A glorious return to form for director Mamoru Oshii after the innovative but impenetrable Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters in 2006, the pointless CGI remix of Ghost in the Shell (as version 2.0) in 2008, and the overly complicated and visually crowded Innocence in 2004. The Sky Crawlers is a languid tale of young fighter pilots in a near future that evokes both real world conflicts, such as the 1940s War in the Pacific, and fictional ones, such as the perpetual warfare in George Orwell’s 1984.
Although not explicitly located in the same fictional universe as Oshii’s ongoing ‘Kerberos saga’, which includes the aforementioned Amazing Lives, Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade (for which he wrote the script) and a number of manga and live action films, this is another depiction of alternate history that explores Orwellian themes of continually ongoing, distant warfare against a vague enemy and a retro future in which the development of culture is stalled due to the priority given to war. Set against the backdrop of conflict, The Sky Crawlers resembles American live action movies that use the Second World War as the historical setting for generic romance, but Oshii uses these tropes as a springboard for meditations on youth, memory, the fetishising of technology and the war against terror.
The above might suggest this is a dark, heavily laden movie about war and death, but this is far from the case. The Sky Crawlers is a dreamy, beautiful film that gently weaves its way around the lives of various young fighter pilots as they learn their skills, romance local girls, clash with authority and take part in graceful, exhilarating dogfights with the enemy. The general look of the film is inspired by the 40s and 50s but with a hard SF twist that I won’t reveal here, which adds additional poignancy to the notion of the brief lives of the (handsome) young when pressed into military service. Many of Oshii’s films unwind at a deliberate pace, but the elegiac animation of sky, land, sea and aircraft here also seems inspired by younger filmmakers such as Makoto Shinkai, whose melancholy style suits the material and is echoed as Oshii captures memories of long, golden, youthful summers that now seem alien and impossible.
But it is not simply a wistful, nostalgic film and there are clear parallels with the real world, starting with the so-called war on terror: the young pilots are kept ignorant of all but the skills required to do their jobs while the long, pointless war with a foreign enemy serves as almost another form of entertainment in the media. There are also parallels with the dumbing down and narrow focus of modern education and entertainment and the resulting short attention span of audiences, but all of these themes are subtly dealt with and never mentioned explicitly or heavy-handedly. Wherever these ideas come from, be it from Hiroshi Mori’s original novel or Chihiro Itou’s screenplay, it is interesting that they should fit so well with the worldview expressed in the rest of Mamoru Oshii’s filmography.
The Sky Crawlers is Oshii’s finest film since 2001’s underrated Avalon and his best animé since the original Ghost in the Shell. The familiar subject matter of wartime romance may even attract new fans to the director’s work who might not have initially warmed to the cyberpunk thrillers and Gothic siege warfare found elsewhere in his oeuvre. My only concern is that the gentle pace of the film might put off viewers who expect more ‘bangs for their bucks’ after the violence of Ghost in the Shell, Patlabor and the director’s various other war movies.