Last Exile is one of those shows with an amazing premise, some strong characters, good action, and an interesting lore and world for a story to take place in. Anime is a genra for strong imaginations, and Last Exile has that in spades, from the world the series is set in to the weapons of war which its nations use. So why only three stars? By all appearances LE has all the trappings of a great show, and has gathered quite the following, and for good reason. Don't let my rating fool you, this is a good show which a lot of people will enjoy. It's not one of those clearly overrated pieces of trash which I love to bash into (looking at you Elfen Lied) but it does have its share of flaws which, to me, held the show back considerably from living up to its full potential.
The premise is quite simple, deceptively so even. There are few animes out there which have managed to grab my attention so early, yet lose it so quickly. Dusis and Anatore, two powerful superpowers who dominate what little land is left inhabitable on the planets surface, are at war. To open the series viewers are treated to a gripping opening scene of two fleets of enormous flying battle ships "sailing" side by side, as teams of worthless riflemen fire at one another from ship to ship. Right off the bat the idiocy of the politics in this world are brought to light (and I mean that as a compliment); the riflemen on board serve no useful purpose, they can't sink the enemy ship, they are never used for boarding either, are simply forgotten about after their numbers start to dwindle. They really are not good for anything except catching bullets, yet the captains of these enormous battleships insist on sacrificing them by the hundreds in order to fulfill a sense of chivalry, and "obey the rules of war" as it were. We are thrust into the boots of one lonely foot soldier, huddling afraid in the bowls of the ship as they prepare to open the doors and march out into the line of fire. It is a truly harrowing setting that reminded me not only of the battle formations made famous by Napoleon, but also of the charges across no man's land in WWI. The riflemen fighting all know that their chances of survival are slim, and they know how pointless their sacrifice really is, but they march into the line of fire anyway prepared to give their lives away. It presents a very antiwar message, while also treating audiences to a very beautiful battle scene. Of all the things Last Exile got right, the opening is high amongst them.
Then there are our two main characters, Clause and Lavi who are two orphaned children who've taken up Vanship piloting as a means to support themselves (a Vanship being a sort of airplane with anti-gravity technology of the same kind the battleships use). Of all the characters in the show, early Lavi is my favorite (and there's a big difference between early Lavi and late Lavi). She's a confident, strong, take charge type of characters with a very close relationship to her best friend, Clause. The reason I liked her most I guess is because out of all of them she seemed the most believable. Whereas other characters go around doing stupid things to save girls in distress Lavi early on makes it clear she wants nothing to do with the dangerous missions Clause gets them into. This may seem selfish to some, but it's also the most realistic portrayal in the series. Why should she want to risk her life for a mission she cares nothing about, or people she's never met? No one else seems to have a problem with doing just that, so Lavi's reluctance stood out in stark contrast to the sometimes baffling illogical decisions some of the characters make. But more on that later.
While taking part of a race in their home town Lavi and Clause unwittingly rescue a young girl name Ai (at least that was her name in the sub I watched) and become mixed in with a plot to destroy The Guild, an almost supernaturally powerful organization which controls the technology to all flight. After an all too brief battle with a Guild starship (literally planes that look like stars) they end up on the legendary Battleship Sylivanna captioned by the personality less Captain Alex, his love struck second in command Sophia, and his head fighter pilot the emotionally unbalanced Tatiana and her (supposedly) lesbian lover. Okay, that last part isn't really said outright, but it did give me that vibe. When Clause and Lavi deliver Ai to the Sylivanna, which was their mission from the start, Clause for some reason suddenly distrusts the crew and decides Ai needs rescuing.
And this, in my opinion, is where the show starts to fall apart. See, Clause from the very beginning has no reason to think Ai is in any danger, or that she needs rescuing. In fact the Sylivanna crew just saved Ai from being killed, and were taking her on board their ship for protection. Sure, one of the men handles her kind of roughly, but he's quickly scolded by the Captain for doing so. Despite doing exactly it was he was supposed to do, IE delivering this girl to the Sylivanna, Clause now thinks it a good idea to risk his life, and the life of his best friend, to rescue a girl he hardly knows from the very people he'd risked his life to deliver her to. For no reason.
It's these kinds of lapses in logic that really hold the show back. Characters have little to no motivation to do half of what they do (especially Clause). What's more, their goals and what little motivations they do have are in a state of constant flux, changing from episode to episode. For instance Moran, the rifle man from the beginning of the show, decides after the opening battle to quit his job as a rifleman. This makes sense considering the dire circumstances under which we were introduced to this character. However when they make him a mechanic on the Sylivanna all he does is reminisce about the "good old days" when he served as a rifleman before actually going back to the job he'd made such a big deal about leaving. Why does he want to go back? What is so terrible about being a mechanic on a ship where his captain doesn't useless sacrifice his men? The people he works with are all really cool people, his commanders are descent, and there's very little danger compared to his previous job. So what's the problem, Moran?
Now let's use Clause as another example. First he wants to bring Ai to the Sylivanna, but then he wants to rescue her from it. Then he doesn't want to rescue her, he wants to keep her safe. But then it's not about keeping her safe anymore, it's about "seeing what's in these skies" or some other nonsense like that. What's the end result of all this? Characters who have no idea what they are doing, why they are doing it, or what they wish to accomplish. This is the main problem with the show.
Now to touch on what the show does well. The lore and backstory to Last Exile is really quite interesting. It does a really good job in creating a mystery for the viewers to try to piece together with what little info is given us. What is Exile? What does it do? Hoe does Ai play into all this? How is it that the Guild manages to hold such a stranglehold on the world? Last Exile does not reveal too much too early, which gives us the satisfaction of piecing the mystery together as we go along. But the real treats are the battle scenes. Fleets of huge floating battleships flying through the clouds as they fire their enormous cannons at one another. The battles in this series are some of the best I've seen. If only the show had more battle scenes and less bipolar characters I might be able to justify a higher rating. I also found the tech to be extremely fun. It's a steampunk show, so you already know the general idea, but they use it in such inventive ways (such as a giant listening device that acts like a sonar).
The animation, though passible, is nothing to write home about. It's really quite dull and colorless. A lot of browns, blacks, grey's, more grey, dark grey, white, greyish brown, you get the idea. A little more color might have helped to liven things up a little bit. The music as well I found underwhelming. There are times I found the music to be quite inappropriate for the scene, in fact, and in other cases it was simply too loud. It's not very often that the music actually manages to detract from the overall experience, but I found this the case for Last Exile.
So what's the final verdict? Though I can fully understand why people love this show so much, personally I didn't find it to be all that impressive. The world was interesting, the battles were awesome, and the tech was inventive, but the most important aspect of any story, the characters, just didn't resonate with me. They were too bipolar, too wishy washy, too prone to doing dangerous things for unexplained reasons. The pacing was also quite dull; I honestly think they could have made this into a 13 episode series and it would have been the better for it. There weren't 26 episodes worth of story to tell, so it just seemed to drag at times.
Will I recommend you see it? You betcha. It's a classic anime series which I think most fans of the genra owe it to themselves to see at least once. Will I recommend that you buy it? Well for that the answer is no, especially at the inflated prices anime DVD's go for. It's a good show with many high points and positives that many people will find enjoyable. I personally didn't, but that does not mean you will not.
Pros: Animation, character designs and development, fascinating steampunk setting, unique musical score, great English dub. Cons: Unorganized storytelling, plot holes, lapse in character animation quality toward the series' end. Last Exile, a series produced by the reputable Studio Gonzo (Hellsing, Samurai Seven, Afro Samurai) follows fifteen-year-olds Claus Valca and Lavie Head, who fly their vanship as sky couriers in the nation of Anatoray, … more
I am a member of the US Air Force and presently serve overseas at RAF Mildenhall about three hours north of London. I grew up in Pappilion Nebraska and Crestview Florida, but since joining the Air Force … more
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The story revolves around fifteen-year-old pilot Claus Valca and navigator Lavie Head, who fly their vanship as sky couriers in the nation of Anatoray. Although they usually take up missions of relatively low difficulty, they are one day asked to complete the mission of a dying courier. The mission, rated seven stars out of ten, is to deliver a young girl named Alvis Hamilton to the mysterious battleship Silvana.Despite their fears, Claus and Lavie deliver Alvis to the battleship but decide to remain aboard to keep her safe.