The Sky Crawlers [スカイ・クロラ] (2008)
Starring Rinko Kikuchi, Ryo Kase, Chiaki Kuriyama, Shosuke Tanihara
Directed by Mamoru Oshii
Sky Crawlers is an odd one. Despite its premise of fighter pilots at war, it is very far from an action film, or even much of a war film. It is a Mamoru Oshii film, and that, perhaps, is the best description you can give it. Like most of Oshii’s films, it is slow and methodical, more concerned with savoring the moment than it is with telling a story. Of course, this is why Oshii’s films tend to be kind of boring. And while I did have a certain amount of interest in what was going to happen, it is a pretty damn boring film.
The biggest hurdle to get over is that the film makes no attempt to explain what’s happening. Sometimes playing it mysterious can help the mood of a story, making you keep watching to find the answers. But if it goes too far — and it definitely does in Sky Crawlers — it turns the film into a dragging, confusing affair that goes nowhere. Even the setting and tone of the film are drab and ponderous. Colors are muted, and the locales have an old fashioned 1950s feel to them, that is if the 1950s were sterile and emotionless. The technology is all over the place. People fly prop planes and watch black-and-white TVs with too much sepia. The pilots live in barracks that looks like a Victorian mansion. Yet they have computers and genetic engineering. The film is described as an alternate present, but that’s about the only time period I am certain it doesn’t take place in.
The story centers around a pilot named Yuichi who transfers to a new base, replacing someone named Jinroh that apparently died. Of course it takes half an hour to say even that, much less how he died, leaving Jinroh’s fate a mystery for much of the film. In fact, it took an inordinately long time to even learn that his name was Jinroh. Yuichi meets the mysterious base commander, a young woman named Kusanagi who’s all business and doesn’t answer many questions. Kusanagi also has a daughter that doesn’t seem much younger than her, which is to say that Kusanagi looks about 14 while her daughter looks around 10.
This age discrepancy is important, not that the film bothers to explain it until the end. Yuichi keeps flying patrols around the area, occasionally getting into small encounters with an enemy force that also isn’t really explained. Meanwhile the rest of the cast make vague allusions to Jinroh and what happened before Yuichi arrived at the base. All the characters do is drag on cigarettes and chug Heinekens while hanging out at either the base or a diner. Every now and then they get laid at a brothel. That’s basically everything that happens in the first half of the movie, and I can’t blame anyone for walking out long before then.
The film does eventually get around to filling in most of the blanks, but taking half the film to get around to the basic premise is a questionable strategy at best. All the pilots are something called Kildern. You hear the word fairly early in the film, but again, it isn’t until much later that it actually tells you what they are. It turns out that they’re some kind of genetically engineered clones that never age, staying permanently in adolescence. It also turns out that the pilots don’t work for any government. They are actually employed by corporations whose sole business is apparently to go to war with each other. It seems the rest of the world is at peace, and they use the two companies as a proxy for war, just because people would get bored otherwise.
The centerpiece of the plot, which doesn’t seem to have much meaning until the end, is the growing romance between Yuichi and Kusanagi. There’s also all kinds of crazy rumors (which we don’t learn until an hour into the film) about Kusanagi murdering Jinroh because she’s a psychotic lunatic. And anyone who makes out with a guy while holding a gun to his head is definitely not normal. Of course Yuichi ignores all warnings, both subtle and obvious, and dives into this relationship anyway.
The other big plot element is the enemy ace, Teacher, who kills anyone he ever flies against. Hell, the guy even guns down parachuting pilots that bail out. There’s supposed to be some connection between Teacher and the characters, but I was never exactly sure what it was. Teacher is the main antagonist, but really, he doesn’t do much. He’s just there as a constantly looming threat through the whole film without actually being a part of it.
Sky Crawlers is an odd film that’s hard to follow, not because it’s complicated, but because it doesn’t explain itself well. The trailer does a better job of describing what’s going on in the film than the film itself does. To an extent, this is the whole point. Yuichi himself is confused and lost in a haze, and the film certainly does a good job of making the viewer feel the same way. But combining that with the lack of any sort of urgency and a really plodding pace can definitely wear a person down.
If you’re a fan of Mamoru Oshii, then this will probably be just what you’re looking for. If you find his films slow and dull, then this is definitely not going to be an exception. I find myself somewhere in between. I enjoy his visual style (even if it was shrouded in CG this time) and liked the way this story turned out, but I also wish he had gotten to the point and told that story sooner.