From Amazon: It’s the dawn of the Golden Age of Aviation on planet Prester, and retro-futuristic sky vehicles known as vanships dominate the horizon. Claus Valca – a flyboy born with the right stuff – and his fiery navigator Lavie are fearless racers obsessed with becoming the first sky couriers to cross the Grand Stream in a vanship. But when the high-flying duo encounters a mysterious girl named Alvis, they are thrust into the middle of an endless battle between Anatoray and Disith – two countries systematically destroying each other according to the code of chivalric warfare. Lives will be lost and legacies determined as Claus and Lavie attempt to bring peace to their world by solving the riddle of its chaotic core.
Last Exile holds a special place in my heart because it was the first anime I bought in full, special edition art box and all, as a budding otaku. This was back in the days when you had to pay $30 for a measly three-to-four episodes, so that was easily $200+ of my hard-earned teenage money.
But now it’s time for The Culling. A house only has so much shelf space, so Jacob and I occasionally go through our anime collection to see A) which old multi-volume favorites have been replaced with slimmer single-volume complete collections, or B) which ones simply aren’t earning their shelf space.
All of which was why I was both excited and nervous to watch Last Exile again for the first time since high school. Would it hold up to the nostalgic glow that I’d so lovingly pictured around it?
Now that we’ve finished it again, the answer is a resounding “UGHHHHH NOOOOO. ;_;”
Not even that classy opening could save it.
Don’t get me wrong. Last Exile is a gem for a certain audience, but unfortunately that is the narrow audience of “steampunk anime fans who are willing to sit through inadvertently inconsistent and stupid characters, lazy plotting, and a let-down of a big reveal all because, on its surface, the series looks darn cool.” And aesthetically, it does.
Last Exile’s neat combination of steampunk/dieselpunk (for the warring nations of Anatoray and Disith) and futuristic design (for The Guild) is what drew me to the series in the first place, and for me, that production design was enough to carry me though the entire series, watching both as a teen and as an adult. Range Murata, who to this day is one of my favorite designers, did fantastic work bringing the world of Last Exile to life, from the unique (if wildly impractical) vanship designs to the clean, geometric aesthetic of The Guild to the simple appeal of the characters’ facial designs. It’s also rare to see art that can do so much with greys, browns, and muted colors and still make for an ultimately optimistic-feeling show, but Last Exile’s design pulls that off with panache.
Which makes it all the more unfortunate that the rest of the show doesn’t live up to that. Though the design of the show is good, the actual animation that goes into it is inconsistent. Most of the time, it’s good enough, but the moments when it falters, it does so in a big way, like one shot in which a crying, sniffling character’s face seems to implode on itself with each sniffle (pretty sure noses don’t move that way, even for the most intense cries). There are also moments where the CG flickers, which is distracting.
Worse than that, though, are the characters and handling of the plot. Again, don’t get me wrong – the characters are basically likable and interesting (except for Alex Row, who comes across as Diet Zero-Calorie Captain Herlock), but there are many obvious points where the writers inserted dialogue or conflict solely for the purpose of tension – for example, early on, where the main characters stress about having to fly into a war zone even though moments earlier, they’d literally chosen to fly into the exact same war zone to deliver a message that isn’t even related to the battle. There are also moments where the characters fail to make obvious observations – when it takes Klaus several minutes to realize that Dio is from The Guild, despite The Guild’s very obvious eccentricity and appearance, or, worst of all, when Alvis suddenly starts FREAKING GLOWING AND MESSING UP SHIP INSTRUMENTATION AND NO ONE STOPS TO SAY, “HEY THAT WAS WEIRD. WHY WAS SHE GLOWING?” Even though two main characters were in the room to see it happen. 😐 Not to mention that, despite being Guild members (if runaways), and thus members of an enemy faction, Dio and his companion are given complete freedom to roam the famed Silvana. 😐 Like, how does this ship even manage to stay in the air, much less become one of the most feared ships in this show? 😐 😐 😐
Anyway, all of this is done in service to the plot, which aims to keep secrets from the viewer in attempt to prepare for a big payoff at the end – the viewer learns little meaningful information about why Alvis is so important to Exile, what Exile even is, why Anatoray and Disith are fighting in the first place, etc. until the last several episodes of the series. By then, the viewer’s patience is spent, and the reveals aren’t even that good. SPOILERS: Anatoray and Disith are fighting because Disith’s land is becoming uninhabitable and its people need a new home. Exile is a device meant to carry people off the planet to a more habitable world (or perhaps regenerate the present dying world. The series wasn’t incredibly clear on that). Alvis is a key to activating Exile.
As reveals go, these are all pretty basic, and I would have much preferred to watch a series where these points were revealed early on, and time was spent answering questions about the world around them.
Like, if they have big ol’ warships with ranged guns, why do they bring the ships close to each other to fight with musketeers?
If Anatoray and Disith are able to come to a truce so easily, why’d they even war to begin with?
How did The Guild even come to be? Why’s The Guild so weird? What’s up with that wack coming of age ceremony? Like Guild why even?
What exactly is Claudia fluid and what does it even do? Okay, to be fair, it’s the magic BS that allows these impossible aerial designs to fly, but even then, where’s it come from? How’s it work? If it’s apparently easier to come by than water (you never see Klaus and Lavie worrying about the quality or amount of their Claudia fluid, after all), why’s the variety of flying vehicles so limited? For that matter, if Claudia fluid allows The Guild to maintain its posh floating fortress, why shouldn’t Disith use it to power alternative housing? Man, you could almost write a Dune-scale series about the economics and politics of Claudia fluid. (*Quietly goes to plot the intricacies of clarien fluid…*)
Finally, if Exile was built to get people off-slash-save a planet, why make it so crazy hard to find and activate? And why use something as specific as a magic little girl and some words that are only passed along orally? What if the words get changed or forgotten over the ages? Also why wrap the thing in killer spaghetti robots? That’s like giving a person all the M&Ms in the universe but coating all of them in a poison shell – except these M&Ms can save a whole population, which makes it worse.
The first third of the series is fun, but Episodes 13-16 provide the clearest proof of how the series fails. These episodes reveal information and twists that, by all means, should have been earth-shaking for the series, but since it’s so badly set up, the viewer has no emotional connection to anything that’s going on. You know you’re supposed to be surprised and intrigued by what’s happening, but it’s just not there, and that same feeling of lost potential continues through the end of the series, where I literally did not care about anything that happened in the last six episodes.
Ultimately, Last Exile tries to be a character-driven political sci-fi war drama, but since it never focuses on any one of those things, it fails at all of them. Dedicated steampunk and dieselpunk fans will enjoy it for the aesthetic, but even for those fans, only the first 10 or so episodes will be worth it. The rest will just be a glaring example of a series with worlds of squandered potential.
It’s still staying on my shelf, though. The nostalgia factor is just too great. (And I really do like those first 10 episodes.)
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