THE SKY CRAWLERS
While I'm in awe of Mamoru Oshii's achievements, especially the Ghost in the Shell movies, I've yet to enjoy any other films he's directed. Red Spectacles (1987), Avalon (2001) and now The Sky Crawlers all left me cold, and confused. I'd highly recommend other projects which he's an important creative force behind, like Jin-Roh (1998) and Blood - The Last Vampire.
Unfairly perhaps, I watched The Sky Crawlers with sub-standard subtitles (on this Malaysian DVD, pictured below) which fails to introduce the rules of 'the war' or translate the more complex dialogue adequately. But this is also how I first watched Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, and it instantly became a favourite film.
On a near-future Earth, young people fight wars so that no-one else has to (it's explained a little more fully than that). A new fighter pilot arrives at an airfield, but is trying to unravel the mysteries surrounding his (pretty, young, female) commander. As fewer of his comrades return from their regular hazardous missions, the truth slowly emerges...
The flying sequences are exceptionally dynamic, the 3D animation almost photo-real. The action is almost too fast to follow, in complete contrast to the slowly developing plot. The fluid and intricately detailed animation of the aerial scenes is also in jarring contrast to the simply-rendered 2D characters, still moving at a jerky eight times a second (the customary speed for Japanese animation). The designwork is exciting, but limited to only a few different types of aircraft.
On the ground, most of the story takes place in dull, muted interiors, reminiscent of wooden-panelled houses of WW2 England - far removed from the sci-fi scenarios anime fans might expect. The drama, basically a two-handed struggle, lost my interest completely. I'm no action junkie, but I just couldn't get involved.
While Innocence was also heavy on philosophy, I at least had a handle on the issues he was exploring, from my knowledge of the Ghost in the Shell universe. I could also enjoy Oshii's very visual imagining of the near future, without fully understanding what was going on. The weighty dialogue was compensated with intricately predicted cities, computers, robots, vehicles...
This isn't the sort of film I can recommend to anyone other than Oshii fans. The aerial scenes are stunning, but unlike Hollywood action films where the effects are special but the plots aren't, the difference here is that the story is not lowbrow, but too highbrow.
The Sky Crawlers will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on May 26th in the US (cover art at top). I wouldn't recommend anyone jumps the gun with the Malaysian DVD, because the transfer makes the action look juddery. The subtitles are poorly translated and often only flash up for a fraction of a second.