Last Exile is one of those anime series that's been floating around for a few years now that I repeatedly made mental notes of considering while shopping. With commercials and trailers that hinted to some kind of early-avionics days adventure, it looked interesting enough but always seemed to get passed by for some flashy-boxed mecha OVA or gritty, modern-day set series. Now that Funimation has picked up the Geneon property in its entirety, my days of putting off Last Exile have finally come to an end and let me just start by saying I should not have wasted so much time getting into this anime gem. But before I get too far ahead of myself, let's take a moment to discuss the packaging and physical presentation.
Last Exile the Complete Series consists of 26 episodes across 4 discs and comes packaged in a stylish cardboard slipcase containing a pair of thin packs. The artwork is stunningly appropriate, with a purposely-weathered look that includes the yellowing of the parchment and near-black & white quality to the portraits. Faded images of the pilots, decked out in their antiquated flight gear, standing proudly before their weathered open-cockpit aircraft have a look about them that just nails the look and feel of the early 1900s.
Coming in at a total runtime of 625 minutes, Last Exile wears a very conservative TV14 rating. This is nearly general audience material with a slight hint of adult undertones (war and aerial combat) but the show contains no real violence, suggestive content, or foul language worth parental concern. Like real wars, some characters (even beloved by the end) do lose their lives to the cause. However, Last Exile is never graphic in its portrayal of death nor does it glorify themes of violence.
Language options are solid with the original Japanese dialog perfectly preserved (English subtitle option) and an English dub that can truly be called worthy of the incredible scope presented within.
Last Exile is the product of the revered Gonzo Studios and made its broadcast debut over Japanese airwaves back in 2003. I mentioned earlier that the artwork (and show itself) go a long way to accurately portray what we consider the early days of humanity's aviation experience (think barnstormers from The Golden Age (1918-1939)), however the events presented take place entirely in a fictitious world called Prester and while the culture habiting this world appears nearly identical to that of our own early 1900s, there is more to the story than what initially appears.
The planet's surface-dwellers are basically divided into two factions: The Anatoray and the Disith. The Anatoray most closely resemble our definition of modern society (so much so in fact that our main two protagonists happen to be members of this group) while the Disith, though similar, are a bit more primitive in nature (think fighting with spears and shields).
However the two feuding nations quickly discover that they share a common bigger threat in the form of the vastly technologically superior elf-like alien race orbiting the planet known as the Guild. Separating the aliens' massive battleships from the people living below is a patch of never-ending nasty weather called the Grand Stream. I should also mention that it is this violent storm that keeps the surface-dwellers living in perpetual darkness with the minimal of natural resources (including clean water).
The core of the story is told from the perspective of a pair of orphaned teenagers who make a living as curriers from the cockpit of their deceased fathers' beat-up vanship (this would be the equivalent to our old biplanes). However gasoline engines and massive wings to create lift are foregone in this world in favor of a concept called the Claudia engine, which somehow operates on a system of pressurized blue-glowing fluid.
The story really picks up when our appropriately likable duo (Claus and Lavi) end up taking on a mission to deliver a little girl named Alvis to the captain of a warship called the Silvana.
Fans of my reviews may have noticed that I strive to not give away too much of the plot in my critiques because, after all, if you already know the entire story, what's the purpose of bothering with the show? Instead I like to draw comparisons to other works to establish a sense of what makes the series worth viewing. That said, Last Exile could best be described as a blend of Star Wars, a Tom Clancy novel, and maybe even a slight touch of cultural intricacy found in Star Trek. Now I realize that sounds like a lot of space-movie comparisons but make no mistake, Last Exile borrows only from the better traits of these titles. There are moments of vanship racing that really ring of the pod race sequence in Episode One, the Phantom Menace. There is no shortage of military strategizing on an absolute grand (and quite flawless) scope throughout. There's a bit of romance and comedy spread across an absolutely massive cast that is surprisingly easy to keep separate.
Pacing is just spectacular once you establish the slightly slow-going rhythm of the first few episodes. However the show's greatest strength lies in its presentation: Subtleties such as lighting and sounds are consistent and often subliminally establish mood more effectively than many big-budget Hollywood feature films.
Gonzo's reputation as being one of the premiere anime studios comes through in this work in the form of flawless shifting of scale throughout the story arc. In other words, the story starts out a small, personal tale of a pair of children struggling to find their place in the world, expands to portray an unthinkably massive war for survival between a planet and its invaders, then tightens to become a personal affair in the end. There is an air of confidence in Gonzo's pacing and presentation that simply invites viewers to let go and trust in their ability to tell their tale and in this case, that faith pays dividends.
Last Exile is a simply stunning anime work that starts to reveal its charm visually but continues to dazzle by doing nearly everything right; pacing, scope, sound work, story depth, science integration, nail biting action, lovable cast, it's all here and done to perfection as only a seasoned studio like Gonzo could pull off.
This is must-see anime in the purest sense of the concept and kudos to Funimation for refusing to allow such a well-constructed title to slip through the cracks.
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About the reviewer
Jason Rider (AKA OneNeo on Amazon.com) is the author of the successful children's fantasy novel series The Uncommon Adventures of Tucker O'Doyle from Bellissima Publishing. … more
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It's the dawn of the Golden Age of Aviation on planet Prester, and retro-futuristic sky vehicles known as vanships dominate the horizon. Claus Valca - a flyboy born with the right stuff - and his fiery navigator Lavie are fearless racers obsessed with becoming the first sky couriers to cross the Grand Stream in a vanship. But when the high-flying duo encounters a mysterious girl named Alvis, they are thrust into the middle of an endless battle between Anatoray and Disith - two countries systematically destroying each other according to the code of chivalric warfare. Lives will be lost and legacies determined as Claus and Lavie attempt to bring peace to their world by solving the riddle of its chaotic core.
Stills from Last Exile- The Complete Series Box Set (Click for larger image)