"Do people who might die tomorrow have any need to grow up?"
'The Sky Crawlers' ('Sukai kurora') comes from a series of novels that came out in Japan starting in 2001, with five releases total, released in non-sequential order. The reasoning behind such a bizarre release strategy? To stress that the books did not need to be read in order to be understood and/or appreciated.
The series was such a success that a video game and feature film adaptation were created from the Hiroshi Mori penned story in 2008, to be directed by Mamoru Ishii, who rocketed to the collective consciousness when the anime hit 'Kôkaku kidôtai' ('Ghost in the Shell') became the "next 'Akira'," in a sense, garnering worldwide recognition and success. Ishii hadn't directed a fully animated film since 'Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence' (fans, stay tuned, as a review is in the works!), and it is safe to say that the wait for this anime master's next film was well worth it.
'The Sky Crawlers' follows Yuichi Kannami, a youthful fighter pilot in the Tactical Air Force, who has been transfered to a new squadron, led by Suito Kusanagi. Kannami instantly establishes himself as the ace of his new group, with his killer instincts and style, fighting for the Rostock corporation against their rival Lautern in the skies above Europe. Kannami and Kusanagi are different from the rest of the world, labeled "Kildren," as they stay stuck in their youth for their entire lives. Kannami, while still a child, must face the conflict like an adult, and face the loss of comrades, the thrill of victory/agony of defeat, and the politics of war.
'The Sky Crawlers' drops the viewers in the middle of a story (somewhat like the book release schedule, in a way), and slowly reveals bits and pieces of backstory and exposition that gives the film a bit of depth and some interesting philosophical analogies. We are presented with a group of talented youths taking charge of powerful technology (an Anime cliche), fighting a war they don't seem to understand. They can't understand, even if they wanted to. The Kildren are an interesting analogy for the times of war, where brash, headstrong youths don't get a chance to grow up before they are thrust into a conflict beyond their experience, often taking their lives, while those at home watch the war on TV as if it were a reality show. In a way, it is.
The subplot to 'The Sky Crawlers' is a bit deep for an air combat action/drama story, and delves more into the science fiction aspects that drive other anime series. When these Kildren are shot down and killed (the only way they will die), a replacement fighter is sent to their squadron (which is where the film starts off), many a time resembling far too closely the fighter they had just lost. The other fighters don't mourn the deaths of their comrades, and don't even look close enough at their new partners to even notice the extreme similarities. This is a fantastic statement on the way these children have been numbed to the situation around them, in a fashion beguiling their years.
The non-Kildren characters in the film base it more in the real world, despite being set in an alternate reality. The Kildren find solace in prostitutes, and in Sasakura, the chief mechanic, who is called Mama, due to her taking care of their craft. The villain of the film, dubbed the Teacher, is the only known adult fighter pilot, a former Rostock employee who traded sides. The Teacher presents an interesting point, with his worldly experience and ruthlessness keeping him alive against the more agile, talented, faster reacting youths who aim to take him down. Lastly, Mizuki Kusanagi, Suito's daughter (who is at first introduced as her sister), brings a bit of complexity and human drama to the issue. The child, who has remained a child at heart, not letting the war get her and her enthusiasm down, is viewed sometimes negatively, as the child of a child, who will grow up and surpass her mother in maturity and stature.
'The Sky Crawlers' definitely isn't for everyone. It's very slow paced and methodical, to the point that it will upset many viewers. Its focus doesn't lie in the aerial action, rather, the drama and interaction between the characters, and that's what makes it a good story, rather than a compilation of action scenes with tiny bits of development. That said, I found myself fascinated with the world 'The Sky Crawlers' presented, both in character and in the bits of action, and hope to see another film made from the material.
'The Sky Crawlers' flies across your screen in an AVC MPEG-4 transfer (with a 1.85:1 ratio) that boasts stellar video quality that falls just short of being heavenly.
The most visually intriguing element of this Blu-ray disc is the mixture of traditional 2D and more modernistic 3D animation. The balance can be a bit awkward at times. Character design is quite basic and lacking detail or range of color, yet the rest of the film is intricate in its design, with loads of intricate patterns and detail, with light rust, machinery indents, and colors that fade quite naturally. The combination of these two styles has been done many times before, but when the artwork for the 2D portions is so plain, yet the CG is borderline realistic, it becomes somewhat of a distraction. It's much like throwing Homestar Runner into the set of 'Final Fantasy: Advent Children.' The most curious thing I noticed in the visual design was, despite the fact that characters were sometimes undefined and virtually monotone, their 2D belongings, such as beer bottles or packs of smokes, are finely defined and rich with text and logos.
That said, there is no unusual outline between the 2D and 3D, as the two styles do not have a weird blur or heavy outline between each other. Detail can be quite lustrous, both in foregrounds and backgrounds, as there was a serious amount of effort put into creating a realistic world. There is great attention paid to the small things; one only need look at the early scene with the waxed table to see the nice light reflections presented therein. I was almost able to differentiate the fine printed kanji that is found in newspapers throughout the film. Colors are bright and vivid, though in a few scenes, there was a bit of a red bleed. This may have been an aesthetic choice, but it did look a bit off. There were also a few spots of banding, though they were not a major issue in any way. Basically, this is a gorgeous, though curious looking film, one that benefits greatly from the high definition transfer found herein.
'The Sky Crawlers' is given matching Dolby TrueHD 5.1 tracks, both in its authentic Japanese, and in an English dub. This review focuses on the Japanese track, as it is the natural, intended sound for the film.
Dialogue is distinguished, though at times intentionally muffled due to the sound transmissions in the aerial combat scenes. The film has a solid mix, with some screaming high end sounds, and some meaty low range roars, with a great balance that never overpowers any individual element to the point that it isn't clear. There is a near constant ambiance that creeps through the soundstage, with plenty of whooshing sounds coming from the rears in outdoor shots, as well as some very high pitched cicada chirps. Localized effects are scattered somewhat randomly, mostly through door closing sounds that seemed somewhat forced.
During the fighter sequences, the full sound field is utilized, with fantastic pans, some light rumble, and gunfire effects that hit from numerous angles. The bass has a solid rumble when a plane passes overhead, but, for the most part, felt somewhat subdued and soft throughout the film, despite the constant activity and potential for a good rumble. To say this is an immersive, realistic track is fairly spot on, though with a bit more bass, it would have been a remarkable experience.
'The Sky Crawlers' is a fascinating anime, one that will polarize audiences for sure. Its trailer, which is the only bit of the film most will have seen going into it, is very misleading as to what kind of film it is: This is a character piece, not an aerial action extravaganza. Still, I found the layered story to be rich and somewhat ingenious. The audio and video for this release are solid, while the extras package leaves a bit to be desired. It's worth a look, but I wouldn't recommend a blind buy.