Claus Valca and Lavie Head are orphans. They inherited their fathers' vanship and now they ply the skies, taking courier jobs for the great flying battleships. They've been trying to stay out of the airborne war between the kingdoms of Dusis and Anatore, but when another pilot is murdered they find themselves the new guardians of a little girl who's more important than she seems. What is Alvis's secret? To what extent is the mysterious Guild directing the war? And what does all this have to do with Claus, Lavie and their late fathers?
The reviews for this one were puzzling. The online reviews were full of praise, calling it a magnificent achievement, thoughtful action anime and hard to stop watching. However a UK magazine review called it formulaic bilge without an original bone in its body. Baffled, I watched the show and thought it was... bleah. It's not terrible, but it's unengaging and it never pulled me into watching the next episode. I liked Claus, Lavie and Alvis, but everything else about the show hit me in an abstract "oh, they executed that quite well" way. The worldbuilding is rich and detailed, being basically Napoleonic era steampunk. It goes back a bit further for inspiration than the usual late Victorian era. That was fascinating... for about five minutes. Similarly the CGI is impressive, the action scenes slick and the animation in general admirable. Unfortunately I'm not a fan of action for its own sake. The first two episodes are full of action, but they bored me. Even later, when I had some characters to watch, it was still basically an anime about planes. If I'd wanted that, I'd have played a flight simulator.
Things picked up when Claus and Lavie found Alvis. Basically I was watching because of the kiddies, but unfortunately since our heroes are only fifteen their relationship was never likely to progress too far. Nothing else grabbed me. Dogfights, moody pilots, brawling mechanics and the like I could take or leave. I enjoyed the noblewomen's overflowing tops, though.
Then I discovered it's a Gonzo anime and went berserk.
I'd been hating anime from Studio Gonzo for almost my entire anime-watching life without putting two and two together. 'Twas a revelation to stumble across a list of their shows. I was honestly shocked by how comprehensively it included almost every anime I'd thought was shoddy, witless and/or plotted by drunken chimps. Admittedly I don't hate all their shows, but even the ones I kinda like (Hellsing, Vandread) succeeded in spite of the studio's efforts rather than because of them. Hellsing is based on a manga so awesome that even Gonzo couldn't screw it up, although the plot crashes and burns as soon as they run out of manga, while Vandread is a mess but has cute girls. I was puzzled to see the genuinely good Dokkoida?! on the Gonzo list, but my puzzlement cleared when I saw that other studios did the actual production and that Gonzo just did the cinematography. And as for the crap... Full Metal Panic, Gankutsuou, Kaleido Star and Last Exile are just the ones that suckered me in. Wild horses couldn't make me watch the likes of Burst Angel, Gate Keepers, Gad Guard, Gravion and... shit, we're still on the letter G. Admittedly a show of theirs called Gantz sounds encouragingly fucked up, but I'd sensed a whiff of shoddy writing there even before learning who perpetrated it.
In fairness Gonzo animate well. Their work looks great. Coming back to Last Exile, this show has gorgeous visuals and a steampunk world sufficiently rich and detailed to put to shame most feature films. Its CGI is superb and its flying vanships are things of beauty. However as so often, one feels that Gonzo wrote the script by throwing darts at a wall. Yes, there's a strong story arc, but within it no sense that anyone understood how to build a living, breathing narrative. On the contrary, it's a lumpy collage of cliches and unengaging characters. I found it boring. Other people seem to have loved it. Good for them, but I think they're mad.
I find it hard to talk about Last Exile because so little of it made any impact on me. It's not even interestingly bad, in that "so bad it's good" train wreck way. It's just lifeless, mechanical and written by committee. It's worth sampling a random disc of this, just to experience the kingdoms of Dusis and Anatore and to meet Claus, Lavie and Alvis, but for goodness sake don't buy without being very sure of what you're getting into.