“I turned 55 last year,” notes Mamoru Oshii. “When you’re young, there’s so many things you want to do, so many mountains to climb…. Then, it was like I woke up. Suddenly, I’m the adult on the production, and the staff are all younger than me. I thought, very deeply, very strongly, that this film had something to say to the young people of today.”
Oshii is speaking of a common theme in science fiction all around the world, ever since the end of WW2 – the concept that today’s children have never had it so good, and yet don’t appreciate their luck. “Modern Japanese youth live in a country without hunger, without war, without revolution. They don’t have to worry about clothes or food or a home. Everything is just handed to us. But on the flipside, I can’t help but wonder if that is really a sort of misfortune…. Now I’ve got to this age, I wonder if this easy living isn’t doing them more harm than good.”
Hiroshi Mori’s Sky Crawlers was the first of several books to be published about the “Kildren”, clone-like soldiers in an unspecified future war, who fight similar artificial people in what is either the most savage reality TV show ever made, or a genuine war fought by proxy in order to avoid damage to “real” people. Although the origin of the Kildren is no real secret, they are discouraged from dwelling on the implications. Nevertheless, many react to their existence with apathy – after all, what difference does it make if they die in battle if a replacement will be rolled off the production line within days?
Hiroshi Mori’s books have sold over eight million copies in Japanese, and are clearly immensely popular with the young. But director Mamoru Oshii wished to turn Sky Crawlers into a film for his own purposes, regarding it as “a work that should be made into a movie for young people now,” not because it is a book they read, but because, in Oshii’s view, of the attitudes they hold.
Although Sky Crawlers was the first in the sequence of five novels to be published, it is actually one of the last stories in the chronological narrative. Other books, telling the stories of Kusanagi’s first meeting with the Teacher, the fate of Kannami’s predecessor, and the aftermath of the events in Sky Crawlers, were deliberately released out of order, as part of Mori’s desire to make it clear to readers that the books were more rewarding if read out of sequence, leaving the reader as much in the dark about past events as newly-arrived Kildren.
“I guess I got the offer for the film rights about three years ago,” Mori recalls, “when I was writing the second book in the series. I’d always thought that I’d written something unfilmable.” The news came in that Production IG, celebrating its 21st year of operations, wanted to turn Sky Crawlers into a film. Mori was initially reluctant.
“Then I heard that Mamoru Oshii was going to be the director. I thought to myself, ‘Ah, well if it’s going to be Mamoru Oshii, then we’ll be okay.’ I remembered in particular his work on Avalon, and I thought this is a guy I know who will bring out the beauty in my work.”
Although Japanese press releases claimed that over 60 people were auditioned for each role, the cast list is a remarkable assembly of top names from the Japanese acting world. Mamoru Oshii himself admits that there was no contest whatsoever for the role of base chief Suito, claiming that he had always wanted the Oscar-nominated Rinko Kikuchi for the role, on the basis of nothing more than “intuition”. There are also some famous names in tiny cameo roles. Kill Bill’s Chiaki Kuriyama makes a brief appearance as Midori. The barman in the local café is played for just a few lines by the ubiquitous Naoto Takenaka (Shall We Dance, Ping Pong, etc etc), star of over a hundred films, and ten times nominated for the Japanese Academy Award.
There have been several cosmetic changes from the book. Some seem designed to make the film seem less like animation and more real – for example, the book’s version of the groupie Fuuko has pink hair, whereas in the anime she is given a more realistic hue. The location was also moved – in the books, the pilots fight in Japanese airspace, whereas asides in the movie openly state that it is taking place in the European battle theatre. Company records (and DVD extras) show “location hunting” for the film took place in Ireland and in Mamoru Oshii’s beloved Poland, where he previously shot the live-action movie Avalon.
Mamoru Oshii’s film version recalls the obsession with the “little people” that characterised his earlier work. In Patlabor, the characters famously arrived at every action scene a little too late. The big over-arching movie plot in Patlabor 2 (an attempted coup), happens largely in the background while the protagonists struggle to keep up and make sense of it. Similarly, in Ghost in the Shell, the obvious high concept (a sentient virus attempts to defect) is only hinted at or obliquely referenced for the bulk of the movie, while the cast occupy themselves with the collateral damage. Sky Crawlers continues this theme, with the great scheme of the ongoing war of little consequence to the characters involved in it, and hence only referred to in occasional newspaper headlines, and in comments made by visiting tourists.
Like much of modern anime, the world of the Sky Crawlers is steeped in adolescent pursuits – the pilots smoke, drink and have sex with a curious lack of affect, and Kannami in particular perpetually claims that he is “just a kid” and hence has no reason to think in the long term. It is almost as if, like many war movie enthusiasts, he is in love with the idea of war itself, not for the thrill of battle, but for the excuse it gives him to have no thought for the long-term. The Kildren, we are told, never age, although they themselves seem confused by this – Kannami acts as if such a statement is a reference to the chances of him getting killed at any moment. Other pilots behave as if it is a literal truth, that they will forever be teenagers. There are elements here of the great nihilist anime Grey: Digital Target, in whose characters similarly strove for victory in an unwinnable war, with ever escalating enemies taking on the characteristics of a computer game. The only way to win was to refuse to take part. As in Grey, Sky Crawlers has an epilogue that hammers this point home – stay until the end of the credits!
The character of Suito Kusanagi has a different take on these things. She is a mother, albeit a reluctant and somewhat indifferent one. She also appears to have attempted to break the cycle of postings and fightings, and alludes to having loved, and indeed killed, Kannami’s predecessor – a pilot with a different name, but of whom Kannami appears to be the latest in a long line of clones.
For all these reasons, critics in both Japan and America have read into Sky Crawlers a subtle commentary on modern society, in particular the hedonistic, self-indulgent consumption that exerts such a strong pull on anime production itself. The pilots on the base remain perpetually young (in their deeds and behaviours), providing entertainment for a crowd of English-speaking strangers who laud their achievements but seem strangely insensible about the pressures that they are under. As the aficionado already knows, not every anime is a high budget, thoughtful film based on a novel like Sky Crawlers. Far too many are empty, brash recyclings of timeworn formulae, trotted out to sell model kits and decals to a dwindling fanbase. Such a suggestion casts the pilots in Sky Crawlers in a new light, not as callow, uncaring soldiers in a war they do not comprehend, but as the champions of anime itself, a cry for help from the creatives who wish for something better, deeper, and more worthy of their unquestionable talents.