Last Exile: Fam, the Silver Wing

I suppose it's finally time for the only person who asked for a sequel to Last Exile to review it. I'm behind by about five years, I know, but without a network of bloggers, I'd just be talking to myself (In fact, I probably still will be). Another reason for the delay is when I watched the release on FUNimation streaming, the second half became so murky with so many plots that were stacked up in a disjointed fashion, week-to-week viewings became trying to look at a jigsaw puzzle that got flung across the room every few days. So let's see how watching all of it in a week treated a series that was before its cumbersome second half, a pretty solid sequel that utilized the positives of its original without relying on them while creating new characters and experiences that weren't a hollow echo... most of the time, at least.



Last Exile was certainly one of those series that fits the general five-year popularity window for anime. Unless it's an iconic staple of the industry, a good series will gets buzz, a decent amount of fame, some appearances on top ten anime of ALL TIME, and then within five years, talk peters out, and the show might not vanish, but it's certainly not held in the highest tiers of anime Valhalla. Go search out the top ten anime of all time polls that were conducted in certain years like 1990 or 2000 (It might be difficult since most of these were in magazines) and you'll see what I mean. Sometimes you get a Sailor Moon in the mix that beats the odds, but there's also Love Hina and some of you will never believe wide swaths considered it one of the greatest anime of all time at one point (It happened).

From 2003 to 2008, studio Gonzo's 10th anniversary project enjoyed a reasonable amount of time in the sun. It was on American television during the anime gold rush (G4techTV, granted), when I went to my one Otakon in 2005, there were plenty of cosplayers representing the series (One in an extraordinary Princess Sophia outfit I accidentally called Princess Claudia and for that, my name-troubled mind apologizes), and it was even rumored Joel Silver was going to make a movie out of it at the height of his Matrix money days. They couldn't even wait for the days of Gonzo's 20th anniversary as Gonzo's cash had dried up and the sequel came out in 2011 at the absolute last huff of steam Gonzo had before its output imploded. I couldn't even believe they were doing it and Last Exile still hovers around my top ten list. But they got most of the major minds back together with a few differences that were understandable (Geneon handled the English version of Last Exile and since they died a fiery death, they couldn't be around to handle the sequel, meaning an entirely new English cast under FUNimation. It's very good, all things considered). The animation surprisingly took a step back from 8 years before save the advances in 3D CG, but they had enough verve with an intriguing enough follow-up story that maybe they would pull it off.

First, a small amount of backstory that spoils Last Exile a bit. The heavily sky-based world of the original turned out to be a spaceship and the war between the two nations in it was engineered by the noble-blooded Guild who were secretly controlling the limited amount of land on the traveling ship. The titular Exile is a crescent-shaped weapon of mass destruction that was re-started by the Guild's wicked leader Maestro Delphine, but the finale put an end to the Guild's rule, the Exile's activity, and the conflict between the countries.

Fast-forward to four years into the future. The ship has returned to its home world and is a part of an over 100-year re-integration after centuries of ruin ruins from a cataclysmic war. The world's inhabitants are none-too-happy to see them back, but are forced to give them land and relocate others due to an off-screen scuffle, likely involving the threat of the Exiles each ship has and the planet had thought to have gotten rid of. This brings us to now, where the massive Ades Federation is engaging on a warpath to wipe out every trace of the migrants. If the original series was slightly based off of World War I, Fam the Silver Wing is vaguely World War II and the Federation is Germany.

Our leads are sky pirates Fam Fan Fan (Yup) and her navigator Giselle. They use vanships and vespas-small airplanes that are designed to more resemble cars-to trap and reel in gigantic flying battleships to make a living. Since they're the nice, charming pirates who only do this to make a living and actually help people, we don't see what they do with the crew that occupies those ships who are mostly military, probably armed with guns, and don't take too kindly to being hijacked.

My overthinking of everything aside, Fam is a wide-eyed, brash pilot balanced by Giselle's calm, masterful knowledge of all things aeronautics. The first couple episodes are dotted with incredible flight scenes where we get to see how they work together, an especially good one where they try to twist their way through the inside of a large vessel in their tiny ship. One of their friends in their settlement is former Guild royalty Dio, a supporting character from the original series that will make everyone get up and shout, "HEY, YOU DIED!" If you're waiting for a proper explanation, it never comes around. There's even a recap episode about everything that happened in the first Last Exile narrated by Dio that features the scene where he has lost his marbles and tips over a vanship in extremely high winds standing up and he says absolutely NOTHING about how he's alive. I argued for the ending of the original against plenty of valid concerns with patchwork defenses, but yeah, the sequel pretty much confirms it's bad writing.

The main plot kicks in when Fam and Giselle cross paths with the royal princesses of the Turan kingdom, Liliana and Millia, who are the latest victims of the Federation's scorched earth policy under the direction of eyepatched Premier Luscinia. Fam strikes a deal for the Sky Pirates to protect the princesses in exchange for possession of their fancy ship sans gaudy decorative wings they smash up as part of the escape attempt. Unfortunately, Fam bites off way more than she can chew as Luscinia uses the surface-world Guild and its band of crafty assassins to dispatch ships from the inside and captures elder Turan sister Liliana as the key to one of the Exiles (that now hover ominously in the sky as moon facsimiles), which completely lays waste to Turan's capital in minutes.

What follows is a rising rebellion led by Fam and the sky pirates with younger Turan princess Millia attempting to rebuild her country even if she only has sovereignty of one room. Fam wants to steal a whole bunch of ships to give Millia an army and has her sights on a mysterious ship known as "The Reaper" that comes from the country Anatoray. Fans of the franchise will know that name's a sign of familiar characters in the not-to-distant future.

If you expect me to go on a nasty, thousand-word rant about how this destroys the legacy of the franchise after all of the necessary plot synopsis business, be prepared to be disappointed. I understand Last Exile has quite a few flaws and doesn't reach deeper than being a really damn good adventure even if the makers had some anti-war sentiments that don't quite scan (Pacifist hero accidentally creates the greatest tactic to fight a war and is ashamed of it, which leads to... nothing, really). The sequel genuinely tries to not only expand the world and give a larger scope, but challenge some of the ideas and give extra dimensions. It doesn't get there, whether the gray areas fight too much with the good guys/bad guys narrative, the only 22-episode running length and rushed feel of the second half stunting plot threads and characters, or it plain doesn't want to answer questions that should be answered. And yet, there are worthwhile aspects to take away from Silver Wing and wonderful stretches when its vision is clear and its story is uncluttered.

The visuals are both better and worse than its predecessor with quite a few variables to explain why. As I watched the recap of the first, the 3D CG has certainly aged with detail work and motion taking the worst hits, and while Gonzo will never fix its shortcomings in not making these stick out, there is art on these animated vanships now and more articulated movements so ill-chosen closeups don't make the pilots seem like Fisher Price Little People anymore. The sequel chooses location art design over mechanical design which seems like a no-brainer, but the sedate colors, polished steel, and mass of realistically rendered clouds of Last Exile really looked extravagant and gritty at the same time. Plus, when you have someone like Mahiro Maeda doing the mechanical designs, the machines themselves can be their own art. Unfortunately for Gonzo, Maeda left the company and has been consistently busy on the Evangelion movies and eventually, concept art for Mad Max: Fury Road. So what you have here is the machines are reliant on leftovers and are more uniform than you'd think in a world where a bunch of spaceships went off and did their own thing for a few hundred years before returning (Though to be fair, there are hybrid vanship designs that combine various cultures). The gizmos and doodads used for visual appeal in its predecessor are also played down. In exchange, there are more gorgeous and varied locations like the Ades Federation with organized gardens built around desert and stone stone representing Luscinia's cold and forceful method of unifying a world of different cultures and the Sky Pirate villages acting like nests with homes made out of found objects.


A spot of color also sweeps in to help the production. The clouds have been toned down and many are obviously drawn rather than expertly rendered, but there's far more to look at under them, from wide crystal lakes to fortresses of ice at the edge of the world. I loved the visuals of the original, but they did stray towards the washed out to portray the desolate nature on the lower classes while the upper class was dominated by harsh whites. The animation style in the sequel is less mature, but more expressive. The rounder designs are closer to character designer Range Murata's art, though that may be a bad thing since his art tends to emphasize people's youth and sexuality simultaneously to uncomfortable levels. Thankfully, most people in this world wear proper clothing. The worst is up front in the opening scene where Fam is in her underclothes while sleepwalking (A character trait that is supposed to be constant enough to keep a rope tied to her to keep her from falling out of a ship, but it vanishes after the beginning). Nothing too icky. The only hits to the animation come in the middle episodes where it's clear the money and time wasn't there. Wide shots reduce the characters to splotches and some CG inserts give them inhumanly repetitious movements like they're a waving billboard. I like the more mature look of the original, but I wouldn't hold it against anyone if they preferred this one.

An extremely pleasant surprise comes with the choice of music composer. Hitomi Kuroishi (Better known as just Hitomi when acting as a performer) was a teenager when she was asked to provide her soothing, airy tones to Last Exile as part of the musical group Dolce Triade. Eight years later and she's promoted to full composer without a single step missed. The score is easily the greatest aspect of Silver Wing, beautifully recreating a feeling of being in open skies while making it seem like music that could actually be played in this world. I'm happy to see her mature and blossom into the role of full composer with such elegance.

The early third of the series is easily the best stretch of the show since it has the clearest of intentions with a reasonable amount of characters to give proper depth. Fam as the usual lead with boundless energy and optimism manages to turn to the trick of making it infectious instead of annoying. She and her co-pilot have an easy chemistry that even they take for granted as part of the story when Fam begins to assist Millia with trying to rebuild her country.

In a sign of how anime focus has changed over the years, rather than the odd harem that arose around Claus in the first one to represent the air of confusion at that moment in the story, here we have almost a love triangle between three girls. Fam and Giselle are lifelong friends and Fam has been able to make Giselle's greatest talents stand out, but Millia gives Fam purpose and a way to make her ultimate dream-a reboot of a Grand Race where everyone from all countries comes together for a friendly competition-come true at her own hands. The way these relationships get tangled and react to each other come about surprisingly in a natural form for a series such as this. It's a shame it's resolved so easily and then brushed aside (Though they do get a fairly nice metaphorical and literal game of deck hockey to settle their feelings).

The early story is clean, sturdy action-adventure. The curtain-raiser is an exciting hunt of a Federation battleship with a couple other equally skillful sequences in the first few episodes. The emotions are unfiltered and it's easy to get a handle on the situation. With many anime trying to have the greatest world building or extremely complicated plots based off quantum physics, a pure action-adventure is rare and a good one is even moreso. For awhile, it all comes together. It even hints at emotional complexity. The events before the sequel suggest horrible atrocities were committed on all sides, including the people we rooted for in the first series. The migrants (Including Anatoray) only had land because they displaced people who stayed and survived the catastrophe who feel they earned it. It could be argued it's rightfully theirs and the only reason it isn't is because the migrants control the super weapons that caused the world to almost die out in the first place.

Of course, every moment the series tries to give villain Luscinia a bit of empathy, they have to put in a scene where he gathers all "mixed race" nobles into a room and has them slaughtered. Then, he literally uses the shield of minorities military move from South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut when he throws a bunch of captured country's ships on the frontline to get massacred in order to test a country's defenses. We'll get to Luscinia's failure as a character in a bit.

After around episode 10, the series starts to get stuck in a quagmire of storytelling. The episode ends in a cliffhanger twist. What follows is a sudden halt in momentum as the next episode is a flashback to the original Grand Race. Beyond the convenience of just about every plot relevant person being there at the same time, it doesn't bring any shocking revelations except that the kindly ruler of the Federation who was assassinated at the Grand Race had more sins than the people who remembered her would care to admit. It's likely necessary information, but did it have to be placed here? That's not to mention when we're back at the present, we're rejoined AFTER all the excitement has died down.

The problems of the second half can best be described as not enough time for so many questions, so many characters, and so many dangling threads. What once were eight characters at the core are now 20 with plenty of supporting cast rushing the fringes. The light sprinkling of characters from the original for seasoning was actually pretty perfect, especially with Tatiana who had already gone through her arc and it was nice simply seeing her grown up, confident, and running one of the most badass ships on the planet. As numerous cast pour in from Silver Wing's predecessor, it brings more confusion than joy. What happened to Disith? Did a seriously awful catastrophe destroy the country offscreen or are they rendered redundant because they have another country that's an analogue for Russia here (With actual language supervised by Russian singer/anime voice talent Jenya)?  And WHY HAVE THE TWO MAIN CHARACTERS SHOW UP WITH ONE OF THEM PARALYZED FROM THE WAIST DOWN IF THEY'RE NOT GOING TO BE USEFUL AND YOU'RE NOT GOING TO EXPLAIN ANYTHING?!


*Ahem* That's not to say there aren't good parts to the second half. There are plenty of them. But they are moments instead of connecting tissue to a greater plan, and they hardly have payoffs. Sometimes it's not good to compare the opening animation to the series proper, but I think this one can get called out for promising what it can't deliver. Just look at the shots that feature Dio. Dio is apparently internally stricken by something as shown by literally having blood on his hands in the credits. Do we get to know what that internal crisis is? Nope. He also is shown having a huge life-or-death struggle on top of an airship in an epic battle with Luscinia's right-hand man. Now, Dio does become awesome as one of the few people who can take on multiple surface-world Guild assassins by himself, but that legendary fight they advertise? It's a throwaway showdown in a hanger that isn't worth a quarter of the hype.

What eventually makes important stretches of Silver Wing ring false is the tiny amount of philosophizing that tries to sling motivation through important emotional moments. The project either running out of money, time, or both has to sum up extremely vital relationships in small moments. One is Luscinia and Liliana's strange connection to each other. It happens as a plot twist and then waits and waits to explain itself until the absolute last minute. We get one conversation where Liliana is at the height of being emotionally compromised at the death of her father and destruction of her nation, listens to his beliefs on how his fascism is actually saving lives from a gigantic power struggle and that's it. She's in. I don't buy it. I'm not going to win over someone about properly controlling the pet population after I just ran over their dog (Something I would never EVER do, by the way).

It's strange, especially for an anime that attempts to have honest, candid conversations about the nature of this extremely fragmented world and not be an idealistic hero's journey the first one was. I appreciate Fam's character arc isn't another headstrong teen whose dream shines through all obstacles (Though it still kind of does), but an examination of how much a dream can survive through extremely harsh reality. At one point, a good friend of hers commits an assassination and that's not something you just shake off and move on from. To this show's credit, it is willing to go that far and have inner-conflict between all sides with people of varying degrees of flexibility and nature. But it IS a broad action-adventure too, so these gray areas get heavy contrast adjustment eventually. The strangest is Luscinia.

I don't think even they knew what they were doing with Luscinia. I'm guessing their idea for him and the Federation is slightly Hitler's Germany with a monarchy, but the leader was sane and had actual good reasons for what he did... but he still has to be horrific and terrible... except for the times he's not. The tonal whiplish on this guy is brutal and the ending lands on the wrong end where the villain wasn't REALLY activating a mega-weapon to bring his opponents to their knees and conquer the world. No, really, they try to take it somewhere else even after he uses a death ray to decimate an entire fleet from miles away. It's really stupid and makes the unsteady ending from the first one seem as perfect as Chinatown in comparison. Now, Luscinia, go wear Maestro Delphine's ring and when you're atomized, she'll bathe in your molecules and mutter, "Mediocre." Sorry, mixing and matching grand villains there.

Despite the mess that is the second half, I lack the deep feeling of disappointment. It's not what I'd call good, but I could tell they were trying to make a sequel that lived up to the production of the original and they just couldn't get there, whether it was not enough resources, time, or audience interest. They still had it. They just didn't have enough of it. I would definitely play it for other people before I'd show them director Koichi Chigira's post-Gonzo work with Luck and Logic. Now there's a disaster worth contempt.



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