Inside Mamoru Oshii, hidden away in between all that dog-inspired madness, sleeps a director that knows how to make an intelligent film without completely alienating his audience. That part of Oshii is only released occasionally, but when the time is there Oshii has the power to please both fans and laymen with his directorial skills. Say hello to Oshii's newest film, Sky Crawlers.
For fans of the director the film may need some adjusting. Oshii's always savored his creative freedom which led to many projects carrying a very distinct atmosphere. His work is characterized by technical improvement and a meticulous exploration of themes present and techniques used. Sky Crawlers has all of that, but is definitely a more timid and subtle film, so much that at first the hand of Oshii is hard to recognize. The film takes its time to ease the viewer into the setting, with a couple of aerial fights promising a worthy and spectacular finale, but also lots of quiet time spent on the air base.
This slow first half hour is definitely needed as nothing much is explained and it is left up to the viewer to string together the pieces of information that are given. The alternative post-war setting and air base antics are not quite unlike Wings of Honneamise, though the atmosphere is without a doubt darker and more pensive. And for anime connoisseurs, the aerial fights resemble those of Yukikaze, especially the timed camera work trailing the planes. Not a bad thing at all.
After the lengthy introduction the plot starts to unravel and Oshii's influences starts to shine through. While it still takes the film a while to reach the point where the core story is revealed, themes start to surface and Oshii's typical social commentary is growing stronger and stronger. And even though the film as a whole feels very much like a new kind of Oshii, at the same time it is filled to the brim with elements taken and explored from his earlier works, almost as if all his previous films were just try-outs to be combined in this film. From the very Avalon-like metro scenes to the meanderings on war in Patlabor 2, from the scenes purely focused on atmosphere to the experiments with animated skies in Mezame no Hakobune, they all contributed to this film.
But most surprisingly, on several levels Sky Crawlers feels like Oshii's version of Jin-Roh. The comparison seems a little forced as one of the main characters is named after the Oshii-scripted film, but the atmosphere, political musings and even the drawing style seem to suggest a revenge for Okiura's interpretation of Oshii's Kerberos script.
Visually Sky Crawlers is a gem in disguise. Less in your face and explicit than Oshii's other work, but just as impressive. While the ground scenes are timid and the character design is soft and simple, the surroundings are very detailed and the animation betrays a keen eye and understanding of movement. Somewhat opposed to these ground scenes are the aerial fights, all action and impressive camera work, but always controlled and directed and avoiding the trap of random hectic shots destroying the flow of battle. And even though the CG work is clearly present in these scenes, they blend in well with the regular animation. Equally magnificent is Kenji Kawai's score, supporting the atmosphere in every scene. Some pieces are more set to the background, but coupled to the purely atmospheric scenery shots Kawai's presence is felt as much as Oshii's.
The both of them have formed an inseparable team for a good many years now and they have managed to continually improve each others work. You could even say that without Kawai, Oshii wouldn't have had his trademark atmospheric interludes. Sky Crawlers features a couple of them and even though they form the highpoint of the film I still think they could be integrated a little better, as they tend to stick out a little rather than flow well with the rest of the film. One of the few small reservations I have about Sky Crawlers.
As Oshii continues his film it becomes clear that the characters remain central to the film and even though various themes are explored and some philosophical questions are introduced, Oshii continues to venture back to what drives his main cast. Not that they are the most human of characters, but they definitely live and breath beyond the empty vessels usually present in his films. I even think this is the first time Oshii depicts an actual love story in one of his films, and it must be said that he copes surprisingly well. Still, it wouldn't be an Oshii film if he didn't delve into the more abstract realms of human society, continuing his meanderings on war he once started in Patlabor 2. And I must admit that I usually catch only half of Oshii's intellectual ground on first viewing as I'm more concerned about the atmosphere in his films, but from what I understand there are some interesting thoughts on war as a human need, the reasoning for choosing children for warfare is also particularly interesting.
Looking back after having watched the film, Sky Crawlers is very much an Oshii film but is hard to compare to his previous works individually. The setting and scope feel so much smaller and more human, that it marks a serious departure from Oshii's recent work, still many of his trademark element are in plain view. As a whole, Sky Crawlers emits a stylish quality, setting Oshii way ahead of his peers. It is rare to see such an all round and accomplished film, not only in the world of animation but even among live action competitors. Sky Crawlers has the potential to please a bigger audience, though the question remains whether they will appreciate the dreamy and organic way or storytelling coupled with Oshii's pensive characters. Still, if any of Oshii's films has the power to grow out of his usually niche, Sky Crawlers is the one.
Beautifully animated and scored, sporting a strong cast of characters, an intriguing plot and a fair selection of interesting themes, Sky Crawlers is Oshii's most complete film to date. For that, he only traded in a little of his typical style, still avoiding a compromised film. Not my favorite Oshii film, too small and subtle to be a landmark title, but still nothing less than a true masterpiece.