It's not that I'm not big on anime - that's never been my problem. My problem has always been that there is so damn much anime out there. I never know what to watch. For every Ghost in the Shell or Durarara or Sword Art Online that I manage to find, there's a hundred other series out there without the depth or beauty that sucks me in to a really great anime movie or series. In that way, anime's just like every other form of entertainment, but because it's all imported and in another language, it's harder to sift through it to get to the good stuff. That's why the majority of your typical entertainment consumer will only have seen a Miyazaki movie or two, and why almost nobody's ever heard of something like The Princess and the Pilot.
I admit, I'm a sucker for two things in this world: sword fights and dogfights - this is probably because I grew up on Star Wars. There are no shortage of sword fights these days, and although many of them don't fit my perfect ideals (that's another article for another day), they certainly exist. Dogfight movies though - the last one I can remember was Red Tails, and god was that a terrible film, The last gasp of Lucasfilm before they gave up and sold everything to Disney. So when I heard through the grapevine that there was a fantasy anime that focused entirely on World War II style dogfights, I rushed right out to see what it was.
The Princess and the Pilot is a love story, through and through. It follows a young Empress, Fana, who is engaged to a charming Prince as a teenager. The Prince promises to return in a year's time, when he's ended the major war threatening the floating sky island they all live on. (I admit, I perked up when I found out they lived on a floating sky island.) When the year passes and the war hasn't ended, the enemy makes an attempt on the Princess's life, prompting the Prince to send for her early.
The way to the Prince is fraught with danger, and a regular fleet can't make it through. With no other choice, the navy turns to their best pilot, a half-breed mercenary named Charles. Due to his parentage, nobody respects Charles, and the high command make it very clear that they would rather be setting him on fire than giving him this mission. But with no other choice, they order him into their fastest plane, the Santa Cruz, and give him the future Empress to escort across enemy lines to safety.
This entire setup is probably the first twenty minutes of the film at least, and if you're not in the mood for a slow, almost languid establishment of the characters, you may want to save The Princess and the Pilot for another time. While you get a great sense of the world, and Charles's plight is enough to keep you invested in the characters, very little happens during this time. The first plane flight, much less action sequence, doesn't take place until closer to the mid-point of the film. This isn't a problem if you're ready for it, but those with shorter attention spans may have trouble.
However, once the Santa Cruz gets in the air, the film takes off, pun intended. Charles abandons his express orders never to speak to the Princess pretty much as soon as they're out of sight, and the rest of the film is the story of these two strangers from different worlds bonding. As you might imagine, Fana goes through some major changes, as she has to learn to survive on her own, and for the first time, gets a taste of freedom outside of her gilded cage. Her annoying subservience melts away into a fully realized and very interesting character.
As I said, this is a love story, and a tragic one at that. The Princess is engaged at the start of the film, and no changes in her will alter that fact. Through every daring triumph the two accomplish, the weight of their situation gets heavier, and for every moment they grow closer, the world moves to push them apart. Japanese storytellers long ago mastered the art of repressed emotions, and saying everything that needs to be said without saying a word. That's put to quite a perfect form here. You know the story of the two, and what they're thinking at every moment, even when they can't say it out loud.
I came to this film for the dogfights, and believe me, they are incredible. Every moment the enemy is in sight is tense, and fraught with peril. The film wisely spends the time getting you to care about Charles and Fana before throwing them into the thick of it, and then makes the danger seemingly impassable from the very first aerial battle. Each time the enemy catches up, you'll be on the edge of your seat, both in wonder of the flying skills on display and terror of the mortal danger our heroes find themselves in.
If there's one major problem with this film, it lies with the second main character. Charles, unlike Fana, has nowhere to grow. He's the picture perfect hero at the beginning and end of the film. His conflicts are entirely external, dealing with society, not internal, and his one major "secret" he keeps through most of the film is not a big secret at all. While he does make two major sacrifices back to back at the end of the film, and he certainly goes through some major trials, he can't ever be said to grow or change, especially in the face of the major changes Fana goes through.
That said, The Princess and the Pilot is a really fun film, and I heartily recommend it if you're jonesing for either a good anime flick or a good dogfighting movie. It's a lot of fun to watch, and worth the hour and a half of your time. Don't expect it to change your life, but you can certainly rely on it to entertain you for an afternoon.
Mike Fatum is the Editor in Chief, Co-host, and Video Editor for the Ace of Geeks Podcast. When asked how he wears so many hats, he explains that he has a very large head.
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