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One of Japanese animation’s most familiar visual tropes is the brilliant blue sky, dotted with white clouds. In Mamoru Oshii’s The Sky Crawlers, it’s a heavenly vault suggesting Elysium or Valhalla, where ageless warriors have brief and bloody duels in fighter planes, the battles recurring into infinity. The celestial impression is heightened by the harp-music of composer Kenji Kawai, Oshii’s regular collaborator.

Fans of Oshii and Japanese animation won’t necessarily like Sky Crawlers, a leisurely low-key SF drama which is closer to the live-action Moon or Gattaca than to Oshii’s most famous film – the first Ghost in the Shell movie, released in 1995. The air battles in Sky Crawlers are beautiful but brief, and largely impersonal. If Sky Crawlers isn’t conventionally anti-war – Oshii glumly suggests that conflict is an immovable part of the human psyche – then it’s emphatically anti-action. In Ghost in the Shell, a nude cyborg doll with a human soul dived from a skyscraper, and later is broken by a tank. These dispassionate images became pop-culture emblems, symbols of what Japanese animation “was.” It’s unlikely that Sky Crawlers’ CGI plane battles will become such icons, or that Oshii meant them that way.

The narrative is a mystery, a parable and a convoluted love story. Yuichi, a young fighter pilot, arrives at a small airbase. It’s seemingly Europe, with an American-style diner nearby (the scenery was based on Ireland, also the model for the future world in the new series Fractale, and Poland). Yuichi’s memories are vague, as is his awareness of who and why he’s fighting, though he’s curious about his female C.O., Suito (voiced by Babel’s Rinko Kikuchi), and the pilot he’s replaced.

Off the base, Yuichi is approached by a tattooed woman. In bed, she comments on his innocent face; he blandly says he’s just a kid. Later he asks a condescending older officer whether someone who might die tomorrow need grow up. Gradually we learn that Yuichi, and most of the other characters, aren’t human but “Kildren,” artificial people in perpetual adolescence, fighting humans’ wars.

Sky Crawlers is a divisive film. It asks audiences to accept a serious drama within the tropes of SF, the anime medium, and Oshii’s neutral, walking-pace storytelling. The first Ghost in the Shell was already slow and lyrical; Sky Crawlers has less action and runs forty minutes longer. Oshii evokes emotion and pathos less through the principals’ bland faces or their more expressive voices than through the small details; a disconsolate-looking man who sits outside the diner (joined later by another character), or a mordant visual joke when Yuichi and another pilot sit on playground rides meant for “real” kids, bouncing blankly up and down. In the sky battles, Oshii shows us what he wants to show, not what we want to see. In the biggest battle set-piece, he sets up lovely patterns of planes in formation, but soon cuts to screens of words and symbols when the fighting starts.

Such ploys are foreshadowed in Oshii’s former films, going back to his early comedy, Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer (1984), about characters in an infinite dream. This situation is increasingly echoed in Sky Crawlers’ limbo present, which also takes strands from Oshii’s film Patlabor 2 (1993) about what the director sees as the chimeric notion of peace. Yuichi’s ambiguous state recalls the cyborg heroine’s in Ghost in the Shell, who feared that “the real me died a long time ago.” Sky Crawlers’ post-credits epilogue, which many viewers are liable to miss unless pre-warned, offers not closure but renewal. It might seem odd that such a crucial payoff is tucked away after the credits; but as anyone who’s been to a cinema in Japan knows, usually the whole audience will wait patiently through a film’s end-titles, rather than rushing out to the loo.

As usual with Oshii, there’s an adorable basset hound (based on the director’s beloved dog); characters musing on the strangeness of an existence they can’t change; and slips into extended static monologues. Oshii keeps these back for the last act, where they’re mostly delivered by female characters, though Yuichi reflects on what he’s learned in a final voiceover. Overall, Sky Crawlers is less about Yuichi than the women moved, in different ways, by what he unknowingly represents. In a moment of melodrama rare for the director, Yuichi and Suito embrace while grappling over a gun, which Suito is desperate to use. Suito is mostly a doll-figure on which Oshii projects a scrutable humanity, like the cyborg in Ghost in the Shell, but her few human expressions animate her to pungent effect.

The film blends simple characters and handsome semi-lit interiors with near-photoreal CGI for the sky scenes. It won’t please everyone; older Japanese animated films such as Wings of Honneamise and Porco Rosso created their superlative flight scenes by hand, though I found Sky Crawlers’ hybrid style easy to accept. Today, though, Production I.G. is finding new ways to reconcile traditional and CGI animation, as witnessed in its newest movie, 009 Re: Cyborg.

The Sky Crawlers is available on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.

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