The Sky Crawlers – Review
by Miguel Douglas on January 31, 2010
Stemming from the five-volume novel series by author Hiroshi Mori, The Sky Crawlers follows a group of eternally young fighter pilots known as Kildren and their experiencing the sudden loss of innocence as they battle the enemy in astonishing dogfights above the clouds. With his only childhood memory consisting of intense flight training, the fearless teenage pilot Yuichi’s dogfights coexist with his struggle to find his missing past. When his beautiful, young female commander Suito is reluctant to discuss the fate of the pilot that Yuichi is replacing – or the strangely perfect condition of that pilot’s former aircraft – Yuichi’s curiosity becomes heightened.
From the mind of the director Mamoru Oshii, The Sky Crawlers tells a dramatic tale of youthful heroes, societal complacency amidst wartime and the price of peace. Never one to truly allow his films to be purely fixated on entertainment values alone, The Sky Crawlers is as conflicting a cinematic experience as it is utterly engaging as a philosophical study of war and the necessities to retain an illusion of hope amidst it. Rather dark in nature, its simple presentation is remarkably mature considering the subject matter at hand. These elements lead to a very awkward balance between both presenting these ideals and succeeding as a film that can be respected for its entertainment values.
Not to say that The Sky Crawlers doesn’t provide a healthy balance of movement and story, but its primary focus is that of the characters, their relationships, and the environment in which those relationships develop. Like most of Oshii’s previous films, the existential nature of the characters is vividly explored in The Sky Crawlers. The mere existence of the Kildren—a baffling conception if I ever heard one—actually provides a social critique of how young people offer their lives during a time of war for the ideals of old men, and in most cases, the soldiers don’t share the same philosophy as the political leaders themselves regarding war. This concept is expounded further when one of the characters within the film proclaims he truly doesn’t know why he is fighting. He is not alone; most of the characters within The Sky Crawlers are searching for a meaning to their existence in an environment where their next battle could be their last. The war machine is equally addressed, further exploring the realm of war manufacturing—in the most disturbing example, that of manufacturing people solely for the purposing of fighting in an endless conflict devoid of any emotional purpose.
The film also consists of the many directorial traits by Oshii as seen in his previous films; long and absorbing set pieces, restrained dialogue segments and quick outbursts of action. While methodical in its approach, the film seemingly becomes more of a personal expression of Oshii himself, in which he seems to be showcasing his own personal conflictions regarding war and its influences on society. And this is where I believe the film lapses significantly in terms of being a viable and entertaining experience for the average viewer; it’s appears like Oshii has gotten too much in the way of his own film and it shows through its execution. While smart in addressing matters of significant importance, Oshii couples it with his ability to express immense patience and isolation in the form of animation. This would work out fine—and he has expressed it effectively in his other films—but here he simply wallows in it. He doesn’t seem to trust the story to flourish on its own accord, instead deciding to boggle it down with technical qualities in an attempt to showoff and masquerade the true depth of the material.
This is further displayed with the continued stoic exposition that has been witnessed throughout Oshii’s other films and again exploited within The Sky Crawlers to an extreme degree. This can be viewed as a good or bad thing considering it’s really not until the end of the film that the pieces of the puzzle begin fall into place. This is where I believe the film gets somewhat hindered yet again, and the considerable time it takes for any substantial story development to progress is seemingly too long, and it’s not until the films latter half that we see any constructive development take place. I could easily see viewers becoming restless as the story unfolds at such a slow pace, but if you’re familiar with how Oshii directs, you understand that he carefully constructs his films in a way that requires the viewer to be attentive to what is occurring throughout the film, leaving subtle hints along the way for the viewer to grasp. Even in consideration of these attributes, The Sky Crawlers is a film that requires multiple viewings to fully understand the contextual and thematic values present, which is probably the strongest point realized in the film—that is if you can withstand another viewing.
Regarding the animation, it was definitely one top notch in terms of technical ability. The integration of CG was nicely implemented and truly heightens the realistic nature of the aerial battles showcased throughout the film. One of the things I wanted to mention was the somewhat uninspired character designs seen in the film. I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but the designs could’ve been a little more distinctive in appearance. Perhaps they were made that way to associate with the rather mundane world in which they inhabit; constantly shifting in and out of conflict without reaching any form of a resolution. Composer Kenji Kawai, who has worked with Oshii on his many other films as well, did the music of The Sky Crawlers. The two seemingly go hand in hand and Kenji delivers an awesome score for The Sky Crawlers. The hauntingly beautiful theme song is right on the mark in delivering the tragic tone that the film derives from. I would have to say that this soundtrack is perhaps one of Kawai’s most distinctive compositions for quite awhile. From the tender moments of intimacy, to the high stakes aerial battles, Kawai truly draws you into the world and yet again showcases the talent of Kawai as one of the most significant composers of the day.
In the end, I enjoyed The Sky Crawlers and the message it delivered regarding the surroundings of war and those who are participate in it. One of the major drawbacks I could see in this film is the considerably slow pacing coupled with little dialogue. While not entirely distracting, it does produce a film that people might consider boring and lethargic. Still, considering other Oshii films, there is a considerable value to such an approach, an approach that challenges the viewer to look past all of the superficial elements in order to arrive at something entirely deeper. Not as strong or accessible as his previous films, The Sky Crawlers is still a deeply moving and involving experience—just a little less pretentiousness would’ve been nice.