I like this one, even if it isn’t a great film.
Like a lot of recent Anime films, I would describe this one as Miyazaki-lite: not only does it have a decidedly familiar color palette, and character designs which would easily fit into most of Miyazaki’s films, but it also features such trademark elements as flying scenes, clouds, a strong emphasis on nature, and, of course, airplanes.
But it is a particularly beautiful Miyazaki-lite, even if it is more of a straightforward Romantic film than anything Hayao even made.
It is set in a world that reminds me of The Wings of Honnêamise — and perhaps, of Mamoru Oshii’s The Skycrawlers. One the one hand we have what seems like a fairytale Kingdom, with elegant uniforms out of an old Comic Opera or Screwball Comedy — and fantastic aerial warships like an Late-Nineteenth Century Dreadnaught taking to the air. On the other hand we have retro-futuristic World War II style fighter planes — with the enemy flying an extremely familiar vehicle, a pusher-prop powered canard fighter which is actually called a “Shinden” (or “Lightning”). Now for those of you who have been remiss in your studies of WWII fighters, the Shinden was a last ditch attempt to create a new Japanese fighter capable of downing a B-29 bomber. While it would supposedly have had performance that rivaled contemporary jet aircraft (which may have been a bit optimistic!) it came too late to see combat. I’m not certain that the Shinden in The Princess and the Pilot is an exact match, but it remains one of the most iconic Japanese aircraft of the War because of its unusual layout and the countless “might have beens” it inspires. A similar plane appeared in The Skycrawlers, although I’m not sure it was called the Shinden.
More remarkable is the plane the hero flys. While it looks a lot like many of the American Naval dive bombers and torpedo bombers of the war, it has an electric engine (despite the fact that it sounds like a WWII radial engine when it starts up!), and rather than refuel, it can recharge itself overnight, using the difference in electrical charge between the ship and saltwater. This is more or less plausible but somehow I doubt if you could get enough power that way.
And it is a large and very fast plane!
The story itself is fairly uncomplicated: a gifted young pilot, a despised half-breed (we often forget the very strong bias against foreigners in Japan — see my review of The World Sinks Except Japan for more on the subject) and part of a mercenary squadron, is ordered to take the Princess, the last surviving member of that country’s royal family, to a neighboring kingdom so she can marry their Prince and unite the two lands. The rest of his squadron is then ordered to mount a fake escort mission to fool the enemy.
Unfortunately, the news of the mission has leaked, the enemy know of their feint, and he and the Princess must somehow elude the enemy patrols to get her to safety.
And we all know what’s going to happen to complicate matters even further.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, it is because the story is based on the Medieval legend of Tristan and Isolde, a love story which probably won’t make a lot of sense in our increasingly individualistic Western world, but which still, clearly, resonates in Japan, where the idea of doing what is right and needed, regardless of what we might happen to want is far stronger than it is here.
All in all, this is a stunning and lyrical film, with a lot of well staged flying scenes, an impressive array of hardware, and a well-told if somewhat tragic love story. I’m not exactly convinced that this is supposed to be an alternate history set somewhere around what should have been World War II — after all, those falls are a little hard to explain (if rather impressive, visually speaking). But whether fantasy or SF, this is an elegant if somewhat minor Anime.
Just make sure the women in the audience have plenty of tissues on hand…