Friday, October 14, 2005

Anime (Science Fiction): Last Exile

When we moved into our current place, we found a nice nitch to put the treadmill in, and got ourselves an LCD TV / monitor and stuck it on a wall mount in front of the thing. Combine that setup with DVDs of TV and anime series and you have a pretty nice workout setup.

Of course, we aren't very good about using it; we barely used it at all over the summer, but we're getting back at it. And, as it happened, the final DVD of a series I'd been collecting a while back finally came out: the last three episodes of Last Exile.

Last Exile caught my attention in trailers because of the style (as often happens with anime series), but held up pretty nicely on substance as well. It tells the story of battles between three power groups on an artificial world: Anatoray, Disith, and the Guild (the Guild controls all advanced technology) and their attempts to control some mysterious thing called "Exile". The bulk of the story is told (as is almost inevitable in anime) from the point of view of two teenage kids, Claus (a Vanship pilot) and Lavie (his friend and navigator).

The bulk of the story takes place in the air -- Vanships are sort of levitating WWII-flavour airplanes; Anatoray and Disith also have massive fleets of levitating airships, powered by engines lent them by the Guild.

The influence of one of my favourite film makers, Miyasaki Hayao, is quite obvious in the flight sequences. Claus & Lavie's home town looks almost identical to the mining town in Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Unlike Miyasaki, Last Exile uses computer graphics extensively to render the vanships and airships, and does an excellent job of blending the computer rendering with the characters' cell animation (something many animated series that mix the two don't do very well at all).

I won't go over the whole story, but I do have a few comments on the finale...

Traditionally, one of the things North American anime fans will tell you they appreciate about the storytelling in Japanese animation is that the writers are not afraid of doing nasty things to characters you like. In North American animation, you might get one token sacrifice character for the big dramatic death scene that inspires the hero to finish his quest (and you can usually tell who it'll be early on), but in anime things aren't so predictable. Of course, this may just be because North American fans aren't as familiar with the formulas used in Japanese storytelling.

Last Exile, in the last several episodes, kills off a few characters the audience has become fond of -- I won't go into details, so as not to spoil things. But I will mention that it was a shock to see a favourite character not only killed off, but killed off in such a way that no-one else even knew it happened -- a stupid, pointless death. Which was probably the point, really: stupid, pointless deaths happen in wars.

The biggest problem with the finale, once you're over losing favourite characters, is the timing. This is a common problem with anime, which often runs long storylines over 26 episodes (in contrast to North American animated TV, which requires that each episode be self-contained). The big wrap-up has to happen in the last 20 minutes of an 8.5-hour series. In fact, in Last Exile, the revelation of what Exile is happens halfway through the last episode! With the entire resolution crammed into the last 10, it's rather hard to figure out what's happening. It was only on reading some of the liner notes and some web pages that I caught some of what was going on, for which either I'd missed the set-up, or the set-up just hadn't been there.

Still, that's not that major a problem overall; a series that's good 8.25 hours out of 8.5 is nothing to complain about!

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