Anime Secret Santa 2019: The Sky Crawlers

For ten years in a row, the Reverse Thieves have hosted an annual Anime Secret Santa! I saw the announcement for this year’s project floating around on Twitter and thought I would get in on the holiday fun.

I’m so glad that this project exists and it seems to have brought a lot of joy to folks over the years. Whatever we can do to bring the anime community together is alright in my book!

My Secret Santa’s suggestions were Galaxy Express 999, The Sky Crawlers, and Non non Biyori. Quite a list! I’d already seen GE999 so my Secret Santa came back and recommended Roujin Z. While I really wanted to watch all of these suggestions, I’ve been on a real Mamoru Oshii kick this past year with finally sinking my teeth into bits of Urusei Yatsura and lots of Patlabor, so I picked The Sky Crawlers to review!

It’s funny that they smoke so much in this movie because it sure is a drag (ba dum tis).

I think this is the only anime I’ve ever seen that features bowling. You’re out of your element, Donny-san.

The basic premise of The Sky Crawlers is that there are a sub-race of humans called Kildren who are people that grow into their late teens/twenties and then stop growing older. The only way they can die is if they are purposefully killed. Our main character, ace pilot Yuichi Kannami, is one such Kildren, as are his other colleagues and commanding officer, Suito Kusanagi. Not to be confused with the other “major” Oshii character, Motoko Kusanagi.

The do share quite a bit of resemblance.

The world of the film is constantly at war but we’re never told with who or why. We just know there’s a war going on. No one seems to have any personal or ideological connection to this war at all, it’s just a thing they do. “It’s just a job,” Kannami says in one scene.

The whole mystery of the film is basically in the form of the audience being presented with this bleak world filled with bleak characters and us very slowly being introduced to the contexts and consequences of said world. The film is two-hours long and it feels like three and a half. Any fan of Oshii (myself included) knows that he likes to take his time and linger on scenes, and I largely love that about his directorial style. However, in The Sky Crawlers, I feel like almost none of it ever pays off.

When the secrets of the world are “revealed,” I found myself not really caring so much because I never felt any connection to the characters that live in this world. Kannami is an insufferably bland protagonist and Kusanagi feels like a photocopy of a photocopy of Major Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell.

There are long stretches of the movie featuring same-y looking air combat scenes and introducing characters that never pay off, like Mama, the silver-haired news-paper folding guy, and the two call girls. From the minute-to-minute scenes, I found myself enjoying shockingly little of it. I know this is adapted from a novel, and maybe some of it’s obliqueness is inherited from that, but this film does the source material no favors in inspiring intrigue.

Some reviewers have likened this film to something like Blade Runner, and I can see the comparison; a story more about tone and concept than story and character. However, unlike Blade Runner, this film is a charisma black hole. Blade Runner is at least able to coast along with its elaborate set pieces and really amazing moments to make up for its oblique character writing. The Sky Crawlers has no such hooks, none that pay off anyway. Okay except for the basset hound.

The music for the film is from long-time Oshii collaborator, Kenji Kawai, and is as brilliant as anything he’s ever done, albeit more subtle than his other work. The sound engineering for the planes was also pretty outstanding, as is expected considering it was produced at Skywalker Sound.

Unfortunately, that’s about all of the praise I have on the design front. The character designs are very bland, the character animation is good but nothing exceptional, and the 3DCG plane animation is fine. It absolutely blows my mind to know that Tetsuya Nishio, the character designer for this film, walked away with an award for it! Are you kidding me?? It’s not like they’re bad, and he is certainly an accomplished designer, but man these designs are not award material. Not by any stretch.

If this film is trying to tell us that endless corporate-sponsored warfare sucks and ruins people’s souls, then yeah that’s an interesting message I can get behind. This movie just fails to sell it by being a meandering, boring slog. Judging by how he described his creative process in the on-disk interview for the film, it seems like Oshii focused too much on concept (and planes) and forgot character and heart. Knowing that Oshii is a generally brilliant director and that he knows how to do a lot with a little makes this film all the more disappointing for me.

I don’t hate this film, I just really didn’t like it. I’m perfectly willing to hear out a different take on it if you’re a fan, but upon this initial viewing, it did very little for me. Please let me know if there’s something I totally missed about this film, I’m all ears. In terms of recommending this film, I’d hesitate to tell anyone whose not an Oshii completionist to watch it. Just watch Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence instead and call it a day.

Well, there you have it! My first Anime Secret Santa review! I really wish my first one was about something I actually enjoyed, but hey there’s always next year. I’ll definitely do it again for sure.

Huge shout out to All Geeks Considered for orchestrating the exchange for this year.

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