Anime isn’t supposed to be subtle, right? When we think of anime we imagine big expressive eyes, emotional extremes, and melodrama. The typical heroes of Japanese animation, from the kid-appropriate Shōnen genre to the slightly more teenage-focused Seinen, wear their hearts on their sleeves. Heroes like Naruto, Edward Elric, and even Guts cry rivers of tears, scream their emotions to the heavens, and shake with intensity. Especially in America, we rarely expect to see a subdued performance from an anime.
Nothing could’ve prepared me for “The Sky Crawlers.”
Made by “Ghost in the Shell” creator Mamoru Oshii, this film is an ambitious, overlong, and fascinating slow-burn. A character study with startlingly realistic characters. A film packed to the brim with mystery and intrigue that never gives too much away. At 121 minutes there are moments in the film that feel too slow for an anime. Scenes that drag out artificially in a movie that is so brazenly unafraid of silence and introspection that it will hold a shot agonizingly long after the real content of a scene has ended. That said, if you can forge through these still moments “The Sky Crawlers” is a rewarding if emotionally devastating experience.
We are in a world similar to, but quite unlike our own. Aesthetically, it looks like the European Theater circa World War II. A group of fighter planes are taken down in one quick, devastating dogfight by a pilot known simply as “The Teacher.” We don’t know what countries these planes are fighting for. Those that survive return to base, and the next day a replacement pilot arrives.
Yūichi Kannami (voiced by the understated Ryō Kase), is our hero. He, like the other pilots around him, looks eerily like a child; his body pudgy and developing like that of a 14-year-old boy. We learn that the name of the company he fights for and the name of his enemy. But like Yūichi we are in the dark. Why are they fighting? Why do the people around the airbase treat him so strangely? In particular, why does his boss, Suito Kusanagi (voiced by the legendary Rinko Kikuchi) harbor a grudge against him when they’ve only just met?
The nature of the seemingly futile conflict, as well the pilots themselves, is the central mystery throughout “The Sky Crawlers” which is very careful about playing its hand.
In a genre where an overabundance of exposition is not only commonplace but practically tradition, the amount of indirect characterization and
economy of storytelling in this film is almost unprecedented.
Yūichi is not like Naruto. Even when confronted with some truly disturbing truths, he behaves as a real soldier might. Not falling to his knees, drowning in his own tears, but with a quiet ache. A softer, more potent despair. Since characters don’t immediately say what they’re thinking, but instead harbor secret and doubts, every emotional connection in the final act not only feels cathartic but very earned.
If all of this sounds like too much of a departure from the anime you’re used to, I don’t blame you for shying away.
“The Sky Crawlers” is not for the faint of heart or the short of attention span. However, for those of you who want to see a different sort of character-driven story from the standard fare, I can’t recommend this one enough. If it sweetens the pot for you, this film also has some really slick, brutal dogfighting. You can rent it on Amazon for $2.99 and I’d say it’s worth every penny.