I'm not going to say 'I'm back' because I've never really been away. Haven't gone off to my grave and risen from the depths of our collective consciousness to tell us strange tales, still very much on this side of the world. I have rather unfortunately been bogged down with some assignments for English and Film Studies, and as such, have not been able to focus on the reviews. Nevertheless, the struggle goes on and here comes a review for, yes, my first foreign-language film of the year. It took this long and finally it's here!
For any of you who are regular readers, you might remember whether or not (can't remember myself, don't read everything again once it's published) I was hyping a review for The Sky Crawlers, but decided not to because it came out in 2008. On finding out that Ponyo was a 2008 film and only came out here this year, I decided to go back and deliver as promised. This doesn’t change the fact that I, by my criteria, cannot publish a review for The Road. Although released here in 2010, it was nominated for Javier Aguirresarobe's cinematography in the 63rd BAFTA awards earlier this year, meaning it would have to be considered in last year's bunch of film's.
The Sky Crawlers is the kind of movie that for most people would slip under their gaze. Being a Japanese-language anime film that isn't Akira, Pokemon or directed by Hayao Miyazaki usually means that in the West it is going to have a small audience. In fact, I only found about it because I was looking for film's to review in my university's library catalogue. Shocked to find that a new Mamoru Oshii film had passed under my radar, it was a given that this had to be watched. For anyone who doesn't know, Oshii directed the first two Ghost In The Shell theatrical films, two of the few anime films to gain at least something more than a strong cult following. He is a director held in high regard in America by James Cameron and The Wachowski Brothers, his work influencing Avatar and The Matrix. I love these films and consider them among the best animated films , so I was looking forward to this film.
Set in an alternate historical universe, with fighter pilot being hired by private corporations in order to maintain peace, easing the tension in a population used to war and aggression, The Sky Crawler follows a group of pilots. Yuichi Kanami, voiced by Ryo Kase, is one of these young pilots known as Kildren, young adults who seemingly never age and remain in a state of suspended development in their age process. These Kildren, headed by their commander Suito Kusanagi, voiced by Rinko Kikuchi, are all ace pilots, highly skilled with talents in aviation that are borderline supernatural. Being a Mamoru Oshii film, there is a reason for all of this, and things are not as they seem.
There is much to like about this film. For starters, Hiroshi Mori's source material (The Sky Crawlers was a five-part novel series) seems foundation wise for a feature film. I have not read the series, but this is littered with ideas at parts. This caters to Oshii as a filmmaker and philosopher. Unaware of the source material, I thought that this was an original creation. His Ghost In The Shell films are fascinating philosophically, asking us questions regarding the nature of our existence and what it means to be real. With work that is reminiscent of Philip K. Dick, Oshii always creates an uncertain atmosphere that is both frightening and entrancing.
Animation has risen in terms of standards of the work presented. It is rare for any animated film that sees the light of day in the West to have really poor animation. Even films such as the recently lacking Shrek movies have a very high standard of animation, even if one couldn't give a toss what's onscreen: the work here is no exception. Oshii has of late began directing his films with a style of combining classic anime with 3D computer graphics, giving his work a unique visual artistry. This comes across best in the aviation sequences, which are just tremendous. Topping many war movies in their visual genius, these individual sequences are something to behold. It just goes to show that while people are harping on (myself included) about the dangers of technology and what have you, they certainly contribute to new concepts in the creative arts.
I would like to take the time to highlight Kenji Kawai’s score. Kawai has previously worked on the film's of Oshii, and his contributions cannot be overlooked. The main theme to The Sky Crawlers is a wonderful piece of music and one of the better qualities of the film. Any time Oshii decides for there to be a scene without dialogue seems almost written for Kawai to contribute an at times thrilling, at times delicate score. The use of orchestral sounds alongside electronic instruments is highly skilful, making the right moves as to where to go, never overdoing things. It is a display of the impressive range of his talents, which have extended outside of Oshii's work to films such as Hideo Nakata's Ring, a very different score. What we get here is one of the best scores of the year, presented to us by a great composer.
To finish up about what is good in the film, the character of Kusanagi (coincidental, no reference to the main character of Ghost In The Shell) is solidly written. Introduced in mystery, we uncover the layers of this character, seeing something very different than what we first expected. A dark and challenging creation, she is the philosophically pessimistic element of the film. As the rest of the characters attempt to make sense of the world around them, she rejects it, posing interesting questions. Rinko Kikuchi, who was great in Babel, gives a similarly great vocal performance. Although not physically inhabiting the character, her vocal work is appropriate coming across as natural. Playing both to pessimistic and tragic elements, Kikuchi makes Kusanagi someone that is rounded. This contributes without end to the character, making her stand out as the most fully-fleshed out of all in the film to a great extent.
There are good elements in The Sky Crawlers to its credit, although it is hard to remember them as well in the context of the overall piece. The Sky Crawlers is a highly flawed film with problems that stick out like jagged edges in a film that would otherwise be rounded. It comes from the fact that while there are individual parts that stand out, these parts do not add up to a sum total equating a great film. Each of these problems is as outstanding as the good parts.
For starters, the script is poorly balanced, both in terms of structure and dialogue. Granted, Chihiro Ito does have a hard job to do with this, and some of the film is written well. However, there are entire scenes at points between the aviation sequences that are so dull that they come across as more than just filler: they are actively intrusive in your enjoyment of the film, prodding away at you like some annoying child that won't stop. When the characters are done talking about the deeper philosophical topics, the incidental dialogue between the characters is forced and rigid, taking away from the 'human' side of the argument, for in the end, they come across as robots. This is the case in particular for Kannami, Ryo Kase's character. For someone who is the protagonist, for pretty much all of the film (later on for plot's sake, not character, you sympathise), he is a dull and lifeless individual whose only personality trait (if it can be called that) seems to be his horrible fringe. Structurally, the film is a real mess. Even if the film was re-edited so there is a balance of good and bad at different sections, it wouldn't seem as all over the place in terms of quality. The structure consists of good aviation sequences, bad scenes that don't contribute anything and twenty/thirty minutes of a philosophy lecture. In the first half, they are interspersed randomly. Then, there is a big chunk of about twenty minutes that is great, and then back again, and finishing on a high note. It detracts from enjoyment of the work significantly.
This brings me to my next problem. As mentioned, it is unbalanced, with numerous scenes that don't seem to contribute much at all. With a running length of 122 minutes, this is a long stretch that is 40 minutes too flabby. It is interesting in comparison to Oshii's Ghost In The Shell works, both under 100 minutes. A film by nature is better if it is as short as it possibly can be, because there is less an opportunity to puncture a hole in it. Not that there isn't good long movies, but it is harder to make them flawless. What this film needed was a vigilant editor who knew what was going wrong here.
It would be a blatant lie to say that I wasn't disappointed, because I was. It is all the worse because there are some really good elements. Mamoru Oshii always manages to give you something interesting in the philosophical sense, with the character of Kusanagi, brought to life by the wonderful Rinko Kikuchi, being the pertinent example. Also, buy (ahem! download! ahem!) the soundtrack because even if you never see the film, which I suppose is worth one watch (although I might watch it again to analyse, being as anal as I am), Kenji Kawai's work is a thing of beauty and bar the stunning animation in the aviation sequences, the outstanding element of the film. Despite these pros, it is plagued and diseased by cons of a terminal nature. The script is transparent aside from the odd interesting scene, being full of rubbish dialogue and some poorly written characters. The structure is more than transparent and more aptly described as non-existent. On a final note, it is at least 40 minutes too long, with these extra forty being genuinely bad, in contrast to the good of the film. The Sky Crawlers is a good film at best and not much more, making me very angry whenever I think of it. Oh, and hello to Gabriel the Basset Hound!
The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 6.0/10
The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Cross (both at this and the North Koreans!)
P P.S And yes, I know it’s Wednesday!