Wednesday, December 11, 2013

To Aru Hikuushi e no Tsuioku (The Princess and the Pilot) - Review

Studio: Madhouse
Year: 2011
Director: Jun Shishido
Screen Play: Satoko Okudera
Original Creator: Koroku Inumura
" As a beautiful daughter of the noble family del Moral, Fana was proposed by Prince Carlo, who is the crown prince of their country Levamme. However, since Levamme is at war with Amatsuvian, the marriage had to wait until the war ends. Meanwhile, as a bestado, the lowest caste in Levamme, Charles had always dreamed of flying and eventually became the ace pilot of the air force. Although he was often mistreated, a glorious chance came about when the Amatsuvian bombarded del Moral's home in order to get rid of the future empress. Charles was then entrusted with the top secret mission of delivering the princess to the prince."


Forbidden romance between two people from wildly disparate social class is probably one the most tried themes in romantic fictions. From Romeo & Juliet to Pride & Prejudice, from the West to the East, the thrill and heart-wrench implied by the premise continue to captivate generation after generation of audience. The Princess and the Pilot doesn't offer anything new in that respect. It is a classic plot, only told through the fresh settings of war, and for the most part, gracefully executed. It's not without problems, to say the least, I feel quite frustrated about the ending – it's an outcome of some very rational debate but isn't entirely in tune with what the story was setting up for. I wanted to catch this film before its prequel TV series set in the same universe goes on air next season, and having enjoyed the film immensely, I can safely say my interest for the series has gone up a notch.

The plot is incredibly simple and cannot be more straightforward even if it tried. Mercenary pilot Charles Karino is entrusted with the secret mission to deliver the empress-to-be to the prince of Levamme traversing enemy territory. The movie doesn't indulge in suspenses as it imparts right away the two have met as children, only Fana doesn't seem to remember Charles. Well, it's all very convenient – when the situation is life-or-death, it gets that much easier to be attracted to that one person who can save your ass. Not to mention this said bodyguard is highly dependable and clearly has his wits about him, if his masterful maneuver of the plane is anything to be judged. So we are off to a good start that leads to many predictable but heart-felt moments. For sure, Fana is a pretty typical case of a klutz, but it's justified given her sheltered upbringing, and I give her credit for genuinely trying to help out. Well, she falls into the water, not once, but twice. But I love the way both of them cracked up after Charles saves her a second time from the ocean's clutch. It's a turning point in their relationship that's beautifully charming and full of heart. During the one-on-one confrontation, Fana even learns to operate the machine gun built into the plane, displaying an amazing level of determination and valour. It goes to show she isn't a damsel in distress, but a strong-willed woman who can hold her own. 

Because the movie employs a very narrow focus – such that our two protagonists take up most of the screen time – the romance is able to enjoy a subtle and nuanced development. I'm particularly fond of the scene is where Fana, relying on the effects of alcohol, musters enough courage to voice her mind. If the hints of romance were vague before, then Fana's outburst is as close to a confession as we get. We see a girl who lead a highly controlled and secluded existence finally reaching out, even for a brief moment, to make a grab for her own happiness. But unfortunately, given their respective identity, the heart's truth is always just one step behind the veil, strapped down by unshakable responsibilities. 

In all honesty, I was rooting hard for them to dump whatever baggage they carried and just elope – we can worry about the consequences later right? But the author clearly didn't think so, for the ending unfolded in the most frustrating way possible. What Charles does for Fana is one of the most romantic thing I have seen ever. It is a true way to impress a girl if you ever got the skills for jaw-dropping aerial feats. Oh, don't forget to sprinkle handful after handful of your hard-earned gold while you are at it, you know, just to make the show that much more memorable and the parting that much more agonizing. The gallant and sweet Charles surely hit the message home – he didn't risk his life for the petty cash but for the person who became his hope. I hand it to the writer for this exquisite scenario and almost ethereal experience, but I also detest her for leaving us and the characters with just that. The idea of sacrificing personal happiness for the greater good doesn't exactly sit well with me in this particular case. It seems like an attempt on the part of the writer to create a realistic situation, but it feels contrived given what the rest of the movie signals. I mean how can Fana just walk off and marry someone else after knowing what Charles has done for her? Unless she has always had an unwavering resolve to serve her country, which isn't made very apparent throughout the film. Not to mention she's marrying the idiot who had a large hand in aggravating their predicament. What does Charles get at the end of the day after putting his life on the line for someone else's wife? Well, the eradication of his existence. That is just damn lovely. I know he didn't love his job, but at least he had one. 

Let me rephrase and make myself clear, the root of my complaint isn't why they can't be together, but rather the basis to such a conclusion is poorly constructed. Also, I would have been fine if they followed up with something more insightful than "they erased his existence, and she does a good job at being an empress". 

In any case, it is still a pretty great film playing to the strength of the genre. Being a romance film, it doesn't entirely escape the cheesiness; there are a few places where tropes can be glaring (childhood meeting, accidental trip and fall on top for example), but within the big picture, I don't find them overly distracting. The sweeping orchestra music is a good fit for the show and always hitting the right moment. The art is stunning, especially the backgrounds, which are expansive and rendered with rich details. I do have some quibble with the CGI in the animation, it does sometimes feel awkwardly out of place. But aside from that, the aerial combats are for the most part very fluid and dynamic. 

The Princess and the Pilot is a beautiful film that closes the curtain with a frustrating reminder of what it compromised for a supposedly realistic ending. But it succeeds in taking a classic concept and breathe new life into it. If you are a fan of great animation, an emotionally engaging story and some very likable characters, The Princess and the Pilot is definitely something worth checking out. 

Overall: 8.5/10 

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