Click here to return to the main site.

DVD Review

DVD cover

The Sky Crawlers


Starring (voice): Rinko Kikuchi, Ryo Kase, Chiaki Kuriyama and Shosuke Tanihara
Manga Entertainment
RRP: £19.99
Certificate: 15
Available 31 May 2010

A group of eternally young clone-like fighter pilots known as ‘Kildren’ experience the sudden loss of innocence as they are forced to battle it out against their nation’s enemies in astonishing dogfights above the clouds. With his only childhood memory consisting of intense flight training, the fearless teenage pilot, Yuichi Kannami, struggles to discover the secret of his missing past. When his beautiful, equally young female commander, Suito Kusanagi, is reluctant to discuss the fate of the pilot that Yuichi was bought in to replace - or to acknowledge the strangely perfect condition of that pilot’s former aircraft - Yuichi’s curiosity becomes ever more heightened and he soon finds himself questioning not only his purpose in life but also his very own existence...

I never thought I’d type these words, but I agree with the News of the World.

Astoundingly, their review staff may even have a gift for understatement. Their review of Mamoru Oshii’s Sky Crawlers describes it as “haunting, subtle and hypnotically beautiful.” And they’re dead right, after a fashion. It is haunted by the spectre of the more interesting, engaging film it might have been if it had been handled by different creators. It is so subtle that you might even call it vague, or even infuriatingly obfuscatory. And it is lacking in drama, character and circumstance to such an extent that it lulls the viewer into a kind of hypnotised trance state.

And yes, there are aspects of the film that could be described as “beautiful.” Some of the cell animation is well crafted, the colour palette is vivid to the point of being dreamlike and the backdrops seem to be a nicely judged mix of CG rendering and aerial photography. But the virtual camerawork is so silky smooth that it feels creepily unreal, and the fully CG fighter planes appear and move as though they are Playstation graphics, with no sense of weight or momentum.

Perhaps this is part of the point, because momentum and weight are conspicuously absent from the film as a whole.

In an interview on the DVD’s special features, Oshii states that he had no interest in exploring the world in which Sky Crawlers takes place. He is content to describe it as a world in which war is manufactured by private companies because the populace demand conflict, despite nation states having appeared to achieve world peace. The viewer is left wondering whether his lack of engagement with this premise is due to it being so unbelievable that it would unravel if he started pulling at its threads. The privatisation of war, what it takes to achieve peace and and the way in which war is depicted in the media are all worthy topics which could have been explored. But blaming the populace for an insatiable hunger for purposeless conflict requires more explanation than a couple of vague references. It is not a premise that should be allowed to stand unchallenged.

Let’s be clear on this: a sci-fi creator without an interest in founding an entertaining and at least semi-coherent fictional world frankly isn’t much use to anyone. World building provides essential context for concepts, story and characters. Without that context the action is meaningless and unsatisfying.

In any other medium Mamoru Oshii would be called an auteur. The director has made a career out of pursuing the same theme throughout all his major works, specifically what it means to be human in an age of increasing technology, augmentation and automation. But anime is filled to bursting with anthropomorphised dolls, automata, clones, androids and robots. The medium itself suggests something not-quite-human, as cell animations voiced by real actors imitate, approximate and exaggerate the manner in which a real flesh-and-blood person might act. So why is his name so frequently singled out from the pack as one of the most respected directors in the medium?

Perhaps it is his treatment of his thematic material, his stylistic choices. Oshii is the perfect director for the Western anime appetite created by Akira's success. This is a template that's easily recognised; well designed big budget science-fiction or fantasy (preferably with CG elements to the animation); just enough sex and violence to titillate and appear adult without being off-puttingly grotesque; enough philosophical subtext to flatter the audience' intelligence; and a conspicuous lack of the broad comedic elements that encourage some Westerners to deride Japanese animation. Akira created a demographic that wanted 'serious' animation from Japan, something different from the product they dismissed as being frivolous, absurd, hyperactive or just plain weird. The problem was that there weren't a lot of films that could capitalise on this new market. Something was needed to fill the gap. Something like first cinematic Ghost in the Shell adaptation.

The most noticeable difference between Masamune Shirow's manga and Mamoru Oshii's film is that all traces of the original Ghost in the Shell's knockabout humour were completely excised. And now we have Sky Crawlers, yet more Oshii anime without humour, fun or excitement. Voice actors are expressionless in their delivery; character animation is austere. The film slides by in a state of glassy detachment, the virtual camera seeming almost devoid of any interest in what fills the frame. Any film that depicts aerial dogfights should have at least some kinetic motion. Here they fall flat, as though Oshii is depressed at the very thought of having to show them.

Perhaps the director's greatest error is that he believes serious themes require serious films. But any film-maker so pathologically resistant to humour cannot have any real interest in or understanding of what it means to be human. A pessimist to the end, Oshii believes that humanity is at risk due to developing technology. I submit that if it can't laugh in the face of that abyss then it is already beyond saving.

Here's an alternative perspective on Mamoru Oshii's body of work. Let's see if it gains any traction.

From Urusei Yatstura to Patlabor, Ghost in the Shell to Sky Crawlers, Oshii is the go-to-guy for adaptations of other people's fiction. To the outsider he seems to be an auteur at the helm of one prestigious franchise after another. But he believes himself to be a drone, a robot, an automaton, soullessly churning out films that tread the same ground over and over again, a slave to the money men and their systems. His withdrawal from the world, his increasing detachment and disinterest, mirrors that of his films. Losing all joy, all hope, he starts to question his sense of self.

Turning inward, he finds nothing.


Seth Cooke

Buy this item online

We compare prices online so you get the cheapest deal
Click on the logo of the desired store below to purchase this item.

£11.91 (
£11.99 (
£11.99 (
£14.97 (

All prices correct at time of going to press.