Saturday, April 4, 2009

Last Exile

Last Exile is a perfect example of how an anime can achieve broad appeal by avoiding the normal anime genres. If you're tired of seeing wave after wave of romantic comedies or giant robot series then you should take the time to watch this gem. At its core the story is a world war one epic, but it successfully manages to mix in science fiction elements. The result is something like a cross between Frank Herbert's Dune and the old black and white movie, Hell's Angels. This is definitely an action oriented series and it has a lot of aerial combat between giant airships and smaller vehicles which look like antique fighter planes. However, that's not to say this is a shonen anime that's just about explosions and dogfights. There is a lot of political and military maneuvering in the series which adds a degree of complexity to the plot. It's not as well written as the empire building in Code Geass, but it manges to be above most anime I've seen recently.

Besides the high end parts of the story dealing with empires at war and technocratic cabals of psychopaths, there is also some amazing human stories mixed into the series. Claus and Lavie are the two main characters and I could probably have watched an entire series based just on them running delivery missions and entering races. The animation of the flying vanships is just that entertaining. Eventually, the young couple end up helping a war orphan avoid being captured by several of the main empires in the story and get entangled in the main plot. It helps that Alvis is actually a likable child character and reminds me of a number of young heroines from Miyazaki films. Some of the other minor characters in the story are also quite interesting and .... gasp... actually change throughout the story! Also the series manages a nice ending though some things were rushed in the last episode. Still the fact an anime this good managed to avoid a reset ending guarantees it a spot in my old time favorites list.

Ratings: 5 categories with 20points each

Story: 18
Last Exile has a very well written story that is both surreal and grand in scope. The only problem is that they are a couple portions where the story became too large for the writers and resolution required some minor plot holes. Still the series has well placed progression that starts off focused on Lavie and Claus and then explores why their planet is being torn apart by war. The way aerial battles are fought between the two empires seems poorly thought out at first until you start seeing the similarities with World War One. A large part of the middle story deals with the clash between old military tactics against new technology. Thankfully, the story is kept from being too high-brow with most of the main characters being interesting and actually changing as they are affected by the war. The main antagonists in the story are the keepers of high technology and are referred to as the Guild. They are a little too convenient as villains and no good reasons are every given for them orchestrating the war. They are simply evil though it hints that the Guild recently underwent a coup where one family seized control through violence. Despite this shortcoming the fact that this is one of the longest paragraphs in my review reveal that the story is engrossing.

Animation: 18
The character animation is an older style which seems similar to Hayao Miyazaki films. It's a matter of personal opinion if you like the softer and less detailed character faces in this anime versus more modern styles. At times the character design does seem to clash with the large scale battle scenes which were partially computer generated. That's not to say it doesn't look gorgeous it's just that I've gotten used to seeing that animation style in older films like Akira. Luckily, the studio responsible for Last Exile has a lot of experience mixing hand drawn and computer animation with such series like Vandread and Blue Submarine Six. Overall the aerial combat scenes are impressive and I'm looking forward to snagging the series if it ever makes it way on Blue-Ray.

Characterization: 16
Last Exile breaks a common law of anime and manages to have some well written male characters. I thought Claus, Mullin, and Dio were particularly well portrayed in the story and they manage to avoid being summarized by one line character descriptions. Unfortunately, the captain of the mercenary ship is the exact opposite and manages to nail the cliche of an enigmatic and brooding leader to a tee. I'm glad he doesn't become a main character until near the end of the series. In fact the majority of the story revolves around the relationship between Claus and Lavie and their entanglement with the war. The two are childhood friends, but are obviously romantically involved though the series is surprising clumsy in dealing with this aspect. The writing is more solid when dealing with family themes as Claus and Lavie become the de facto parents of Alvis and seem to be the only people that actually care for the girl. Alvis gains points for not being annoying or bratty and having a sense of curiosity which reminds of Chihiro in Spirited Away. The main antagonist in the series is Maestro Delphine and she's a perfect villain, meaning that you hate her guts by the end of the series.

Sound and Voice: 18
Last Exile had a great soundtrack and it shows it from the first episode onward. Both the ending and closing themes fit the series and were very easy on the ears. The opening song, Cloud Age Symphony, has some trance elements in it which might annoying some people.Still I found myself listening to the entire song every episode which I usually take as a good sign. The English dub was well done and I didn't notice any characters that had mismatched voices. The musical score was also well done and matches the large amount of sky and cloud scenery found throughout the series. The only thing that annoyed me was that some of the dialogue seemed over simplified on the English dub. Thus I noticed a scene or two where characters seemed to be making unnecessary comments because some of the context was lost in the translation.

Originality: 17
A series that goes with an off beat genre like steampunk earns a lot of points right from the start. I can only think of a few other anime series like Read or Die or Fullmetal Alchemist which could be called steampunk. There seems to be a high ratio of inherent awesomeness in the genre and I think its because of the romanticized use of technology. A lot of people are turned off by normal science fiction which they find confusing, weird, and unbelievable. However, stories like Last Exile avoid a lot of these negative impressions by packaging fantasy technology like anti-gravity into things like steam-engines, airships, and fighter planes. Last Exile also has a great background setting with a world that isn't too alien to the audience, but still maintains a aura of myseriousness. In my opinion they hit the sweet spot where the story seems like a very realistic dream.

Final Score: 87 Great

Note: Funimation go a hold of the release rights for Last Exile and an affordable box set will be available at Amazon next month.