‘The Sky Crawlers’

Animation flies high


The Battle of Britain, in which the Royal Air Force fought the Luftwaffe for supremacy over the skies of Britain in 1940, became famous for not only the heroism of the Allied defenders, who saved the country from Nazi invasion, but their high casualty rates, especially among the young, inexperienced pilots who flew more of the planes as the battle wore on.

Mamoru Oshii’s new animation “The Sky Crawlers” may be based on a five-part sci-fi novel by Hiroshi Mori, but it reminded me of those legendary air battles in both its retro-future prop-engine fighter planes and the extreme youth of its pilots, who never age beyond their teenage years.

A big difference is that, where the RAF pilots were fighting for national survival, Oshii’s pilots, known collectively as Kildren, are employees of a company, Rostock, that sells their air battles as entertainment to the peace-besotted masses. Their opponents are a similar outfit, Lautern, whose big drawing card is a deadly ace pilot, known as Teacher, who is the only adult in the air. In this war, there are no winners, since victory would end the show.

This war-as-business sounds like a recipe for cynicism — and most of the Kildren are anything but gung-ho types, extremely so. After a fierce dogfight — rendered with vertigo-inducing realism — they climb out of their planes looking oddly unaffected, even affectless, as though they have been doing nothing more exciting than killing time in a video arcade.

The Sky Crawlers
Director Mamoru Oshii
Run Time 121 minutes
Language Japanese

This disconnect initially struck me as unnatural. Hollywood fighter-pilot films, beginning with the 1927 William Wellman classic “Wings” and continuing to the 1986 Tom Cruise vehicle “Top Gun,” may exaggerate everything from the hero’s macho swagger to the post-flight hijinks, but they’re right about one thing: Fighter pilots, then and now, don’t usually come from the passive, introverted end of the personality scale.

Oshii, the director of “Kokaku Kidotai (Ghost in the Shell)” (1995) and “Innocence (Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence)” (2004) — highly acclaimed exercises in dark sci-fi — is not making a typical fighter-pilot film, though. Instead he is conducting an investigation into the consequences of messing with the core definition of humanity. What happens when you wipe out a person’s past? Make him ageless? Enlist him in a war that never ends — and a life that has no future?

Yuichi Kannami (Ryo Kase), a new pilot assigned to a Rostock forward base on the European front, is the focus of these speculations. He has no memory of being there before — or even of his last posting — though this lacunae doesn’t seem to both him. The attractive, if severe-looking, base commander, Suito Kusanagi (Rinko Kikuchi), greets him with a sharp, knowing glance — but what she knows, she doesn’t say.

Despite his cool, distanced air, Yuichi proves to be a terror in the sky, shooting down enemy planes with a skill he certainly didn’t learn yesterday. He soon wins an admirer and friend in Naofumi Tokino (Shosuke Tanihara), a fellow pilot who stands out for his cheerfulness and energy. Suito remains outwardly less impressed, though she obviously has feelings for Yuichi — including romantic ones. She is obviously wary of expressing them.

Airborne, Yuichi and other pilots have no time for sentiment — just a desperate battle against their Lautern opposite numbers, especially the dreaded Teacher, who sends one Rostock warrior to his death in flames.

The battle intensifies and more reinforcements arrive, including Midori Mitsuya (Chiaki Kuriyama), a fiery ace pilot who quickly sizes up Yuichi as a cut above the rest — and tries to get closer to him. At the same time, she becomes jealous of Suito, who tells everyone that the cute base mascot Mizuki is her “younger sister,” though Midori suspects she is really Suito’s daughter. Liar or no, Suito at least has the semblance of a normal life, which is denied to a Kildren such as Midori — and she resents it.

So the stage is seemingly set for momentous confrontations and resolutions, but standard movie melodrama simply isn’t Oshii’s style. Instead, he and scriptwriter Chihiro Ito stand the usual genre tropes — the bittersweetness of wartime love, the tragedy of young death — on their heads. The real tragedy of Yuichi is not an aborted future, but the lack of a past. Also, Suito’s love for Yuichi is real enough, it is tinged with more bitterness than sweetness.

The film ends with a revelation that is meant to be spine-chilling, but given all we already know about the characters, the Kildren in particular, the effect is muted. It’s as if novelist James M. Barrie had ended “Peter Pan” with the news that Peter and Captain Hook are never going to settle their differences because they — gasp! — exist outside time. (Note: This is not a spoiler for “The Sky Crawlers.”)

But the film’s air battles, which put the audience in the passenger’s seat for each meticulously rendered climb, roll and plunge, with are thrilling in a primal, adrenaline-pumping way. Oshii and his team have brought off these amazing feats of animation skill and imagination in not just an action break here and there but extended sequences throughout the film.

Oshii wants to have it both ways — make a film that is both a bang-up entertainment and a deep-think disquisition into the nature of war, peace, life, love, death — in fact, the whole human shebang. His fans will love it — but the unconverted may wish they had waited for the YouTube mash-up of the action scenes.