It occurs to me that I may be guilty of selling Madhouse short as a studio – and I may not be the only one. I almost never think of them as one of the very top tier of animation studios, but they produce an astonishing amount of very good work in both TV and theatrical form. In addition to two of the best series currently airing in Chihayafuru and the Hunter X Hunter remake, they’re of course responsible for the films of Hosoda Mamoru (Summer Wars, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time). They do produce a bit too much plonk on the TV side – their track record with mediocre American comic book adaptations is ugly – but when they’re on, they’re on. And with Toaru Hikuushi e no Tsuioku, they’re on their game.
This film pretty much passed under my radar – and it didn’t exactly score big at the box office in Japan, either. But I think it’s a hidden gem – a beautifully shot, well-acted adaptation of a light novel by Inumura Koroku. This is a variation on a very simple story that’s been told many times – a noblewoman falls under the protection of a commoner, a bond forms, but there are larger issues that the lives of two little people (which don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world). It’s part Tale Spin, part Last Exile, part Casablanca, part African Queen… And very obviously the product of some real dedication. It features some of the most subtle and tasteful CGI you’ll see, beautifully integrated with the cel animation, and some gorgeously choreographed aerial scenes. If you’re a sucker for aviation-themed animation as I am, you won’t want to miss this.
In brief, Toaru Hikuushi is the story of a young pilot named Charles Karino (Kamiki Ryunosuke, Shuu from Arrietty) and young noblewoman Fana del Moral (Taketomi Seika). The world is at war, and Fana has been pledged in marriage to Prince Carlo (Ono Daisuke), heir to the throne of the nation of Levamme. The war with the nation of Amatsuvian is not going well, and Levamme needs to get Fana to the Prince’s side as a gesture of hope for their people, but the squad sent to escort her has been destroyed by the powerful Amastruvian fleet, which holds a serious technological advantage. The decision is made to have a lone pilot in Levamme’s fastest plane try and sneak Fana through enemy lines on a harrowing 12,000 KM journey to reunite her with Carlo on the mainland. The twist – Karino is half-Amatsuvian himself, a “bestado” and an orphan and street rat who’s been spit upon for his entire life. It’s galling for the high command to entrust the Princess to such a rat, but he also happens to be the best pilot they have.
There’s more here – a shared past between Charles and Fana, an arrogant gesture by Carlo that endangers both their lives. You can more or less predict what’s going to happen between the two kids on their journey – but so what? Did that make Bogart and Hepburn in African Queen any less memorable? This is a story you could call “timeless” with real accuracy. As in so many aviation-based anime, the technology is a weird amalgam of past and future, with WW II-era prop fighters that run on seawater, super-fast “Shinden” Amatsuvian fighters that are rear-engine powered, and giant airships that are effectively flying aircraft carriers. The love of aviation cuts through everything in the film – not just in the spirit of Charles (and eventually Fana) but in the loving way the minutiae of flight is presented, the detail in the dogfighting, and the memorable respect shown between brilliant pilots even though they’re enemies. This is definitely a romance, but as much with the sky as between people.
That’s not to say that Charles and Fana aren’t strong characters, and their relationship not engaging – very much the opposite. As with Hotarubi no Mori e we have two very young seiyuu doing a stellar job in starring roles, with the big names consigned to the bit parts. Charles is too young and idealistic to be as jaded and cynical as a man in his position should be – he’s no Charlie Allnut, but more Claus Valca. He knows his place even as it chafes at him, but he also knows Fana will need to do more than sit there and look pretty if they’re to survive. To her credit, Fana – though clearly clumsy and sheltered as the story starts – doesn’t have an imperious bone in her body, and is quick to recognize the virtues of character than outstrip those of birth. In a way, the final act of this film reminds me of Seirei no Moribito – I won’t elaborate on why, but if you’re a fan of that series I think you’ll see it too. And the grand gesture that Charles undertakes is one that will likely imprint itself on your memory both for the visual imagery and the feeling behind it.
Maybe we complain too much as anime fans, and I’m as guilty of it as anyone. When a film like this can go by virtually unnoticed and still trump any animated feature produced by Hollywood last year, things can’t be in too bad a shape. Madhouse is proving itself that rare studio that can excel in both TV and theatrical anime, and they and director Shishido Jun have put together a work they can really be proud of here. It may not break much new ground, but it soars above it with the best of them.