The New York premiere of The Sky Crawlers was preceded by a recorded message from the perpetually miserable Mamoru Oshii: here he looks like he just woke up and is being filmed against his will. At the end, Oshii tells us to “please stay to the end” of the film: those familiar with his work– myself and my friends included– have a chuckle, because we know that Oshii’s films are the exact sort of thing one walks out of. They’re slow, meandering, heavy on the abstract and light on the concrete. But I know Oshii, and I was ready for all that. I even had a drinking game ready. Just no booze, was the problem.
The Sky Crawlers is about the workaday lives of a pack of aces on a military base. The sci-fi hook is that they are Kildren, human beings who don’t age past adolescence and get to live like kids forever. Of course, by “live like kids”, I mean they go to war, fly fighter planes, kill, eat, drink, screw, and eventually get riddled with machine gun fire. The longer a Kildren lives in this state of arrested development, the more their existential ennui sets in: this is nowhere more apparent than in their “boss”, the rather unstable Suito Kusanagi. She reminds me of the kind of tragic girl with no self-esteem that otaku make into a moe heroine, except with all the terrible real-life consequences and baggage such a person would actually have. In any case, our protagonist, ace Yuuchi Kannami, enters a strained relationship with Kusanagi, and things slowly get messy as the mysteries surrounding them are unraveled.
It is true that there are airplanes and dogfights and explosions, but for your own sake, remember that they are second place. The machinery is all computer-generated, and Oshii has come a long way towards integrating 3D animation with 2D: when possible, shots with both a human and a machine hide the juxtaposition comfortably from the eye to the point where you won’t notice it unless you’re looking for it.
Meanwhile, dogfights are disorienting in more ways than one: Oshii made the unfortunate choice of having all the pilots’ dialogue during these scenes spoken in often unintelligible English by the Japanese actors. The print we watched displayed Japanese subtitles and sometimes English subs over them, but there were plenty of times when the wacky English played without interpretation, and we in the audience were completely lost.
Thankfully, you can understand all the important conversations when the pilots get back on the ground, and there are many. However, Oshii lets the scene speak for itself far more often than he typically does: there is really only one of the typical Oshii “extended monologues on how things REALLY are” in the entire film, and it’s a sad, drunken rant. What you should really be ready for in this movie is a lot of nothing: long staredowns, slow panning shots of the beautiful, unnamed European locale (Miyazaki might be jealous), and awkward moments aplenty between the Kildren, who are, as you might imagine, not quite completely socialized.
There are a lot of quiet, dry chuckles over the Kildren, but it’s all tempered with a deep hopelessness, as every experience, every person and every kill begin to literally run together into the awful blur that every unhappy wage slave should be deeply familiar with. The Kildren’s drama, and indeed the war itself, are endlessly repeating pieces of theater. Presented with the choice of outright misery at or feigned ignorance of their state, you start to feel that the basset hound– upon whom attention is absolutely lavished, one of Oshii’s quirkier trademarks– is the only one who really lucked out in the existential lottery.
Do stay to the end, past the credits in fact: Oshii stuck the real final scene all the way back there, and while it doesn’t change the message, it is the conclusion that logically follows. If you were into this movie, you’re bummed out. If you weren’t, you’re bored out of your mind or perhaps asleep, as one person was at our showing. In any case, you both feel pretty lousy about existence and, well, that’s Oshii. You got what you came for.