The Sky Crawlers is by far one of the most subtle Mamoru Oshii films to date, and that’s really saying something. Oshii has never been what one would call explicit. He’s far too invested in the humanity of his characters, in the complexity of choice versus fate. If he also happens to have a bit of a thing for more loftily existential issues like artificial consciousness and the self-actualising development of technology, it’s really only an extension of this primary fascination. His socially dystopic visions highlight how the choices we make – not who we are or what we might be made of – are what makes us human.
In Sky Crawlers, these themes are far less obvious than in, say, Ghost in the Shell. In fact, Sky Crawlers is at first only clearly an Oshii film because of two things; the presence of the director’s oft-featured, beloved basset hound (with which he personally identifies), and the long, quiet scenes where not a hell of a lot happens. But something is happening, as always in an Oshii film; it’s just more of a slow build than a sudden blast. Kanname, a shockingly young fighter pilot, arrives with transfer papers to a quiet company airfield. His lack of jock bravado is odd for what looks like a classic World War II dog fighter movie, but it’s completely right for an Oshii film. Emotion is removed and dialog is sparse, and when people do speak it’s like a David Mamet screenplay; clipped, clever and almost stylised. Against a backdrop of old world sepia tones and the incredible musical compositions of Oshii mainstay Kenji Kawai, there’s a dreamlike, almost unreal quality to things; like at any moment, Kanname could wake up and find himself in the actual world.
This is Kanname’s world though, and by contrast, the dog fight sequences are visceral and alive. With nothing but the rattle of guns, the rush of air, the scream of the fighter engines and the pilot’s harsh breathing and sometimes the ground to orientate by, these scenes are nothing short of thrilling. There’s no time to worry if Kanname is going to live or die; and somehow, one gets the impression this is exactly what it would have been like in the cockpit of a Spitfire or a Yakolev, where pilots battled the speeds and G-forces that threatened to black them out as much as they battled the enemy; where it was more of an imperative to get the other fighter in their sights than think about dying themselves.
On the ground though, one gets the impression that that’s all that Kanname can think about. His inability to ignore what happened to the previous pilot of his fighter and his passive fascination for the seemingly cold base commander Suito Kusanagi is the wedge that begins not to separate but to bring together the two aspects to his life, the before and the here and now. There are truths about his world that Kanname does not quite know and Kusanagi’s seemingly desperate, self destructive behaviour is just a reflection, a foreshadowing of the secrets he is maybe better off never knowing. He’s trapped though, a soft tailspin from which he perhaps cannot escape.
It’s the sense of growing inevitability, of unrecognised déjà vu that really gives this film its power. Little things, moments, conversations, exchanges repeated, become meaningful only in retrospect and perhaps this is what appeals, the idea that we’re all hurtling towards our fates, with the signs there too small, too far away or too quick to see until it’s too late. Yet, to reveal these things, like the narrative details of this film, might arguably be to remove something intrinsic, something essential. Part of the gentle, poignant impact of this story – and a great deal of its emotional worth – is to be found in the slow understanding of what’s actually going on. As the viewer, the luxury of knowing what Kanname does not isn’t necessarily a given, and in the end, you make your own answers, just like Kanname must.
To be able to do this, bring you to this point, there’s no doubting that Oshii is a masterful film maker. Possibly he’s the only director who could get away with wrapping what is in essence such deeply philosophical material in a war drama that isn’t in fact about a war at all; he’s certainly the only filmmaker who could attempt such a thing – animated or otherwise – and leave you with the feeling that instead of watching a movie, you have in fact experienced something more precious than you might ever have suspected.