In the world of Japanese anime, and in fact, animation in general, there is probably no greater modern auteur than Mamoru Oshii. Since his directorial debut in the series Urusei Yatsura in the late 70s, he has quietly built up his own language, symbols, even mythos. Then again, this shouldn't come as any surprise. Where other Japanese masters cite Max Fleischer and Walt Disney as their main early influences, Oshii claims the likes of surrealist Luis Bunuel.
His latest effort to come to the U.S., the feature film The Sky Crawlers (out this week on DVD through Sony), fits comfortably in the Oshii oeuvre. Also important, it stands quite well on its own. So while old fans of Oshii’s Kerberos series and Ghost In the Shell will have plenty to discuss with this latest effort, those not familiar with the man’s rapidly growing library won’t feel left in the dark. They can enjoy Crawlers for what it is, on its own.
There’s plenty here for both old followers and newcomers.
The Sky Crawlers is based on a science fiction series written by Hiroshi Mori. The author gave Oshii full approval before making the movie, so he put his own touches into its creation. These include the signature addition of a basset hound much like the director’s legendary pet Gabriel, and naming one of the characters Kusanagi (a Ghost reference). Even more interesting, the lead character, Yuichi, replaced a pilot named “Jin-roh.” A reference to Oshii’s film of the same name? Considering the main plot, it’s a highly plausible suspicion.
The plot of the film revolves around all the key characters in this movie. They are of a new, genetically engineered, race called Kildren. The benefit of being a Kildren is never aging. They’re teenagers forever. It’s even implied they could be immortal …if they don’t have some sort of fatal mishap.
Then again, the odds of Kildren living long lives are almost impossible. They are bred to be soldiers in what appears to be a corporate war, put on in part for the entertainment/education of regular humans. If that means that all the Kildren appear to be walking around with what ‘Nam vets called “the 1,000-yard stare” at all times, it’s quite understandable. Even though Kusanagi had apparently been flying missions for over seven years, and has had a child (which she calls her little sister), it soon becomes apparent she is the only one in the film who’s made it that long.
The animation style Oshii utilizes emphasizes the alienation surrounding these Kildren. In interviews he openly admits he went for the most “realistic” hand drawn feeling possible. He went so far to not only use it on all his characters, but the buildings they live, work, and play out of. It creates a sense of alienation similar to an uncanny valley effect. To top it, the characters themselves move with an almost zombie-like sense of ennui.
This is pushed even further when it comes to his air battle scenes. For these, he adds the xerographic he used in his film Fast Food Drifters. This makes the sky, land below, and the futuristic, “radial axle” fighters the Kildren fly seems so realistic one could almost touch them.
Yet for all its intellectual distance, you can’t help but end absorbed into the Crawlers’ world. They are youngsters doomed to die at creation. What we end with is a plot that has an effect similar to Mishima’s Sea of Fertility series. We are introduced to one character (Kusanagi) who lives though all four of Mishima’s books, while she watches another (Yuichi) live and die again and again and again. She is clearly tortured by the presence of her new pilot. It’s heavily implied that not only were she and Jinroh lovers, but that they had a child together.
In all, it’s easy to see why this film won the Toronto Film Festival award, among others, when it was released theatrically this year.
While the main plot is new, its themes are highly familiar territory for Oshii. At its core, it’s about identity. In the first Ghost, it revolves around the cyborg Major Motoko Kusanagi being hacked by a potentially “living” virus, the Puppeteer. In Avalon, a gamer is trying to figure out which world is her “real” one, the one she plays in or the one she “lives” in. Even in Grifters, Oshii creates a plausible parallel history for Japan, based on the fast food industry and those who take advantage of it.
Here we are dealing with two youngsters, one nearly adult, another who just looks like one, trying to get beyond what their society literally created them for. Yes, the non-combat scenes are deliberately slow, but it could also be said that’s how a combat soldier feels life when not scrapping for his/her life. As there are five books in this series, and Oshii has apparently only used the first volume, all one can hope is sooner or later the director returns to this series for further exploration. There’s lots about this universe that’s left unanswered.
No matter what, it’s an incredible bit of filmmaking. Couple this release with Oshii’s top rival, Hayao Miyazaki, having his latest film, Ponyo, being released by Disney later this summer, and Bandai releasing Oshii’s revamping of Ghost In the Shell 2.0, and it could be a darn good year for Japanese feature films in general.