Even though I was excited to see that another one of Mamoru Oshii’s movies got released in the U.S., The Sky Crawlers sat around for a few days at home, mostly out of a vague sort of dread. What if it was the one that ruined Oshii for me? What if it was a turgid, boring mess that took itself way too seriously? But it garnered a buttload of awards in Japan and seemed to be fairly well received by fans of his work, so I popped it in late one night and hoped for the best!
The Sky Crawlers takes place in an alternate world, where people known as Kildren exist. Kildren are adolescents that never age. The governments of the world use these Kildren as disposable objects in elaborate aerial war games. Because of this, it’s entirely legal to kill a Kildren. The story centers on a new transfer to an air base named Yuichi Kannami, who finds he’s the replacement for a pilot that was recently removed under mysterious circumstances. Only Kildren are allowed to be pilots, so the rest of the base contains adolescent pilots and the adults that maintain the equipment. The whole thing is actually commanded by another Kildren, the austere and icy cold Kusanagi, a girl who seems to have had a daughter of her own and, according to rumor, killed the man who Kannagi replaced. Over time, the two of them develop a relationship that’s complicated by Kusanagi’s mysterious bitterness and self-destructive tendencies. This leads to Kannagi questioning his own existence and the purpose of Kildren: what is their place in the world?
You can bet if Mamoru Oshii is doing a movie, he has plenty to talk about. This time, the notorious sourpuss returns to some of his previous musings about the nature of war and peace that he visited in such works as Patlabor 2 the Movie. There’s a big spiel about the supposed purpose of Kildren. In this world’s history, apparently thousands of years ago, wars were waged normally, with armies and hundreds or thousands of casualties resulting from the slaughter. However, the people in charge of such things looked on it as a waste. Why were so many people dying to decide the results of philosophical disagreements? So, to put it in a certain way, they applied cost-cutting measures to war. Instead of sending out huge armies, they sent only a few to battle to the death to resolve disputes. If you think about it, it’s a logical (if somewhat unattainable in our own world) solution. And that’s where Kildren come in, perfectly suited to throw their lives away because they have no future to look forward to. But then the actual purpose of war gets brought up. War seems to be hardwired into human consciousness. It’s posited by a character in the movie that war exists to remind humans what it is to feel alive, and to differentiate what peace is. So what is the solution? Apparently to wage war games with live human fodder aka Kildren.
There’s another layer to the movie, however, that I find quite interesting. Kildren are perpetually stuck at in adolescence. When a child asks Kannami if he ever wants to grow up, he throws the question back at her; does SHE want to grow up? She answers with a shrug. Kannami says it’s the same with him. Days pass for Kildren exactly the same, one following the other in the same routine with little to set things apart. At first I was irritated by what I thought was poor character design. Kildren are so indistinct that sometimes the best you can do is identify them by how they part their hair. However, as things progress through the movie, I came to see that the designs were an artistic choice. Kildren die and, surprisingly to Kannami, are replaced by Kildren that look and act extraordinarily similar to the one that was lost. It’s theorized that even he might just be a manufactured copy of the pilot Kusanagi killed, ready to fill the same role he always has. Kusanagi, due to her ace pilot abilities, is the oldest Kildren alive, although still stubbornly a teenager. She’s grown sick of the Kildren’s place in the world as glorified human sacrifices and wishes only for death, because she believes that to be the only way to break the repetitive life she and the others lead.
I think there’s a few ways one could read this. It’s possibly a treatise on the current state of otaku-centric pandering in the anime industry. The shows that are flooding the airwaves in Japan are chock full of perpetual teenagers, ready to throw themselves into exciting or dramatic situations for the pure entertainment of the viewer. What if they became aware of the limitations of their existence? Would they just want to grow up and live a normal life? The Kildren are just like these objectified anime characters. They even strive against an enemy called The Teacher, an ace pilot that always seems to spell death for the Kildren, and who is rumored to be an adult, although adults supposedly aren’t allowed to be a pilot. It’s brought up that The Teacher might possibly just exist to be an insurmountable obstacle for the Kildren, something for them to eternally strive against, like Inuyasha vs. Naraku. The series wouldn’t go on for 100+ episodes if they’d just let Inuyasha defeat the guy already.
In another way, the Kildren could also symbolize the generation of men and women who are growing up rudderless, mentally and emotionally adolescents despite being physically adult and incapable of finding purpose and meaning in life, with adult responsibilities appearing undesirable. I somehow feel like I could be part of this group. I’ll admit: at the time of writing this, I’m living with my parents while I’m going to graduate school and trying to find a job. I’ve been unemployed for about six months now and still watch cartoons and play video games and all that crap that so-called adults look down upon… and I felt this movie like a slap in the face. My days ARE bleeding together, passing me by. I couldn’t tell you the last important or meaningful thing I did. And I know more people my age that are just like me. Is Oshii telling us to get a life?
Regardless of his intentions, I must say that the man certainly has found his particular style and is sticking to it. If you’ve ever seen any of Oshii’s other movies (likely Ghost in the Shell), you know what his work is like. He’s an incredibly methodical, quiet, philosophical storyteller. Watching Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence was like taking a philosophy course at a community college, it was so packed full of quotes and scripture. I used to think the man was incapable of starting a film without, like, a paragraph explaining what the premise was, or a quote or something, but he manages to achieve that with The Sky Crawlers. He also manages to keep the quotes down to a bare minimum, with just a cheeky reference early on, as if to tease his detractors. Still, the man loves his quiet, still scenes, and there’s plenty of them. People mill about like glum drones with muted facial expressions. Only one character seems capable of looking like he’s in a good mood or changing his facial expression, period. And AGAIN Oshii examines an icy bitch queen named Kusanagi with unfathomable motivations and a propensity for looking introspective and doll-like 24/7. I’m not saying any of this is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I became a fan of Oshii BECAUSE his films were so different from other anime. There were ADULTS acting thoughtful and mature, and they weren’t flashy, shrill, rushed messes. Maybe it was the running time that made this feel like too much of a good thing. At a full two hours, this might be Oshii’s longest animated movie ever. What seems great at 80-100 minutes might wear a bit thin after that.
One thing that DOESN’T get old is how gorgeous the movie is. Apart from the dazzling dogfights, the high production values of the movie really come across in the settings and backgrounds. Now, you might be rolling your eyes at that, but you’d be surprised how a good background can add to a movie. I certainly was, after a long, long time apart from big anime feature films and expensive productions like Stand Alone Complex. The setting for The Sky Crawlers is less fantastical than something like a Spirited Away or Akira, but the simple country setting of the movie allows for a surprising amount of charm. The bucolic beauty of the surroundings simultaneously complements and contrasts the humdrum existence of the Kildren. It’s beautiful to look at… but so… routine. The interiors come to life with details you just don’t see in run-of-the-mill productions, like ornate wallpaper and intricate vases.
So Oshii’s first movie in, like, five years can’t quite live up to the expectations I had for it. It’s a fine movie, one that I might connect more with over repeat viewings, as is usually the case with me and him. But I guess I was hoping for a bit more eventfulness in a movie about uneventfulness. Oshii seems to be back in the business of being a filmmaker, however, with all sorts of plans for new anime and live-action products that I find interesting. Hopefully with a more prolific release schedule I can stop putting so much pressure on each one that comes out to live up to whatever intangible concept “Oshii” is in my head. And in case you were wondering, yes, there is an adorable basset hound in the movie with several cute moments. I’ve documented them below as follows: