It's a lovely, simple movie. A touch bittersweet, but still happy. You can tell it's from the writer of The Pilot's Love Song
, but this time in a non-problematic way.
The Pilot's Love Song
is a 2014 anime TV series about a boy with a harsh upbringing because of who he is, who's growing up to be a pilot. There's war, death and class-ridden snobs, but the show takes joy in the freedom of flying. It's also a delicate love story, with a girl of high birth who's hemmed in by her responsibilities and destined to be defined by her femininity and status by being, effectively, traded. (In other words, both the boy and the girl are or were prisoners of their own class and ancestry.)
The Princess and the Pilot is the same. All that applies here too, word for word. It's even set in the same fictional universe. The main differences are that here the girl's emotional journey is different, the story is more focused and the author doesn't come out of it looking like a sinister reactionary dinosaur.
Charles Karino (the pilot) is a mercenary, fighting for the Levamme Empire despite massive racism against him for being half-Amatsukami. (The Levamme Empire is at war with the Amatsukami Imperium.) His colleagues bully him and his superiors sneer at him, but he's their best pilot and so it's Charles who gets chosen when a crucial mission comes up. He's always terribly polite and shows the greatest respect to everyone, so he doesn't develop that much during this film. He gets close to the princess, but that doesn't mean he transforms as a person.
Juana del Moral (the princess), on the other hand, transforms. In the beginning, she's an ornament. She's pretty, obedient and basically the ideal of femininity for those who think the perfect woman would be a silent doormat. That's a harsh judgement, though, and you could just as easily argue that she's suppressing her true self to play the role an entire nation is expecting of her. She's a princess. She had more gumption when she was a small child, but these days it seems unlikely that she's allowed to say a word or express an opinion. We first meet her being proposed to by the Imperial Prince Carlo, but her true feelings about this are unguessable. She looks at her father for instructions as to whether or not to say yes. Daddy approves, so it's a match! Hurrah! Carlo is certainly passionate and silver-tongued. He just has one tweensy-weensy thing he wants to get out of the way before the wedding. "Please wait a year so that I can win this war."
What A Twat. Inexplicably the Amatsukami aren't so obliging as to die for the sake of Juana's wedding, so some years later she needs evacuating.
She's still marrying Carlo, though. Charles's job is to take her to her handsome prince. That's her duty as a princess. However she's about to get pushed out of her usual ways of living and thinking, hurtling across an ocean in a two-seater fighter plane while being targeted by the Amatsukami air force.
They're both terribly nice people. You'll like them. They treat each other with courtesy and ironically Juana is almost the only person we see speaking to Charles like a human being. Apart from her, the only people who were nice to him were his fellow mercenaries. However Juana also gradually becomes more confident and forthright in her manner, becoming a person rather than an exquisitely well-mannered doll and even at one point getting slightly drunk. She cuts her hair. She loses her luggage. She has to tear up her dress. (I adored the bows she tied in Charles's bandages.)
"Up here, in the sky, your background doesn't matter. You're free." That means one thing to the lowly-born Charles and another thing to Juana.
The flying and the airborne action are beautiful, although the Levamme Empire is so outgunned technologically that one wonders how they've managed to hold out this long. They're flying World War One planes, while the Amatsukami have World War Two planes, heat-seeking missiles (!) and an unstoppable "New Type" plane that looks like a UFO. Well, maybe the Amatsukami only developed it recently. A flying saucer might have crashed in their territory or something. It feels perfectly reasonable and logical while you're watching it, though, and it certainly makes for exciting and lovely aerial battles. Charles is outgunned enough for us to get genuinely worried for him, good though he is.
The only thing I don't like is Seika Taketomi's voice acting as Juana. She's likeable, but bloodless and downright unconvincing when laughing or crying. She doesn't break the film, but she really isn't good. (I'm not surprised to see that this is her only voice role, with her day job being that of live-action actress and model.) Ryunosuke Kamiki in contrast is fine as Charles, but he too is better known for live-action TV and films. He used to be a child star, incidentally.
It's still based on a Koroku Inumura novel, of course. He hasn't suddenly become a left-winger. The whole "duty vs. personal feelings" thing is pretty much the defining dilemma of old-school Japanese literature and film, especially when it's hitting the notes we see here. The final aerial battle here is likened to a samurai duel. Meanwhile royalty is a fetish of the Japanese right and that's been a huge element of both this and The Pilot's Love Song
. That said, though, Inumura remains a humanist (e.g. Charles's sincere "sorry" to enemies who've been shooting at him) and his characterisation is too sensitive and three-dimensional to be tied down by simplistic analysis. Meanwhile the powerful, bigoted and callous also come in for fierce criticism, with Prince Carlo surely being either a bastard or an idiot.
It's a gentle, positive film. You'd show it to your mum. It doesn't have a Disney ending, but it's still positive and optimistic anyway. (Not sure why everyone's cheering like that, though, since you'd expect at least some of them to be saying "what a nutter".) The plot could hardly be simpler and the pace is hardly frenetic, but the Amatsukami are enough of a threat to drive the film and make it feel urgent. There's a sense of danger. Comfortably one of the better anime movies out there.