STORY - The Sky Crawlers is a thinking movie. It’s a cynical commentary where there is so much more going on underneath the surface than you might initially think. Walking into it with no real idea as to what it was about, I was both tried by its deceptive slow pacing and amazed by its eventual depth, relevance, and poignancy. The movie follows the life of Yuichi Kannami after he’s transferred to a small military outpost in a setting similar to WWII-era Europe. He and his comrades are fighting a war, but appear largely indifferent to both their occasional dogfights and everyday life. However, from the start, Kannami appears to be haunted by the ghost of the man he’s replaced — a soldier that had been killed, though his plane remains for Kannami to fly.
The story unravels with no real urgency, but something always seems to be off. Events occur in a disconnected and puzzling fashion. The pacing would suggest that the film is only showing something boring and ordinary, but that’s obviously not the case. Gradually, it becomes clear that the characters appear to be caught in an infinite loop of actions and lives. They’ve been there before. They’ve done that before. They are who they’ve always been, never changing, and without regard for anything in the past or future. They have died before. They have lived before. Themes of repetition, disconnection, meaning, childhood, and adulthood appear, chastising a refusal to change or evolve and those who have become complacent. They are themes that can be related to other issues, such as the human condition and post-industrial disillusionment, and the film makes a suiting metaphor for a number of parallels.
It’s difficult to say where the story ends up thematically without revealing too much, but suffice to say that it’s a tidy package with a well-done, albeit cynical, conclusion. A call to action, perhaps. Mamoru Oshii is known for his heavy films, but this is the first that’s really struck a chord with me. Be sure to stay through to the end of the credits for the final punch.
CHARACTERS - It’s appropriate, I suppose, that I find it difficult to see the characters in The Sky Crawlers as actual people. They are odd entities, vehicles for a story, and portrayals of something that isn’t quite real enough or human enough to be called a person. Kannami is curious about his predecessor, but not too curious. He might ask questions, but seems perfectly content to let the issue drop if an answer is denied. Still, his apparent apathy and complacency is easy to latch on to and you remain curious even if he doesn’t seem to care. You want him to care, you wish he would, and you react to the subtly disturbing mood of the film: the quiet unchangingness of everything.
Kusanagi first appears to be similarly indifferent, but there is a coldness and desperation to her that permeates the stoic exterior. She’s creepy. She becomes the first sign that something is not quite right about the environment, the situation, and distantly, the war they’re all fighting. She’s the one that seems to know what’s going on. Of course that must be why she and Kannami seem drawn to one another, but that strange deception exposes itself in expository dialogue so blatant that it’s almost alarming. And throughout it all, forced apathy reigns supreme. They are interesting foils, mostly because they are not so different at all.
ARTSTYLE & ANIMATION - To be honest, despite the various recommendations I’ve received for this movie, one of the original reasons I was ever interested was because I’d been shown much of the concept art in a class and really wanted to see the film attached to it. The backgrounds, environments, and animation in The Sky Crawlers are all beautiful. Interiors are lush with detail and very intricate, though often, the abundance of little things makes the larger scene appear awkward. For example, the doors may have detailed ridges and corners, but they’re also gigantic and oddly proportioned compared to the people. Similarly, the fighter jets and vehicles are slick and look incredibly convincing and the dogfights are beautifully animated… but then you notice that their designs are very peculiar — all of the propellers are on the back, which makes no logical sense at all. They might look nice, but if they were actually constructed, they would never fly.
Addendum -- So I've been informed (thanks, jotunheim) that there were apparently a handful of WWII-era planes designed to be propelled by rear-end propellers such as the Saab 21 and Kyushu J7W Shinden. The physics of these things still baffles me, but I'm not an engineer, so this is an interesting discovery. In any case, I suppose my revised view is that it's a compelling design choice for the Sky Crawlers -- despite that the planes actually existed, they weren't common and that perhaps adds to the slew of things that are just a little off about the movie -- something to make you a little uncomfortable and wonder a little more. Something not quite right, but possible.
As usual, the price of fancy environments is simple characters. The limited cast of characters in the movie all have exceedingly simple designs, though all are extremely effective, especially Kusanagi, who strikes you as odd and slightly off-kilter from her design alone. The plainness of Kannami is also significant in that it makes him nearly anonymous. There are no features that might distinguish him from any other man; he is interchangeable, replaceable, and in many ways, relate-able. Particularly for this kind of story, the anonymity and capacity for audience sympathy in the character design alone goes a long way.
MUSIC - I’m generally a fan of Kenji Kawai’s work, so it’s no real surprise that I enjoyed The Sky Crawler’s poignant, and often subtle, soundtrack. Many of its tracks are drawn out and thoughtful, accompanying similar scenes for maximum effect. They’re eerie and occasionally force a feeling of anticipation. Action scenes are highlighted by fast-paced and shrieking violins, punctuating every twirl of a jet plane and burst of firing. It’s all wonderfully appropriate. Additionally, The Sky Crawlers had some very well placed silence, which is likely something you don’t notice that often. Some scenes are long and slow and completely silent save the stray sound effect — they are disconcerting in a way, but both force you to focus both on the immediacy of what’s going on and allow you time to think about and collect everything else that’s happened. It’s very effective silence.
The ending theme, “Konya mo Hoshi ni Dakarete…” by Ayaka, has a lot of similarities with the music in the rest of the movie and is therefore also quite fitting. Ayaka’s voice is rather nostalgic and the soft piano is both peaceful and sad; in the latter part of the song, the energy picks up considerably before resigning again, which fits oddly well with the pacing of the movie itself.
VOICE ACTING – I’ve only seen this subbed, but both Kannami and Kusanagi are wonderfully portrayed and have a great balance of conflicting and confused emotions, which is especially surprising since neither of their voice actors seem to have any other credits.
OVERALL - The Sky Crawlers is fascinating exploration of a lot of ideas I probably couldn’t do justice trying to describe or explain. The most important thing is to be receptive to those ideas and to not try and force the film into any pre-imagined mold. Despite the dogfights, most of the action here takes place internally; once again, this is a thinking movie with classical themes that are sure to bridge interests and culture gaps. If you like to think, if you like philosophy, psychology, and human nature (certainly, this is a human v. human story), you’ll probably enjoy The Sky Crawlers.