Sheuo Hui Gan – The Transformation of the Teenage Image in Oshii Mamoru’s The Sky Crawlers

The postwar emergence of manga and anime as mass media directed at children emphasized the importance of shōjo and shōnen (boys and girls) characters that encouraged its targeted audience to achieve easy identification. As teenagers gradually became the intended key audience, an increasing range of imagined lives were displayed in these visual narratives. From the late 1950s onwards, popular culture and related merchandizing focused on the teen years as an idealized time period that eventually became viewed less as a period of transition than an end in itself. Over the last thirty years the teen years in Japan have become less a time of preparation for the adult world than an apogee that can only be followed by a decline into the confining expectations of career and family during the remaining decades of life.

This valorization of idealized shōjo and shōnen roles is seen throughout popular culture in television, online programs, films, magazines, video games, music, and light novels. Yet it is manga and anime that have elaborated the greatest diversity of imagined teenage lives and worlds. Despite their apparent variety, there exist strong currents of similarity in how shōjo and shōnen are conceived and portrayed. Among these similarities is the desire to encapsulate and express a version of the ever shifting sense of contemporary “cool”. Achieving this sense of cool, whether it is shown by fashion, hair style, language, or behavior, is critical for achieving the viewer’s desire to identify with the characters and their narrative situations. Attractive characters possess a range of appealing features including style sense, charming expressions, humor, strength, engaging weakness, sex appeal, cuteness, etc. Although current youth culture in Japan contains great diversity of subcultural tastes and interests, these appear against a common framework of widely popular visual narratives such as those found in major TV anime series and theatrical anime, including those by noted directors like Miyazaki Hayao, Anno Hideaki, Oshii Mamoru, and others.

Against this background of mass produced exciting narratives featuring overtly appealing shōjo/shōnen characters, Oshii’s unusual work, The Sky Crawlers (2008), possesses a special significance. The slow pace of this anime coupled with an anticlimactic narrative that stresses the tedium of everyday life has confused or disappointed those viewers who may have hoped for the well paced action sequences of Ghost in the Shell (1995) or the visual extravagance of Innocence (2004). Yet a reflective examination of The Sky Crawlers reveals Oshii’s critique of the standard escapist teenage fantasy so commonly found in anime.

The discussion of this paper focuses on the teenage characters in The Sky Crawlers which employs teens as fighter pilots in an alternate historical world vaguely parallel to our own. The Sky Crawlers and the works briefly mentioned above loosely belong to a similar root. They are well received and discussed not just because of the character designs or kyara attraction, but due to the in-depth character development situated within interesting plots. Yet, the way Oshii contrasts the adult life styles and responsibilities of these military aviators with their apparent youth questions the meaning of both childhood and adulthood in a far more complex and probing manner. The youths that fight in the battle fields of The Sky Crawlers have little to do with patriotism or nationalism. They have all simply been assigned as pilots, working for the huge Rostock Corporation whose background is not fully explained. Their game-like existence, renewable youth and the absence of memories from the past are central features to Oshii’s conception of this anime.

The Sky Crawlers

Fig. 1 – Poster design for The Sky Crawlers. The formal and cool visualization of these young teens contradicts the uplifting mood and kawaii connotations conveyed by standard anime characters.

I explore meanings of this unique vision of teenage life in a comparison between the leading protagonists Kusanagi Suito and Kannami Yuichi in The Sky Crawlers with other unconventional teen protagonists such as Nausicaa, from Miyazaki’s feature-length animation Kaze no tani no Nausicaa (1984), Ikari Shinji and Ayanami Rei from Anno’s anime series Shin Seiki Evagelion (1995) and Nagamine Mikako and Terao Noboru from Shinkai Makoto’s medium-length independent production Hoshi no koe (Voices of a Distance Star, 2002). These works are distinctive because of their alternative narrative settings and characterizations that highlight the psychological complexity as well as the independence and bravery of their protagonists. In terms of contradicting the typical fragile kawaii image of the female protagonist that relies on protection from a strong male protagonist, tatakai shōjo (fighting girl) has become an alternate term to address these female fighter protagonists. The progressive aspect about tatakai shōjo is the way it has often desexualized and diversified the roles of female protagonists.1 By centering the discussions on Oshii’s The Sky Crawlers, this paper provides a glimpse of into his striking transformation of teenage images in Japanese animation.

Why The Sky Crawlers
During my graduate years and postdoctoral research period in Japan, it was not uncommon to hear the frustrations of friends who teach animation courses at universities. Students who assert themselves as hard core anime fans often study and obsess over details (sometimes going far beyond the level of popular media sources like Wikipedia) about ongoing anime series, however, they show less enthusiasm towards feature-length animations, even such quality works as those directed by Kon Satoshi, Oshii Mamoru or Miyazaki Hayao. This gap may come as a surprise for foreign scholars who have often considered those big names as the representative figures of Japanese animation. In Oshii’s case, it is quite true that the philosophical tones of his works often attract more cinema lovers than anime followers.
In The Sky Crawlers, Oshii stepped back from his usual approach, including his recent tendency for infamously long monologues like those found in Tachiguishi Retsuden (2006), and worked with a different and younger staff.2 The publicity for this production also emphasized a straight forward approach to convey to young people Oshii’s message about passion towards life in an easy to understand manner. Although it is debatable that this intention was fulfilled completely, Oshii’s new approach in The Sky Crawlers is important in terms of his ambitious transformation of narrative settings and visualization of teenage roles. In order to speak to a younger audience, Oshii created teen characters as protagonists. However, they are given sophisticated and mature inner selves that contradict their youthful appearance. Some typical anime designs, such as pointed hair shapes and realistic aircraft shown in dramatic fighting scenes, were meant to function as something familiar to fans of contemporary anime; yet, when we look closely, they clearly mean more than that. These typical anime touches have lost their adorable qualities here. The characters do not look kawaii and innocent with emotive big eyes, instead they suggest exhaustion and emptiness. The disappearance of the high-pitched voice often used for young women in anime also distances The Sky Crawlers from the cheerful atmosphere of many productions. The choreography of the hand drawn animation that depicts the everyday life of these pilots at the base is often selective and subtle. When compared to other recent animation especially those from the U.S.,3 The Sky Crawlers is slow, less dramatic and quiet. And yet, the way Oshii and his new team constructed tension and drama in these relatively calm moments implies a strong emotional impact. This impact is further emphasized by the subtle details that have been woven carefully into the backgrounds. Unlike other eye-catching and brightly colored aspects,4 the details here are treated more like the visual texture of the anime, which facilitates the believable atmosphere of The Sky Crawlers‘s world view.

Narrative Summary
The Sky Crawlers is an adaptation from Mori Hiroshi’s 2001 novel of the same name.5 The story revolves around a group of young fighter pilots called kirudore (translated as “kildren”) humanoids designed to remain in their adolescence eternally. Following death in battle, their skills and parts of their personalities will be transferred into another nearly identical individual bearing a different name. The war and aerial battles in the alternate world of The Sky Crawlers appear as staged combat between the air forces of two private corporations (Rostock Corporation and Lautern Corporation) that forms a part of a steady-state game created to entertain mainstream society.
The narrative focuses on Kusanagi Suito, a female kirudore command officer of a group of kirudore at a remote rural airbase. Kusanagi is depressed about her life as a kirudore and desperately wants to break away from this endless cycle. Kusanagi is also the sister (or mother, according to several accounts in the narrative) to a young girl and a “criminal” who shot her former kirudore boyfriend, Kurita Jinroh. Ironically, several months after the death of Kurita, a newly assigned pilot that looks like Kurita reappears in the base as Kannami Yuichi. In spite of maintaining such old habits as breaking match sticks after he lights his cigarette, Kannami does not remember anything about his past, even though the environment and people in the base around him look dreamily familiar. Kannami quickly blends into everyday life at the base, as if he had never left. He re-visits the places (the drive-in restaurant, Daniel’s Diner and the brothel) where he and the others used to hang out and flies his missions when called on just as before. The reestablishment of the relationship between Kannami and Kusanagi seems inevitable. But this time, after slowly learning about his past, Kannami insists that they should not take each other’s lives. Kusanagi should live until something is changed. Nonetheless, Kannami takes up the challenge to fight the invincible Teacher, a much discussed mysterious adult father figure in the film who is never seen. Kannami’s act is symbolically significant even if his loss to the Teacher leads to a repetitive ending, another round of “death” and “rebirth” for Kurita/Kannami. Although things seem unchanged superficially, Kusanagi approaches this development differently. She patiently waits for the arrival of Hiiragi Isamu, the new Kannami. Hiiragi is new but Kusanagi no longer pretends that he is a stranger.

Oshii intended the settings of The Sky Crawlers to metaphorically resemble today’s Japan. “There is no hunger, revolution or war. Most people are free from the worries of food, clothing and shelter and have the opportunity to live their natural span of life. But, this is also an age where parents kill their children or children treat their parents violently. Youngsters commit suicide without any concrete reason”. Oshii also argues that material wealth can no longer guard young people from their desolate minds (2008: 7-8). Oshii admitted it was rather challenging to understand the feelings and atmosphere of the everyday life of those young people, needless to say directing a film aimed at them (Oshii 2008: 197). This film is not about pretending there will be a bright and promising future waiting for them. Nonetheless, Oshii hopes this film will stimulate them making effort to look at things differently, which might spark new attitudes towards life (Oshii 2008: 38).

The Relation of Cuteness (kawaii) and Youth in Anime
Every year a number of buzzwords are created to describe different social, political and cultural phenomena in Japan.6 As time passes, many of them become outdated and fade away. However, the meaning and usage of kawaii has continued to persist and expand, pervading many aspects of everyday life. In Kawaii-ron (Discourse on Kawaii), a scholarly analysis of kawaii by Yomota Inuhiko, he points out kawaii has grown beyond its initial narrow range of usage. The application of kawaii has become more flexible, transforming into a catchphrase which is conveniently applied in various contexts (2006: 11). Yomota also highlights its commercial use in promoting sales in Japan’s consumer society as well its total lack of political implication in contrast to countercultural movements such as punk and mods (2006: 13, 14).

Yomota traced the word kawaii origin to kawayui, which means “ashamed” or “feel reluctant and sorrowful to watch; regrettable; piteous; a reddening of the face as a sign of embarrassment”. Kawayui was first appeared in Konjaku monogatari shū, the collection of more than 1,000 short tales thought to have been compiled in twelfth century (2006: 30).
Nevertheless, the original meaning has gradually disappeared and according to the second edition of Nihon kokugo daijiten (2000), one of the major dictionaries in the country published by Shōgakukan, the meaning of kawaii is:

kawaii (adjective)
(1) pathos; sorrowfully; feel pity for; pitiable; piteous, (2) being attracted, cannot be neglected, a feeling of devoted to and take great take of; cherished; beloved, (3) lovable; lovely, (a) (of faces and figures of young women and children) adorable; (b) (like children) innocent and laudable; touching, (4) (of things and shapes) pleasantly small; small and beautiful, (5) of little value or importance; have pity mixed with contempt

The definition for kawaii in the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Words is tagged with a bracket indicating its usage by young people along with the following explanation: “Wonderful; cool (of persons and things); term of praise.”
Even though it is tricky to capture the fluctuating meaning of kawaii, some of its nuances have been well captured by NHK’s ongoing weekly popular thirty-minute program “Tokyo Kawaii ☆TV”. This program was launched in 2008, covering the newest fashion and cultural related trends in Tokyo.7 Most programs have been interestingly focused on the strong link between kawaii and women, in relation to their identities, expressions and lifestyles. Indeed, government representatives and some researchers have also observed a similar relationship, and agree that kawaii has become a key term that not only represents Japanese popular culture, but also appears in the world trend index (Sakurai 2009a, 2009b; Koga, 2009).

In the image making industries, many manga and anime companies aim at generating profits by competing in the creation of appealing and unique characters that will be received as being kawaii. Nevertheless, due to the media franchise networking system in Japan that often releases a single product on multiple platforms, the ability to freely imagine character design has become restricted. Character designs are often confined to mimicking well-received earlier models. The market appears large but there is little room for experimentation with new looks. This singularity of aesthetic choice requires examination in order to understand this homogenous imaginary ideal form of youth and fashion promoted by the mainstream media. The impression of kawaii is supposed to be sweet, cute and comforting, yet, the economics behind it seem cleverly orchestrated rather than naïve.

Set against such circumstances, the production of The Sky Crawlers is unique. Despite that its production was conducted within the decisions made by the media franchise network, the director retained a measure of experimentation attempted to create a different vision that was intended to stimulate new perceptions of contemporary youth.

The Analysis
The typical fragile, adorable quality of anime shōjo forms a clear contrast with the characters in The Sky Crawlers. Although Kusanagi does not look masculine, she is strong physically and does not need protection from anyone. She is someone who must make decisions and bear responsibilities. She can’t gain sympathy or support by simply acting weak or being feminine. In many ways, her characteristics resemble those of Ayanami Rei and Nausicaa, fictional characters from the Evangelion and Kaze no tani no Nausicaa. Although cute in a standard manner, these characters are complex, sensible, and more mature and lonely than conventional anime shōjo. Yet, Ayanami Rei and Nausicaa still have someone who they can fall back on, or place where they can find refugee. We still can see the sweet Ayanami Rei in front of Shinji’s father, Ikari Gendo. Nausicaa too, is often charmingly childlike in front of her teacher Yupa. In addition, Nausicaa has serious motivations like discovering the secret of the gigantic polluted jungle, called the Fukai (Rotten Ocean), and protecting her people while leading them towards a better future. These narrative settings are the crucial aspects that give meaning to Nausicaa’s existence.
Yet, Kusanagi Suito has no similar sense of motivation. The so-called “war” which Kusanagi and her subordinates are fighting is, after all, a meaningless staged show. Although the fights are genuine and functional, there is no real sense of crisis in them. Their fights are intended to maintain the status quo rather than stimulate new changes. For Kusanagi and other kirudore, there is no sense of being needed and appreciated. There is no point to being cute either, if there is no one to appreciate it. Furthermore, Kusanagi is the only one in the kirudore groups that has a “family”. Her complex identities as a kirudore command officer and mother to a little girl are more of a psychological burden. She cannot not escape from the horror that her daughter will eventually grow up like a normal person, while she remains a teenager.

In short, the depiction of shōjo here has nothing to do with many of the contemporary curious and energetic characters from popular anime series, or romantic moe characters common today. It also has little to do with melancholy, another key aspect that often blends into the characterization of shōjo character. The characterization of Kusanagi highlights her alienation by contrasting it with the stereotypical “eternal shōjo” setting. This contrast affects how other characters in the animation view her. Through a presentation of a distinctive character that looks shōjo, the gap between the appearance of the character and her inner self questions the conventional image and expectation for shōjo in anime.

Significance of Uniforms
The distinctive portrayal of teenage identity in The Sky Crawlers is shown in a number of ways including dress, facial expression, behavior and speech. Considering the topic of dress first, there is a tendency to depict anime characters in all sorts of occupational uniforms: sailor style school uniforms, army personnel, maids, miko (a maiden in the service of a Shinto shrine), nurses, magic girls and shitsuji (butlers) just to name a few. These uniforms, whether real, or imaginary, are perceived as exotic and attractive. In many occasions, characters with uniforms can be seen as both cute and sexy. In The Sky Crawlers though, Oshii’s portrayal of characters in uniform differs from these norms. While appearing in uniform makes most conventional characters look empowered and appealing, it is the act of removing their pilot uniform by Kusanagi and Kannami that makes them look like ordinary people, even if only momentarily. Furthermore, unlike Ayanami Rei, the uniform of Kusanagi does not enhance the feminine aspects of her body. Kannami too, does not become more masculine or charming just because of his pilot jumper. Here, the sexual attraction that is often associated with uniforms has been eliminated in favor of a more pragmatic, everyday life presentation. Gone, too, is the obsessive emphasis on military gear worn by characters in Ghost in the Shell and Oshii’s other earlier anime.

The Sky Crawlers

Fig. 2 – Another variation of the poster. This poster design for The Sky Crawlers presents the half face of Kusanagi (left) and Kannami (right). These main characters look alike, especially in the intense gaze of their large eyes.

The Gaze versus Emotive Eyes
As compared to live-action cinema where the arguably naïve assumption that photography has an intrinsic relation to visual reality is still common among general audiences, the drawn world (other modes of animation such as digital, claymation, etc.) of animation has been clearly perceived as unreal. In this “unreal” world, however, there have been endless variations of effects and styles intended to produce different levels of realism or references to aspects of everyday reality both visual and psychological. A distinctive feature of many anime styles has been the application of intentional distortion (even the term distortion involves certain assumptions about realism) to the body image as means of emphasizing emotional states and simultaneously creating kawaii images intended to incite a moe response in viewers. Such distortions may be as dramatic as the miniature chibi characters that occasionally float about the main narrative to the most common enlargement of the eyes with corresponding shrinking of the nose and mouth. As a discussion of realism and distortion in anime is potentially large and complex, a deeper elaboration will have to wait for another occasion, yet a few comments about the distinctive treatment of eyes in The Sky Crawlers reveal an important aspect of the characters.

As can be commonly observed in most characters and toys, the depiction of eyes is not simply focused on suggesting their optical function. The appearance of the eyes and their suggested gaze are intended to express thoughts and emotions, to imply a consciousness behind their inert surface. In fact, as long as the eyes are visible, it is possible to identify it as a character with personality even if it is highly simplified, deformed and missing some facial parts. There is no exception in anime. There has been for many years a constant stream of publications on drawing technique for manga and anime. These books and magazines always have a section on drawing eyes to express a wide variety of emotions and thoughts, including how to draw kawaii female characters with a focus on eyes to optimize the effect of youthfulness, excitement and cool.

Oshii’s characters present a great contrast to the usual portrayal of teenage eyes. The depiction of the kirudore eyes in The Sky Crawlers resembles the so-called 1000-yard stare. This term arose in the United States during WWII to describe the unfocused, blank gaze of soldiers that had been overwhelmed by the terrors of combat and other disasters of war.8 Such eyes look as though they are staring at something 1000 yards away as if everything directly in front of them is transparent and meaningless. The eyes and gaze of protagonists of The Sky Crawlers have that 1000-yard stare to reflect their situation as kirudore, as fighter pilots, who are alienated and disaffected teenagers because they feel like they have seen it all. As their lives are filled with repetition nothing really surprises them, and nothing can make them truly happy or sad. These eyes are different from the dreamy or energetic eyes usually found in anime characters.9 There is no excitement, interest, anticipation, reverie or enjoyment in their eyes. There is a complete lack of vividness in their gaze.

The meaning of this blank stare is further defined by a brief conversation between Kusanagi and Kannami in the opening sequence of the film. When Kannami arrived at the base, he reported to Kusanagi as a newly assigned pilot. Kusanagi said she had not expected to see Kannami until much later in the afternoon. Kannami paused, looked out the window and replied, “The glare of the sun was unbearable.” At this point Kusanagi’s own glasses have a bright glare that makes seeing her eyes difficult. She replied in a quiet voice, “[Have you been reading] Camus?” As the protagonist of Camus’s The Stranger (1942) says something similar about the glare of the sun in explanation of why he shot an Arab man on a beach,10 Kannami’s reference adds a note of alienated ambiguity to the first meeting of the main characters of the anime. It also suggests that the pilots they kill in their dogfights are killed for a similar abstract, nearly random reason.
Having a reference to a critical scene from The Stranger by Albert Camus is typical of Oshii’s fondness for inserting philosophic quotations or references which has been his common practice ever since his early 1985 anime Tenshi no tamago (Angel’s Egg). This reference to The Stranger is a subtle, yet defining way of underlining the existential alienation and absurdity of these youth and their destiny in The Sky Crawlers.11

The exaggerated facial depictions often seen in anime have long been identified as one of the distinguishing features of anime. The oversized shining eyes, exaggerated tears and beads of sweat are the conventional elements used to create emotional expressions and define the personalities of the characters. However, the depiction of everyday life at the base in The Sky Crawlers has moved away from such apparatus. The eyes of the characters in The Sky Crawlers are somewhat enlarged, but have little distortion. Their overall proportions also resemble reality yet possess a dramatic accent. The music and dialogue are minimized to provide relatively quiet and calm moments among the characters to enhance the sense of isolation established by their distinctive gaze. This approach is not new in artistic animation but rare in the anime industry which is more closely based on expressions found in the manga from which many anime are adapted.

The Difference in Teenage Identity between The Sky Crawlers and Evangelion
When compared to the bored and unmotivated characters in The Sky Crawlers, the characters in Evangelion are full of youthful energy, even though it might be anxiety or even anger. Even though Shinji in Evangelion is depicted as a skeptic with low self-esteem, he still feels the excitement of romance. Typical teenage infatuation towards the opposite sex is a recurring motif in this popular narrative. On the other hand, there is not much enthusiasm towards romance or sex in The Sky Crawlers. The erotic atmosphere in the brothel was not a reflection of Kannami’s inner emotion. Spending a night there is portrayed as just another everyday life activity that does not carry much implication, much less passion. Kannami and other kirudore have apparently already gone through this naive opposite sex attraction stage regardless of their youthful appearances. Their mature attitudes distinguish them from the typical innocent shōjo and shōnen behavior.
In one of the short conversations between Kannami and Mizuki, the “sister” of Kusanagi, he was asked by this little girl whether he wants to do something fun together. But Kannami could not think of anything in particular. She was surprised that these young pilots are not even into games. Out of blue she then asks Kannami whether he is a kirudore. Without hesitation, he says yes. She then wants to reconfirm her impression that kirudore cannot become adults and why this is so. Kannami answered that “it’s not that we can’t, but it’s that we don’t.” He asks the girl if she wants to become an adult. The girl seriously thinks about it. But she, too, is not sure whether she wants to become an adult, even if there is a choice. Even though the portrayal of Mizuki has a certain degree of childishness, she is still much more mature than the stereotypical naïve, shiny-eyed character in mainstream anime. Their conversation leads to Kannami’s suggestion that it is less a biological inability to grow older that limits them, than their lack of any vision of the future. It is this incompleteness of their self conception that prevents their aging as is reinforced by the girl’s own uncertainty.

In another episode, when Kannami rushes back to the base to meet a sudden attack launched by the opposing company Lautern, one of the workers at Daniel’s Diner reminds Kannami to be careful. Kannami looks puzzled and asks her “to be careful of what?” Indeed, asking a kirudore that will be repetitively “reborn” after their “demise” to be careful is meaningless. Kirudore do not seem to remember much about their past but if they live long enough, it is possible to witness some of their “deceased” colleagues “come back” as another person with certain characteristic habits. That has a depressive impact on them. Rather than responding to the return of their friends with joy, they are met with passive acceptance as this “renewal” is confirmation of their being trapped in an endless cycle. Even so, is there a need for them to look forward to anything? The process of growing up with hope and the expectation of change has been taken from them. Their lives are stagnant as they will perpetually be exploited as fighter pilots. Kannami and his friends are well aware that they are physically kids, but without any sense of childhood.

Kannami once gave an ironic response to an adult officer who complained about Kusanagi’s harsh behavior being childish. Kannami agrees with him that they are indeed kids, yet continues “do people [kirudore] who might die tomorrow have any need to grow up?” Kirudore will never be in control of their lives and everything will always remain the same. Perhaps this is why Kurita Jinroh had asked Kusanagi to shoot him. Similarly, Kusanagi’s decision to fight with Teacher, the so-called undefeatable adult man is also more a suicidal attempt to break away from this curse than a real attempt to defeat him.

Instead of providing energetic or mood lifting fantasies about shōjo and shōnen, Oshii displays the adult frustrations of teenagers. In many ways, Oshii has injected a sense of realism which has been carefully packed away from most anime.12 His vision of shōjo and shōnen are not adorable and perhaps also not easy to popularize. Oshii dissociates this animation from the usual fan viewpoint that embraces escapist fantasy and the idealization of the youth in animated films. Nonetheless, his interpretation is perhaps more in tune with many teenagers in Japan such as freeters, who work in low end temporary jobs with no thought of a future.

Different Stances toward Nostalgia and Youth in The Sky Crawlers and Hoshi no koe
Shinkai Makoto is famous for his animations that represent intensely romantic views of the past. That a comparatively young director like Shinkai (b. 1973) pays so much effort depicting a nostalgic view of teenage life suggests that there may be nothing to look forward to in the future. The nostalgic feeling in Shinkai’s Hoshi no koe is the key point that keeps his teenager protagonists Nagamine and Noboru intact despite their geographic separation. The familiar scenery of everyday life (summer clouds, street scenes, convenience stores, bus stops, train rides) that are idyllically illustrated on the screen are portrayed as part of the shared memories that strongly unites them. Anime production in Japan has a tendency to place great emphasis on character design, and Shinkai’s clever association of landscape to the inner feelings of his characters is visually stunning and significant. His effort to bridge connections between the two is not unique, but is so cinematic and complex that most viewers would expect to see it in art house films than in anime. Shinkai also successfully shifted the focus in science fiction narratives from the ever popular gigantic fighting mecha and mechanical designs to the emotional depiction of the lonely Mikako and Noboru. The conventional anime look of his characters and his unconventional way of rendering the landscape aesthetically provided an alternative to mainstream anime.

Hoshi no koe nonetheless remains a typical story of young love, forming an interesting contrast with The Sky Crawlers. Shinkai was not interested in escaping the common approach that overly romanticized the period of youth while Oshii chose to cut off all sense of nostalgia from his kirudore. Their ignorance of the overall context in which they live and work is perhaps the best chance for the kirudore to maintain an emotional balance. It also protects them from the potential for emotional distress over the dangers facing themselves and their colleagues. Michiya, another kirudore upset about her existence once lost control in front of Kannami, saying: “How do you guys deal emotionally with things? How do you reconcile your memories with the endless repetition of the present? I guess you become forgetful. Only your hazy dream-like state keeps you sane. Yesterday, last month and last year are indistinguishable… ”. Michiya’s questions and statements provide a close description of what most kirudore feel. Despite there being no direct reply to her questions, it becomes clear why the nostalgic feeling is absent in The Sky Crawlers. Yet, there is still a strong connection between Kusanagi and Kannami. Fuco’s (the lady from the brothel) feelings toward Kannami are also genuine. But, they reveal a complex and problematic bonding in depressed circumstances rather than the romanticized and pure commitment between Nagamine and Noboru.

Oshii emphasizes in an interview that the rhythm of everyday lives of these pilots on ground are meant to be slow and calm. During the (long) wait for their next mission, taking the time easily to smoke or drink beers is perhaps appropriate. On the contrary, the dog fight scenes in sky are compressed and fast paced. The characters do not even seem to have time to breath. This separation is meant to create a sharp contrast of the two different worlds which these young pilots experience (Masuto 2009: 217). Interestingly, even though these pilots feel more excited in the air than their half dreamy lives at the base, their aerial dogfights are not fully under control either. The situation is similar to the biggest mystery in The Sky Crawlers – regarding the kirudore. What the characters (kirudore) in The Sky Crawlers know about themselves is dependent on their blurry memories and observations. And yet, those accounts are after all subjective opinions, which are never verified in the anime. What the audience witnesses is just part of the story, based on the kirudore’s perspectives. The audience will never find out whether these teenagers are born as kirudore and given a faded memory of childhood, as claimed by Mitsuya. Nor confirm the other possibility that they all had a real childhood and were made into kirudore at some point in their lives. These questions also lead to another, whether Mizuki is kirudore, or will she made into a kirudore by the company? However, these are meant to be loose ends that add to the intended ambiguity of this anime.

In The Sky Crawlers, Oshii has produced a vision of perpetual youth that is opposed to the typical nostalgic idealization of youth found in many anime, youth for the kirudore is an unappealing closed loop that cannot be interrupted even by death.13

Conclusion: Character in Anime is Important
Susan Napier’s discussion of the “disappearing shōjo” in anime forms an interesting contrast to The Sky Crawlers. Napier traces various interpretations of their “disappearance” from a way of adding “poignant depth” to a rite of passage for youth to the adult world (2005: 192-193). In Oshii’s anime not only shōjo but also shōnen have “disappeared”, but nonetheless remain eternally. They have disappeared in terms of their usual portrayal as wish-fulfilling escapist fantasy but remain forever in their adolescence bodies. Napier calls for “the willingness to allow shōjo to disappear and be replaced by a mature female figure” (Napier 2005: 193). Yet, Oshii presents us with eternal adolescence without a future but paradoxically also without youth, instead an ongoing tedium lacking past or expectations.

Oshii’s anime provokes the contrast between adult life styles and responsibility of these military aviators and their perpetual youth in order to question the meaning of both childhood and adulthood. Rather than an escapist vision filled with wish-fulfilling sexuality and adventure, The Sky Crawlers attempts to be a mirror reflecting the disillusionment of teenagers today who find their day-to-day lives without meaning and their futures barren of change or promise. Oshii holds out no easy solutions to this existential dilemma, yet the final scene of the anime suggests his hope. Kannami’s replacement again introduces himself to Kusanagi in her office in a variation of the opening scene. This time, however, Kusanagi has removed her glasses allowing a glare-free view of her eyes and a slight smile raises her lips indicating the arrival of a new, more positive attitude to the cycle of their lives. This seems to be the visualization of a point Oshii keeps repeating in his production notes that this film is about seeing things differently. He says, “one could always choose to take different steps even when walking on the very same trail. We should not assume the scenery will look the same even though it is a familiar trail” (Oshii 2008: 73).

It is ironic that this crucial final scene that carries the full weight of his response to the alienation he has targeted only appears after the completion of the film’s lengthy credits. This may have some chance of working for the usual theatre-going audiences in Japan that commonly remain seated through film credits no matter how long. Yet the practice of many foreign audiences to head for the exit the moment credits being to roll, suggests that for many of them this key final scene will never be viewed. Throughout his career as director, Oshii has consistently demanded effort from his audiences, insisting on an active investigation by his viewers rather than passive consumption. The need to actively search for meaning and new perspectives on life accords well with Oshii’s challenge to his young audience in this unusual and powerful work.

Gan Sheuo Hui lectures in the Department of Manga at Kyoto Seika University. Her research interests include the formal and industrial relationships of manga and anime. Currently, she is researching on shojo-style comic artists outside of Japan, specially focusing on artists from the ASEAN region. An earlier version of this paper was presented at Animation Evolution, the 22nd Annual Society for Animation Studies Conference, held at the Edinburgh College of Art, 9-11 July, 2010.


1 The usual idea of tatakai shōjo is fundamentally different from the fighting women often found in US comics like Wonder Woman, the DC comic super heroine. Even though both are proficient in fighting, possess special abilities to communicate with animals, and are often involved in resolving crisis and establishing peace. Nevertheless, the icon of tatakai shōjo is strictly confined to female adolescents, excluding fully grown women. There is an emphasis on their emotional and sexual purity, innocence and fragility. Although tatakai shōjo are sometimes portrayed with a mature body, they are still viewed as “cute” instead of “beautiful” adolescent girls.

2 These staff changes includes Oshii let Chihiro Itō (b. 1982.), a young female writer replace him in handling the script adaptation, and Nishio Tetsuya replacing Okiura Hiroyuki for the character design.

3 I have UP (2009) and Toy Story 3 (2010) in mind here.

4 For example, Paprika (2006) directed by Kon Satoshi (1963-2010) is loaded with ever-shifting brightly colored details which require immediate attention to associate them with the narrative development.

5 The Sky Crawlers is the first volume of The Sky Crawlers novel series written by Mori Hiroshi begun in 2001. Other titles in the series include None But Air (2004), Down to Heaven (2005), Flutter Into Life (2006), Cradle the Sky (2007) and Sky Eclipse (2008). In terms of the narrative’s chronological order, The Sky Crawlers appears last.

6 Encyclopedia of Contemporary Words (Gendaiyōgo no kisho chisiki) published yearly by Jiyū kokuminsha is an orthodox reference for new terminology.

7 See the official English website for this program: Despite the limited amount of information provided in English, “My Kawaii Items”, a section full of colorful miscellaneous items sent in by the audience, allows a quick glimpse at how kawaii is applied in everyday life.

8 Tom Lea (1907-2001)’s World War II painting That 2,000-Yard Stare (1944, oil on canvas, 36″ x 28″ U.S. Army Center for Military History, Washington, D.C.) is a good example. Tom Lea worked for Life Magazine as a war artist correspondence from 1941-1946. This painting was based on his experience during the Peleliu landing together with the U.S. Marines’ Seventh Regiment. See Tom Lea’s official website for details.

9 For example the emotive eyes of Suzumiya Haruhi and Horo from the anime series Suzumiya Haruhi (2006) and Ōkami to kōshinryō (2008).

10 There is repeated mention of the tension and disorientation resulting from reflections of the sand, water and the sun in Albert Camus’s Stranger. Some examples can be found on pages 9, 52, 58-59 and 103.

11 For an anime directed at a young Japanese audience, one wonders at the effectiveness to the Camus’s novel. At least no one could complain Oshii looks down on his audience.

12 Most anime largely employ “realistic” elements to help establish the “reality” of fictional worlds whose distance from the actual lives of their audience is a requisite for the desired level of escapist difference.


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© Gan Sheuo Hui

Edited by Nichola Dobson

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