When you're good at what you do, you can break the rules.
Watched The Sky Crawlers スカイ・クロラ last night, Oshii Mamoru 押井守's latest film. Excellent. I mean, I've been waiting for a long time for him to come up with a worthy follow-up to Ghost in the Shell, and this is it.
Everything about the film is unprepossessing.
The animation, the look of it, is pedestrian - at first. Hyper-realistic CG aircraft dogfighting in perfectly 3-D skies, alternating with very simplistic, almost sketchy human figures. You think, okay, another mecha-fetish anime. But then you start to notice how carefully modulated the color scheme is - there's an orange soda in one scene that just about knocked me over, the way it stands out against the olives, browns, and grays of the interiors. And then those skies stop being so cerulean, start to glower, and then to rain. By the end the animation has taken on an incredible expressive power.
Same goes for the plot: it begins with the promise of lots of action, set in a futuristic past or antiquated future, like a WWII version of steampunk. But then it reminds you it's an Oshii film: the pacing slows down to a (pun intended) crawl, and the action sequences are replaced by moods.
And at the climax, the action stops entirely. We get something that should be cinematic suicide: two long, motionless speeches. In the most memorable, we get a straight-on shot of a guy lying in his bunk, back to the camera, and a girl sitting on the floor by his bunk, facing the camera. And they just talk. Mostly she talks. For solid minutes. You're not supposed to be able to do that in film.
But it works brilliantly. Instead of ratcheting up the tension until it reaches a breaking point, like most action films, Oshii slows it down until, in this scene, the whole film comes gliding to a halt, perfectly balanced in contemplative stillness.
And what do they talk about? I won't spoil it by recounting the specifics; but we can talk about subtext. If you thought the philosophical undertow of Ghost in the Shell was something, consider this. In The Sky Crawlers, Oshii lays out nothing less than the preconditions for Buddhism. The problems posed by reincarnation: the endless chain of suffering that is samsara. Reincarnation isn't about fantasizing you were the Queen of Spain in a previous life, it's about having to relive the same mortal indignities over and over. Dying, over and over. And, if you're lucky or smart enough to realize what's going on, wanting to get out of it somehow. But what's "out"? And how do you get there? These are the questions Oshii poses in this nearly motionless dialogue.
And then the protagonist flies off into the wild blue yonder.
Edit: Here's a very thoughtful review of the movie that ascribes a whole different subtext to it. Here's the thing: I think we're both right.