“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.” – official DVD blurb
After eight years, I recently re-watched Last Exile – one of the first anime I saw, back when it originally ran in 2003. Since then, I’ve watched a lot more anime before drifting away from the medium; steampunk has become the “hot” subgenre of speculative fiction; and the show itself has a brand-new sequel. How does the original hold up?
From the start, Last Exile’s greatest strength is on full display: its world. Antigravity battleships soar through the skies, courier pilots scoop up message tubes marked to indicate the danger of the mission, men march to their deaths in pointless ritual combat. Dukes fill their fountains with the purest water, while those same couriers scrimp and save for water of the “third grade”. It’s a world very different to ours, a world where Han Solo would feel right at home but with the space opera traded out for steam/dieselpunk. And it’s a world both imaginative and richly brought to life.
Unfortunately, a cool premise and imaginative worldbuilding can only take you so far. The greatest flaw of Last Exile is that the further along you get, the less sense its plot makes. And it doesn’t help that the show is light on exposition, which is fine for worldbuilding but a real problem when it comes to plot. What was the point of that elaborate scheme? Where was X during all of that? How did those guys warp from point A to point B? Why is a certain character so stupid? Most damagingly, and repeated several times: what just happened, and why? This isn’t so much of an issue in the show’s first half, but it weighs heavily on its later half, enough to cripple my suspension of disbelief by the time the curtain fell. That said, the writers can plot satisfying individual episodes – these tend to be the ones that highlight an aspect of daily life in the skies. (As such, Last Exile would probably have worked better as an episodic show with the odd plot episode, a la Cowboy Bebop or Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.)
The characters aren’t especially deep, but they’re passable. Hero Claus is a generic milquetoast, but heroine Lavie has enough personality for both of them. Along the way, they encounter a familiar cast of characters: friendly rivals, a not-so-friendly stiffneck and her sweeter sidekick, a Captain Nemo/Harlock wannabe, a salt-of-the-earth mechanic crew, and more. Few of them are worth writing home about, but they all receive their fair share of endearing moments – and the supporting characters also get some of the show’s crowning heroic moments.
In the end, Last Exile could have been so much more, were it not for characters who are merely fair-to-middling and an overarching plot that’s downright weak. But with its fascinating world and its individually cool moments, the show is still well worth a look for a speculative fiction fan.
You can buy Last Exile from Amazon here (or, if you’re in the US, just watch it on Hulu).
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