Thursday, 1 September 2011

The Sky Crawlers

The Sky Crawlers is a 2008 anime film directed by Mamoru Oshii, who was responsible for one of the defining films of the modern genre, Ghost In The Shell. It concerns a group of genetically bred children who are seemingly created specifically to fight in an endless war in the air. Its origins and aims are obscure, not least to those whose lives are dedicated to its pursuit, but it appears to be partly a militarisation of global corporate rivalries and partly a manufactured spectacle, a mass distraction designed to engage the enervated attention of a weary populace. The majority of the film’s action (and I use the word loosely) takes place on the ground, slowly orbiting around the blank and affectless lives of Yuichi and his female commanding officer Suito and the sense of connection which they feel between them. The pace is very slow moving and may frustrate those eager for the more traditional anime pleasures of city crushing giant robots and deadly cyberpunk-doll heroines, or the wide-eyed wonder of the colourful fantasy worlds of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. These are all great, it goes without saying, but Oshii has something else to offer, and rewards the patient and receptive viewer. He is, in many ways, the Tarkovsky of the Japanese animation world, bringing a weighty and reflective (some would say ponderous) philosophical perspective to bear on genre material.

Landings - returning to the world
The film begins in the midst of an air-battle, planes threading through the sky in thrilling loops in a deadly dance of evasion and pursuit. One plane swiftly demonstrates its dominance, however, sending another plummeting into the ocean below. It glides into the foreground and we see the fierce logo of a black panther on its side. If this is a dog fight, then it is clearly set apart from the pack. From this all-action opening, we drift downward in a dreamlike descent through formless clouds, to the accompaniment of Kenji Kawai’s beautiful, Celtic-inflected title music. I gather from the credits at the end that the prominent harp theme is played by none other than Joanna Newsom. This would have been after the release and huge success of Ys, so I can only assume that her participation is an indication that she is a fan of Oshii’s work. We see the geometric, straight-edged patterns of a landing strip and the buildings of the base which surround it. The duality between earth and sky, between predetermined pattern and order and the open spaces of freedom is immediately established. This duality is embedded in the very surface form of the film. The sky sequences are hyper-real, using the latest computer-aided animation techniques, whereas the ground-based core of the story uses the more traditional craft of painted backdrops and hand-drawn frames. The airborne scenes thus have a transcendent shimmer, whilst the earthbound ones have a more static feel – the quality of slightly unreal figures moving about through artistically rendered landscapes. This suits the underlying sense of the film perfectly. The story retains a certain vagueness in terms of specific detail throughout, which leaves the central symbolism open to interpretation. The duality between earth and sky could be that between the imaginative and the practical sides of the mind; between the material and the spiritual aspects of human nature; or a representation of the Taoist division between the counterbalancing forces of earth and heaven, regarded as embodiments of female and male principles. Of course, it could encompass all of these and more.

Basset joy - Sasakura and hound
When we touch down on the earth for the first time in the film, the perspective shifts and we become aware that we have been seeing the world through the windows of an airplane cockpit as it descends from the sky. The pilot is our protagonist, Yuichi, who lights up cigarette as soon as he touches the ground and discards the match, which lies burnt and withered on the runway’s surface. The spent match is dwelt upon at significant length, and is representative of lives used up, briefly burning before they are extinguished and thrown aside. As with the cigarettes which the young characters smoke throughout and the pins in the bowling alley which they go to in the city, which are knocked down only to be mechanically set up again, the ball rumbling back down the chute, they are symbolic of the recurrent round of death and rebirth; a speeded-up version of the Buddhist view of cyclical existence. On landing, Yuichi is greeted by a basset hound who patters across the tarmac with his waddling run, ears and tongue flapping with joy, and in rather more restrained fashion by Sasakura, who is the base engineer. A woman of practicality and sense, she is the earth mother, the spirit of the earth. Basset hounds are Oshii’s signature creature, turning up in most of his films. They also represent a grounded sensibility (being, with their short, stubby legs naturally close to the ground), and a patient, simple wisdom which eludes his human characters, who are always seeking some sort of transcendent or hidden knowledge. In Oshii’s live action film Avalon, the (real) basset hound becomes almost an embodiment of divine love, and a guide towards a more authentic reality. The one moment of genuine, unguarded love and affection in the film comes when the protagonist, Ash, comes home to her bleak, Spartan flat and prepares food for her basset. It’s really quite upsetting when she subsequently returns to find that he has gone. Oshii is evidently a dog lover. In an accompanying interview on the dvd, he notes how the names which the pilots have on their helmets are all those of breeds of terrier. I have to say that, apart from Yuichi’s Cairn, I didn’t notice these, but Oshii explained such details by simply observing that he liked terriers.

Dream corridors - suspended light
The film’s existential cards are also laid on the table early on, during the first meeting of Yuichi and his commanding officer Suito. Yuichi comments that ‘the glare of the sun was unbearable’, which prompts Suito to ask him if he’s been reading Camus, referring to the French writer’s novel The Outsider, from which this line quotes. In fact, Yuichi is not an isolated figure like Camus’ protagonist Mersault but shares his condition of existential alienation with his fellow youthful pilots, and with Suito in particular. All of them live in an extended present, with almost no memory of (or particular concern for) their origins and little presentiment of what lies in their future, other than an awareness of the possibility of sudden death in the air. Their lives float in aimless suspension, and they drift through life as if in a dream. The world is like a waiting room, an intermediate state. The interior of their quarters is illuminated from without by shifting rays of light which create a hazy, unreal radiance through which characters walk as if it has a gelid substance, and which makes walls and floors seem insubstantial.

Sad cafe - displaced American Diner
The whole world of the film is suffused with a sense of belatedness, of everything having already been experienced to the extent that it has become worn and overfamiliar. The young pilots emerge out of nowhere, dropping from the pregnant sky in their new planes, and whilst they have vague intimations about there having been some ‘before’, they show no real curiosity about their past. Yuichi is told that his predecessor was called Jinroh Kurita, and intuits that this may have been one of his previous ‘incarnations’, but he remains indifferent in the face of such revelations. He merely accepts his condition and does nothing to actively seek out his true nature. The ‘Blauer Fisch’ music box in Suito’s office acts as a metaphor for the lives of the pilots, its revolving discs wound up to slowly reel through the same tune each time, its melody etched immutably into the copper surface. When the mechanism runs down, the tune decelerates and comes to a stop, only to be wound up once more to play in precisely the same manner. We witness the same pattern occurring with the pilot Yudagawa, a distinctive looking albino with a habit of reading the daily newspaper and fastidiously folding it once he’s finished. He is killed in an air battle, but another identical-looking pilot turns up shortly thereafter, with precisely the same habit. Only the name is different. A constant sense of déjà vu pervades the world; nothing seems new, everything is wearily familiar, even if it is apparently experienced for the first time. When Yuichi goes with his roommate Tokino to the café, he is told that he will like the meat pie, and seems to have some kind of direct sensory memory of its taste. The next time he goes to the café, alone, the pie is presented to him as his ‘usual’. Tokino’s solution to existential numbness is to lose himself in a daily round of sensual indulgence, of drink, food and sex. He instinctively and enthusiastically follows Blake’s dictum that the ‘road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’. He takes the newly arrived Yuichi up to the distinctly palatial mountainside brothel, where he is greeted as if he is a regular, returning customer, despite the fact that this is the first time he can remember coming here. Everybody seems to know him except himself.

Internal skies
The sky seems to offer the possibility of transcendence, some kind of heightened experience, or just escape. Yuichi’s eyes are repeatedly drawn to it. In the brothel, he gazes up at the decorated ceiling panel with its mural depicting the blue yonder interlaced with swirls of fabric which look like plane trails; and in the anonymous old city he looks up at the featureless night sky rather than at the venerable buildings which surround him, the lights pendant from electrical wires seeming like stars fallen to earth, almost in reach. But when he and the other pilots do take to the air in their propeller driven planes, the experience is depersonalised and dehumanised. They are locked into their cockpits, their vision limited to the narrow canopy above their heads. Their helmets and goggles make them indistinguishable one from the other, and their respirators look like muzzles, giving them an animalistic, dog-like appearance. Oshii’s terrier call names complete the allusion; these people are dogs of war, but small and well-trained ones, who do as they are told. When they are in the air, they even talk in a different, radio-distorted language – English (this if your watching the Japanese language version. This subtlety is lost in the US dub). There is a sense that their individuality has been subsumed by the aeronautic technology within which they are encased. The plane is the important thing, they are merely the software component.

Child's play - war as a game
The pilots are known as ‘kildren’, a name which conflates the words kill and children; Children who kill and who are killed. They are seemingly immortal and remain in an unchanging state of early adolescence until they meet an untimely end. And as Yudagawa’s return suggests, even this is not really the end. It is childhood as a state of non-blissful ignorance, but not of innocence. The tragedy of such a permanently arrested development is made clear by the visit to the base of Suito’s daughter Mizuki, who is rapidly approaching her in terms of physical age. Mizuki also has the strange appearance of being out of time, dressing like a Victorian child. When she asks Yuichi why the kildren don’t grow up, he replies that ‘it’s not that we can’t, it’s that we don’t’. This may indicate that there is an element of choice to their condition, but sounds more like denial; a reluctance to admit to an essential powerlessness to a bright and inquisitive young girl. Mitsuya, a young woman whom they meet at another base, urgently offers a potential explanation to Yuichi for the kildren’s existence, for their changeless, immortal youth. It’s a rational framework for a metaphorical expression of the human condition in a stagnant age defined by consumerism. Kildren was initially the product name of a drug developed by the Rostock Corporation, whose age retarding properties were ‘the accidental by-product of research into gene modulators’. They are all, essentially, corporate product. Mitsuya desperately needs an engaged recipient of her knowledge, someone to acknowledge it and share in her shock. Yuichi remains lying on his bed, his back to her, unstirring.

Waving the corporate flag - war tourism
The war which gives purpose to the kildren’s regimented lives is like a strange form of play for them, harnessed to the needs of the corporate state. This is suggested by the scene in which Yuichi and Tokino perch on toy coin-operated plane rides and reflexively bounce up and down on them as they engage in disconsolate conversation. The aims and moral or political bases of the war are obscure, but it seems to be a permanent and accepted facet of society. Just as the endless war in George Orwell’s 1984 is a way of conditioning the populace of Airstrip One and creating a pretext for its police state, so the conflict here is a way of maintaining the dominance of corporate blocs. The kildren fight for Rostock against their rival corporation, Lautern. People support either side as they would a sports team, an extension and intensification of brand loyalty. Reports are constantly broadcast on television and printed in papers owned by the respective corporations. A group of tourists turns up at the airfield base to see where the action happens, and Yuichi has to show them around, posing awkwardly for photos and blandly answering their questions (put to him in English, spoken with an English accent). One them tells him that they are ‘cheering for your team’. It is war as a spectator sport which takes place in safely neutral zones, over seas or barren moorland. People in cities look up to see squadrons of fighter planes rumbling overhead with no sense that they are in any imminent personal danger. In the cafes and bars, the war plays out in the background on TV screens, largely ignored or at best casually glanced at by the patrons. Major attacks are reported as they happen, with manoeuvres openly revealed by excited presenters. It is a fake conflict, carefully managed, given form and narrative, and perpetuated. Newspaper headlines such as ‘no warning was given’ and ‘let’s win for justice’ provide the necessary outrage and vague inspirational propoganda slogans. Suito tries to get Yuichi to question his role in the war, pointing out that he has no idea what he’s fighting for. It’s war as an expression of free market business, she suggests, literally making a killing, with the kildren as manufactured game pieces – corporate pawns. ‘It’s a game so we can kill and be killed legally’, she says. For the ever-passive Yuichi, however, it remains just a job, and the only purpose he has been given. ‘An interesting view’, is his disinterested response.

Old and New Worlds - Standing stones and convertibles
The world in which the film takes place is a patchwork landscape, both geologically and culturally. Beyond the base, there are coastal roads, moorlands and a solitary American diner. A large and stately baroque mansion in the hills, reached by a hidden side track, houses the brothel. There is also an old East European city (which seems to have Polish street signs), of the kind to which Oshii repeatedly returns, complete with his signature trams. These seem to be isolated components in a geography of surrealist juxtapositions. The locales to which the kildren travel often seem almost entirely bereft of other inhabitants. The streets of the old city are deserted, its trams empty, illuminated shells, the tables of its cafes and restaurants all free. When they do encounter adults, they are full of a paralysing anomie and seem incapable of lifting themselves from a weary, dispirited slump. One old man appears to have taken up permanent residence on the steps outside the American diner, crouched over with his head hung in despair. The HQ of the corporate military powers is located beneath a Ballardian concrete block rooted squarely and brutally on the edge of a sea cliff, in contemptuous defiance of the processes of erosion which have given the surrounding rocks more complex forms. Suito and Yuichi are blankly denied access to its hidden spaces and the secret knowledge which they might contain. Their subordinate position is made quite clear. They are not allowed to see where the adults play.

Riding the illuminated carriage of the night - trams and East European cities
When we see a large, Dr Strangelove style map of the world upon which a large scale raid is planned, it is clearly not our world (although earlier on, the front page of a newspaper clearly depicts the familiar outline of the British Isles, suggesting that the kildren's base is located in some version of this country - Scotland, maybe). There are two monumental continental land masses facing one another across an ocean; a simplified cartographical reproduction of bipolar global conflict, reducing it to its essentials. There are hints of a more deeply rooted culture in the landscape, as we glimpse stands of megaliths out on the moor, with spiral patterns carved into their stone surfaces. The non-kildren speak English (which is also the language of the TV broadcasts), whilst everyone at the base speaks Japanese (except when they’re in the air – perhaps for the benefit of viewers on the ground). Perhaps Oshii is making some comment on the cultural drift of his own country, its loss of identity in the wake of globalisation and the assimilation of dominant western styles and preferences.

The play of love and death
Yuichi and Suito develop a close bond as the film progresses, which wavers between the twin Freudian poles of Eros and Thanatos. Suito has clearly known and felt strongly drawn to Yuichi through previous incarnations. It becomes evident that she has also killed him before, and is prepared to do so again, something of which the other kildren are aware, and which creates strong feelings of distrust towards her. In fact, the killing was at the request of Yuichi’s predecessor, Junroh, and was, in its own strange way, an expression of love, inverted and manifested through the fulfilment of the death drive. Desire and death are tragic, closely intertwined bedfellows. In the end it is Suito who urges Yuichi to kill her. He fires the gun, providing the climax, but deliberately aims it just to the side so that it misses her head and shatters a pane of glass instead. ‘You have to live’, he tells her as she opens her eyes to the world once more, ‘until you can find a way to change things’. It’s a harder choice, but a necessary one.

The sign of the owl - guide and guardian
Death can be found easily enough in the sky, anyhow. The kildren are in awe of a pilot known as the Teacher. He is a figure of mythic status who defected from Rostock to the Lautern Corporation and has apparently grown beyond his arrested adolescence into adulthood – a dual betrayal. His lesson is on the limits of knowledge and the impossibility of transcendence and enlightenment. He is the harsh father figure of the sky, just as Sasakura is the nurturing mother figure of earth. The savage black panther on the side of his predatory plane is the opposite of the gentle, soppy and sorrowful basset hound which is Sasakura’s familiar. There is a third, intermediary figure, known as Fooco, whom Yuichi meets in the brothel. An intense, witchy figure, she has a tattoo of an owl above her breast, the creature of Athena. She is a guide, a protector and a source of wisdom. She arrives in the middle of the moor, miles from anywhere, to pick up the wounded Suito and take her home when she crashes to earth after her encounter with the Teacher. Somehow, she knows when she will be needed, and takes Yuichi under her wing almost as soon as he returns to the world.

Watching the skies - waiting for the return
Finally, Yuichi decides to confront the Teacher, knowing that it will probably result in his death. He takes to the sky in order to kill his father, as he puts it in starkly Freudian terms. His short round on earth has taught him something this time, however, despite his passivity throughout. ‘You can change the side of the road that walk down everyday’, he muses as he flies along the coastline, looking down at the winding path following its contours. ‘Even if the road is the same, you can still see new things. Is that not enough in life? Or is it not enough because that’s all there is?’ It is. The earth, not the sky, was the locus of enlightenment all along. His plane is torn apart by the Teacher’s unforgiving bullets.

Canine wisdom - the spent match
After the credits have rolled (to the sound of Kenji Kawaii’s beautiful, plangent score) a new plane lands on the familiar runway. We see a figure from the rear climbing out of the cockpit. His helmet identifies him as being a Norfolk terrier now. He lights a cigarette and throws the spent match onto the tarmac, where it lies, bent, black and shrivelled. Sasakura walks out from the hangar, turning wearily away when she sees him. He walks into Suito’s office (still viewed from the rear) and introduces himself as Isamo Hiiragi. Suito looks up and dispassionately greets him. ‘I’ve been waiting for you’.

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