Once again, director Mamoru Oshii takes a lush, visually arresting drama and infuses it with a profound yet understated cautionary tale about life in the modern world. 'The Sky Crawlers' tells the story of a group of Kildren - teenagers who never get any older and live their lives on call as fighter pilots in a seemingly endless war. The main character, Yuichi, arrives at a new post to find that his predecessor was killed in mysterious circumstances, and his female commanding officer Suito Kusanagi reacts very strangely to his appearance. What unfolds is a complex mystery surrounding the nature of the Kildren and their part in the war, and the relationship between Yuichi, Suito, and a dangerous enemy ace pilot known as Teacher.
The quality of animation is quite stunning, seamlessly blending traditional styles and computer-generated scenes, with a slight dream-like glow to it all. The characters were given a simplified, almost doll-like design which for once doesn't seem like a throwaway quirk and actually helps to suggest the eerie calm and vagueness of their personalities. Kenji Kawai again provides a breathtaking soundtrack with a gentle theme that keeps evolving for the duration, through several variations on harp and synthesizer, complementing and at times driving the mood of sadness and abandonment that is central to the film.
The aerial combat does happen to hold a few moments of excitement, most notably in the crushing denouement, but overall the aircraft scenes are not there for the action but for the portrayal of emotional distance and to highlight the elaborate, regimented way the Kildren's battles are carried out. Flight through the clear and open skies can be a thing of beauty, but the Kildren are cold to it - as they are to everything - and the experience is reduced to a daily routine as tools of war.
I found that the main message of 'The Sky Crawlers' is twofold. In the film it is hinted that it is possible for Kildren to grow up, but most of them don't; adulthood here is first a state of mind which then leads to a state of body. The teenagers carry out their duties unquestioningly, they do not connect with each other, they experience love only as scheduled recreational sex, they barely remember what happens from day to day and have no real passion for anything in the world. The core tragedy of this generation, in Oshii's view, does not lie in rebellion or violence or lack of education, but in comfortable, empty lives with no drive to adventure or improvement or appreciation of detail, lives emotionally removed from the flow of time and pathetically masked by the artificial accessories of smoking and drinking. The philosophical tensions behind all this are vented beautifully in the actions of Suito and Yuichi, revealed as the film goes on, and in the questions posed by Midori, a female soldier from another base who Yuichi meets during a mission.
The second message is broader, playing off of the first, and that comes as an exposition of the truth behind the war - I feel it's too much of a spoiler to recount that here, though other reviews and even the packaging of the film will give it away somewhat. Essentially, it presents a future that Oshii no doubt feels could one day be a reality... if it's not already allegorically true today. Completing this picture of a world doomed to repetition behind a veneer of convenience and perfect blue skies, the film's setting is simultaneously enchanting and chilling.
A wonderful and rare movie, up there with Oshii's best - 'Ghost In The Shell', 'Innocence', 'Avalon' - and littered with little nods to his other work, such as the characters' names, the music box, and of course the dog. Patience and quiet are essential for enjoyment of this slow and subtle work; if you're after an out-and-out dogfighting extravaganza or a snappy blockbuster, definitely look elsewhere.