The Sky Crawlers seem to live up to its name, that it really took its time to tell a story, but in doing so, allowed for the narrative to sink in. After all, it's brought to us by Mamoru Oshii, and as far as his filmography goes, this Japanese maestro's works is often deep, and have more than enough room for multiple viewings, each time allowing you to take away something different, or unnoticed from the previous time round.
Adapted by Chihiro Itou from Hiroshi Mori's story, you could see the themes that this movie had that would interest Oshii to be at the helm. They are nothing relatively new, as fans would see some similarities in the characters' struggle about their own existentialism, and what I enjoyed most, the connected thread between war and peace. It's like the notion of having to prepare for war that you get to enjoy some peace, and I guess every National Serviceman would have heard that at one point or another during their tour of duty.
While one can find some distinct parallels from Americanized films that pay homage or blatantly ripping off Oshii's earlier works, what I thought could have been toned down, was how toward the end, subtlety wasn't the rule of thumb, and almost every theory got explained verbatim. There were enough unanswered questions along the way to tickle your brain, leaving you guessing and drawing your own conclusions, but there were at least two crystal clear moments that decided to tell all and show all, taking away most of the fun. So in a way, you have less room to maneuver your thoughts during that after-movie discussion with friends.
I could imagine and understand any kid sitting inside a theatre hall having absolutely no patience for this masterpiece. Except for the opening sequence which had packed in the action at Top Gun pace, one's notion that this was going to be a war-action movie gets thrown out the window within 10 minutes. Naturally it has the potential to go in that direction by playing up and extending the aerial dogfights, but to do so would be to dumb this film down a lot of notches.
Granted its characters are pilots, and kid pilots at that, "Kildren" (I would like to think of it as Killer-Children) who don't seem to grow up, get careers in Corporations that seem to be waging war on behalf of nations, and pilot propeller-powered warplanes to engage their enemy in attacking and defending routines. Heck, there's even a Red Baron equivalent as the resident bogeyman too! They smoke, they kill (up in the air) and they make love, with nary an adult batting an eyelid, that you would deem them all turning a blind eye to their kids' shenanigans (of course there's a reason for this). Imagine the adults being quite nonchalant, and some even supportive, of kids fighting wars while they go about their daily lives, being quite unaffected other than being a feature in news bulletins.
So we follow the adventures, and mysteries weaved amongst the characters of Kannami Yuichi (voiced by Ryo Kase), base commander Kusanagi (Rinko Kikuchi of Babel fame, who had also collaborated in Oshii's omnibus movie Kill under the segment Assault Girl 2). The remaining supporting characters serve out their primary purpose, such as Tokino (Shosuke Tanihara) as the wingman/buddy, and Mitsuya (Chiaki Kruiyama, Kill Bill's Gogo Yubari) as the tell-all mouthpiece, which I thought that even without, the coda after the end credits roll would have summed it all up nicely.
This is Japanese anime, so its quality is excellent, with some really photo-realistic moments, and aerial dogfights that look as real as if they really built those planes and shot them in mid air. John Woo would also be proud at how balletic the shoot-em-ups can get, pulling back its punches as well to avoid any explicitness in its violence. The main theme of the soundtrack is extremely hypnotic and would linger on you for some time after the end credits roll. After all, it's by Kenji Kawai.
This is not an action movie, period. If that's the kind of movie you're expecting, then my advice would be to save your ticket money. If you're looking toward something that's more contemplative, and dealing with themes that would make you think along the way (until the two mentioned moments where the hints get more obvious), and maybe even appreciate life a little more, then march up to the box office when this opens next week. Highly recommended, and definitely a contender when I compile the top ten list for the year!