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"The Sky Crawlers" – Mamoru Oshii’s Latest Film Just Crawls

by on December 18, 2008

This pilot would go on to a successful career as a Marvel superheroMamoru Oshii’s The Sky Crawlers (Sukai Kurora) is a deep and heartfelt work about the ever-growing generation of Japanese youth that refuses to grow up and move into adulthood as their parents did before them. I know this because of the helpful instructions Oshii gave the audience in a videotaped message before the movie’s New York City debut last Friday. Without such useful guidance, it would be too easy to conclude that Sky Crawlers is a beautifully animated, glacially paced, pompous, pretentious, self-important, and self-indulgent film that runs way too long to say way too little. Actually, it’s a bit too easy to conclude that even with Oshii’s introduction to guide me.

One of the central scenes in Hayao Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso is a beautiful celebration of the ballet of flight until the planes start exploding and falling out of the sky. Sky Crawlers has no use for such sentimentality, opening with an aggressive, hard-edged dogfight that viscerally plants you in the ugly heart of aerial combat. Unfortunately, this early adrenaline rush is a cinematic head fake, with that same kinetic thrill being entirely absent for the rest of the movie. The lead character of Sky Crawlers is pilot Yuichi Kannami, the newest addition to a small airbase on the front lines of an unnamed war against a barely mentioned enemy. Kannami is a “Kildren,” perhaps a portmanteau word for “Kill” and “Children” that carries a pointed multi-layered meaning. The Kildren are genetically engineered children who live in a state of arrested adolescence, and whose only destiny is to fight and die in aerial combat. Or, at least, this is what I can gather from the Wikipedia entry about them, since the movie is infuriatingly opaque about nearly everything in its environment. I’m still not sure whether revealing even that little about the Kildren is a major spoiler. There are some elements of the story that don’t need explanation because they’re ultimately irrelevant to the narrative, but Sky Crawlers explains so little that we spend most of the movie in a confused haze, with no idea what anybody is talking about or why any of it matters.

Even the sex is boring in this movieKannami receives an oddly cold reception from his superior, Major Suito Kusanagi, who pointedly refuses to answer his question whether she is a Kildren herself. Kannami’s brief flights are separated by long stretches of boredom which are only made tolerable by killing time with his wingman, Naofumi Tokino, sometimes in bars and restaurants and sometimes in emotionless sex with adult prostitutes. The most charitable explanation would be that the movie is trying to give us the same sense of boredom that the pilots are feeling and which dominates the life of most soldiers. Unfortunately, Sky Crawlers is a bit too effective at expressively communicating the monotony and boredom that characterizes the majority of Kannami’s new life. I am pointedly not criticizing Sky Crawlers for a lack of action, since much can be said through stillness. The problem is that Sky Crawlers is so still that it becomes static, ossified, and lifeless.

Beyond the unexplained minutiae of the life and death of Kildren, there is an attempt to create mysteries out of the fate of Kannami’s predecessor, who pointedly was not killed in combat; in the odd little girl who is supposedly Major Kusanagi’s daughter; and in the connection of both those mysteries to an enemy pilot in a plane emblazoned with a black panther. However, once these plot elements are established, they’re mostly ignored in favor of cryptic, interminable, and repetitive shots that ultimately do little or nothing to explain or illuminate anything. I don’t expect an explanation for everything in a movie, especially if the movie is trying to create a mystery, but Sky Crawlers so seems bizarrely uninterested in its own puzzles that it’s hard for us to get all that interested, either. It also ultimately resolves those mysteries during the movie in the worst way possible: through long, talky, and overly expository speeches that might as well have broken down the fourth wall to have the characters talk directly to us. It’s as though Oshii was deliberately trying to find the most boring way to reveal his secrets.

The one bright spot of Sky Crawlers is in the dazzling technical achievements from Production I.G., although their successes can really make you wish they were deployed in the service of a much better movie. Only the characters are rendered in hand-drawn animation, with all the sets, scenery, and vehicles rendered in highly realistic CGI. There isn’t as much effort to integrate these two media together smoothly, but the final result melds together far better than one might expect. If nothing else, the few moments of aerial combat we see are gloriously rendered and genuinely thrilling. Or, at least, the ones we see on screen are. As if to emphasize that this movie will not glorify combat, most of the aerial action occurs entirely off-screen.

You know what? I'm happy.We are also treated to tremendously sensitive and subtle character animation the first time Kannami meets his fellow pilots, with the tiniest gestures and smallest vocal inflections communicating a powerful sense of unease that he’s not quite comfortable expressing openly. It’s quite an amazing trick for animation. A similarly sensitive performance is drawn out of the world-weary older mechanic who keeps the planes in the air and serves as a highly repressed surrogate mother figure. Indeed, that sense of repression and awkwardness is beautifully conveyed throughout the entire movie. Sadly, Sky Crawlers is so successful at conveying this sense of awkwardness that it ensures we will not build up any great emotional connection with any of the players. The characters aren’t just kept at an emotional arm’s length—they remain at emotional football fields’ worth of distance away from us for the duration of the film. Children being destroyed in the game of war for the benefit or entertainment of their elders is a time-honored theme of war movies, but if this was the intention, then Sky Crawlers thoroughly undermines its own message by failing to evoke much more than vague curiosity about any of its characters.

If you do take the risk of watching Sky Crawlers when it goes into wider release or home video (and even after all my criticisms, I can’t entirely say that you shouldn’t), make sure you sit all the way through the end credits for a brief coda. You’ll have sat through nearly 2 hours already, so you might as well get your money’s worth, but that quick scene may be the most interesting 3 minutes of the entire movie. It probably does the most to illuminate and explain the plot and the themes of the movie, and is almost enough to fully draw you in, even if the rest of the movie left you cold.

Almost. Unfortunately, that last, small triumph that Sky Crawlers manages in its closing minutes only compels you to think that the whole thing would have been better done as a half-hour short film rather than a feature.

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