The first thing one has to transcend in order to appreciate a Japanese animation–or “anime”–is: yes, it is a cartoon, but it is not always in the style of something funny. In fact, this style of animation is, ironically, quite good at exploring themes in a way that can be so far removed from what we know as reality that it can have a profound effect on our sense of humanity.
“The Sky Crawlers” does this in a way that may seem familiar to a fan of anime and the genre of steampunk. However, I feel it also tells a story more abstruse than what is ostensibly a war movie about fighter pilots.
I love stories about disaffected kids. Even better if they are chain-smoking, alcoholic, genetically engineered fighter pilots for a war between two companies in some mid 20thCentury alternate reality. That’s the basic premise of “The Sky Crawlers”. It’s not given to you as such but rather this is teased out and at some places not so craftily revealed through dry scenes of exposition in the form of character monologue. Director Oshii has be criticized for his “people sitting in a booth at a place talking about the theme” scenes in other films. Though this scene is in “The Sky Crawlers” it is not set up in a way that is sufficiently detrimental to my enjoyment of the movie.
Some people like to apply the 10 minute rule to watching a film. If they do not find it gripping after 10 minutes of watching then they will turn it off. This would probably happen for about 70% of the people watching this film if it were not for the opening sequence where these fantastic imaginary fighter planes (designed well enough to seem believable and be constant eye candy) are engaged in a thrilling and engaging dogfight. These action sequences are few and far between in “The Sky Crawlers”. However, these scenes of fighting or just flying are always enjoyable to watch and to hear.
Though the film seems long at 121 minutes and has stretches of no real action, I feel that the world is interesting enough that just looking at it in these slow moments is a good thing as it allows you get into the minds of these genetically engineered “Kildren”, as they are called, who are trapped in a perversion of the Peter Pan Syndrome, never growing old, and constantly fighting in a corporate war between two powerful iron works companies, Rostock and Lautern.
Yes, it is a story literally and figuratively not of this Earth, but the themes of human desperation, solitude, and nihilistic hopelessness have rarely been explored in a backdrop that is at once be so exciting and melancholically beautiful. The team scouted Ireland and Poland for the film.
If you are looking for a film to be non-stop dogfight action then you will be disappointed and also find the story somewhat anti-climactic, but if you can last long enough to appreciate the nuances of the characters and realize the purgatorial horror of their situation then I think you will greatly appreciate “The Sky Crawlers”.