tended to veer towards the fantastical, the world of Last Exile is firmly grounded in its historical influences, blending fragments of Victorian England and pre-Weimar Germany, and recalling the great sea battles between the European empires of the 18th and 19th centuries.
One thing holding this strange brew together is outstanding production values, courtesy of Tokyo Babylon director Koichi Chigira and Studio GONZO (Blue Submarine No. 6). Last Exile is GONZO's tenth anniversary anime series, and it has pulled out all the stops for this one. The look of the Last Exile—provided by art director Hiromasa Ogura (Ghost In The Shell) and production designers Mahiro Maeda (Evangelion, the "Second Renaissance" episodes of The Animatrix) is absolutely breathtaking; from the beautiful skyscapes to the amazingly detailed airships and striking character designs (by Range Murata, who also worked on Blue Submarine No. 6), this is easily one of the best-looking anime titles of the year. My only quibble is that the photorealistic CG and painterly cel animation are awkwardly combined at times, giving some scenes an off-putting visual incongruity. But it's a minor flaw in an otherwise fabulous canvas.
Of course, mediocre writing has brought down many a visually stunning anime series. In this respect, Last Exile does not disappoint. While things get off to a bit of a bewildering start in the first couple of episodes (Last Exile is another one of those series that plops you into the thick of things without comment and lets you figure out what's going on), the lead characters are charming enough that I was willing to stick through the confusion. While initially it's impossible to tell exactly who the combatants are and why they're at war, what does come across is the sense of critical historical events unfolding, an epic sweep that promises great things ahead.
I've always been fascinated—and appalled—by accounts of 17th and 18th century battles—the way the soldiers lined up and shot at each other in neat rows, in the name of "civilized" warfare. The image of the slaughter of human beings being turned into something so bizarrely organized and proper, like a live-motion board game, underscores the insanity and pointlessness of war in a way that modern warfare doesn't. Last Exile deftly taps into that feeling, giving us military leaders blasting each other out of the sky while blathering on about chivalry and nobility, while belowdecks the hapless grunts merely pray that they'll survive the carnage. It's this antiwar theme that makes Last Exile's neo-Victorian look more than just a stylistic affectation. One gets the feeling, even from these initial episodes, that this series is about something. It has the emotional and thematic depth that makes for a great anime series.
Also worth noting is the music, which is outstanding throughout. From the propulsive opening theme, "Cloud Age Symphony" by Shuntaro Okino, to the lilting closing theme "Over the Sky" by Hitomi Ishiguro, and the background music by Dolce Triade in between, the score is eclectic (melding influences as disparate as African beats, Scottish bagpipes,and Russian folk) and atmospheric, supporting the story without overwhelming or distracting from it.
As might be expected from a top-flight release by Geneon (formerly Pioneer) Entertainment, Last Exile: First Move offers a flawless transfer, free of distortion or defects and beautifully capturing the sepia-tinged colors and cloud-filled landscapes. This disc looks great. I wish I were as blown away by the audio, however. While I can't complain about the lively Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound, which is clean and bright, I can't help but wonder how much more exciting the soundscape would be, with its dynamic flight scenes, if this series had been given a full 5.1 Surround treatment. What's there is quite adequate, however.
Unfortunately, the test disc I received omitted all special features, but the final release will offer a textless opening, the original Japanese opening, a gallery of artwork, and an interview with production designer Mahiro Maeda. The test disc also included an English language dub only (which features some excellent vocal performances), but the final release will include the original Japanese soundtrack and English subtitles.
While it's hard to say where the series is going to go from the two episodes I've seen, in terms of story, artwork, voice acting, and music, it's all there. I was completely captivated by Last Exile and look forward to continuing the journey in future installments.
Last Exile is found not guilty on all counts. Case dismissed.
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