Mamoru Oshii’s criminally under-seen existential ariel-combat science fiction film, The Sky Crawlers, recently screened in Toronto as part of Techno/Human retrospective on the master animators body of work. Oshii was on hand to discuss the film prior to the screening, which I captured on video, and subtitled via the interpreter. If you are a fan of films like Blade Runner, Code 46, Solaris and Never Let Me Go, than consider picking up the BLU. I will let the director give to you skinny on the ideas and craft behind the film, which was animated by Production I.G.; the same folks behind the Ghost in The Shell OVA/TV show and the O-Ren Ishii animated sequence in Kill Bill Vol.1
My original review of the film is below:
“Somewhere, in a country similar to ours There are children who do not become adults. They are very similar to us.” goes the tagline of Mamoru Oshii’s 2008 film. One that carried the promise (during its production cycle) of a more linear form of story telling after the convoluted Ghost in the Shell: Innocence and the strange Tachigui. I am overjoyed to report that while the story is linear, it is anything but straightforward or simple, and not the least bit diluted or dumbed down in regards to his philosophical and social musings – basically the essence of what makes Oshii stand out from his generation of masters of the Japanese animated feature. Using a pastiche of elements of contemporary science fiction (From “Ender’s Game” to “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”) mashed up with stirring World War II aerial dogfights and a his unique brand of austere and cold melodrama, The Sky Crawlers certainly will not be for everyone. The film is a feast for the senses, not only in the gargantuan fighter plane battles, which may be safe to say are the best ever committed to celluloid (and yes, that includes Hell’s Angels and the space climaxes of any of the best of the Star Wars pictures). This is true in ever single detail of the film (bravo Production I.G.) even the small moments: The cigarette smoke swirls, a Vespa engine hums as it idles, the airplane hangars and living quarters are textured, lived in, and the apple pie and coffee diners are gorgeously rendered down to the most minute detail. And the sound design (courtesy of Skywalker Sound) is among the best work they have ever done.
But wait, much this technical praise could be more or less said of, say, Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s equally well crafted Steam Boy, and that movie was more or less a failure due to overly convoluted and stilted story telling. The narrative may be cool and deliberately paced for a film with designs on a gigantic canvas, but that dovetails beautifully with the story Oshii is trying to tell. Make no mistake, this is social science fiction, and tonally controlled storytelling at its finest.
The world of The Sky Crawlers is a social and geographical fusion of 1950s America, Japan and Western Europe where propeller styled fighter planes co-exist along side satellite television, large multinational corporations and cloning science. While it is a time of apparent peace and prosperity, the large corporations conduct ‘real wars’ (mostly over the border ocean zones), televised of course, to placate any unrest or rebellion from the masses. Contrary to Orwell’s “1984”, where London is a perpetual war wreck and society fragmented and controlled, Oshii (and the writer of the original novel, Mori Hiroshi) postulate that for the most part, this ‘perpetual war’ has actually benefited society. Wars and equally importantly, all the social problems of an idyll, purposeless populace, involving real people can be avoided if they are fought in a fully manufactured way which has ‘real consequence’ built into the equation. The fighter pilots that fight for their parent corporations are of a genetically modified race who never age, fittingly called Kildren. Set in state of perpetual adolescence, they live to fight and pilot the fighter planes, and die for the entertainment and attention of the worlds citizens. The fact that this race is immortal otherwise, only ups the ante and the dramatic spectacle of flaming angels falling from the sky from the fantastic machines.
The story revolves around one of the bases of Kildren and the little ecosystem in which they inhabit. Yuichi arrives to a new posting for the Rostock Corporation. The pilots there are kept under tight wraps from their base commander Suito Kusanagi (a fellow Kildren) and the lovingly stern chief mechanic (and ‘adult human’), both of whom immediately have an eye on Yuichi. This sets Yuichi on edge along with the stories of the non-Kildren ace pilot, a Red Baron type named ‘The Teacher’ who fights for the ‘enemy’ Lautern Corporation. The first half of the film focuses on the ecology of the air-base with a few combat laden sorties to get the adrenaline flowing. The drinking and sexual exploits of Yuichi’s roomate pull Yuichi into a few encounters of his own that strike odd chords of familiarity. This leads to Yuichi questioning his bosses mysterious past while the Rostock Corporation plans its biggest offensive to date. The findings of Yuichi in regards to his bosses and himself are the engine of the plot, but really not the films chief concern, and thusly the storytelling is not the least bit concerned with ‘twist endings’ or other high-concept gimmickry so often favoured within the genre.
Like Kazuo Ishiguro’s wonderful novel (and to an extent, Mark Romanek’s film adaptation) Never Let Me Go, Oshii does not bury the mystery or secrets of the narrative so deep that a conscientious observer won’t have things figured out within the first quarter of the film. But the joy here is in how things reflect and refract current social trends, and draw commentary and observation into the forefront of the storytelling. The film is postulating some big questions in amongst the lives of pilots, war melodrama and simply stunning action set-pieces. It is a film concerned for the future, while not necessarily nostalgic of the past. There is a character, one that goes unnamed, in the film (in the background really) that sits alone and silent on the front steps of a diner. The Kildren all look at him, but never make any real contact. This old man weeps for the world as it is, a peace bought at a curious price of static non-progress and cyclic stagnation. A moment in the film when another adult human, the lively cook and bartender at the diner, joins the old man in his silent withdrawal. This moment resonates. Oshii, who was 57 at the time was (and probably still is) concerned with the consequences of the punishing media distractions and general white noise of modern Japanese society, which leaves many young folks in a state of perpetual adolescence. He has constructed a curious epic that is evocative of history, while starkly original in tone and execution. A message movie that is subtle, urgent, and most certainly worthy of your time and consideration.