DVD Showcase: ‘Ghost in the Shell’ director Oshii flies high with ‘The Sky Crawlers’

27 May

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The Sky Crawlers (PG-13) (2008) 122 min. directed by: Mamoru Oshii. voicework: Rinko Kikuchi, Chiaki Kuriyama, Shosuke Tanihara, Bryce Hitchcock, Ryo Kase.

 

cinemagrade b+They are known as the Kildren; eternally youthful adolescents who pilot WWII-style futuristic fighter-planes and participate in to-the-death aerial dogfights for the benefit of the mega corporations Rostock and Lautern. In the world they come from, there is no more war or conflict, and to ensure it stays that way the Kildren will compete in these global death games, filling the vacuum with an endless battle in the skies. Living like the lost boys and partaking in various adult activities including smoking and sex, the Kildren live a continuous, looping childhood; the banality of this existence is only brightened by the thrilling shooting matches they engage in while up in their planes.

That plot could be the center of a big Hollywood sci-fi picture aping Top Gun, but it’s actually the work of anime maestro Mamoru Oshii, the director responsible for films like Ghost in the Shell, Jin Roh: The Wolf Brigade and the live-action Avalon. Oshii, typically known for his philosophically dense dialogue and languorous, complex visual style, takes a step closer to main-stream storytelling with Sky Crawlers. The plot almost reminds one of a Howard Hawks adventure pic or even the recent French film Der Rote Baron, and while the film contains its share of thoughtful and introspective moments its primarily centered around characters and story.

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The beautiful hand-drawn animation blended together with a near photo-realistic CGI presents rolling English countryside, vast manor houses and golden-hued cloudscapes where soaring machines fire endless rounds of ammunition, shells raining down to the world below. The battle scenes recreate the daredevil antics of WWI pilots and there is even a Red Baron character called The Teacher. When I saw the stills for Sky Crawlers months ago, I was worried that those sequences would come off like video-game cut scenes. At first, thats exactly what they seem like, but Oshii frames even these images with a painters eye for composition and the zig-zagging planes, framed against either rain-clogged thunderheads or wispy white cotton balls, are almost poetic in their movements.

Visually lush and patient in regards to it’s texture and detail, set to a sometimes tranquil, sometimes thrilling score,  The Sky Crawlers works as a purely sensory experience. In fact, all of Oshii’s films do. My previous gripe with his work, and indeed most of the recent anime feature films, is that its almost too obscure in its intent and holds the audience at an unecessary arm’s length. The Sky Crawlersis the first Oshii film in, well, perhaps ever, that actually manages to cultivate a strong emotional core in addition to an aesthetic one. The general layout is still subdued, but there are humans here behaving as humans  and each of them has human issues. The Kildren do not age, and this brings its own set of problems, but ultimately they still struggle like your average person.

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Yuichi Kannami is the Kildren pilot at the center of the film and it opens with him landing his plane on the Rostock air-base in Northern England. He has no memory of the base or where he previously was, but picks up the swing of things quickly, befriending fellow pilot Tokino and starting a tension-filled relationship with his  commander, the icy Suito Kusanagi. She obviously posesses information she refuses to share with Kannami, and as the plot evolves secrets both on the ground and in the sky begin to manifest themselves. The battles in the air punctuate the human drama and the movie finds a nice balance between the action and the intrigue.

The story is speculative fiction and it’s been intelligently adapted from the novels by Japanese author Hiroshi Mori. Mori’s other novels are known as rikei mysterys because they revolve around some sort of scientific or mathematical puzzle. The Sky Crawlers novels were constructed in such a way where it was not always immediately clear what was happening or why, and as the series progressed all of the elements became available to solving the mystery.

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To a lesser extent, Oshii does that here, weaving events in and out of one another and suggesting what the flow of time must feel like to a person trapped in an endless state of youth. However, theres a clear narrative thrust and the film doesn’t fly off on too many theoretical or existential tangents as the Ghost in the Shell sequel did. Instead there is a far more natural rhythym to the drama in Sky Crawlers and the film has an almost pastoral idealism that reminded me more of Hayao Miyazaki (particularly Porco Rosso, another anime involving dog-fights) than any of Oshii’s ouvre.

I haven’t enjoyed an anime film this much in quite some time, and the market has been rather scarce with quality product. A new Miyazaki is on the way right now, and there have been a few choice entries like Satoshi Kon’s Paprika and the recent The Place Promised in Our Early Years,but that’s about it. Oshii’s Sky Crawlersis a breath of fresh air in that respect and an exciting remembrance of the potential of anime to tell thoughtful stories in detailed fantasy worlds. It’s not just a great animated film, it’s a great film period and well worth recommending to the both the hardcore anime fan and the filmgoer who could care less about little moving scribbles. Yes, it really is that good.

The Sky Crawlers was released on dvd and Bluray on May 26th, 2009.

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4 Responses to “DVD Showcase: ‘Ghost in the Shell’ director Oshii flies high with ‘The Sky Crawlers’”

  1. Cello May 27, 2009 at 3:00 pm #

    Beautiful write up on this film. i reviewed this film yesterday on my film blog. Great minds think alike!

    • Bartleby May 27, 2009 at 3:09 pm #

      Cello,
      I’ve been reading your blog(I really want to see Tokyo Sonata now) but haven’t gotten a chance to see your Sky Crawlers review yet. In fact, I didn’t know you had one up. When I get a moment I’ll go over there and post some comments.

      I see too you that you got a children’s book published. As a prospective kid’s book author (I’ve got a book and now need a publisher) I might have some questions for you soon.

  2. mpp4manu July 10, 2009 at 9:19 pm #

    Those planes are nothing like WW I planes. They’re obviously modeled on WW II U.S. P-51 Mustang or British Spitfire crossed with a modern Osprey.

    Breathtaking imagery, though. Very thoughtful writeup. Thanks for providing more background.

  3. Bill Bartmann September 2, 2009 at 5:09 am #

    Great site…keep up the good work.

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