Judge Bryan Byun says this disc is to anime what Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is to theater.
Our reviews of Last Exile: First Move (Volume 1) (published November 14th, 2003), Last Exile: Discovered Attack (Volume 3) (published September 30th, 2004), and Last Exile: The Complete Series (published June 11th, 2009) are also available.
"We're just simple messengers."—Claus
Claus and Lavi are teenage air couriers from Prester, a world dominated by massive steam-powered airships battling each other in a never-ending war of dominance, overseen by the enigmatic, all-powerful Guild. Piloting a run-down vanship (a cross between a biplane and a Star Wars pod racer), Claus and Lavi struggle to support themselves while pursuing their dream of flying across the Grand Stream, a dangerous jet stream that caused the deaths of their fathers.
The pair stumbles across a mysterious young girl named Alvis, the "package" in a high-stakes delivery whose courier has been shot down. At the behest of the dying pilot, Claus and Lavi agree to take up the assignment and transport Alvis to the air-battleship Silvana, a decision that places them in the path of the Guild and the most dangerous mission of their young lives.
In Positional Play, the second volume of the anime series Last Exile produced by GONZO (Blue Submarine No. 6), Alvis has been delivered into custody of the Silvana's captain, Alex "Captain Herlock, Jr." Row. The brusque manner in which Row handles Alvis unsettles Claus, who has grown attached to his blue-eyed cargo. After some debate, the duo decide to chase after the Silvana and make sure Alvis is safe, as well as explore the ever-deepening mystery that surrounds the strange little girl.
Last Exile has gained quite a following since its original 2003 broadcast in Japan and the release of the first DVD late last year (it is also being aired on the TechTV cable channel); with this second set of four episodes, the reasons for its popularity are increasingly evident. While the series gets off to a slow and rather oblique start, once the story zeroes in on Claus and Lavi, their classic underdog charms begin to sink in. We are swept up by their struggle for survival, as they are caught in the midst of a conflict they are only beginning to comprehend.
As GONZO's tenth-anniversary production, Last Exile puts the studio's finest talents on display. The blend of traditional cel animation and CGI is simply stunning, with appealing character designs and artwork approaching the understated grandeur of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. Action-oriented anime often veers toward the garish and cartoonish. Not so with Last Exile, which draws together imagery from pre-Weimar Germany, the Industrial Revolution, Europe of the Victorian and Edwardian Eras, Neoclassical art, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco into a surprisingly well-integrated and elegantly sumptuous feast for the eyes, then supercharges it with sci-fi elements. As beautiful as the artwork is, it's not simply a static backdrop; director Koichi Chigira (Full Metal Panic) stages both the stately airship battles and riotous vanship dogfights with visceral fluidity, so that you practically feel the vibrations of stressed metal and the blurred swoosh of diving aircraft.
Unlike other anime series, such as Steam Detectives, which lay a steampunk façade over what is essentially a generic action storyline, Last Exile conveys the spirit as well as the style of steampunk. It unfolds like a Japanese adaptation of a long-lost collaboration between Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, with a dash of Michael Moorcock's The Dancers at the End of Time series for good measure. If the image of enormous steam-powered flying warships exchanging broadsides while tiny machine-gun-mounted aircraft swoop and soar between them like iron mosquitoes excites you at all, this is the series for you.
The four episodes that make up Positional Play deepen and extend the overall storyline with a strong focus on Claus and Lavi. While the previous volume threw a number of characters and plot elements at the viewer, without much context or a strong anchor to draw us into the story, Positional Play allows us to know our bedraggled sky couriers a little better. As a result, they begin to come into their own as underdog heroes of the tale instead of mere observers of a spectacle we know—and care—little about. The Guild, previously glimpsed only as a distant puppetmaster directing the warring factions of Prester, also emerges from the clouds with a (mostly) human face, represented by a pair of aristocratic albinos who, in their jaded condescension, would be annoying if they weren't such compellingly creepy bastards. Over the course of these episodes, the various dangling threads of the story begin to weave together into a riveting and emotionally resonant arabesque of political intrigue, grand adventure, and personal drama.
Geneon's presentation of Last Exile: Positional Play is on a par with the first DVD in the series—technically top notch, though a little light on extra features. As with the first volume, the transfer is excellent and presents the luminous earth tones and ethereal sky blues that dominate the color palette with near-flawless clarity. Audio is offered in the original Japanese or English dub in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, and is lively and dynamic. The voice acting on both tracks is excellent and will delight both dub and sub fans. The striking opening theme, "Cloud Age Symphony" by Shuntaro Okino, is still here, as is the feather-light voice of Hitomi Ishiguro on the sweetly melancholy closing theme, "Over the Sky." Dolce Triade's instrumental score bounces all over the musical map, from polyrhythmic electronica to Irish folk music, and adds significantly to Last Exile's dramatic impact.
Extras include a "clean" closing animation, the original Japanese end credits, a collection of Last Exile series and soundtrack promo spots, and the inevitable art gallery, along with a set of Geneon DVD trailers.
While the first volume of Last Exile left me intrigued but unsure of where it was all going, this second installment is where the story really comes together. Melding equal measures of action, adventure, drama, and comedy, Last Exile: Positional Play is the rare anime title that transcends the conventions of the genre to tell a story that even viewers who aren't anime fans may find compelling.
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