Review: Last Exile (2003)

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Last Exile had two things going for it before I even switched on the DVD player – the fact that it came out of Gonzo Studios, and the fact that Range Murata, most widely known for character design on Blue Submarine No.6, did the conceptual character designs for it. Much to my pleasure (and yes I’ll admit, expectation) actually putting the disc in the player turned out to be a bonus. This series looks to be another winner, from a production house that currently seems to be able to do no wrong.

In an almost dream-like mix of Napoleonic military design, 19th Century Industrial Age steam technology and the cultural influences of the Weimar Republic, Last Exile is less like a sci-fi and more like a War movie. It has that sort of grand heroism to it that is the trademark of all good war films, a demonstrated love of the open sky, and the quietly tragic illusion of freedom that it represents. The main characters, Guild couriers Clause and Lavie, seem free. Parentless and mature enough despite their age to do what they can in order to make ends meet, the first episode finds them soaring through the clouds on a dangerous mission to deliver a message to a fleet Commander in the midst of battle. Meanwhile an unnamed soldier chants protection charms in a dark hold where he waits to be sent out to face enemy muskets. There’s no freedom for him. The comparison is sobering and the results saddening, demonstrating clearly that whatever else Last Exile turns out to be, it is first and foremost a story about the human condition.

Director Koichi Chigira, most widely known for Blue Submarine No.6 and Full Metal Panic, still has the sort of fine and admirable control over the march of events that he ever had, moving with apparent ease into his main narrative over the space of the first four episodes without losing any ground in the fleshing out of his characters and without losing the audience’s interest. He’s in no hurry about what he’s doing, and neither is he heavy handed about it. And thank God for that; the intricacies of 18th Century military strategy are perhaps a little heavy going to grasp all at once and Chigara seems sensitive to this fact and refrains from bombarding the storyline with plot developments or complicated explanations up front. Grand military battles and mysterious, alien-like antagonists are balanced with scenes of a more intimate and domestic nature; Claus sleeping on the floor in the home he and Lavie share, Lavie making lunches for them while they work on their ship, yelling at him, but leaving the house before dawn to buy him the fuel booster they wanted as a surprise for him. It is a refreshing approach to what is a common device in adventure anime — Claus and Lavie are orphans yes, but they don’t seem lost, and memories of the father that inspired in Claus the passion to fly seem to be nothing but good ones, photos on a wall that are glossed over with fondness rather than angst.

And Gonzo have of course done it again on the production value front. Not only does this series look spectacular, with a nice, mostly subtle blend of 2 and 3D CG, loads of fluid action and stunning panoramas, it sounds amazing. Having recently seen (or is that heard?) what one should not do when it comes to soundtracks, it makes me appreciate all the more the talent involved in the soundtrack for Last Exile. From the brilliant, unusual and somewhat addictive opening song Cloud Age Symphony by Shuntaro Okino, to the general pleasure of Dolce Triade’s delightful background music, the Last Exile OST undoubtedly draws abreast of competition like Kou Otani’s work on Haibane Renmei or, dare I say it, Yoko Kano’s unfailing genius on soundtracks like Cowboy Bebop, Escaflowne or Wolf’s Rain. Atmospheric pieces dominate and are all the more effective for the fact that there are also moments when the only audio is the ambient noise of the scene. It’s a mistake other series often make, feeling that to engage the viewer there must be music constantly and it’s series like Last Exile that show how it ought to be done.

The English dub is not something to sniff at either (although I can and will because I almost always prefer the Japanese). With such vocal talent as Johnny Yong Bosch (Claire Leonelli in Heat Guy J & Vash the Stampede in Trigun) and Kari Wahlgren (Hauroko in FLCL & Robin Sena in Witch Hunter Robin) and a solid support cast who do the material the justice it deserves, there’s almost no going wrong.

In fact, with so many things going for it — design, characterisation, narrative, direction, visual treatment and sound – Last Exile, with the grace and beauty of a bird in flight, soars sky-high and gloriously confident that it will never come crashing back down to earth.

9.5 Dark and Mysterious Battleship Commanders out of 10.
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