Variety Limits

I’ve often been told that I cherish variety in my entertainment (particularly my anime) to an unusual degree,  and if there’s one anime I find myself getting into disagreements over more than anything else, it’s The Sky Crawlers (second might be Xam’d: Lost Memories).

Directed by Oshii Mamoru of Ghost in the Shell fame, I reviewed The Sky Crawlers favorably, noting that the way it’s able to effectively instill in the audience the same sense of mind-numbing monotony that the characters themselves experience is something quite impressive. Of course, that also makes it difficult to watch, something that can bore you beyond the point of no return, so the debates over the quality of The Sky Crawlers tends to come down to the following question: how entertaining should entertainment be?

The argument against The Sky Crawlers is that you can make a film which conveys that sense of monotony in its characters without having to drag the audience down with it, but my feeling has always been that this is just not the same effect. However, what I realize as well is that, as a person who highly values variety of content and concepts in my anime, it’s not so much that I think the approach taken by Oshii’s film is superior, that there is indeed something inherently more artistic about making the audience live that boredom, but rather that it is a valid approach to take in making a work of art (or entertainment). In other words, I would not want all of my anime to be like The Sky Crawlers, and I do not put it above other anime as I do not prize experimentation above all else: I simply like the fact that something like The Sky Crawlers exists.

Broadening the point of view to not just focus on something as esoteric as The Sky Crawlers, I have to wonder how much people are willing to welcome greater variety in anime provided they get enough of the types of anime they enjoy. We can talk about how there’s too much of X or Y genre of anime and how it might be stifling the kinds we enjoy, but what if that wasn’t the case, and the popular thing was the niche and vice versa? Is any imbalance problematic, or are “problematic” anime okay if they’re in small doses?

Reductive Production

As of late, I’ve felt that quite a few anime creators have been taking a reductive approach to determining what is necessary for a piece of fiction to actually work. They’re examining the innards of animation as a story-telling device, and removing seemingly vital organs in order to determine whether it was a heart or if it was just the tonsils. The three most prominent examples I can think of are Miyazaki, Oshii, and Kyoto Animation.

Miyazaki asks, “Do I really need a cohesive narrative when I just want to illustrate a series of events in animation?” and then creates Ponyo.

Oshii asks, “Does my movie really need to be actively engaging when I want to make a movie entirely about tedium?” and then creates Sky Crawlers.

Kyoto Animation asks, “Can a work be considered ‘new’ if everything BUT the story itself is entirely redone?” and then creates the Endless Eight portion of Haruhi.

In every instance here, creators are using their reputations to put surprisingly experimental animations in a public setting for mass consumption. In the case of Oshii and Miyazaki, it’s in the theater, and for Kyoto Animation it’s on TV in the form of one of the most popular anime in recent years. And with these experiments, they are asking a rather weighty question: what exactly is fiction? They’re asking themselves, asking the audience, asking the industry, and depending on the answer they receive, we may see more works like this or less.

How do you feel about this? Should creators be using such public settings to experiment to such an extent?

I feel like in every instance here, creators are using their reputations to put surprisingly experimental animations in a public setting for mass consumption. In the case of Oshii and Miyazaki, it’s in the theater, and for Kyoto Animation it’s on TV in the form of one of the most popular anime in recent years.

Planes that Never Land: The Sky Crawlers

Oshii Mamoru, director of Ghost in the Shell and its sequel, is very well known in both the American anime fandom and the American artist’s community for his striking visuals, attention to environment and detail, and philosophy-charged narratives. With that in mind, I attended the US premiere showing of Oshii’s latest movie, The Sky Crawlers, adapted from a novel by Mori Hiroshi. Even if it didn’t turn out to be a good movie, I at least knew that I was in for something interesting. In recent years, the declining birthrate has beeen a major issue in Japanese society, and a lot of the suspects fingered have to do with the idea that the youth of japan is having a difficult time accepting the responsibilities of adulthood. The Sky Crawlers, being a movie about literally eternal youths,  seeks to address this topic.

The Sky Crawlers is set in the middle of a long war where battles are mainly fought up in the sky by small groups of planes. Kildren, humans who cannot age past a certain point, are a common sight on the battlefield. Kannami Yuuichi, a skilled pilot called into a small base in the middle of nowhere as a replacement, is himself a kildren. Upon arriving, Kannami is initially struck by a strange sense of déjà vu, especially around the female base commander and fellow kildren Kusanagi Suito, but is quickly drawn into the daily routine of a war with no end in sight, unsure of where life will take those who refuse to grow up.

Whatever the intended message is, the delivery used in Sky Crawlers is very unusual. Yes, there are characters. Yes, there is a plot that I’ve described to you. How much they actually matter to the movie as a whole, however, is something I am unable to determine, at least not without a second viewing. Major plot points are delivered quickly and casually, with no clear distinction that they’ve just occurred, and overall the purpose of the movie seems to go beyond telling a story about people doing things to achieve a goal. Whether it’s fighting, talking, relaxing, or having sex, the events in the movie and the elements of the story all intentionally blend together into a disorienting haze, like trying to recall what you ate or what you wore exactly ten years ago.

On a visual level, the movie is as expected of Oshii, who places a strong emphasis on environmental shots. Like his more recent works, Oshii continues to push the incorporation of 3-D and 2-D animation, and though the difference is glaring at first, your eyes will eventually adjust to it and treat it as being a natural part of the movie. The Sky Crawlers also does a very good job of making the viewer lose all sense of proportion. A seemingly endless sky separates one base from another, and for all the advanced technology incorporated into the planes, when they disappear into the clouds they might as well not exist.

I came into The Sky Crawlers expecting at least something interesting, but what the movie did was destroy my sense of distinction between interest and boredom. I kept watching, unable to tell if I was being entertained or if my mind was drifting away. My memories of this movie are blurry at best, and I can’t help but feel that this was the intention all along.