If you're an anime fan, you've probably come to know what to expect from director Mamoru Oshii: big, kinetic action sequences, deep philosophical musings ... and basset hounds. You'll see all three of the above in The Sky Crawlers, a sprawling, big-budget endeavor that manages to both deliver both compelling action and some veiled, but extremely pointed, criticism of how otaku, the most die-hard of anime and manga fans, behave.
The Sky Crawlers takes place in a world parallel to our own—similar, yet different. This approach is not a new one for Oshii (his Jin-roh series of films takes a similar tack, as does the outstanding Royal Space Force), but rather than muse on what a fascist Japanese state might look like, he paints a picture of a world where warfare isn't practiced by the common man anymore. However, military engagements still take place; instead of being politically motivated, though, they exist to entertain a bored population. But these battles, modern as they may be, still require human soldiers and pilots. That's where the Kildren come in.
Kildren are, according the movie's lore, artificially created people. They emerge as fully-formed adolescents and do not age. They're apparently so easy to manufacture that they are regarded as disposable by the public; unsurprisingly, the Kildren are quick to adopt a similarly bleak attitude about their fate. Enter Yuichi Kannami, an ace pilot just arriving at the Rostock Air Base, facing almost certain eventual death at the hands of the opposing Lautern forces with a cigarette in one hand and a beer bottle in the other.
Yuichi harbors some vague curiosity about his new surroundings—he's intrigued by Suito Kusanagi, his icy Kildren captain, and unsettled by the fate of his predecessor, who died in an incident that happened outside of the theater of war. But even he is quick to succumb to the lassitude that seemingly grips all of his compatriots. The pilots do not have the chance to form relationships (Yuichi's wingmen, in particular, tend to die in combat with terrifying abruptness and frequency), and so they do not bother. Ultimately, the only thing in Yuichi's world is the next skirmish, and whether he'll face the Teacher, a Red Baron-like ace on the opposing side.
Taken at face value, The Sky Crawlers is a fine piece of work. Its pretense is both engrossing and unsettling, its high-flying aerial battles flash and crackle, and its conclusion stridently bucks the kind of ending you'd see in a regular action film. But I should note that there are metaphors at work here that will not be immediately evident to the casual viewer. In this critic's opinion, The Sky Crawlers serves as a pretty scathing indictment of Japanese otaku; like this special breed of obsessive fan, Kildren live a life of comforting repetition; even though their lives are ultimately self-destructive, they are reluctant to push forward and embrace new ideas. Even Kusanagi, Yuichi's commanding officer, lives a fujoshi's (female otaku) dream, surrounded by an inexhaustible supply of bewitching, bored, pliant young men.
The Sky Crawlers is yet another entry in the pantheon of great anime films on Blu-ray. I should also point out its fine cast; the Japanese version features notables like Chiaki Kuriyama (Kill Bill) and the Oscar-nominated Rinko Kikuchi (Babel), but even the English version is quite respectable, with uncredited portrayals by Stephanie Sheh (Bleach) and Michael Sinterniklaas (The Venture Bros.). Visually, The Sky Crawlers is unequivocally excellent. Thematically, it's a little harder to pin down. Director Oshii does not shy away from the chance to make his viewers think; here, he theorizes that war itself is a critical element of the human condition and cannot be faked. I think perhaps Oshii was being sarcastic when he said last year that The Sky Crawlers is his most mainstream-friendly film, but nevertheless, it's a film that anyone who enjoys great science fiction animation should see.