Thursday, 4 December 2008

The Sky Crawlers (スカイ・クロラ) (2008)

The literary genres known as "science fiction" and "fantasy" are subject to strict boundary maintenance, least of all by their fans and audiences. Yet these boundaries tend to collapse in the face of realisation that both genres are merely two sides of the same coin: speculative fiction, and deal primarily in the same currency of world-building. For every JRR Tolkien, with their endless maps and faux historical footnotes of Middle-Earth turned into books in their own right, there is a Frank Herbert, with their endless maps and faux historical footnotes of the Galactic Empire turned into books in their own right.

So: the enterprise of world-building as an inherent and key part of both science fiction and fantasy. You build a world, then set a story in that world, and then let the story unfold in that world, with every difference and peculiarity of that world serving as a womb where the story gestates. One could build an entire world from scratch; the result is wondrous and alien: fire-breathing dragons and scions of Cain, space-faring alien civilisations beating off or dealing with the problem of relativity.

Or one could take our world, make just one or two changes in its parameters and let the ball roll from there, to see how the pins will fall, and how far they fall: social culture, individual psychology, ethics... The Sky Crawlers belongs to this mode of science fiction: speculative fiction as an extended thought experiment.

At its very basic, The Sky Crawlers is a genre flick: a WW1/WW2 flying ace movie. Yet it is also an extended thought experiment; set in a world where only 2 details differ from our own (one of which is stated in the poster, and the other is very different from what other reviews state) the ball rolls, the pins fall, and what we know should go into such a genre flick is made new again.

That's one method of measuring the genius that went into writing The Sky Crawlers. Another is to consider the subtlety of how the story is told. Much of anime and science fiction films make it far too clear how their alternate world is set up: you are invited by the 5th minute of the narrative to witness the construction cranes behind the world-building, introduced to the authoritarian villain behind the new world, who is then confronted and denounced by the angsty teenage protagonist before the end credits. There is nothing of this sort in The Sky Crawlers.

Where much of science fiction and anime storytelling has centred on show and tell, The Sky Crawlers believes in letting the audience infer from what is shown from the periphery of where the 'real action' is. The movie moves at a leisurely pace that forces the mind to question and speculate on the significance of each detail that is shown. Even if you do get the story by the end, the story is so subtly written and subdued: the horrors of the war in The Sky Crawlers, as well as the full story, can only be gleamed from a second viewing.

Animation-wise, The Sky Crawlers bucks some nascent trends in Japanese animation. Sole use of 3D CGI occurs for dogfight scenes, but the rest of the anime is predominantly 2D-CGI. The look, as with everything else in the movie, is calculated to take the focus off the showiness of science fiction, onto introducing the viewer to the subtle aesthetics and intellectual appreciation of extreme thought experiments.

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