Judge Adam Arseneau keeps tracks of his kills on the passenger door of his car.
Our review of The Sky Crawlers, published May 26th, 2009, is also available.
Every day could be your last. Live life like there's no tomorrow.
Based on the bestselling Japanese novels by Hiroshi Mori, The Sky Crawlers is the latest introspective anime from director Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell) and Production I.G, blending melancholic and introspective puzzles on life, death, and war with stunningly crafted retro-stylized dogfights and World War II-inspired design. Also, the enigmatic plot will strike you in the face like a blackjack.
Facts of the Case
A group of eternally young fighter pilots known as Kildren fight an endless war between two multinational organizations. No one quite remembers how the war was started or how long it has been going on, but they fight all the same. The Kildren are genetically modified to never age, to remain as young teens for their entire lives, and when one goes down in battle, another emerges.
A new recruit, Kannami arrives at a base reporting to duty, and is surprised to receive a perfectly pristine plane. Normally, the planes are handed off by the former pilots, but the previous occupant, Jinroh is nowhere to be found. He is told by the new base commander, an enigmatic Kildren named Kusanagi, that Jinroh had died, but no one will discuss it with him.
As Kannami and his squadron fly mission after mission, he begins to notice the repetitive nature of his days and how new recruits who arrive bear striking similarities to fallen comrades, but answer to different names. When Kannami tries to remember his previous assignments, he finds he cannot remember…
Attempting to summarize and explain The Sky Crawlers is a challenge, because people will love this film, and people will hate this film in equal parts. Those who approach The Sky Crawlers as an action-oriented film will no doubt fall into the second category. This is not to suggest the film lacks excitement; only that the sky the pilots crawl through is your brain. Even for a director known for his existential and complex films, The Sky Crawlers is pretty out there; a perplexing blend of WWII-era designs and dogfights mixed with introspective ruminations on death, memory, and the repetitive nature of war. The Sky Crawlers is refreshingly unique, to say the least, because there is literally nothing else like it. As an intellectual exercise, it is undeniably fascinating, but its emotional tone is often off-putting, distant, and alien—an easy film to admire and respect, but a tough film to love.
Many of the plot details in The Sky Crawlers are left deliberately vague and enigmatic. The locale is vaguely European, vaguely 1940s, but nothing is said as to their location or time period. The country is at endless war, but nothing is said as to who the enemy really is or why the war continues. Details are like memories here; some are extremely vivid and realistic, while others are mere suggestions. As the film progresses, the emotional tone of the film shifts and deconstructs, as the dreamlike repetition of the character's lives eventually causes a shift, a break. As we unravel the plot, it curls back up again on itself like an ouroboros. Scenes repeat themselves, and whether the characters themselves notice is unclear. The film provokes an emotional response from its audience very well, but it's difficult to express exactly what emotions get provoked, or why. Anger, grief, disconcertment, and unease all come easily when watching The Sky Crawlers, but you would be hard-pressed to justify them.
Like most of the other pilots featured, the protagonist is a Kildren, a peculiar subset of the population that, through genetic modification, does not age. They are perpetual children, stuck in the body of adolescents, flying endless missions in the sky. Why grow up when you are bound to die anyway? Can they age, and simply opt not to, as one suggests in the film? Kannami realizes his random assignment to the base is not quite as random as he may have thought; people remark that he bears a similarity to the pilot he replaced, Jinroh, whose fate is troubling and enigmatic. Other pilots fail to return from dangerous missions, and new ones replace them that bear uncanny similarities to their previous doppelgangers, despite having no memories of the events. Are these the same people? Does it even matter? After all, there's a war to be fought. Is death an escape? Is there more to being an adult than simply aging? Is there more to being a kid than simply not? The divide between the Kildren and the adults at times feels insurmountable, vast chasms of irreconcilable distance—but try to qualify exactly why this is the case, and watch logic gets fuzzy.
This head-tripping philosophical exploration about the notion of war is at the very heart of The Sky Crawlers, that war is an integral part of the human psyche; we require it to counterbalance our desire for peace. Without the one, the other withers and corrupts. The irony in the argument, of course, is that this lesson is expressed by way of seemingly emotionless automatons, by Kildren who do not age and maybe not die, at least not in the way we understand death. Their plight is unsettling; despite their distance from each other, we feel for their plight, their lack of understanding, their internal confusion and their external obedience. This is all they know, and we come to know it alongside them. Their destiny is in the air, to die in battle and then…what? There are mysteries abound. Like much of Mamoru Oshii's work, we are aware of the profundity and gravitas of the ideas being expressed to us, but are not always fully aware of how best to interpret them. They baffle us like tidal waves; we never quite capture the ocean, but we can get swept away and soaked by it all the same. Slow-paced and dragging in its narrative, The Sky Crawlers resonates like a bell in the heart and the mind in ways we do not quite understand. This is not a film for those who require resolution or closure.
The Sky Crawlers is visually one of the most striking and dynamic animation films in recent memory, which is saying a lot considering the film's director and production studio have themselves churned out some of the finest animations in the world. The film can be stylistically divided into two parts: scenes on the ground and scenes in the sky. Ground scenes feature a style familiar to those who know the work of director Mamoru Oshii and Production I.G, seamlessly blending lush hand-drawn animation and subtle computerized backgrounds and color manipulation. Animation is fluid and lush, with spectacular backdrops and illustrations and a simplistic yet detailed character design. At first glance, the characters are almost statuesque and mute with little detail in their mannerisms, almost doll-like; but nuances and complex facial expressions quickly emerge. Tiny motions, tightening of jaws, narrowing of eyes, small movements in hair all suggest a disgusting level of attention and detail put into every single on-screen character.
As for the sky sequences, they are rendered in CGI, and simply incredible, quite unlike anything the studio has undertaken in the past. Oshii has certainly dabbled in melding the computer animated and the hand-drawn in new and exciting ways for years, but The Sky Crawlers takes the style to a whole new, almost impossible level of immersion. Planes dart and dive through the sky, the camera twisting around in ways impossible with traditional animation. Though the sequences could hardly be described as "realistic" (they are far too stylized), it is true that if you are not paying attention, some sequences move with such authentic fluidity that they almost pass for reality, impossible as this particular reality might be. The entire experience is at once both stylized and realistic; a fantastic juxtaposition of detail and artistic expression. If nothing else, The Sky Crawlers is one of the most fascinating and technically proficient animes in recent memory.
Presented in 1080p, there is not a single detrimental visual flaw in the presentation of The Sky Crawlers that can be found. I have been awed by the work of Production I.G in the past, but having never seen their work on Blu-Ray before, I was unprepared. Black levels are crisp, edges are perfectly rendered with no hint of distortion, no grain of any kind can be found, colors are vibrant and saturated—you name it, it's perfect. The incredible detail and meticulous detail is perfectly rendered. I never thought I'd give a perfect score for any category, but here we are. From an eye candy perspective, this may be the best looking anime currently available on Blu-Ray.
Audio comes in both English and Japanese Dolby TrueHD 5.1 channels, and are virtually identical save for the dialect. Dialogue is clear and strong in the center channel and the environmental accuracy and placement of sonic items is perfectly realized. Prop planes hum in the distance overhead, bullets howl through the air, and raindrops fall convincingly. Bass response is strong but balanced, never too aggressive. Equally as impressive (although harder to grade) are the sequences where sound is entirely absent. The Sky Crawlers uses silence quite effectively, expressing complex emotion and suggestion simply by doing nothing at all. The score by Kenji Kawai is a somber mix of strings and high symphonic voices, and more than a little reminiscent of his previous work for Production I.G in the Ghost in the Shell series. The otaku in North America may recognize some familiar Japanese voices at work here; Academy Award-nominated actress Rinko Kikuchi (Babel) and Chiaki Kuriyama (Kill Bill Vol. 1) lend their talents to the Japanese cast. For those looking for more international options, a Portuguese TrueHD 5.1 and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 track are also included.
In terms of supplements, we get basically the same as the standard DVD version; a 30-minute feature, "Animation Research for The Sky Crawlers" interviewing the director discussing the various influences assembled to craft the look of the film, and a thirty minute feature "The Sound Design and Animation of The Sky Crawlers" that depicts Oshii and his crew traveling to California to create the sound at Skywalker Ranch. This is my favorite feature of the bunch, if only to see the Ranch crew present Oshii with a present of a T-shirt with a basset hound on it. The only Blu-Ray exclusive extra is a 15-minute interview with director Mamoru Oshii discussing his inspirations and themes in adapting The Sky Crawlers, which overlaps slightly with the other material, but is still nice to have. The disc is also BD-Live enabled, but I was unable to get the feature to work at the time of review, possibly due to it being advance of the street date.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It goes without saying that the elements in the story of The Sky Crawlers that attracted director Mamoru Oshii to adapt it into a feature animation are no doubt the very same elements that will hinder the film from finding mainstream appeal. Remember, gentle reader; Oshii is a complex fellow who delights in weaving complex notions of life, death, existence and memory into every possible nook and cranny into his films. Also, basset hounds. Do not think for a second that The Sky Crawlers will be any different.
Problem is, everything about the packaging of this Blu-Ray suggests an action film, but nothing in The Sky Crawlers could be further from the truth. This is an introspective, thought provoking and challenging meditation on the futility of war, on the cyclical nature of combat and battle between man, of memory and loss; a two-hour film where easily an hour of it is spent entirely in silence. The Sky Crawlers masquerades as an adventure film full of dogfighting and aerial battles, but these are window dressings at best, and constitute barely 15 minutes of the film.
The worst thing, the absolute, most depressing, desperately painful thing that can happen with The Sky Crawlers is for people to go into it looking for action and adventure. This will lead to disaster, confusion, furrowed brows, and, ultimately, rejection. Just like my prom all over again. The horror…
Visually striking and technologically impressive, The Sky Crawlers is a fantastic Blu-Ray title with a near-perfect technical presentation. As a film, the story is more difficult to quantify, resisting attempts to understand it on a purely surface level and instead demanding more emotional attachment from its audience, more complex ruminations. Many would describe the film as needlessly melancholy and confusing—and they would be right. The Sky Crawlers is an undeniably fascinating work all the same. A contradiction to be sure, but that's kind of the point.
A thoroughly unique and stylistic adventure, The Sky Crawlers is aces.
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