- War for Entertainment:The Sky Crawlers
One of the premier auteurs of anime, Oshii Mamoru has won awards, the hearts of fans, and the respect of critics and scholars the world over. His 2008 film The Sky Crawlers, based on the 2001 novel of the same name by Mori Hiroshi, breaks with some of the director's previous methods of storytelling while retaining his essential worldview.
Set in an alternate modern Europe, The Sky Crawlers follows several Kildren, eternal adolescents who are reborn after death, ostensibly losing their memories of their previous incarnation. The Kildren are fighter pilots for the Rostock company, which is under contract to Europe to fight a "war as entertainment" against the North American-contracted Laurent corporation and its own immortal pilots. As part of this perpetual war game, pilot Kannami Yuichi is assigned to a small coastal Rostock base in England under the command of female ace pilot Kusanagi Suito. Kannami eventually realizes that he is the reincarnation of one Kurita Jinrō, a past lover of Kusanagi whom she murdered and whose plane she now orders him to fly.
"Kusanagi" is of course the surname of the cyborg protagonist of Oshii's seminal film Ghost in the Shell, and a war game is central to his live-action film Avalon; in The Sky Crawlers the director exercises both his antiwar sentiments and his preoccupation with the nature of existence. Oshii told Wired magazine at the release of Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence that in his view "the 'I' is not just one person, but the sum of everything you love—your dog, your wife, your child, your computer, your doll. This led me to the conclusion that the self is empty. What is essential is this network of connections."1 In contrast to the idea of the self as the central core of an independent existence, a networked self is necessarily fragmentary and provisional, predicated on others. Innocence depicts this idea from the perspective of the empty center, its protagonist Batou, while The Sky Crawlers explores it from the perspective of the web. Like reloading a computer from a backup external hard drive, reborn Kildren become the same people they were in previous lives, falling back into old relationships under new names: their physical mannerisms, personalities, and connections with others remain unchanged, since their bodies are physically identical to their former selves.
In The Sky Crawlers, Oshii takes up a perennial motif of his fellow auteur Miyazaki Hayao—flight—but with a difference. Whereas for Miyazaki's characters, as Patrick Drazen has noted, flying is an intimate activity that deepens their interpersonal relationships on the ground,2 in The Sky Crawlers flight is explicitly marked as a separate, inimical sphere: when airborne the pilots speak English, while on the ground they speak Japanese almost exclusively. Precisely because of this alienating difference, it is debatable whether flight grants the Kildren a temporary escape from or a temporary union with their selves: when a civilian asks Kannami where he keeps leaving his heart, he replies, "Maybe in the sky." Since Oshii believes the self is fundamentally empty, what exactly does Kannami mean? Certainly when flying, the Kildren draw on their lifetimes' accumulated physical memories and unconscious skills, which may be the "heart" Kannami means, but since each [End Page 304] Kildren's combat skills are fundamentally personal, it seems more likely that their hearts lie in the divisions they make with others in the sky, flying, fighting, and killing—together.
Nor is flying the only aspect of the characters' isolation. People consistently refuse to make eye contact, and shots are framed to leave characters halfway out of the camera's view. Less subtly, the inability or unwillingness of the Kildren on the base to touch or even to acknowledge the head mechanic's basset hound marks their isolation not only from normal humans but from each other, especially given Oshii's famous love for his basset hound, Gabriel. (Dogs modeled after Gabriel appear in almost all of Oshii's works.) The head mechanic, a middle-aged woman who has...