Full disclaimer: This review will contain spoilers.
I'm not someone who frequents MAL but since this movie has been such a topic of mystery and speculation I figured it would be best to put my impressions on paper for others to get an idea of what this movie is like.
I saw this movie recently at the Fuse Line Cinema in Osaka. From what I understand, this movie came out in limited release in 2012 and since then has been occasionally reshown in theaters depending on how many people requested it. Although I remembered being very excited when the first trailers were shown, I completely forgot that this movie existed because of the lack of a home media release until I was lucky enough to go on a study abroad trip to Japan for the whole month of November. The tickets were all sold online and I had to race to snatch one of the 200 open seats available for the showing.
The first thing that I must address is that yes, this movie is connected to The Five Star Stories, an extremely long-running manga created by its director, Mamoru Nagano. For me, my only exposure to FSS was the very old 80s movie, which I found to be visually gorgeous but very lacking as a story. However, the mecha designs and thin characters of that movie left a very strong impression on me, and I've admired Nagano's mechanical designs a fair bit on paper since. Unfortunately, I have not read the manga because I've heard it still ongoing and most of it has not been translated. Even though it wasn't advertised as being connected to FSS, it may affect your overall impression of the movie depending on whether or not you're a fan. More details to follow.
Although my understanding of Japanese is quite limited, the movie was straightforward enough for the most part where my lack of understanding didn't make a huge difference to the overall experience. The story is just as it sounds from the synopsis- there really aren't any twists or turns until the ending. For most of the story, the two main characters go on a trip, stopping at certain locations to meet the locals or get food, or to bicker with each other over their roles as warrior and pacifist. It was a very dialogue and scenery heavy movie, and there wasn't much deep drama or action at all despite the premise. However, it was very relaxing, and the overall atmosphere and world building was well done. The characters were likeable, though I didn't really understand much of what they were talking about outside of their motions and expressions. For the most part, the whole movie was a slice of life work.
For anyone who expects a lot of robot action or fancy flashy sakuga- don't go within an inch of this movie. The only real action that takes place is at the end of this movie, where the giant robots finally come out. And oh, what beautiful giant robots they are. The startup sequence of the main robot with all its moving sensors and changing colors, with the roaring SFX that accompanied it gave me goosebumps. When the mecha moved, it was unlike anything I'd seen before- the movements were quick and erratic, but in each of these movements you can see tons of mechanical bits shifting in tandem with one another. They moved so quickly that it looked like they teleported, but don't think it's anything like the fight scenes from DBZ. The mecha never once "freeze" in frame, when they "teleport" you can see how all the joints move to realign and reposition themselves and brace for the impact of each hit as they disappear from point A and reappear at point B. Each hit felt heavy, and the sound effects really contributed to it. It was very different from the slow clunkers in the old FSS movie. But like the old FSS movie, the whole fight lasts in a couple minutes, with the lead robot effortlessly smacking the blue and red ones like flies. It almost felt like the actual combat sequence was shorter than the start-up sequence! Whether it was intentional or it was budgetary constraints I'm not sure, but if you're watching the movie just to get to this couple minutes of action it won't be enough to satisfy you. Thankfully, there were a lot of other aspects of this movie that I really liked.
First of all, the art and designs are gorgeous. Even if you don't like Nagano's design aesthetic or how he draws characters and machines, the background art alone is jaw-dropping, like something you would expect from Ghibli. Thankfully I'm accustomed to Nagano's art so seeing it placed in front of these gorgeous backgrounds only served to enhance the experience. However I've also seen many people get turned off of this movie because of the artstyle, and they try to use either the old FSS movie or a modern anime filled with CGI backgrounds and digital filters as comparison points. Neither of those are valid comparisons because this is a movie made after the cel era, but with no digital filters whatsoever. So by comparison, it will look bland to those who want something more shiny and modern like Kimi no Na Wa, or those who want the shading-heavy era of the cel days. If the art is not to your liking, chances are you won't enjoy this movie at all, because there isn't much action or plot to compensate.
The animation was also quite different than what I was used to. While there weren't many action scenes other than the aforementioned mecha battle, there was a decent amount of character animation. The characters "act" with their whole body, and when they stand still you can still see their clothes and hair fluttering in the wind. How they emote with their eyes and mouth was also very detailed. Background characters had a good amount of movement as well, except in large crowd scenes where they often stood still, which I still find preferable to CGI crowds like what we got recently from Hosoda's movies. What was most impressive for me though was the background animation. In many scenes, you can see how the wind moves and carries dust or leaves or seeds with it, or how streams and bodies of water moved, but my favorite scene in particular was when it was raining and the two main characters were outside. The rain wasn't animated like normal, where it would just go down in even layers. Instead, the rain had variation in how it fell, with some spots having heavier downpour than others and spreading in certain directions. However, many of the scenes had rather rough transitions and often times characters would stand still to observe things or comment on something for long periods of time. Other times ships would slide across the screen for a considerable few seconds with not much to look at. The camerawork was also very modest, at most it would pan up or down and in and out, but never was there any kind of moving camera shot animation shot you would expect to see in a higher-budget movie. In a lot of ways it felt like old Disney movies, but not with the same energy. And I think that's how I would sum up the animation- well-done but not very energetic.
Sound design, as I hinted before when talking about the robots, was very good. You can hear all of the background noises being associated with nature in most scenes- the wind blowing, streams of water gushing, sand piling, etc. The voice actors were all quite good too, but looking at their past work they're all old industry vets from the 80s so it's to be expected. The music was mostly ethnic and Middle Eastern-inspired, with lots of strings, but the songs that were sung by the main female character like what was heard in the trailers was beautiful. There were also a few techno tracks when the robots showed up that I felt were out of place, but I suppose the robots themselves were kind of out-of-place with this movie.
For all its ups and downs though there is huge problem that must be talked about that overshadows the rest, and that is the ending. This is where my lack of knowledge on FSS bites me in the butt. In the ending, a boatload of new characters and mecha we haven't seen before show up, including the two main characters and the original mecha from the old FSS movie! Most of them were just standing around, but I had no idea what was going on and it really left me confused. Unfortunately this soured my overall impression of the movie. Maybe fans of FSS would really appreciate this scene because they know who all the characters are, but for me and I assume most of the audience, it was the equivalent of a "Gainax Ending". Add that to the short runtime of only barely over an hour with credits (and a mecha battle that really didn't leave me satisfied) and it feels like the whole movie was incomplete.
If this were the first episode in a full length anime series, I would give it an 10/10. But as a standalone movie, it just doesn't really work. However, it's artistic and technical merits outweigh it's flaws, and overall I had a really good time with it. It feels like the intro to something magnificent. I just wish there was more.