The Sky Crawlers Review
Mamoru Oshii has never been a filmmaker who panders to his audience, he’s rarely interested in any form of conventional narrative devices and constantly obfuscating reality and fantasy, hope and despair. His latest film The Sky Crawlers is certainly no exception to that rule, it takes place in an alternate reality where propeller engines still dominate the sky and war and conflict has been eliminated from the world by confining the concept of war to controlled aerial skirmishes that are conducted by beings known as Kildren. The Kildren are pilots who exist eternally as teenagers and appear to only live in the moment, not questioning the hazy gaps in their memories about where they’re from or when they were born. Yuuichi Kaname is a Kildren pilot arriving at a rather modest airbase run by commanding officer Suito Kusanagi. Yuuichi is replacing a pilot named Jinroh, who has vanished from the base leaving his aeroplane in spotless condition, and when Yuuichi asks about his predecessor he’s given vague answers, although Yuuichi does learn that Jinroh was romantically involved with Suito. Despite Suito’s increasingly erratic and potentially self destructive nature, Yuuichi too is romantically drawn to her, but she seems to be obsessed with taking down a crack enemy pilot known as Teacher, who has never been beaten in the sky and is making increasingly frequent appearances.
As you’d expect from a director who genuinely deserves the title of visionary, The Sky Crawlers is a completely admirable production, this isn’t an overtly fantastical world like you’d find in the Ghost in the Shell films or Angel’s Egg, the general style of the film is very minimalistic, but the attention to minute details – like reflections in the surface of objects and the recreation of light exposure is pretty darn impressive. The CG in the flying sequences is almost photo-real, and while there’s not a plethora of action scenes in The Sky Crawlers, what there is certainly makes an impression. The film opens with a duel where the mysterious Teacher ambushes three enemy planes that demonstrates Oshii’s skills as a visualist, with the imaginary camera dipping and rolling around the planes to provide an immersion in the battle one couldn’t get from live action. The sequence is topped off by one of Kenji Kawai’s bittersweet string arrangements that perfectly fits in to the existential angst of Oshii’s film; Kawai’s work adds an extra dimension to The Sky Crawlers.
The existential pondering and morose tone of The Sky Crawlers certainly makes it a challenging film in the first hour or so when we follow Yuuichi being introduced to the people who populate the air base he’s stationed to, and the mundanity of Kildren life is established. The characters are all trapped in a form of purgatory and doomed to live a life of vague recollection and little sense of identity, where fighting in the sky distracts them from the inherent dissatisfaction from life that is bubbling beneath the surface. So in the first hour The Sky Crawlers just languidly floats between awkward meetings and cryptic behavioural traits with Oshii’s rather dispassionate approach favouring the downbeat aspects of the story over the upbeat, and I feel he lingers a little too much on evoking mood rather than moving the narrative forward.
And it is this lack of narrative development that ultimately detracts from the deep characterisation of The Sky Crawlers. It’s supposed to be a mystery film, but we know exactly where the story is leading from the off and yet it takes over an hour and half for Yuuichi to finally figure out the big mystery about his predecessor. Still, the deep characterisation and the way we gradually start to figure out what the characters around Yuuichi are all about goes a long way to glossing over any pacing issues. Suito Kusanagi in particular has a very interesting character arc, early in the film she seems quite sharp and selfishly impulsive, but as we learn that she is more self aware about the plight of the Kildren than the other characters her personality becomes more nuanced and tragic rather than simply nihilistic. Yuuichi provides a stark contrast to Suito as he is completely easy going and accepts everything around him at face value, he is the naive heart of the film and an unlikely protagonist.
The Kildren soldiers are surrounded in their air base by a number of adults who may form parental or romantic figures in their lives, and their actions throughout the film suggest that the Kildren are not the only ones with an innate sense of disillusionment about the faux war. The Sky Crawlers does raise some interesting questions regarding the frivolity of being a teenager and how today’s adults view the younger generation - plus as an intellectual exercise it can be very engrossing; but I feel that the central message of the film and downplayed mystery narrative do not quite need such a lengthy, ponderous examination. More heart, less thought, and definitely less film would have gone a long way.
PresentationBefore discussing the technical aspects of this Blu-ray release, I should mention that The Sky Crawlers was altered slightly for international release, as is usually the custom for recent mainstream Japanese productions a closing theme song was produced to be played over the end credits of the film, which in this case was performed by pop star Ayaka. In the international print though, her song is replaced by Kenji Kawai’s melodies from earlier in the film. This isn’t a great loss as Ayaka’s song was only ever played over the end credits rather than in the film, and Kenji’s music is more involving anyway.
Presented in fullscreen 1080p (1.78:!), Sky Crawlers is an understated film given a rather subtle colour palette where pastel shades dominate and certain sequences are so muted they’re almost black and white, but there are scenes (like the ones set in the brothel) that are awash with colour that really strikes a sumptuous contrast with the rest of the film and it’s all brought vividly to the screen by this high-def transfer, which has solid control over the colours and no obvious bleeding, no banding, and only minute noise in one or two places that you shouldn’t see during regular playback. Contrast can be a little on the low side, which is usually the intended look for these type of Japanese animations, although Sky Crawlers does have very realistic light tones and highlights that can appear a little harsh. Black levels are very solid, you won’t see blacks as deep as most live action productions, but you will find a satisfying level of darkness to the night time sequences. Indeed, the brightness levels are generally excellent, with the shadow detail similarly impressive.
Encoded using the AVC codec and having an average video bitrate of 23.57Mbps, the image looks pristine and appears to be free of Edge Enhancements or signs of DNR, but the one contentious aspect of this transfer is the digital hazing that we see so often in contemporary anime. It always strikes me as a method to blend CG rendered animation merge and hand drawn components seamlessly, but the problem is that it gives the image a foggy, indistinct appearance that robs it of detail. There are many moments in Sky Crawlers where the image is pleasingly sharp , producing striking visuals, but there are also many moments when the image is soft and hazy, with the characters seemingly surrounded by a gentle mist. This appears to be the intended look of the film, and it does look quite nice in places, but there’s no denying that at other times it’s a little annoying.
The Japanese BD release of The Sky Crawlers came with a Japanese Dolby TrueHD 6.1 track according to the cover scans I have seen of the release, but on this disc you will only find a Japanese Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track alongside English Dolby TrueHD 5.1, Portugese Dolby TrueHD 5.1, and Spanish DD5.1 audio options. The good news is that the Japanese TrueHD 5.1 track is excellent, you know when you sit down to watch a big budget anime film about aerial warfare that your speakers are going to be given a serious workout. The film opens with a short flyby duel that really assaults your ears, bass thunders tightly and an expressive, omnidirectional soundstage is established, wrapping the viewer up in the thick of the action whilst every element of the sound design is brought to life with pleasing clarity. Then Kenji Kawai’s delicate score kicks in and the sound becomes gentle and refined, which is how it remains for most of the film as the action sequences are few and far between. Even in these calmer scenes the soundstage is still quite expansive and the rears are used regularly for simple directionality.
The English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track sounds pretty much identical to the Japanese, just with the dialogue a little louder in the mix and perhaps a little bassier. The Portugese TrueHD 5.1 track is very similar to the English dub, but the Spanish DD5.1 track is a much louder affair with the dialogue crazily loud in the mix. Sony’s decision not to give it a TrueHD track is a bit of a head scratcher. As for the English dub, I was quite pleased by it, the cast – made up of mostly video game actors - capture the existential tone very well and provide a satisfying alternative to the subtitled option.
Optional subtitles are included for the main feature in English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portugese.
ExtrasIn Japan you had to fork out for the ultra-expensive Limited edition to receive any extra materials, so for once us Westerners have not been short changed. There may be just three featurettes on this disc, but they’re substantial enough and offer some good insight into the animation process, they are:
Animation Research for The Sky Crawlers: This is a really charming feature on location in Poland where Oshii and his crew did most of their scouting for their final designs. There is some intercut handheld interview footage with Oshii in a Polish hotel room, but mostly we just follow the crew as they are taken around various locations and become fascinated and make recordings of the most mundane objects. We see Oshii being shown around a Polish Air Base, some low-rent dormitories, a big War Museum, and mucking about in a Bowling Alley, alongside some production sketches that show how the locations inspired the finished look of the film.
The Sound Design and Animation of The Sky Crawlers: This is more like an overall production diary than anything and covers multiple aspects of the film’s creation. It starts off with Oshii and crew visiting the Skywalker Ranch to meet up with Randy Thom and Tom Myers at Skywalker sound and chat about what Oshii wanted from the sound effects they would be working on. After a brief discussion on aeroplanes, Randy Thom knocks together a sound demo for a clip from the film in ten minutes flat! The focus then switches to Oshii back at Studio I.G in Japan supervising the animation teams and dealing with the minutiae of the design, then working with Kenji Kwai on the score, and the principal cast on the dubbing process before returning back to Skywalker Ranch for the finished sound effects and a brief interview with Tom Myers on working with Oshii.
Sky’s the Limit: An Interview with Director Mamoru Oshii: Oshii’s a bit of a rambler but he’s an intelligent interviewee who is quite direct when discussing his aims and themes of the film in question, so this is a pretty good interview featurette, which also mixes in lots of production sketches and footage of the end of production crew rituals they go through in Japan when finishing a film.
All extra features are presented in 1080p AVC with optional English, Spanish, and Portugese subtitles. Strangely, no French subs on the extras.