To my mind, few other filmmakers push expressionism as far as Oshii Mamoru, the director of Ghost in the Shell, does in his animated works. He extends existential states of being to the mise-en-scène, so that the world of his latest film, The Sky Crawlers, adapted from a book by Mori Hiroshi, is beset with the tedium and oneric dullness of the inner lives of its characters. Where the traditional expressionism in film of the 1910s took interior psychological states and envisioned them in the exterior world of the film (in sets, lighting, camerawork, and performances), Oshii takes inner states of being and colors the world with that state. Call it existential expressionism. So when the teenager fighter pilots of The Sky Crawlers feel like they are trapped in an unchanging, indistinguishable void of random air combat and between-mission cool downs until they die, the film takes on this very state of being by becoming ponderous, dull, and drained of vitality.
It may take a while before this quality eventually finds roots in Sky Crawlers’ slow, sideline style of exposition and plot development, but when Oshii finally does explain his motivation there is point of revelation, when suddenly this dreary world is given meaning. In a traditional anime convention, the pilots are actually genetically engineered so that they don’t age: stuck forever their teens, they have the spry reactions of the youth, as well as their follower mentality, not thinking to question much around them. They fight in an unclear time period that mixes WWII Britain with 1970s society into an almost whimsical and certainly fantastic—though subdued—alternate history where in order to maintain a sense of peace throughout the world, rival corporations wage war on each other with the kids as their disposable fighters. This would be the setting for an action film in anyone’s hands other than those of Oshii, who prefers to parcel out the exposition of this world and the way it works in tidbits around the edges of the movie, heightening to an even greater degree the sense of dreamy indistinctness around the fighter pilots, as if the extent of their world beyond their isolated air base was nothing but flat expanses of plains trailing off into the distant haze.
Oshii is actually getting at something very specific here, using these replenishable generic clones who never age and then are killed in corporate war as the setting for the first kindling flares of consciousness and existential doubt. Normally simply getting up, flying, and then hanging around, the presence of a teenage commanding officer who has lived longer than any other teenage clones allows her to see the situation with a greater deal of critical scrutiny. While this inquiry immediately addresses the whys and how-comes of the corporate war that frames the action, this war is likewise a frame for The Sky Crawlers to push at what circumstances inspire anyone—and youths especially—to start asking questions about the world around them and what they are doing there. The beautiful clarity of the aerial sequences, using a mixture of CGI planes and hand-drawn pilots, escapes the questions of the world by staging interchangeable and indeterminate battles of vague purpose, zero morality, and arbitrary, fruitless outcome. Back on the ground, restive but awakening hormones and curiosity about the continued disappearance and reappearance of similar pilots push our pensive, distant hero closer and closer to asking just what it is all for—fighting, loving, living. The Sky Crawlers slowly, magnificently builds this unhappy awakening by cranking Oshii’s existential expressionism to the maximum, burrowing into the monochrome, monotonous world of a deadened mind and spirit, and gradually cracking the façade of mindlessness by inspiring curiosity in the strangeness of the great, wide world.