You can't judge a book by its cover may be a well-worn phrase, but it still frequently turns out to be true, and in many senses The Sky Crawlers is a perfect example of it. From watching the first five minutes you'd probably be fooled on two counts - On the first, you'd be expecting a couple of hours of non-stop action and intense dogfights, while on the other the visuals could well have you exclaiming "Oh, so this is going to be like Last Exile then?". Wrong, and wrong. To be fair, there are some obvious visual comparison to me made to Last Exile in terms of aircraft design and the "steampunk"-esque feel of the movie in places, but that's where the similarities end.
A Mamoru Oshii directed movie based upon novels by Mori Hiroshi, The Sky Crawlers introduces us to its world via Kannami Yuuichi, a pilot just transferred to a new air force base. It's here he meets first Tokino, his roomate on the base, before getting some face time with his direct superior Suito Kusanagi. It's this building and swirling relationship between Kannami and his superior which underpins the entire storyline in its many and varied forms.
Speaking of storyline, it's really hard to pin down a single central thread which runs through the movie - On the one hand it builds up and then slowly unravels the mystery of Kannami's predecessor, Jinroh, on another it's a tragic love story between Kannami and Suito, and on another still the movie enters far more philosophical territory as it examines war, peace and immortality, and the relationship between the three.
The key tenets to these latter discussions comes largely from the various pilots shown here and their status as "Kildren" - People who are eternally young, and as a result can live forever. While this is thrown in as almost a throwaway comment early in the movie, it soon becomes the core emotional crux of the story. What happens when you throw the eternally young (in both mind and body) into the extremely adult environment of war and death? What happens within that environment when you are otherwise destined to live forever? These questions seep into the entire framework of the movie's second half, including (of course, and most specifically) the mental state of Kusanagi. Add to that the additional mystery of what the Kildren actually are (there are suggestions of cloning of some kind), and you have yourself plenty to chew on.
The importance of war to the world we're delivered into here is given less ponderance, but its existence is almost 1984-esque in a way - In short, the war we see here is not fought by countries, but by two rival corporations. There's no actual "point" or final strategy to the conflict, it merely (and ironically) exists to remind the populace of the importance of peace, and to keep them satisfied with the current status quo. War as a tool of controlling one's own populace is always a fascinating concept to consider, and it's a shame it isn't given a wider role here.
With all of these issues simmering away in the background and carefully building up, it's safe to say that The Sky Crawlers is a slow burner - Although the story keeps on progressing relentlessly, it does so at an exceptionally slow pace, which can make the movie's first half frustrating until we get to the real meat during the final hour. Patience is a virtue, but you'd better stock up on it before sitting down to watch this offering.
Thankfully, any sense of boredom which may strike during the film's first hour is most likely to replaced by marvelling at the sheer beauty of the world presented here - Quite simply, it looks stunning, boasting so much intricate design and detail in every single room and scene, even away from the obvious focus of the fantastically realised aircraft and the incredibly (if infrequent) dogfights we're presented with. This is matched by the film's audio, which is equally intricate right down to the wind whistling through ill-fitting room windows and the distant barking of a dog that really does its bit to subtly immerse you within the world the movie depicts. With all that detail on offer, one area where The Sky Crawlers may disappoint is in terms of character design - While character animation is a bit hit and miss (from the sublime to just not looking right), the looks of the major characters seem to be very artifical and almost doll-like. This all feels a little jarring to start with, although as the story and the significance of the pilots existence as Kildren comes to light this slightly other-worldly look actually starts to fit into place, whether intentionally or not. This slightly inhuman feel to the major characters does lessen any emotional impact the story has in its darker moments however, so overall I have to mark it down as a negative against the movie.
Overall then, The Sky Crawlers is an odd old beast really - Nobody can doubt its visual beauty, but does it succeed as a story? I'm really torn on this point in all honesty. When you take a look at the surface there seems to be little life to this rather stilted tale of life and love as a pilot, but once you drill deeper there are some fascinating topics for discussion and consideration, as you would expect from the man who brought us Ghost in the Shell. I only wish that some of those deeper points where given a slightly more considered and in-depth airing within the framework of the movie though.