The film is set in an alternate universe, where the world is at peace. Despite this, the people of the world never feel comfortable in a world with no violence and aggression, so corporations use genetically modified humans known as the Kildren, to pilot fighter jets in aerial combat for entertainment. The Kildren are genetically modified to never age both mentally and biologically, so they can fly the skies forever, as long as they don’t get shot down. Yūichi Kannami is a brand new recruit to one of the corporations, replacing a pilot who everyone, including his young female commander Suito Kusanagi, seems reluctant to talk about, and the only clue is that his plane is almost perfectly undamaged. While getting used to his new surroundings and continuous dog-fighting in the skies, Yūichi notices he and everyone around him don’t make sense, and since no one wants to tell him anything, his curiosity becomes more heighten then the clouds as he, and other pilots he befriends, want answers.
In 2001, mystery novelist and engineer Hiroshi Mori wrote the novel “The Sky Crawlers” as the first book released, but the last book chronologically in a series of novels, since he believed the stories in the series doesn’t need a chronological order to be read. In sometime between 2006 and 2007, Production I.G. wanted to adapt the first book to an anime film, with a screenplay by Chihiro Itō and directed by Mamoru Oshii, of Ghost in the Shell fame. Mori was initially doubtful of the idea, since he believed out of all of his novels, The Sky Crawlers would be the difficult to adapt. It wasn’t until he knew of Oshii’s work that he gave his consent. The film was finished and later released in Japanese theaters on August 2nd 2008, and was later premiered in America at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival.
If you are a viewer who enjoys 3D animation over 2D, you will probably enjoy the visuals of this film more since they are excellent. All the flying and dog-fighting scenes are shot in 3D and most of the moving environments are also 3D, and they are smooth, detailed and surprisingly realistic. While the planes clearly look more like digital models than actual planes, the environments are so good I have a hard time telling any difference between the two, because I noticed that sometimes the background is of a real life landscape, and other times its computer generated. The 2D animation unfortunately suffers, with the occasional jerky animations and sometimes really inhuman character movements. There are also scenes where nothing happens, and it drags the film along unnecessarily, so it feels lazy at points, although lip syncing is really precise throughout, especially when listening to the Japanese dub. The character designs are also a bit off-putting; some characters have really flat haircuts, eyes that look more like glass and skin colour can get inconsistent. Speaking of skin colour, why are main characters’ skin colour mainly a very pale white? Is it because they are Kildren, and that it’s a noticeable feature for them?
The music is also very peace and calming, and I really like the main theme. However, the one thing that bothers me about the soundtrack is that during the action scenes, the music is almost none-existent, and I don’t get why. I do give credit to Kenji Kawai for a really nice soundtrack and a unique change of pace of not producing an overblown action heavy fast paced soundtrack for action scenes, but those scenes feel empty without them. It’s really my only criticism since the soundtrack is worth listening to on its own, even some of the arrangements are good, with memorable melodies and great use of instruments like a music box version of the main theme.
This is possibly the first anime film I’ve ever encountered where I had no interest in the voice acting for both the Japanese version and the English version. The problem isn’t that both are bad, since for quality they are quite good, all the actors give a good performance to drive the story. The problem is that both of them are just so bland, since none of the characters actually feel like human beings, but like people speaking in front of microphones. There are examples of good actors in Sky Crawlers however, such as the portrayal of Female Pilot Ace Midori Mitsuya, done by Chiaki Kuriyama and whoever it was in the English Dub, and it’s a shame there is little information about the English cast because I really want to know what voice actress that was.
What’s interesting about the story is that its main focus is more about life and war than just fighting planes. These pilots aren’t really fighting for a purpose outside entertainment because we human beings can never cope in a world, which is an interesting message to put across, and the idea of a world where the only sign of warfare is only used to emphasise the peace that the world it’s in, is very unique to me at least. Almost all the main characters are very interesting to see as their characters, back-stories and possible origins are really gripping, especially the two main characters, Yūichi and Suito, and another character which appears in the latter half of the film, Midori, who is actually my favourite character in Sky Crawlers purely for her personality and how she views the facts that are in front of her as a Kildren and a pilot.
The main problem with the story is that all I explained before only happens in the latter half of the two hour film, while the first half is with the exception of the flight scenes, is a one hour dullfest. Admittingly, saying the first hour is dull before the more interesting story and character development is a harsh understatement, but nothing really happens beyond character appearances and small explanations. Another problem with this film is how they explain things, or at even how they don’t. There is more than one occasion where Yūichi in particular asks something that can be an interesting element of development, but the responding character, often Suito, either stares in silence for half a minute or completely changes the subject and it is only briefly mentioned way later in the film. The film also brings out some plot points just out of nowhere, and I’m just going to spoil one small piece just to prove my point. Early in the film, Yūichi meets a young girl named Mizuki who states that she’s Suito’s sister. Moments later, Yūichi has a conversation with another pilot named Tokino who straightforwardly says that Mizuki is actually Suito’s daughter, and it feels like the film expects the audience to already guess it. My main point is that this explaining thing, especially in the first hour, is annoying. The characters either divert plot-points or bring them out of nowhere, and they can’t make up their minds. I also personally didn’t like the ending, because at the end of the film, I had no idea what was accomplished at all, or even the point of what I heard earlier, and when the credits are over there is an extra scene that’s pretty much pointless because it points out what we knew earlier.
Overall, this is a nice film with a great soundtrack and great 3D imagery. I did criticise the 2D animation for being jerky or still at times and the character design for being off-putting, it is still watchable and isn’t really a big distraction. While I may have a differing opinion to other reviewers on this film, I will say the second half of this film is the better part of the film overall, and with all the action in the first half it’s still worth seeing throughout.
The Sky Crawlers is available from Sony Pictures Entertainment and Manga Entertainment. The original novel by Hiroshi Mori and five later novels in the series, titled “None But Air”, “Down to Heaven”, “Flutter of Life”, “Cradle the Sky” and “Sky Eclipse”, officially don’t have an English translation. A video game adaptation of the anime titled “Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces” for the Nintendo Wii is available from Namco and XSeed Games. A Manga series based on the game of the same name, with illustrations by Yuho Ueji, has not had an official English translation.