I’ll admit, I’m a bit jaded as an anime fan, but then I’ve been watching for roughly fifteen years, so I have my reasons. After so long, it really does become apparent how bland and unoriginal the anime industry can be, and it’s getting worse, lately. For anyone for who is over the buzz of the whole “otaku culture” thing (and who doesn’t think that every new anime is the new greatest-thing-they’ve-ever-seen) it takes something really unique and special to hold their interest. Well, if you’re also tired of the same-old-same-old, then you might want to check out Last Exile. Produced by Studio Gonzo and directed by Koichi Chigira (Full Metal Panic, Gatekeepers, Brave Story), this 26-episode series has quite a few unique ideas.
It’s not the most unusual anime ever, but it’s fresh enough to have its own flavour and stand out from the stale mainstream lineup. Last Exile is essentially a fantasy steampunk story set against the backdrop of a war between two nations. Trying to make a living in these difficult times are the two lead characters, Klaus and Lavie, a pair of air couriers who undertake high risk jobs in hopes of earning enough cash to buy a jet-propulsion unit for their small plane so that they can enter some races. Klaus is the pilot, and he’s even-tempered and very serious about his reputation as the-guy-who-gets-the-job-done. Lavie is Klaus’s navigator, and she wears her heart on her sleeve and speaks her mind with no respect for the circumstances. A routine job leads the pair right into the thick of a battle between their own country, Anatoray, and its enemy, Disith, but they brave all to deliver the package. After the battle, they end up falling in with a crew of privateers that showed up to save the day, and so begins an unexpected journey which will uncover ancient mysteries and the true nature of the war.
Along the way, Last Exile touches on various issues such as personal pride and the value of chivalry, all without being too in-your-face or heavy-handed about it, but instead showing how each character chooses to deal with them and why. The grim atmosphere illustrating the hardships of war on civilians is very subtly and masterfully handled. Simple things like the bleak, unsaturated colour palette, the fact that the price of water is directly related to its purity, and the discrimination between noble soldiers and worthless civilians, all contribute to the stifling air of gloom that permeates throughout.
The character designs for the anime were handled by Range Murata, who is quickly making a name for himself with a style that is as recognizable as works by artists like Masamune Shirow or Tetsuya Nomura. If you’ve seen Blue Submarine No. 6 or some of his various art books, like Robot and Rule, you’ll recognize the style – particularly the way his female characters have very round, cue-ball like heads you just want to sink in the corner pocket. He also designed the characters for the woefully underrated PS2 stealth game, Spy Fiction. I was impressed by Last Exile. While there isn’t anything too spectacular about it, it stands on its own as an interesting tale with great visual design and solid direction. It also brings up interesting moral issues in a way which avoids the usual, heated “ethics argument” which always sucks any credibility out of them in other anime. Check it out, it’s worth a look.