The Sky Crawlers, a film based on the novel by Hiroshi Mori, and directed by Mamoru Oshii, is a dazzlingly beautiful tale set in a world where combat is a commodity, and strange children are the heroes of a never-ending war.
The world is divided, and has long since come to peace, through the intervention of major world organizations, but it is decided that there is no value to peace if the people cannot see bloody conflict elsewhere in the world, so two major corporations are tasked by the world governments to combat one another in a permanent, bloody stalemate of armed combat.
To protect the civilians of the land, all combat must take place in the sky, and the missions are flown by the "Kildren," mysterious people who never age past childhood, and who seem to take little interest in anything other than flying the missions.
The story opens as pilot Yūichi Kannami find himself assigned to a new base, which seems oddly familiar, despite his never having been there before. The mostly silent, yet deep and very deliberate conversations that fall between the myriad of characters at the airbase all hint at something hidden, some mystery around which everyone skirts.
Kannami soon discovers that his predecessor at the base, the pilot who flew his rear-prop Mark B before him, was killed, off duty, a few months before; something very rare for Kildren, who almost always die flying combat missions. Through his seeming apathy, he manages to ask questions, and his adventure leads him, and the audience, to the strange history of this alternate world, and the nature of the Kildren, and their relationship to the war.
Oshii manages to tell the tale with an economy of dialog and action which is startling, both in its effectiveness, and its sheer inaction. At points, it seems like the film has ceased to move, as if their world has slowed to a crawl, and yet these moments become the most moving. They exemplify the characters in such a way that could not have been done with dialog.
In one scene, near the midpoint of the film, Kannami and his commander, another Kildren, a girl, are standing by the wreckage of a plane which has drifted in from a neighboring theatre of the conflict. They do not know the pilot, and are silently watching paramedics remove his body and cart it away, when a civilian woman begins to cry, weeping for the lost life.
The commander flairs up in one of the few outpourings of emotion seen in the entire film from the Kildren, telling the woman that her pity is an insult to the pilot. In anger, she storms away from the scene, back toward her car. Kannami chases after her, and the audience expects a confrontation. He runs in front of her and pulls open the passenger-side door of her car.
One of the characters is surely about to demand an explanation, or reveal an important side-arc. Instead, she simply stares at him for an interminable moment before sliding quietly into the car, and allowing him to drive her back to base. In that moment of silence, a chasm is crossed between the characters and their development moves to a road that takes them inexorably toward confrontation and a strange sort of romance.
While the characters are illustrated simply, and occasionally even so blandly that it becomes difficult to tell the difference between them, the world in which they reside is exactingly, and beautifully crafted. The CGI world is detailed and vivid, making up for, and even complimenting the simple nature of the character illustrations. If the film had been crafted entirely in the simple animation style, or entirely in the detailed CGI style, it wouldn’t have worked.
The violence of the air battles is tastefully animated, and is never gratuitous, and being themselves beautifully crafted with the same detailed CGI as the scenery, they don’t disappoint on visuals, the way many animated battle sequences do.
The Sky Crawlers is an excellent film for all audiences, and it is currently the only version of the story to be translated to English from the original Japanese novel. Some audiences will always be put off by subtitled, foreign films, but if you can take that, along with the few English lines which are very poorly acted, you will enjoy this beautiful alternate history tale.
The Sky Crawlers, with English subtitles, is now available on DVD or Blu-ray from Sony Pictures.