Today the spotlight falls on the first volume of Geneon’s 7-disc Last Exile R1 DVD collection.
NB: The following summary comes straight from the back of the DVD case. These words are Geneon’s, not mine. For something that’s supposed to pique the interest of prospective buyers, it’s a pretty lame piece of work – in fact, it seems as if it had come out of a free web translator.
“Japan’s top anime creators bring a richly romantic action/adventure fantasy in an imaginary world where retro-futuristic sky vehicles permeate the skies. Against this lavish background are the lives of young and heroic van ship sky porters – Claus and Lavie – who are forced to take on the mission to deliver a mysterious girl, Alvis, to the battle ship Silvana. Before they know it, they become entangled in an aerial adventure between two countries gripped in an eternal war of magnificent air battleships.”
Lame blurb aside, I think Geneon did a splendid job with the DVD cover. The paper used for all seven DVD jackets has a special iridescent layer that shines with washed rainbow colours whenever light catches the surface. This effect works best with the image used for the cover of Volume 1 (top), where the shimmering waves of colour add a feeling of depth and realism to the ribbed, all-metal body of Claus and Lavie’s Vanship.
Volume 1 contains the following episodes:
The main menu (above) has an animated centrepiece that features clips from the series.
Scene selection sub-menus are available for each episode. The set-up options are quite basic: audio in English or Japanese, with English subtitles that can be turned on and off.
The DVD contains the following bonus features:
Each volume comes with a folded insert that features the art of Range Murata (Murata Renji), who worked on the conceptual design of Last Exile‘s characters. The illustration used for Volume 1 (above) shows Claus and Lavie in their Vanship.
The insert folds out to reveal a detailed factsheet featuring Claus and Lavie’s Vanship, complete with cut-away views and operating specs.
Warning: This section contains a summary of the first four episodes. MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD.
Last Exile takes place in a world where two countries, Anatoray and Disith, are locked in a war over territory and resources. A mysterious order known as the Guild acts as a referee in this conflict, establishing the rules of engagement and (in theory) reserving the power to intervene before the fighting gets out of hand. In classic Napoleonic-era style, battles are fought by rows of musketeers armed with steam-powered rifles (think souped-up air guns) who politely fire volleys into each other at nearly point-blank range. As each row is depleted, another line of soldiers marches up to the front and dies in a gentlemanly show of valour. Ah, the spirit of chivalry.
Of course, this world isn’t our own: a point hammered, superglued and rammed into place by the fact that everything takes place in the air. The soldiers fight from retractable platforms attached to massive gravity-defying warships, which – once they’ve run out of human cannon fodder – can easily switch to blowing the living s**t out of each other using ranks of revolving gun turrets. The Guild observes the proceedings not from horses parked on an overlooking hilltop, but from a floating spaceship with gilded fittings that any dandyish Martian warlord would have been proud of.
In this world, the skies also hum with the noise of vanships: small, swift, wingless aircraft piloted by couriers who earn a living by transporting letters and other cargo. The story revolves around a young vanship pilot, Claus Valca, and his “navi” (presumably short for “navigator”) Lavie Head, who in the first episode are engaged by a noblewoman to deliver a letter to her husband, Duke Mad-thane – commander of the Anatoray fleet on the front lines of an ongoing battle. The Duke’s young daughter also hands them a personal letter for her father, which Claus assures her will be delivered promptly. There’s some danger involved, but the mission is rated as one of only moderate risk (three stars) and the young couriers expect to make a quick delivery.
Fortunately for us (since the series would get pretty boring otherwise), things don’t go according to plan. Just after Claus and Lavie reach the Duke’s flagship, Disith launches a surprise attack on the Anatoray fleet, pummeling the ships from above with a hail of heavy artillery fire. In the spirit of chivalry (which in this context is the first-cousin of the spirit of bone-headed stupidity), the Duke chooses not to turn tail and instead orders his forces to face the threat head on, effectively committing them all to certain death. The young couriers are unceremoniously ushered out and told to leave before it becomes impossible for them to do so. But before they lift off, Claus realises that they haven’t delivered the other letter, the one from the Duke’s daughter. Barred from the bridge, they pass the message to its intended recipient the only way they can: via the ship’s communication system. With the entire crew listening, the young girl’s words reach her father and, with the help of a distinctly less noble outburst from Lavie, eventually persuade him to consider withdrawing from the front in order to save the lives of his men.
As the Duke’s battle-weary fleet sails away, the intact Disith formations follow in pursuit, aiming to inflict even more damage on the defeated Anatoray forces. Even now the Guild refuses to step in and call a halt to the hostilities. Trapped between massed ranks of enemy ships, Anatoray’s fleet gets an unexpected boost from the Silvana, a powerful neutral battleship that, on this occasion, chooses to intervene on their behalf, launching a devastating attack on the Disith armada that gives the Duke just enough time to slip away.
Job done, Claus and Lavie return to their home city of Norkia and prepare for the 75th Norkia Cup, a vanship race that will pit them against the best pilots of the area. The race takes up most of Episode 3 and it’s a pretty straightforward event, so I’ll skip right to the end: with victory in sight, Claus and Lavie are forced to make a detour (and sacrifice the race) in order to assist another vanship which has just crashed right before their eyes. When they reach the crash site, the injured pilot – not a race participant but a man with an urgent errand – asks them to take over his mission, which is to deliver his cargo to the mysterious battleship Silvana. Interestingly, his “cargo” has a name: Alvis Hamilton, a sleeping girl in a fur-trimmed red cloak.
Despite the seven stars on the mission cylinder’s seal – signifying a job of almost unbelievable difficulty and peril – Claus solemnly accepts the task. The danger involved immediately becomes clear when a star-shaped aircraft (let’s just call it a “starfish” for convenience) starts hovering near the crash site, evidently searching for the stricken ship and its precious cargo. As Claus, Lavie and little Alvis quietly slip away, the mortally wounded pilot draws the starfish towards him and destroys it by blowing up his own vanship.
Back in the simple wooden shack they call home, Lavie tries to dissuade Claus from going ahead with the mission. They end up leaving anyway when another starfish tracks down Alvis and blasts its way through the shack in an effort to capture her. Floating quietly in the vanship through the city’s network of underground water channels, the three manage to cover part of the distance to the drop-off point – a group of temple ruins in the forests outside the city – when a starfish picks up the trail and is hot on the chase again. They escape, and eventually make it to the temple ruins where someone from the Silvana is expected to fetch the cargo. Before that happens, a starfish (probably different from the others encountered so far) suddenly grabs Alvis with its mechanical claw and takes her away. When Claus tries to stop it, the starfish shoves him aside, then raises one of its appendages to crush him. A shot rings out and the starfish crumples to the ground. The two young couriers look up and gaze upon the man who fired the fatal shot: the black-garbed captain of the legendary Silvana.
Last Exile features some of the best animation I’ve seen in a TV anime – which is quite impressive, given that this series is more than four years old. The studio successfully mixed 3D CGI with more traditional 2D animation to produce scenes that feature anything from massive airborne warships locked in furious combat to tiny vanships zipping along a narrow race-course. Granted, there are more than a few jarring moments when the 3D elements aren’t seamlessly integrated into the 2D backgrounds and human characters, but there aren’t enough of them to spoil the visual feast before our eyes.
Going beyond animation quality, the production team’s eye for detail lends this show an extra dose of realism. The steampunk setting aids in the process by reducing the automation factor, giving the story a strong hands-on, grease-and-grime feel. A typical vanship, for example, is a highly “manual” creature, requiring the full participation of its crew for everything from engine start-up (with an old-fashioned crank) and fuel mix optimisation (courtesy of some fine lever-fiddling on the part of the navi) to pre-flight checks (blah-blah? check. blah-di-blah? check.) and communication (Morse-style light signals). Warships – including the mighty Silvana – don’t have fancy onboard computers or automated weapons systems. Orders are relayed between ships using signal flares; “radar” consists of officers armed with headphones and a keen sense of hearing; cannons are aimed with the assistance of lookouts. In the thick of battle, a scene set on a warship’s bridge will have a lot more in common with classic WWII movies than Star Trek.
The background music isn’t this series’ strongest point, yet I can safely rate it as competently done. I did enjoy those parts of the score that had a distinct Gaelic flavour.
It’s hard to lose on the character design front when the battle plans are drawn up by an artist of Range Murata’s calibre. The execution may be flawed in some respects (some inconsistencies in the rendering of human figures, for example) but the all-important faces are nicely designed.
The voice acting (here I refer to the original Japanese dialogue, not the English dub) has its weak points, though the overall quality is very high and there’s a proper fit between the voice cast and the characters. My favourite performance of the series doesn’t come into the picture in Volume 1; I’ll have more to say about it in the next article.
Last Exile‘s production team gives the series a strong kick-off in this volume, using the first four episodes to gradually set up the stage on which the story will unfold. Information about the setting is doled out piece by piece on a “show, don’t tell” basis, which I think is the best way to immerse the viewer in Last Exile‘s alien world. In keeping with the introductory theme of this volume, the story maintains a relatively light note (the conflict over Minagith notwithstanding) right up to the end of the third episode, when our young heroes are dragged into the quiet battle for the future of their world that, at this point in time, is still being waged in the shadows.
As of this writing, I have already seen Last Exile in its entirety – but I do remember looking forward to Volume 2 with great anticipation after finishing the first four episodes. My next review will take us through the second set of episodes, in which my favourite character will finally step out onto the stage.
Volume Rating: 10/10 (covering Episodes 1-4)
Series-so-far Rating: 10/10 (covering Episodes 1-4)