Monday, 17 March 2014

とある飛空士への追憶 / To Aru Hikuushi-e no Tsuioku / Recollections For a Certain Pilot / The Princess and the Pilot

I'm not entirely sure why I decided to get hold of The Princess and the Pilot a while back - it took a while to get around to watching it and I've forgotten whether I just wanted another interesting-looking Madhouse film to watch or if somehow, from the Japanese title, I thought it had something to do with the 'To Aru' series (Index, Railgun et al), which I am currently enjoying. Either way, I got it, forgot about it for a while, and then finally got around to watching it. 

The Princess and the Pilot is something a little different from the usual Madhouse film, which I suppose is to be respected. Most Madhouse standalone films have a certain everyday quality, a real-world grounding, even when concerning werewolf children or time-travelling teenagers. There's a remoteness to The Princess and the Pilot, an otherworldliness to its fantasy setting, even though its fantastical elements are rooted in reality and nothing magical or particularly outlandish happens. 

In the world of this film, which largely resembles our own in the early 20th Century, there is a war on between the Levamme Kingdom and the Amatsukami Empire. If that sounds vaguely European and heavily Japanese to you, respectively, I suspect that this is no coincidence. Levamme could be Imperial Russia or Britain or even the US, and we can extrapolate a few things from the names which are largely either British or Italian, and possibly even from the hatless American-style indoor salute, but when it comes down to it, this is a fantasy world and Levamme is a homogenised 'The West'. Levamme, meanwhile, is a slightly unsettling fantasy of Japanese empire. They are the 'bad guys', yes, but they are an established Empire with superior technology to all around them, honourable and highly skilled pilots and - in case you are unsure if this global empire is really Japan - a code of 'samurai' one-on-one duels. To make things worse, the two eponymous main characters are really the only likeable characters in the whole thing, save perhaps the pilot's one friend at the start and the captain at the end with the twinkle in his eye, and other than that everyone in Levamme seems to be a nasty piece of work who is deeply racist against 'bestados', not far from the Portuguese 'abestado' but more like 'bastard' - the racist term for half-Amatsukami kids who suffer a life of extreme prejudice. 

In this unpleasant world, one bestado has managed to rise up to become the flying ace of the Levamme Kingdom - our hero Charles, amusingly rendered 'Sharuru'. He is entrusted with an important mission - to take the kingdom's princess covertly through enemy lines to her Prince, that they may be married and troop morale bolstered. Of course, things don't go smoothly, the princess Fana is extremely good-natured but accident prone and the idiot prince has leaked the nature of the mission to the enemy, leading to many close calls. There is a nice moment where the mercenary Charles reveals that what he said about being incentivised by money was not actually true, and that really what he wants is to finally take on a mission to save someone rather than to kill, but largely their trip is a long, tedious one and the romance that springs up between them is strained and awkward, entirely lacking in chemistry largely because neither of them is very interesting. 

This is the central flaw of the film that all the high-octane aerial dogfights and near-drowning scenes can't make up for - it never makes its central characters interesting, and with almost no other characters getting significant screentime, that's a huge problem. It doesn't have the redemption, comedy or subtle romance of Porco Rosso,with which it shares much terrain, so to speak. It is all very sincere, but there's very little heart there, and the contrivance that the two had met in their childhoods is very strained and lacks credibility. 

Not a waste of time to see, but certainly not a favourite, or one I would recommend to any but the biggest fans of aerial combat. 

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