I went to see THE SKY CRAWLERS, the latest film by Mamoru Oshii yesterday.
Mamoru Oshii, along with Hayao Miyazaki and Satoshi Kon, belong to the triumvirate of most critically-acclaimed anime directors among Western audiences, Miyazaki belonging to the mainstream, Oshii from the arthouse and Kon is somewhere between the two.
Checking Oshii's filmography again, I realize that, like Miyazaki, I've been watching his films since I was a kid. The first one being the first PATLABOR movie, I remember how I didn't really understand the plot then, but there was something about that fascinated me, and made me rewatch it over and over again. Maybe it was the premise, maybe it was the ensemble cast, maybe it was the stylish atmosphere. So that was what Oshii was to me after that, I don't necessarily understand most of his films as I grew up, they were normally uncompromising and slow-paced, I was only 11 or 12ish when I watched GHOST IN THE SHELL, didn't understand that much either. I enjoyed it less than I did with the PATLABOR, maybe because it was the English dub. Then a few years later I borrowed my friend's PATLABOR 2 to watch, I liked moments of it, but not in its entirety. When I went to see AVALON, Oshii's live-action film, in Singaporean cinemas, I thought it was an excruciating experience. Where was the fighting? The poster had a chick with a gun! Why were there so many repetitive scenes?
But I was only a teenager then, and I didn't really start enjoying Wong Kar Wai films until after primary school. During my teens, I, like most, had tastes that veered more towards the mainstream, embracing normal Hollywood and Hong Kong film conventions, emphasizing more on WHAT is being told in a film than HOW it's being told. Like most, 'art films' was a label I used for films I don't understand.
While most of Oshii's ponderous and philosophical style was lost on me when I watched them then, I often find myself haunted by their visual aesthetics, the tone, the atmosphere, the style. Just like how I was into the first PATLABOR film, more on the how and less on the what. And in retrospect, they were films I had underappreciated then.
It was only 2-3 years ago when I watched GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE on DVD in Perth, at that time, I was already mature to fully appreciate it for what it was. There were parts that blew me away, and of course I enjoyed it more than its predecessor. But I couldn't like everything about it, I thought some of the philosophical discussions in the film were too tacked-on, the film so brimming with self-seriousness that it was almost at the realm of pretentiousness. Still, the pros outweighed the cons.
Of course I was worried about seeing THE SKY CRAWLERS in the cinema. I knew it would be a challenging watch compared to most Japanese films I've paid to see at the theaters so far (aside from the ones at film festivals, the previous ones I've seen were mostly slapstick comedies). This film is the anti-PONYO (interesting that both Miyazaki and Oshii have their latest films released so close to each other).
I ended up understanding maybe only 30% of the dialogue, and was happy whenever they were some English dialogue between pilots during the awesome flying scenes. But Oshii is a director who makes use of a lot of silence in his films. It's not traditional narrative, and once again it was more about soaking in the mood and ambience, being hypnotized by its meditative pacing, paying attention to its visual motifs, immersing into Kenji Kawai's wonderful soundtrack and the sound design from award-winners Randy Thom and Tom Myers (film's partly financed by Warner Bros., I think). The film became more of an experience, and I also got to mentally connect the dots thanks to my prodigious comprehending skills, not bad for a guy who completely didn't know his katakana and hiragana just four months ago.
Self-congratulatory pat aside, I do find THE SKY CRAWLERS a very fascinating watch, and most probably one of the most emotional ones I've seen from Oshii.
Let me borrow the synopsis from Jason Gray's review first:
In a world not unlike our own, it's a time of relative peace following several world wars. To truly appreciate this transient period of harmony, people demand a "war for show" that they can follow on their TV sets. Pubescent fighter pilots known as kirudore fight deadly air battles over Europe. They fight not for countries but companies that sponsor them, while the media keeps a running tally of each corporation's success.
Kannami Yûichi (voiced by Kase Ryô) arrives at the Urisu base at the front lines. He has no memory of his life before his arrival, yet possesses incredible fighter pilot skills. But why does base commander and former ace Kusanagi Suito (voiced by Oscar-nominated Babel actress Kikuchi Rinko) regard him with such intense eyes, as if she's been waiting for him?
What is the secret of these young pilots' existence and why do they hold such fascination for the millions that watch their daring efforts from the safety of their living rooms? Who is the mysterious and undefeatable adult pilot with the black panther insignia on his plane known only as "Teacher"?
The kirudore while away their days on the ground, only feeling alive when they're in the skies. The upcoming "world cup" battle between powerful sponsors Rostock and Lautern will decide many of their fates. The cockpit is "their cradle and their coffin"...
The thrilling flying scenes that punctuate the otherwise slow-paced film are simply superb. I think the 'superlivemation' technique innovated in Oshii's AVALON and expanded further in his previous film TACHIGUI: THE AMAZING LIVES OF THE FAST FOOD GRIFTERS (which I didn't watch) was used. The superlivemation is a mixture of photography, digital puppetry and animation. There is just something unique about the aesthetics of these flying scenes, that's why I attributed it to superlivemation. (But I could be wrong and it's really just normal 3D CG.) Audiences are put in the passenger's seat when the planes swoop in and out through the clouds, badass slow-mo to see clearly how a plane and its pilot is torn to shreds by thousands of ammunition.
I find Yuichi and Kusanagi's love story really mesmerizing. Having not seen his Urusei Yatsura films, I've never seen Oshii tackle romance until THE SKY CRAWLERS. And instead of going for the saccharine sweetness seen in normal anime films, the understated romance is handled in a very mature and realistic manner. The film became unexpectedly emotional in the end because of its subtlety. I find it strange when I could actually feel the sizzling sexual tension between the protagonists even though, well, they're 2D. It's wartime romance, but definitely not some PEARL HARBOUR bullshit.
My attention wavered a little during the last act, when I was suddenly assaulted by numerous long dialogue scenes that I couldn't understand. (it's the scene where Chiaki Kuriyama's character Midori visits Yuichi and says a lot of stuff, maybe she's having some existential crisis or something. Don't know) But when a devastatingly bleak revelation is revealed, I was totally floored. And it's a good thing Japanese audiences sit through the end credits, and I got to catch the very haunting epilogue as well. (Maybe because I didn't understand the dialogue, I couldn't predict the twist like most did. So while Mark Schilling's review on Japan Times pointed out that the effect was muted, I was definitely floored. And was in disbelief before I had to go online, check other reviews and make sure it really was what I thought it was. And it was.)
Great film. Now I'm hungry for more anime in the cinemas, maybe I'll catch the NARUTO movie next. Just kidding.
Ayaka's theme song for the film is beautiful:
Konya mo Hoshi ni Dakarete (今夜も星に抱かれて, Wrapped in the Stars Tonight)
By the way, a photo of two really cute SKY CRAWLERS tissue boxes I picked up from the PIA FILM FEST few weeks ago:
P.S. I felt an earthquake while I was in the cinema watching the film (yes, a real earthquake, it was during a quiet scene, so I doubted the ground was shaking because of loud sounds). I've never experienced earthquake in a cinema before, it was interesting.