by Kyle B. Stiff
Like the sparse rendition of an ink painting crafted by a zen master, Mamoru Oshii has crafted an amazing, sparse, and subtly disturbing film with a streamlined theme that only hits harder through lack of interference by unnecessary complication. The movie is only two hours; the impression it leaves remains far longer.
Do yourself a favor and don’t read any descriptions of the film’s story before viewing. Don’t read any reviews that begin with, “Sky Crawlers is the story of…” Don’t dare even glance at the netflix envelope or, if you still subscribe to ancient notions of goods ownership, don’t read the back of the box beforehand. Because while the story of The Sky Crawlers is not complicated, or even the main point of the film, it’s important to uncover it slowly, at the same pace as the theme unfolds. Characters interact like a wonderful dance of snails. To see the truth alongside them is best; to race ahead of the characters is to run the risk of discovering new states of boredom. It’s best to go in naked.
A lot of movies want to appear deep and philosophical, and usually come off as pretentious, by engaging in the overly-used “What is real?” dilemma. Thankfully, The Sky Crawlers tackles far bigger problems – like the problem of being trapped in a cycle, of focusing on everyday routine rather than looking at the bigger picture because it makes us uncomfortable, and how inhuman behavior is beneficial to the establishment because one human tool can be easily replaced by another human tool. Of course, being an American badass, I want to see a protagonist who will blow up violently, fill a duffel bag full of guns, hunt down the villains in charge of everything, and stand up to them. Or at least show a little individualistic backbone and blow the whistle on injustice. But The Sky Crawlers is made with a little more artistic integrity than that, and realistically shows how we tend to sell out a little bit here, a little bit there, day by day, or how we respond when someone close to us actually does blow up.
There’s also some interesting commentary on recurring archetypes: A person doesn’t have to be a genetic clone grown in a vat like Rei Ayanami in Evangelion in order to be a clone of someone else. These pilots (the archetypal “child pilot” from a thousand animes!) know they’re replaceable, know that they exist to labor away at a bullshit job, and know that death is the only thing that can really break the monotony. Sound familiar?
For instance, what do you do with Black Lagoon after you’ve already seen Cowboy Bebop? What do you do with RahXephon if you’ve already seen Evangelion? Was Howl’s Moving Castle all that necessary after Spirited Away? Is a copy “necessary filler” in between those rare releases of something original? Does the same go for people? Should we take the cue of one character who swallows a hundred horrible truths, then go numb so we can maintain our position behind a desk? Or do we seek out a suicidal hail of bullets? Or something else entirely? Which is best?
No easy answers. Mamoru Oshii just tells it honestly, like a true artist.
The Sky Crawlers will take a lot of flack due to its pace; slow anime always does. One of my roommates watched the film before I did and, because he’s hopped up on a pharmaceutical cocktail of emotional adjustment drugs, I could hear him bellowing with Tourettes-like intensity from across the apartment and, at one point, even seemed to turn a cartwheel in order to alleviate anxiety during one particularly slow scene. However, once he realized the depth of Oshii’s construct, he was haunted by the theme and felt compelled to discuss it at length, spittle flying from his lips and glittering on his chin, rambling like a man possessed, a testament to the sheer intensity of feeling that The Sky Crawlers can induce in the viewer.
The trailer is largely at fault, as it advertises a film about airplane battles. While the aerial dogfights are gorgeous, and there’s a nice contrast between the wide open sky and the claustrophobia of the cockpit as masked pilots strain to see enemies behind them, the dogfights end abruptly and, in some sense, have little impact on the overall theme. And it turns out to be a pretty realistic statement about how we spend our time: Even porn stars spend more time making sandwiches and checking their email than they do in the bedroom, and any soldier can speak volumes on what it’s like to sit in one place for weeks reading magazines and waiting for an actual assignment.
Both sad and hilarious, the special features are worth wasting an hour just to see Mamoru Oshii fall down while bowling. Most of the clips seem chosen at random; we get to see crew members rifling through bags or engaged in the middle of awkward conversations. During one interview, Oshii directly mentions a “father sky, mother earth” motif that I completely missed in the film – but the reference is only mentioned, not expounded on, and is only of interest to myth-heads and symbol-junkies.
Verdict: Amazing. Powerful enough to make you want to change the patterns of your own life. It is slow, so don’t drink five gallons of coffee beforehand. Can you imagine how great the infantile story of PS3’s Valkyria Chronicles would have been if directed by Oshii?
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Hey readers! If you liked this post, you should check out some of my books. I’ve got an epic series called Demonworld, which is equal parts Mad Max and Lord of the Rings (think “science fantasy”), and a much-loved gamebook series called Heavy Metal Thunder which is currently a hyperlinked Kindle book but will be a fancy phone app any day now.