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Last Exile: Fam the Silver Wing Post-viewing Notes

I just watched the final episode of Last Exile: Fam the Silver Wing, and I’m sad.  Sad because the show had so much going for it—sequel to a fantastic predecessor, huge budget, lavish Gonzo visuals with all sorts of ways to show off both animation and art, likable characters, a great world, and all sorts of interesting story things to do with it—and it more or less blew it.

What’s particularly sad to me is that the show isn’t a catastrophe—it’s not Code Geass R2, meandering around shooting itself in the foot before trying to stab itself in the gut for good measure. It starts out plenty interesting, then sets up even more interesting things and brings back some favorite characters.  Then, it just goes wrong somewhere, and it’s not even obvious where.

I think it’s the death by a thousand cuts factor; it blows so many small things that in aggregate the whole show just felt off and aimless by the end.

Some of the big things it trips on are who it doesn’t kill. Dio, of course, should be dead, but isn’t. We don’t even get an excuse of how he survived, and it even does a backstory recap of the original series that ends with him all but dying onscreen… and then doesn’t tell us how he managed to un-fall off of a fast-moving vanship in a deadly storm thousands of feet off the ground when he was in a near-comatose and borderline-suicidal state for good measure. Nothing—which is kind of insulting to the viewer of the original, and thanks to the recap, even new viewers will be thinking, “wait, didn’t he just die at the end of that recap?”

And then there’s (Spoiler!) a general who dies in a big, dramatic, violent way, and his death becomes a big plot point. Who shortly afterward shows up just fine and with a modest fleet to boot. But hey, he has a bandage on his head, so that totally explains it, right? Honestly, that just had me smacking my head, made worse by the fact that there is no way that the other characters wouldn’t have known he survived.

But on a deeper level what bugged me was that the writers blew the interesting power balance of the original for no particularly good reason. In the original, the Guild was incredibly powerful, but they weren’t infallible—their starfish ships could be shot down, albeit not easily, and the final big plan involved regular soldiers essentially bum-rushing their control rooms.  Similarly, the big final battle involved lots of ships, and the ships were necessary—it took everything both sides of the war could muster to make it happen. Bottom line being that it wasn’t just about main character heroics—everybody, even the grunts, were involved. It even gave us a second-tier main character grunt to drive the point home and get us attached to their end of the war.

Here, we start out with sky pirates using tricks to loot poorly-designed battleships, which was fun. But later, the battles end up being one of two things: Two immense fleets of airships blasting away at each other for several minutes, or the Big Bad’s team of proto-Guild supersoldiers killing everything and anything that he throws them at.  The former looked utterly gorgeous, but got boring after a while since there was no real sense of who was winning or losing in the big battles, and no real sense of urgency or meaning to a lot of them—just countless ships blowing each other up waiting for the drama to unfold elsewhere.

And the latter was just annoying. Okay, they’re supermen. But when you have guys breaking down a door with people barricaded on the other side behind bunkers with guns pointed at the doorway ready for them, and they just ninja their way through the wall of bullets to slaughter everyone inside, with knives, that’s just silly. Worse still, the Silvius gets taken out by these guys twice—not only should they have known pretty well what to expect from the Guild, but after the first time you’d think maybe some plan would have been in order to deal with the attack the next time it happens. The main characters had no excuse for not being smarter than that.

It felt deflating and lost all sense of realism in what was trying to be a fantastic but grounded war story. Plus, what does it matter what anybody does when the villain can just push the win button?  (Except for Dio, who of course can take on hordes of the same guys armed with only a knife, which made equally little sense—yes, he’s a supersoldier, but that overpowered is just silly.  Also, seriously—even if you’re super-fast, guns are more effective for killing people.)

And then it just sort of drops them at the end when it doesn’t want the villain to use that particular win button.  Where did they go?  Did Dio kill all of them? Did they get sent home?  Were they flying the starfish (which I assumed were automatic—otherwise they are great supersoldiers but crappy pilots).  We never find out.  At all.

Even that, I might have been willing to forgive, but the whole story seems to just lose focus toward the end.  It’s a story about the messy realities of war, pitfalls of vengeance, and difficult decisions, but it seems to swing between lengthy mass combat sequences and abrupt, slightly illogical personal drama.  It doesn’t take the time to set things up properly, and even less time to follow through on them.

Not that there aren’t good bits in there, or even that the drama isn’t decent—it does some interesting, heavy things—but it doesn’t feel coherent and tightly-constructed, which a series with this scale and budget should.

A bigger issue with the drama is, perhaps, that it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be.  The first half is rather high adventure—the spunky protagonist, her sidekick navigator, and the out-of-her-element displaced princess doing big, wild capers while huge-scale war-things happen elsewhere.  Getting more serious in the second half is fine, but it not only completely jettisons that sense of adventure, it ignores the main characters themselves.  I actually liked the fact that the energetic 16-year-olds weren’t the ones running the show or saving the world, but the series didn’t seem to know what to do with its title character by that point, so just sort of wedges her into things awkwardly.  A better-written series might have more effectively used her in the way this one was trying—as the proxy idealist being beaten down by the harsh realities of war, and the intractable problems that result from the lives crushed by it—but Fam the Silver Wing just can’t seem to pull it off smoothly.

The original Last Exile was much smoother—it had dark drama, but balanced it well with the sense of adventure and heroism.

Other problems include moderately to severely illogical things like princess Millia being put in direct command of a battleship and indirectly its backing fleet despite having absolutely zip experience as a military leader or airship captain.  Or the villain’s entire plan—it was all pretty obtuse, but I think we were supposed to believe that he, and his sympathetic co-conspirator, were doing terrible things with good intentions.  Assuming so, it didn’t sell that at all (and if not, I have no idea what their plan was).  The final plan was particularly incoherent; as best I can figure, he was trying to pull a Lelouch and become the unifying villain in order to induce everyone else to work together and/or destroy the entire world’s military capacity in the process.  Which doesn’t make any sense when you try to line that up with what he actually does, or even the logic of doing so by needlessly creating tens of thousands of widows and orphans in the process—widows and orphans who, in any remotely logical world, will now despise his entire country).  And if he did intend to wipe out the world’s military capability, he conspicuously left about a half-dozen super weapons floating up in the sky.  (That was another plot hole—where are all the other Exile keys?  Did their bloodlines die out?)

(Speaking of Lelouch,  Jun Fukuyama is actually in the show, though playing somebody other than the main villain, and somewhat against type at that, though just as good as always.)

It becomes particularly incoherent when it tries to humanize the villains—something it works very hard at—who are for all practical purposes unsympathetic genocidal monsters, and illogical ones at that when we see what the “final plan” was supposed to be.  Millia’s sister, in particular, never makes the slightest bit of sense, despite about half an episode of exposition spent trying to do so.

Contrast all that with the original Last Exile, which had some messy morals, and did the same basic theme of young, nonviolent people trying to come to grips with the need to defend their homeland, but in a way that made sense. And the villain, while pretty much a stock “evil, narcissistic maniac,” made sense as well, given the “overseers gone native” theme with the Guild, who had essentially forgotten their purpose and let their power go completely to their head in a Lord of the Flies/Thunderdome, “only the strongest will rule” sort of way.  While a little shallower in terms of motives and morals, at least it made sense, and felt consistent and coherent.  It also made the final battle gripping and exciting, instead of sort of deflating and vague.

Finally, there’s the weird pacing.  The beginning is relaxed, but toward the end it seems to lurch around randomly.  One episode in particular left me and my co-watchers scratching our heads wondering if we’d accidentally skipped half the episode—it seems to skip an entire battle and main-character adventure in the middle.  Overall the effect is that it walks along at a leisurely pace for a dozen episodes, then suddenly starts furiously jogging for the finish line, occasionally tripping over some side-story.  It felt like it was a couple of episodes too short, which it basically is; it’s only 21 episodes long, 23 if you count the two recap episodes (one of which is utterly pointless—it happens after episode 9, and half the recap just happened).

When you put all that together, it just weighs the series down, making you care less about what’s happening, and wondering where the series you started watching went.

To its credit, it does a lot of things right, too, which is why it’s so frustrating when it blows it:

The Glacians—effectively Russians—are the one exception to the murky-middle-ground characters; they had their country, and for all practical purposes their religion, destroyed, and are viciously bitter about it.  Bitter, but understandably and somewhat sympathetically so—they make sense as characters, and are quite interesting.

After opening with 16 year olds stealing entire battleships—which was entertaining but a little overboard—it tones down what they’re allowed and able to do drastically once fleets start duking it out.  That was refreshing.

The world is fascinating; the sense of lost technology and history, the implied backstory about exodus from a ravaged planet being reversed into a return to a promised land rife with strife, and all sorts of entertaining mechanics with the airships.

It looks utterly gorgeous.  The settings are imaginative and beautifully painted, the characters colorful and interesting, the character animation is wonderful, and the CG-enhanced flight sequences and epic battles are amazing when they’re not devolving into endless volleys of artillery.  The mechanical design is also fantastic, although it’s hard to forgive the impractical design of the battleships; in the original, they were supposed to be impractical—war was carried out by overly-well-defined rules and musket lines, Revolutionary War era style, but here, they’re actually, you know, trying to make effective battleships.  At least in theory.

The acting is from solid to quite good. And I love the consistency with the language; the Glacians speak Russian, and the one we have the most exposure to speaks no Japanese (or whatever language they’re assumed to be speaking—all the writing is in Greek), nor does the title character speak any Russian.  Instead of hand-waiving past this, she only ever speaks Russian, and other characters consistently need to translate for them—which it never skips past, unless nobody is bothering to translate, which is itself part of the characterization.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything that was that consistent and realistic with a language barrier.

Some of the little emotional bits are wonderful and powerful. My favorite was subtle; when Millia is explaining, to herself, that she has no choice but to kill her sister, a mother—not her mother, though a bit of a surrogate—who is with her hugs her in sympathy for the burden she bears. It’s effective because she doesn’t just embrace her, she rushes to her, as if she doesn’t want to waste another instant once she realizes how much Millia is suffering.  I remember that more than anything else in the episode.

While it’s incredibly annoying that Lavie and Claus were written out of the series because of whatever accident happened to Claus in the manga (I assume), everything else that shows up from old times is great.  Tatiana and her navigator are great Silvius commanders, Alvis is good, and when the joint Anatory-Disith fleet shows up at the end the whole finale improves noticeably.  The end battle was, of course, something of a clone of the original, sans logic, but at least it picked up from the endless broadsides previously.

The background music, by the same crew, is equally good, particularly when the old-school forces show up and it brings out the triumphant horn themes that existing fans know and love. The opening and ending, however, are unfortunate; they’re good songs, but disappointingly generic—they sound like good modern anime songs, instead of weird, slightly-alien, ear-grabbing songs like the original.  Really just not up to snuff relative to the rest of the setting and design theme.

I’ll tell you what they should have done: The second half—if not the whole thing—should have been told entirely from the perspective of the returnees from Anatory and Disith. Just about everything would have worked better.  That, and it probably should have been about 4 episodes longer, although the way things were going those four episodes would have been entirely composed of ships of the line shooting each other.

Oh, and I don’t want to hear about how all the illogical plot holes are hand-waved away in the connecting single-volume manga.  Even if it did so successfully, there is no excuse for not putting that material on screen, at least in a flashback episode.

Anyway, I don’t feel bad having watched it, but I feel like somebody wrecked what could have been a fantastic series.