Sky Crawlers: Heaven (Valhalla) on Earth

sky crawlers suito mizuki counting the returning planes

[This post will spoil you. Watch The Sky Crawlers first, (I recommend it!) then read this post]

Humans cannot deal with perfection, in this case, peace. Just as the copper-tops, the living batteries that power the mechanized dystopia of The Matrix cannot be placated by an utopian dream and require a narrative of rebellion and conflict, the humans in Mamoru Oshii’s Sky Crawlers cannot have a perfect peace. If the machine overlords in The Matrix created a messiah program much the same way the Anti-Spirals maintained a Spiral Champion program in the world of Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, there is a program to maintain equilibrium in the world of Sky Crawlers. In this case though, it is self-inflicted.

The narrative complex of the film postulates that war must happen, conflict must happen, somehow, somewhere. This is what will maintain the peace of the prosperous. In Sky Crawlers, the business of war have been outsourced to corporations.

First, a false hope:

Even on the same old road, you can tread on new ground. Even on the same old road, the scenery isn’t the same. Can’t things just be that way? Or is it no good, because that’s all it is?

Kannami Yuichi

Since the war, the violence itself is a program, it has rules; and one of these rules is the implementation of an undefeatable enemy. In this case, an ace — whose plane’s fuselage is decorated by a black panther.

Among these rules are a set that governs the use of corporate assets — including the skillset of its pilots and personnel. The corporations use humans called Kildren, who are in some way like automatons. They are somewhat programmed to forever stay in the present, to exist only to fight — genetically designed to live eternally in adolescence until shot down in an air battle or an “Air Show” to be presented commercially as a peacetime entertainment, for which they are reproduced. Part of their personality modification is due to whatever identity they were born with, they share with that of — in some minor way of the deceased pilot they replaced. This is how the corporation re-deploys their intellectual property: the skill and talent of their pilots.

This way they maintain the endless war, the same fighters fight the same dogfights to maintain the equilibrium. This is where we find our protagonists, playing out their lives as avatars of fighting heroes, of death gods.

sky crawlers chekov's newspaperWhere Chekov trades his gun for a newspaper [->]

It is an upsetting presentation of reincarnation. You are not alone. Your identity is subordinate to that of the warrior that lives through your movements. The skills you have are not your own. Your preferences are not your own. Your habits and tendencies, your decisions and desires, all are accountable to you and yet never wholly yours. And since your memories blur in the haze of weak recollection, the love you remember, the childhood, the firsts of firsts — all disappear, or matter not.

And this is in some way an ideal. Forever coming-of-age, you are forever in the present. Your movements are pure and done ‘with no mind.’ Your ego isn’t entirely yours, why hold on to it? You are here to fight. And you fight your pointless orgy of fighting. Is this a Samsara too? It is Valhalla on Earth. But you choose to behold it as the illusion. You fight the program on its own terms.

sky crawlers dogfightsky crawlers set piece battle

The way to freedom in Sky Crawlers is simpler compared to The Matrix. Just as in TTGL Simon need only destroy the Anti Spirals, Kannami need only defeat the unbeatable Black Panther, the Teacher — the Ace of the rival corporation. What I find very impressive about this movie is that it doesn’t spell it out at all. The plan isn’t that well-thought-out. I feel that it would have to be if it had any chance of working. To not explain the mechanics of success would be remiss on the part of the narrative.

The fact that it was doomed, the program wins, for it is a good program. There is no enemy. The wars are for the good of humanity. Humans made this program. This is for peace, this is for the best. A conflict existed all of a sudden — when I start rooting for the individuals for the sake of not so much their freedom, but for the possibility of a love story. Suito has a daughter. I want a future for her that isn’t weird. Soon enough she will age while her mother remains the same. She will never die unless the Teahcer kills her, or the next avatar of her doomed love.

I mention conflict because I am rooting against my own interests. I am human. This program exists to preserve the utopia that I live in (assuming I am part of this narrative). While there is no indication that Kannami breaking the rules of the program will result in the breakdown of the whole thing, I’m not interested in risking utopia for the sake of the loves of avatars. But Sky Crawlers succeeded in making me care for these characters, slowly and carefully, and sometimes painstakingly. Everybody plays their role in the program, making them doomed and sad, sympathetic because there is little trace of bitterness and cynicism.

sky crawlers suito mizuki the waiting must end

The aircraft have limited fuel capacity, and therefore limited flight duration. This is very useful to know when to stop waiting for Godot. Stand the rescue team down, we know when a bird isn’t going to come back. Humanity wins, and the greater peace is preserved. Um, yay?

Further Reading

Valhalla, should be called GARhalla by now [->]

Samsara, where you disabuse all happily ever afters (why not happy now and forever after?) [->]

Perhaps Kannami, need only reflect and see that liberation is not the disruption of Samsara, but the achievement of Moksha. Sisyphus has his boulder, humans have Windows Vista, and Suito has the avatars of her doomed loves. However, like Camus I choose to see Sisyphus as a happy man, and so I choose to see Suito finding her Moksha through acceptance. She’s doesn’t know how good she’s got it: smoking packs of cigarettes with no consequences to her health. This too is Heaven on Earth.

The world continues with this review [->]

About ghostlightning

I entered the anime blogging sphere as a lurker around Spring 2008. We Remember Love is my first anime blog. Click here if this is your first time to visit WRL.
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15 Responses to Sky Crawlers: Heaven (Valhalla) on Earth

  1. gaguri says:

    I think this is without a doubt my favourite post from you 😀

    Reading your post made me realise just how much attention and care has been given into creating the setting (which I guess I didn’t fully appreciate, even after 2nd viewing x_X).

    For me though, Kannami achieved freedom by the fact that he broke the cycle and challenged the Teacher. He finally soared through the sky, not crawling under it in the fear of being brought down. I wonder if actually bringing down the Teacher would have the same impact as bringing down the anti-spirals.

    I know we don’t exactly have very similar taste in anime but glad to find some anime that impresses us both 😀

    • ghostlightning says:

      Thank you very much!

      Using your example (which I like very much), Kannami may not get the results of freedom, but there may exist a free act within the space of all that (pre)determination going on. I liken it to Moses never reaching the promised land he promised the people of Israel.

      While Kannami didn’t deliver Suito and the rest into freedom, his heroism is like Moses. He never comes home, compared to a hero like Odysseus — who does, and triumphantly. Which is more heroic? Is there an additional heroism that comes with tragedy? I don’t think he broke the cycle at all, as he is an avatar of a pilot that attacks the Teacher, though his immediate predecessor didn’t. Come to think of it, Jiroh might be the one who broke the cycle, though not really because it was an abortion rather than a breakthrough.

      We may have other similarities, I value Lafiel to be the greatest of all female anime characters (my Minmay worship notwithstanding) [->]

      Also, if you’d oblige me — would you tell me what this says? [->]

      I’m concerned that it’s spam, as I can’t imagine why a comment on my blog would be written in Korean characters. Thank you very much.

      • gaguri says:

        Ah, I meant Kannami breaking the cycle in terms of no longer repeating his mundane and meaningless activities, which he loathes, and finally did something about it. I too agree that he didn’t break the larger cycle (kildrens replacing other kildrens infinitely), and in that sense the film is quite bleak, as this is a world where we as individuals really have no power or impact (unlike TTGL where heroes truimphantly saves the world), but I think it’s great that few kildrens, including Kannami, Jinroh and Kasanagi, are choosing to break away from the cycle of their own repetitious lives, in whatever way they might be. And from that could they find meaning in life?

        • ghostlightning says:

          Meaning in life… interesting. I mean I find it interesting that they or other people would equate freedom with meaning. Think about it, their lives make a difference by default: their lives keep the peace, an unprecedented kind of peace. Because of them, nobody really has to die anymore due to political conflict between nation states. It’s quite potent with religious/mythological meaning (e.g. Prometheus on the rock, Sisyphus up the hill, Jesus on the hill crucified).

          Their problem is selfishness. They are ‘robbed’ of meaning because they do not have an opportunity to ‘opt out’ of the program. Jinroh and Kannami are playing a role that they have no choice but to play. Dying ahead of schedule is their revolt — their assertion of individuality, their freedom.

          Albert Camus considered the absurdity of life, reducing it to the question “why don’t I kill myself?”

          – We are born without reason.
          – We are prolonged by suffering.
          – We die by accident.

          The Kildren are exempt from the first and third human conditions. They are born with a specific reason, and die because they entertain for peace. The accident is when they assert their revolts the way Jinroh and Kannami did. Their lives have meaning or I should say, they can derive meaning from their lives as programmed. They just don’t like what it means.

          • gaguri says:

            Haha, I 100% agree. They ‘can’ derive meaning, just as warriors of three kingdoms derived meaning from fighting and dying like machines. Oshii in this case I think, clearly didn’t like how we as individuals (including youths irl) were limiting themselves for the good of society, and the way he portrayed these kildrens is almost as if there is no purpose, no reason to go through such a mundane cycle. By focusing more on their characters and not on other people, I guess he didn’t really want a balanced view on what was right or wrong, but to root for these people who are looking for something more.

      • gaguri says:

        *Ah, I just saw that link you’ve posted above…sorry, I don’t think that link was there when I first read your reply.

        To translate that, he basically said something like:

        “Hey, you think you know about gundam??? How bout try to watch the first gundam??? And you KIRI did you know that SEED is one of the example of trash anime…instead why don’t you master the gundam universe by watching from the original?”

        So yea…in another words, not a spam, but a potinless flame…

        • ghostlightning says:

          LULZ oh Jesus Minci this just made my day. Thanks gaguri, I really appreciate it. And in response to your previous comment, I really can’t divine the purpose of Oshii, but there does seem to be a lot of sympathy for the ‘victims’ in this show for the greater good.

  2. schneider says:

    I have this weird belief that living is much better than dying, no matter what the circumstances. So it was natural for me to root for Kannami to win, but… 😦

    It’s rather understated, but Teacher really has some godly skills, not being Kildren and all.

    >humans have Windows Vista
    ohohoho

    • ghostlightning says:

      While I share your valuing of life, I’m rather cruel in my appreciation of tragedy. Crueler still is how not-Kannami lives on in the next avatar.

      I have no idea what the Teacher is, but if he’s a ‘rule’ of the program that makes him unbeatable, he gets no credit for his godly skills. He’d be like the most H4xx0rd cyber-newtype ever cultured.

      Windows Vista is my cross to bear, making me human, all too human.

  3. vendredi says:

    I agree with gaguri here: Kannami has changed the cycle somewhat by the end of the movie – at the very end, Suito states to Kannami’s replacement that she has been waiting for him. Whether this is a sort of existentialist acceptance of her fate, or a more optimistic outlook that things can actually change for the better is perhaps up to the viewer, however.

    Since we’ve brought Sisyphus into this, why not Oedipus as well? Actually, one of the lines that still strikes me as very ambiguous is Kannami’s statement upon engaging the Teacher that he will “kill his father”. The subtitles may render it differently, but the English is quite clear, but is it metaphorical, or literal (perhaps the Teacher is the “original” that the various Kannami’s come from? The name “Teacher” is certainly an ironic choice for an enemy ace.

    Finally, I think what makes the Sky Crawlers so very effective is how well it pulls off the viscera of air combat – a juxtaposition between the endless calm of the sky, the beauty of flight, and the little details that you note such as waiting only as long as the plane has fuel, the shredding of a plane by machine gun fire, seeing only three planes return instead of four, etc. It’s subdued, but powerful in a way that could not be done with say an infantry-based conflict, I think.

    • ghostlightning says:

      That ‘kill my father’ statement is really strange for me, as well as the name ‘Teacher.’ I can take it to suggest that the Teacher is a master program that has all of the skill sets that are re-distributed to the Kildren in various limited degrees. The Oedipal reading is even more apt if we can establish Suito’s own relationship with the Teacher.

      […] but powerful in a way that could not be done with say an infantry-based conflict, I think.

      Yes, the sky and flight presents a freedom and liberation in thematic and narrative areas. It becomes even more interesting how the Kildren fly as much as they do, and yet remain as trapped as they feel.

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  6. Baptiste says:

    We know who is the Teacher, we play as him in Innocents Aces on Wii, he’s an adult ace not a Kildren, the only remaining, he has then much more experience than all the others, so he win,

  7. Baptiste says:

    He’s my favorite character, my only question that the game hasn’t answered is why he leaved Rostock to Lautern ?

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