Oshii's latest anime, The Sky Crawlers (2008) is based on a series of novels by by Hiroshi Mori. The movie opens with an exhilarating dogfight sequence in what seems to be retro fitted fighter planes. We are then introduced to the main protoganist, Yuichi Kannami, a newly transferred pilot to the Urisu airbase, one of many, owns by Rostock Corporation, a warfare company which manufactures the rear-propeller Sanka B fighter plane. This is follow by a series of (painfully) slow montage like sequence, typical of Oshii style, only punctuated by occasional dogfight sequences. The visual is excellent and Oshii seems to pay homage to the 40s and 50s Americana and European influences, such as roadside diner, open top Cadillac with sunglasses wearing women, A-2 flight jackets, popcorns, beers and bowlings. Not sure what period or year the story is sets in but there seems to be sepia toned flatscreen monitors and desktops around. Communications during flight are all in American English. He also gives a nod to his previous movies, Jinroh and Ghost In The Shell.
Eventually through the course of the movie, it is revealed that Kannami is a Kildren, which is a term use for adolescent pilots manufactured exclusively for air warfare. A Kildren is "born" at adolescent level and does not age, due to the side effect of a patent drug use for genetic modulation developed by Rostock from the past. Since they are adolescent, their sharp reflexes remains intact, ideal for being a fighter pilot. It is hinted at that they might live forever and their memories may be implanted from other dead pilots or continuously recycle for future, replaced self after death. Maybe there are memories and DNA storage banks somewhere. This is revealed when "Westy" Yudagawa, a white haired youth with a penchant to fold the newspaper in a neat manner is killed and subsequently another lookalike with same behavioral trait appeared months later. Even so, their memories about the past remain sketchy at best. Kannami, it turns out, are formerly Jinroh Kurita, an ace pilot shot dead by base Command Officer Suito Kusanagi, not too long ago. Kusanagi is a former ace pilot who joined the base about eight years ago, as per revealed by Chief Mechanic Sasakura. Kusanagi fell in love with Kurita and has a daugther with him, Mizuki, although she informs Mizuki that she is her sister. She shot Kurita as requested once he realised that eternal youth is not such a good idea after all. A Kildren typically spend their time killing each other in designated battle theatres endlessly. Their only goal is to kill or be killed, which is frequent. If a Kildren lives long enough, such as Kusanagi's case, they began to question their sense of purpose, role or existence. A typical R&R for a Kildren is an endless routine of drinking, party and sex. Kusanagi survives long enough to be appointed an officer but becomes wary of life and the endless cycle of senseless butchery. Only one Kildren, Naofumi Tokino, seems to be able to accept all this with a pinch of salt. He gives a lot of hint to Kannami. In one scene before a disasterous major operation, Tokino says that every pilots from other bases look kind of the same. Somehow he has seen them before. Not Mitsuya, a bitter female ace who struggles with her own vague memories, who reveals all the above in a singular scene with Kannami as the story nears the end. The adults know but pretend not to. Kusanagi is further wrecked with nostalgia and survivor guilt as she sees Kannami who exhibits the same behavioral traits as Kurita and fell in love once more. Strictly speaking, are Kannami and Kurita the same person? Kannami realises this vicious cycle after the conversation with Mitsuya and seeing the "replaced" version of Yudagawa. Initially he doesn't seems to care.
The background of the story is not explained but there seems to be a perpetual sky warfare meant to both entertain and ensure that the peaceful societies and economies remain intact. Like a wrestling match or gladiatorial game except on a Battle Of Britain scale. Rostock's competitor (or enemy) is Lautern Corporation which uses front propeller, twin engined Rainbow and Skylys instead, but for all we know, they might be from the same side meant to ensure the war does not end. Reminds me of Orwell's 1984. It is also hinted at that if a particular base starts to win too often, curious incidents such failing engines or oil leaking issues will suddenly occur. And then there is the undefeatable unseen character "The Teacher", a former Kildren who chose to become an adult and works for Lautern. He is like a Red Baron bogeyman to the Kildren, meant to ensure that the battle victories are evenly balanced out. Kusanagi shares that "The Teacher" used to be working for Rostock and also a former lover from the days when she was still a full time pilot. He is identified from his panther motif fighter plane.
In the end, after preventing Kusanagi from suicide, Kannami flies off on what seems to be a routine group mission the next day but suddenly breaks off and engages "The Teacher" in one on one suicidal dogfight when he is spotted. Tried he might but in what is a heart wrenching moment, he still looses and subsequently shot to pieces, literally. Before that he says, "you can change the view of the road you walk everyday. Even if the roads are the same, you can see new things." Kusanagi waits nonchalantly at the base for Kannami to return, and so are the rest but knowing his final fate, they walks off, but then again, maybe they suspect that they will see him again in the near future thus engaging themselves in another endless cycle of life, love and death. Before the scene ends, the horizon shows another new pilot arriving...at least this movie is more accessible, compare to say, Ghost In The Shell or Avalon. But still, sometimes those more than 10 seconds montages can put you to sleep...