For years the kingdoms of Dusis and Anatore have been at war, following traditions of chivalry while being overseen by a mysterious force called the Guild.
It is in this time of strife that we find two orphans, Claus Valca and Lavie Head. Having inherited their fathers' vanship, they make a living taking low-level courier jobs for a vanship corporation. But after watching a fellow pilot killed mercilessly while on a mission, they find themselves entrusted with the life of a little girl and thrust headlong into the war. What hidden secret does this girl hold, that people are willing to die to protect her? Is the Guild more than just a benevolent force dictating the war? Does it have more to do with Claus and Lavie's past than they realize?
(Adapted from Enoch Lau's synopsis. Many thanks.)
Once upon a time, Last Exile stood at the forefront of fantasy anime: an epic story set in a not-quite-modern, not-quite antiquated world brimming with danger and promise and inhabited by the majestic flying machines not seen in the medium since Miyazaki's early works. GONZO received widespread acclaim for their use of computer graphics to illustrate the movement of airships both big and small, and while that artistry seems somewhat crude even a mere decade later, it remains impressive nonetheless. Having caught fragments of the show several years ago, I decided to return to this "classic" and do a 10th Anniversary Retrospective, with the goal of eventually covering its recently-produced sequel series as well. After seeing the original, I regard it as an interesting but woefully fragmented story whose makers made the mistake of stuffing it with as many elements that scream "fantasy!" as they could instead of carefully cultivating an alternate universe with a consistent structure and world order. Though entertaining and artistically pleasing, its storyline suffers from an erratic pulse, a lack of urgency early on, and an underlying carelessness taken with the fantastical elements, the science and history of its fictional civilization lacking the attention paid to Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Crest of the Stars, and other triumphs of world-building.
Last Exile is one of a great many tales of the outsiders who, after eking out a living while trying to avoid a war, an unsympathetic government, or both, are thrust into the center of the conflict and somehow become the key to finally bringing about lasting peace. In this case, that storyline occurs on two fronts, with the orphans Claus and Lavie suddenly having a mysterious girl with apparent ties to the Guild thrust into their care after her airship (or "vanship") crashes near their home, and the crew members of the freelance aircraft Sylvana finding themselves at the forefront of an effort to end the war and the machinations of the Guild and its Empress. The main plot is stretched out such that relatively little action occurs until the middle of the series, with a very small burst occurring at the beginning and a great deal throughout the second half. In its initial lack of urgency, the show instead uses the time to engage in side stories and attempt to explicate the elements of its world before the main action starts, and it was not an approach that I especially liked. Once the characters are all in place on the Sylvana, the ship begins to feel a bit like a waiting room, with the episodes being dedicated to airship races, visits to old friends, and an arc in which a pair of rivals get stranded and develop grudging respect for one another, and while I didn't hate these stories, they felt like obligatory elements thrown in to make Last Exile as grand and quintessential of a fantasy series it could be, rather than anything truly necessary. My preference, in general, is for a series to maintain the main storyline while attempting to establish a setting, and Last Exile instead decides to let its plot take a long and leisurely vacation (it doesn't help that the slow scenes expose the show's weak sense of humor). Once the pace did pick up, I became quite addicted to the story in spite of my reservations about it, for when the writers are on top of their act, the pacing is gripping, the action scenes intense and tight enough to have me clicking the "next episode" button reflexively, in spite of the story being standard fare. Nonetheless, I was not happy with the decision to partition the show and keep the opening episodes devoid of urgency, and while Last Exile drew gasps of wonder from me in its best moments, it nearly lost me several times early on.
The relative lack of dynamic characters among the cast makes even the most entertaining parts of the story difficult to become fully absorbed in, meanwhile, although a handful of exceptions liven the show up considerably. While Claus and Lavie are pleasant enough, they develop little beyond the overdone pairing of the "shy" one and the "abrasive" one, while near the end of the series Lavie begins to show an ill-fitting "vulnerable" side whose creation was undeniably incited by the tastes of the Japanese fanbase rather than the needs of the story. The captain of the Sylvana, Alex, broods and acts cryptic throughout the run of the show, and while he fits into the Japanese tradition of mysterious ship captains initiated by Leiji Matsumoto's Captain Harlock, he lacks both the charm and the allure of such characters. Both Claus's hometown and the ship, meanwhile, are populated by quirky airmen, mechanics, and tradesmen who fulfill their role as "personality-givers" well, stock characters whose antics are enjoyable to watch nonetheless. The show's best lead character, oddly, turned out to be the one I had initially had the most reservations about: the mysterious girl, Alvis, who instead of becoming delicate deadweight considerably livens up the atmosphere with her odd speech mannerisms and uncanny maturity, a trait that, while done to death elsewhere, manages to avoid self-parody here. Fascinating also are the strange habits and uninhibited personality of Dio, an exiled Guild Prince who lives among the crew of the Sylvana, the contrast between them illustrating the different worlds that the members of the Guild and those they "manage" live in, his apparent happiness and simultaneous melancholy among the crew skillfully hinting at the horrors of his homeland.
What a fantasy series's success ultimately rests on, however, is the cohesiveness of its world and the care taken with its story, and unfortunately, Last Exile does not entirely match the perhaps overly-high standards I have come to expect from the genre. It is true that Last Exile is quite aesthetically pleasing, as Range Murata's character art is some of GONZO's best, the animation (once one gets over the surprise from the sudden cutaways to CGI) illustrates the story wonderfully, and the steampunk ambience of both the airships and cities is enough to have any fan of that particular aesthetic drooling madly; if I got my hands on an artbook for this series, I would very gladly buy it. Yet frequently, I felt that the core that should make all of the pieces of this world fit together was missing, and that many of its inventions seemed aesthetically pleasing but devoid of the motor needed to move them. The airships, for example, possess no logical means of flight, at least to the naked eye, their movement majestic but drawn without attention paid to physics or aerodynamics. Though it is possible to ignore such quibbles, they hint at the greater lack of structural integrity that emerges even as the story is at its most entertaining. Indeed, how or why The Guild came into power remains a mystery throughout, and while a frequently-mentioned mythical object, the titular "Exile", becomes important to the story as an apparent explanation for how the world came to be as it is, it is never properly extrapolated upon, its presence instead bringing upon a deus ex machina that solves the conflict but fails to give any of the answers I wanted to see. The show's decision to deal with these entities only in vague terms indicates that the creators themselves didn't even really know what they were writing about, an impression that only got stronger as the show came to a close. "Exile"'s odd ability to wipe the slate clean aside, the ending is brought about suddenly, awkwardly, and far too conveniently: key moments occur with no regard to pacing, an important character's story is cut short as he is thrown out of an airship and never heard from again, leaving dozens of unanswered questions, and another character who had previously died in a heartbreaking scene appears alive without explanation. The last few episodes, needless to say, are a rushed and poorly-constructed mess, and the excitement and any fascination I felt went straight out the window and into the garbage can when the credits for the twenty-sixth episode began to roll.
Last Exile is far from being terrible, but underneath its majestic airships and beautiful character art there is a careless attitude towards both the story and its universe that greatly soured my opinion of it. I will concede that it is possible to enjoy the series, ignore both the structural problems and its tendency to meander, and go along for the ride, but that just wasn't what I was looking for when I picked it up. Admittedly, it is difficult to be God for an entirely new world and conceptualize something functional, and I am willing to give the show some slack for that, but classic or nor, Last Exile remains a flawed series that does not hold up well against close examination.
I admit that my review is harsh, but I have enough affection for the good parts of this show to award it a soft third star. Diehard steampunk fans may as well add another one. — Nick Browne
Recommended Audience: Plenty of bullets, explosions and intense battle situations. It's low on gore and nil on the nudity scale, but the nature of the plot would probably only appeal to teens and up.
Version(s) Viewed: Stream Courtesy of Hulu.com (Japanese with English Subtitles)
Review Status: Full (26/26)
Last Exile © 2003 GONZO / Victor Entertainment / GDH
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