Last Exile, Volume 1 by Koichi Chigira (Review)

The lush and detailed world depicted in the anime series truly makes it a wonder to watch.
Last Exile

I had intended to post up a review, or at the very least, some stills from this captivating anime series several months ago, when I watched a fansub. Unfortunately, the subtitling was so atrocious that I didn’t want to post anything until I had a chance to sit down with the domestic release — which came out November 18 — and watch the anime with a professional subtitling job. But I believe it says quite a bit about Last Exile that even though I rarely had any clue as to what was going on when I watched the fansub, I still found myself completely transfixed by what I glimpsed in those 4 episodes. And now that I’ve seen a proper translation, I’ve only grown more intrigued.

Last Exile is blessed with many things: gorgeous music, solid character designs, stunning animation, and some of the best usage of CGI I’ve seen this side of Macross Zero and Yukikaze. However, it’s the lush and detailed world depicted in the series that truly makes it a wonder to watch.

Imagine a world where huge battleships, as large as any zeppelin, soar through the skies with the help of advanced technology, where air couriers zip through the sky in vanships (small craft that look like a cross between a wingless biplane and a 1930s’ automobile, and handle like a helicopter). And yet you won’t find a single radio, television, or automobile anywhere. People live in cities that look like they’re right out of Victorian England, only they’re hewn into the sides of cliffs and hang down under giant precipices and waterfalls. Meanwhile, ominous structures hang in the sky, gleaming like they were hewn from solid gold and marble.

In this familiar-yet-alien world (named “Prester”), two childhood friends — a sheepish young pilot named Claus Valca and his fiery, loudmouthed navigator, Lavie Head — work as air couriers, delivering packages and messages in their speedy little vanship. However, their quiet little life will soon get turned upside down as they risk getting caught up in huge, climactic events beyond their imagination.

Two great nations, Disith and Anatoray, have begun to wage war, their huge floating battleships sailing across the clouds to the Minagith battlefield. However, war in Prester is fought according to an ancient code of chivalry, and everything is regulated by the mysterious Guild (controllers of those aforementioned alien structures). Battles consist of ships sailing past each other as ranks of infantry exchange fire across the gap with steam-powered muskets. It’s an incredibly futile way of fighting, and yet chivalry demands the troops stand their ground.

(Sidenote: I found this very reminiscent of the way war was fought in the 16th and 17th centuries. Armies just faced each other on the open field and let loose volley upon volley, with it being considered dishonorable to do anything but stand there, even as thousands were mowed down. It’s just another addition to the pastiche of historical and cultural elements that makes this series so intriguing to watch.)

Claus and Lavie’s latest job has them delivering a letter to the commander of the Anatoray forces. But before they can accomplish their task, the Disith fleet (who had appeared to be losing) suddenly returns to the fight. Only this time, they’re ignoring the rules of combat. Unable to cope with this breach of chivalry and stunned that the Guild is doing nothing to stop it, the Anatoray fleet come close to being slaughtered. That is, until a mysterious battleship appears and helps the Anatoray fleet to escape.

Soon afterwards, Claus and Lavie find themselves in possession of a mysterious young girl named Alvis, who is being pursued by strange, star-shaped ships. Unfortunately, the disc ends before we find out anything about Alvis, her importance, or why she was being sent to the Silvana (the mysterious battleship that saved the Anatoray fleet).

Although the seeds of Last Exile’s story have been sown in these 4 episodes, much of the time and effort so far has gone into realizing the world of Prester. The episodes take their time developing, offering many strange and wonderful sights to behold — those cliffbound cities, a maze of underground ruins, an array of vanships flying through the morning sky. But there are more subtle touches as well — economic details, daily customs and habits, architecture, the cockpit of Claus and Lavie’s vanship.

Everything in Prester seems familiar and even nostalgic, but with an alien twist that makes it feel strangely unique at the same time. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that all of Prester and Last Exile is rendered with amazing artwork and stunning animation — and bolstered, I might add, with a healthy and well-done dose of CGI. (Between Last Exile, Full Metal Panic, and Yukikaze, Gonzo’s certainly come a long way since Blue Submarine No. 6).

I find it very refreshing to find an anime these days with such a fully-realized world (and I suspect there’s plenty more discoveries to come). In this regard, I’d easily compare Last Exile with any of Hayao Miyazaki’s works (indeed, there’s already a huge and obvious Castle In The Sky influence making itself felt). Of course, it could all go to pot over the next 22 episodes. But for now, I’m hooked… and very bummed that I’ll have to wait until February for Volume 2.

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