Dir: Mamoru Oshii. Japan. 2008. 122mins.

Mamoru Oshii’s most meditative feature-length animation to date tells the story of a group of genetically modified eternally-young fighter aces in a world where war has become a company-sponsored reality game. Like the Peter-Pan ‘Kildren’ that it depicts, The Sky Crawlers acts more grown up than it really is, dragging out what is essentially a barracks love story with endless meaningful glances, cigarette pauses and sudden gushes of world-weary philosophising. But while its measured pacing - not to say sluggishness - is a new departure for the director of Ghost In The Shell films, there’s just enough aerial combat action to keep most of the boys happy some of the time.

Though hardcore anime fans will lap this up, young adult audiences schooled on Pixar, and whose experience of Japanese 2-D animation is limited to Hayao Miyazaki’s magical oeuvre, may be a little put off by the old-school look of the cell animation characters. Though backgrounds are lush and the stirring dogfight scenes work an often intriguing meld of 3-D and 2-D, there are still moments when it jars to see a flat, hand drawn pilot with Photoshop shading standing next to a meticulously painted, fully textured plane.

Outside of Japan, The Sky Crawlers will likely play to an older and more special-interest anime crowd, especially in cinemas; but with the director’s back catalogue raising his collectability value, long-term DVD prospects look fairly robust. In Japan, where it was released at the beginning of August, Oshii’s film has underperformed at the box office, slipping out of the top ten after only three weeks - in contrast to its summer anime (and Venice competition) rival, Miyazaki’s Ponyo On The Beach By The Sea, which held on to the top spot for a remarkable six week-run.

The story is told elegantly in gradual, slow-drip mode; it’s not until close to the end that the full context and backstory are pieced together. Yuichi Kannami is a rather dreamy young fighter pilot who has been assigned to a remote airbase. Here he meets Suito Kusanagi, his tight-lipped female commander, who like him is a ‘Kildren’ - one of a race of eternal adolescents. Kannami meets his fellow pilots, hangs out in a roadside diner, visits a brothel in the company of two non-Kildern hookers, and tries to find out more about Yuichi, who seems to have a special interest in him.

It gradually becomes clear that in this near-future society, war has become a controlled game designed to enforce the peace: seeing TV news reports of carefully orchestrated battles between Kannami’s employer, Rostock, and rival corporate para-state Lautern, reassures ordinary folk that all is well with the world - their safe domestic world, at least. But the battles themselves - breathtakingly rendered, though frustratingly brief - are not virtual, and Kildren pilots often die in them.

The whole becomes a neat metaphor for the absurdity of war and a paean to the poetry of the lone pilot in the skies. Oshii really has no need to insist on the melancholy, other-worldly herosim of these expendable young pilots, which is there in the story, but he can’t resist the temptation so every dramatic beat is stretched, every glance held a second too long, every pregnant pause inflated.

The art direction is superb, placing sleek but unfuturistic fantasy double-prop planes that planespotters will get excited about in a dowdy context of Second World War British airfields and American midwest diners. The only town we see has something retro Eastern European about it, nodding at the steampunk anime tradition most closely associated with Katsuhiro Otomo. Lucas divison Skywalker Sound worked on the crystalline dogfight sound design, and the wistful ambient music, by longtime Oshii collaborator Kenji Kawaii, is a delight.

Production companies
Production IG
Nippon Television Network

International sales
Elle Driver
(33) 1 56 43 48 70
(33) 6 99 47 98 10

Tomohiko Ishii

Executive producers
Seiji Okuda
Mitsuhisa Ishikawa

Chihiro Ito
Based in the novel by Mori Hiroshi

Animation director
Toshihiko Nishikubo

Art director
Kazuo Nagai

Kenji Kawai

Main voice cast
Rinko Kikuchi
Ryo Kase
Shosuke Tanihara
Chiaki Kuriyama