Run an informal poll asking otaku to list today’s greatest animé director and two names will immediately appear at the top of the list: Hayao Miyazaki and Mamoru Oshii. But what’s odd is that they’d be at that position for different reasons: the two directors and their cinematic visions could not be more opposite.
Miyazaki crafts deeply human fables woven together from classic fairy tales, environmental concerns, fascinations with flight and old Europe, and traditional Japanese religion. But what is most remarkable about his films is that, for all of their oftentimes epic grandeur and stunning visions, the characters are their most prominent feature. Miyazaki’s films are full of delightful and remarkably nuanced characters, most of them young women and girls, whose courage, self-sacrifice, and sense of wonder are consistently praised and lauded within the film.
Oshii, on the other hand, takes a darker, often more skeptical path. His most famous works — like the Ghost in the Shell movies — draw from cyberpunk fiction, modern science and geopolitics, and esoteric philosophy to comment realistically and sometimes disturbingly on the union of man and machine, the impact of technology on our concepts of humanity (spiritual, physical, political, or otherwise), the nature of the soul, and our relationship with and responsibility to the technology that we create. Oshii’s works do have memorable characters, such as Ghost in the Shell’s Major Motoko Kusanagi and Batou, but a film’s characters are ultimately secondary to the ideas that Oshii wants to explore.
But given Oshii’s skill as a director, visualist, and world-builder, this isn’t always a bad thing. I, for one, always find the Ghost in the Shell movies to be a heady, intoxicating experience whether I’m appreciating the technical skill on display or chewing on Oshii’s pet themes. But in the case of The Sky Crawlers, this becomes something of a liability. The Sky Crawlers is most certainly an “idea” film, but unfortunately, the ideas are only half-formed, and without the necessary character depth to bolster those moments when Oshii inevitably starts waxing philosophical, the film flounders.
Based on Hiroshi Mori’s novels, The Sky Crawlers is set in an alternate world that closely resembles post-WWII Europe. In this world, wars have corporate sponsors and are fought by “kildren”, genetically engineered humans who live in eternal adolescence. Every few weeks they engage in aerial battles that are primarily for the entertainment of humans, thus ensuring that humanity’s bloodlust is sated and preventing even larger conflicts from breaking out. The film’s protagonist is Yuichi, a “kildren” who arrives unceremoniously at his latest assignment. Quiet and withdrawn, he has no memory of his previous assignments and like the other “kildren” on the airbase, lives in a state of ennui that manifests itself as either boredom and routine, or indulging of the flesh.
The only person who seems to show any sort of strong emotion towards him is the base commander, a distant and cold woman named Suito who rebuffs him at every turn. Furthermore, Yuichi seems rather unaffected by his amnesia but he does display some curiosity about his predecessor, another “kildren” who was apparently killed in combat and yet whose plane — the same plane now flown by Yuichi — doesn’t have a single scratch on it.
The film is actually full of little mysteries — the truth about Yuichi’s plane, the reasons for Suito’s indifference, the identity of the deadly rival pilot known only as “the Teacher,” the possibility of some treachery within the company that sponsors Yuichi’s squadron — which tantalize the viewer, hinting at a larger world than we see within the animation’s cels (or pixels, since the film is a largely digital production). Also, there are moments where Oshii creates a truly beguiling mood, which — Oshii being Oshii — is done in a slow, placid manner that is all about the subtle details (for example, in the way a character folds their newspaper).
But after awhile, it becomes clear that the mood is not sustainable, and that the ideas the Oshii bandies about — mankind’s inherent need for violence, the potential aimlessness and alienation of youth — are ones that the film doesn’t appear to have its heart in. By the time one of the characters launches into a dissertation that connects some of the dots, it just doesn’t matter. I’m used to such ponderous dialog from Oshii, but there were moments where I found myself wishing for at least one or two moments where the film got a little more prosaic.
There will be those who watch The Sky Crawlers simply because it’s an Oshii film, and Oshii films always look great (thanks to Production I.G, one of Japan’s finest animation studios and Oshii’s “go to” studio). But even here, all but the most stalwart fans might find themselves frustrated. The colors and motion are extremely muted even for an Oshii film, with the only sign of life coming from the trademark basset hound. CGI plays a heavy role in the film, being used for all of the aerial combat sequences. These are impressive in their own right and Oshii chooses not to shy away from the carnage and brutality inherent in the aerial ballet. But when the CGI and the “traditional” animation exist together in a scene, the contrast between the two is stark and even unsettling.
Hearkening back to my opening, I prefer the films of Miyazaki — I find them more satisfying from all perspectives (e.g., aesthetic, humanistic, spiritual). But where I might say I love the films of Miyazaki, I admire the films of Oshii. They may not engage me on an emotional level, but as I said, they are still a heady experience nonetheless. Sadly, that isn’t really the case with The Sky Crawlers. I would never say that I wish Oshii was more like Miyazaki (just like I’d never say that I wish Miyazaki were more like Oshii). But at times, I found The Sky Crawlers to be less a film, and more an exercise by Oshii to see just how, well, Oshii-esque he could become.
For what it’s worth, I can’t say that I was ever bored by the film. My curiosity was consistently piqued, my imagination consistently fired by the little details that, at least at the time, seemed to contain worlds of meaning. (Indeed, I still think there’s a world worth exploring in the film.) Right up until the final act, I found myself on the edge of my seat, waiting for the final pieces to fall into place.
But the end of the film and its climactic twists pack little to no intellectual oomph or emotional resonance whatsoever and the coda that takes place after the credits is too little too late. All of which seems ironic given Oshii’s stated intention of using the film to speak to today’s youth about the despair and apathy in their lives. In chronicling the despair that is central to Yuichi’s life, and the apathetic way in which he, and everyone else around him, responds to it, The Sky Crawlers ultimately drowns in the ideas it sets out to explore. Or to put it another way, it drowns because the ideas at its core are just not fully explored. Instead, they’re tossed aside for ambiguous and obtuse mood and atmosphere, things that Oshii is usually able to channel and implement with more satisfying and challenging results.
This article originally appeared on Filmwell on June 13, 2009.