The Sky Crawlers
Perhaps the best anime with aerial dogfighting at its center is Area 88. It's a melodramatic affair about Shin Kazama, a young man tricked into becoming a mercenary who longs to return home to his girlfriend and a promising future as a pilot. Wracked with guilt and regret about the men he killed, Shin realizes that each mission he flies takes him farther away from his moral core. According to Area 88, the human soul cannot take too much of killing without becoming morally bankrupt.
So what if the moral dilemma was no longer a problem?
That's the question posed in Sky Crawlers, a 2008 film from acclaimed director Mamoru Oshii. The picture revolves around the Kildren, a group of perpetual 17-year-olds who engage in combat in the skies above Europe and elsewhere around the globe. They smoke, drink beer, make love, and go about the business of shooting down enemy pilots with barely an emotion. We follow the life of one Kannami Yuichi, who has been assigned to a new base under its commander Kusanagi Suito. While spending his days at the above-mentioned pursuits, he tries to figure out the mystery of Kusanagi and why she seems to be so distant...which considering the Kildren's lack of outward emotion is a pretty big deal. As the corporation-driven war they participate in escalates, Yuichi and Kusanagi grow closer to each other...which may mean their undoing.
Sky Crawlers is a superb and relaxed work, Oshii's best since Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer. The CGI is so masterfully done that many of the combat sequences look real. While the character designs are a bit odd at first, one quickly gets used to them, and they actually serve a purpose in the overall tone of the film. And the sound! My gosh, if you don't see this one in 5.1 or better, you've not experienced it. Kenji Kawai, the notable musician who turned in the amazing soundtrack to Oshii's Ghost In The Shell 2: Innocence, has put together another stunner. And the mixing itself by Skywalker Sound is awesome. Around the 40:00 mark, a distant fleet of fighters eventually moves over the soundstage, and the slow crawl until the company is directly overhead and past is reference quality material. You may find its equal, but you will not currently find a more technically superior anime on the market.
Thematically, Oshii is playing with a tri-dimensional chess set. And like chess, the average viewer on a steady diet of mediocre but popular anime will probably glance at it and walk away bored stiff. While the set pieces are well-paced and exciting in a certain sense, most of the film moves as slowly as any other Oshii movie. But when somebody's queen gets taken, it packs a whallop. On a basic level, there's a deep mystery that the less you know about going in, the better. Go to the next tier, and you see a striking indictment of war and how it affects human society. But go to the next tier, and you could debate forever. Oshii himself has said that the film is a commentary about the culture of otaku and the absurd repetitiveness of the anime industry, and the thematic structure takes shots at everything from Buddhist philosophy to the plague of "do-nothing" malaise that has gripped the younger generations of Japan. Take the red pill, as has been said, and you'll see just how far the rabbit hole goes.
What made this film work for me has to do with Oshii's letting go of his desire to philosophize about everything. Gone are the long, rambling discussions of cyber-cops talking about concepts way above their pay grade. In fact, without further explanation it may be impossible to know exactly what Oshii wants his audience to learn from the film. But I'm OK with that, because it works on so many levels that you can still find the film fascinating while completely missing a potential layer. In many ways, it reminds me of films made back before everything had to be loud and noisy and hyperkenetic, though its battle scenes are striking. It proves that Oshii can fly without the net of overt philosophy.
While I tend to like Oshii's films, I don't watch them often and I don't look forward to them in the conventional sense because they tend to be slow, dark, and ominous. I'm not going to try to tell you that this one is somehow different; Oshii is not somehow changing his tune. It didn't move me enough for me to give it my absolute best rating. But if you only see one of his films, see this one...I think it's his masterwork.
The Sky Crawlers -- violence, adult themes -- A