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Mysteries multiply in 'Last Exile' anime


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POSTED: Sunday, January 25, 2009

The sky has always been viewed as an endless horizon, a place where mankind can escape from land-bound limits to seek the promise that awaits elsewhere.

It's fitting, then, that the Japanese animation studio Gonzo set its sights on the sky in releasing as its 10th-anniversary project in 2003 the 26-episode series "Last Exile," the story of two teens who see the sky as a source of hope in an era otherwise defined by war. As if to hammer that point home, the blue of the sky is the most vivid color in environments that are rendered in mostly metallic grays, earthy browns and reds, and other muted tones.

The project certainly garnered a respectable amount of attention in the United States. The turnaround from Japanese broadcast to U.S. retail DVD was remarkably quick; Geneon announced it had licensed the series for the U.S. in June 2003, less than two months after the first episode was broadcast in Japan. The first DVD was out that November, less than two months after the last episode aired. In the years since, it's remained an active property, airing on G4TechTV and currently being hosted on the Crunchyroll streaming Internet video service. Funimation also picked up the now-defunct Geneon's license and plans to re-release the series on DVD later this year.

The world that Gonzo crafts has a retro-futuristic vibe to it, a vision of what would result when 19th-century Industrial Age style and sensibility are applied to the spaceships and flying fortresses common to Space Age science fiction. Our two heroes, Claus and Lavie, are pilot and navigator respectively of their own vanship, a flying machine best described as a large metallic winged Twinkie with a giant, bulb-shaped antenna sticking out from the rear. Claus is a determined, unflappable boy, while Lavie is a girl who provides the spirit and spunk in the duo.

Orphaned at a young age, these two close friends have since followed the career paths of their fathers and have become vanship couriers, ferrying messages and cargo between different points in the world. They also participate in vanship races held from time to time in hopes of earning a bit of extra money.

WHAT THEY really hope to accomplish, though, is what their dads died trying to attempt: a voyage through the Grand Stream. The exact nature of this Grand Stream—a turbulent air current somewhere between the warring countries of Anatoray and Disith—isn't revealed until the 14th episode, which brings up a fundamental issue with the series: It takes a bit of patience to get through the first half of the series as mysteries pile upon one another before the answers start spilling forth in the second half.

It's a layering that starts off subtly at first yet transitions seamlessly from one unanswered question to the next. When Claus and Lavie see a vanship go down during a race toward the beginning of the series, they also go down to assist and end up taking over a dying courier's mission. That mission, to deliver a girl named Alvis to the flying battleship Silvana, immediately makes Claus and Lavie the targets of the Guild, an organization that seems to have a vested interest in the ongoing war. The Guild has Alvis set in the sights of its technologically advanced star-shaped ships and is willing to kill anyone daring to protect her.

Want to know why the Guild wants her? Sorry, but you'll have to wait until after Claus and Lavie are rescued by Alex, captain of the Silvana, and learn more about its crew. Alex is an enigma in his own right, a man of few words who seems to know Claus from somewhere ... but before you learn about why he's that way, here's fellow vanship pilot Tatiana, who starts off begrudgingly acknowledging Claus' flying skills but soon turns cold to him for some reason. And then there's the androgynous Guild duo of Dio and Lucciola, who are so enamored by Claus' vanship-piloting skills that they end up being willingly taken captive on the Silvana just so they can follow him around.

By the time the titular Exile finally shows up toward the middle of the series—adding its own mysteries yet finally adding a more definitive reason for why everyone wants Alvis in the first place—this much is certain: There's a war going on, Claus and Lavie are stuck in the middle of it and Gonzo's blend of 2-D animation with computer-rendered 3-D animation looks downright pretty.

Fortunately, those mysteries are compelling enough to make the wait to see them resolved worthwhile with enough action sequences and cliffhanger moments to keep audiences engaged. Granted, a few questions are left unanswered as the series accelerates to its conclusion, but the entire package is entertaining enough to make those omissions forgivable.