SERIES REVIEW: “Last Exile” (2003)

Kevin Long
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Is this not the coolest series intro ever?

It’s got everything – very good animation, great mecha designs, character designs, flying dreadnaughts, a neat kinda design aesthetic which includes elements of steampunk, dieselpunk, and 1930s classic deco, and even a really cool theme song which sounds like something by The Church (Probably off of “Parallel Universe”) I’d never heard of the show before, but I was instantly sold on it just by this clip.

My first pleasant discovery was that the show didn’t fall into the “We blew the budget on the opening, but everything else looks like the second season of GI: Joe” syndrome. My third pleasant discovery was that this was a well-realized, planned out world the show took place in, and that it just dropped us into the story and dared us to figure things out without much explanation. I generally like that. And it had plucky characters and bad villains, and neato-keeno explosions…

And then it started to go off the rails. And then it ended, almost as though it ran out of steam half-way through a derailment, and the corpse of the train just kind of hangs there on its side a few inches above the ground, neither flying nor falling.

Here’s the overview:

We’re in some kind of weird world where hourglass iconography is on everything, and which randomly combines high and low tech items. They have anti-gravity, but they don’t have radios and have to fly messages by hand. They have huge flying warships, but they tactics they use involve Napoleonic infantry marching out onto the balconies and shooting at each other with bolt action rifles. It’s weird, but I dig the retrofuture, so I’m cool with that, though it’s a bit nonsensical.

Our main characters are Klaus and Lavie, a couple of young teen orphans who’s parents were business partners in an air messenger service. They died trying to cross ‘The Grand Stream,’ which is never overtly explained, but which is a kind of perpetual category six hurricane that more-or-less cuts off their large kingdom from the rest of the world. They’re poor kids, making their own way, flying their dead parents’ plane. Lavie kind of loves Klaus, and Klaus probably would love her eventually if the status quo didn’t change, but of course it does.

The two of them end up taking over a delivery gig for a downed pilot. They’re to take a little girl somewhere. They attempt to do this, and are chased by killer starfish robots and also a gay albino and his possibly-straight albino servant. Then it all gets sort of confusing. It turns out that Klaus and Lavie’s country – who’s name I can’t remember, so let’s call it ‘Fakeistan’ – is at war with a nation on the other side of The Grand Stream. I can’t remember that one either, so let’s call it ‘Enemyvania’. Somehow Klaus, Lavie and The Little Girl end up on The Sylvana, a flying warship who’s relationship to the Fakeistan military is a little unclear. It appears to be a part of it, but it mostly seems to be acting on its own without orders, except when sometimes it is, and no one seems to give a crap when it gets in a duel with another warship in their own navy, and sinks it.

Japan. What’re’ya’gonna’ do?

Anyway, so the captain of the Sylvana – who looks, dresses, and acts like Space Pirate Harlock with two eyes – broods and takes on the kids as crew, and keeps doing a lot of stuff no one understands, spurning the love of his executive officer, who happens to be the princess daughter of the emperor of fakeistan and, yeah, it’s convoluted, and there’s not a lot of payoff to it.

What disturbed me at this point, about a thirs of the way through the run of the show, is that when Klaus and Lavie join the crew, they’re kind of broken up as a team, and Lavie gets bumped down to mere recurring character status. Meanwhile, the deck crew of the Sylvana treat Klaus like crap, and beat the living shit out of him on more than one occasion, and an adult bald gay albino even talks about, y’know, maybe forcing him to, y’know….ew. Let me reiterate: These are teenaged kids, about 14 or 15. It's all manner of disturbing.

Eventually the gay teenaged albino becomes fascinated by Klaus (who apparently is like catnip to gay albinos), abandons his quest to capture him, and surrenders himself to the Sylvana. Despite being a prisoner, he’s allowed to roam around on his own recognizance with the understanding that they’ll kill him if he gets out of line. He perkily agrees. He follows Klaus along continually, and Klaus is either ignoring the kid’s affections, or perhaps oblivious to them. (He seems similarly oblivious to Lavie’s affections). A lot of stuff happens, but mostly because they have 26 episodes to fill up, not because it really forwards the plot.

We do find out that the albinos all come from a third nation called ‘the Guild’ which is very high tech. They lease anti-gravity technology to Fakeistan and Enemyvania, and they grant them passage through the Grand Stream provided they book their battle plans in advance, and there seem to be no other political units on this world. They rule it and keep the other two kingdoms in perpetual war. Neither kingdom is entirely thrilled by this, but it’s been going on for such an incredibly long time that no one can really think of another way of life.

Excepting Captain Harlock, of course, who’s dedicated his life to finding “The Last Exile.” The Albino Guild want the Last Exile too, and the little girl is some kind of genetic key to help them find it, or something. It’s a little vague, and it involves poetry.
Meanwhile the kids are captured by the albinos, and Gay Albino Boy is forced to go through the ritual of bloodthirsty murder where he kills a shitload of other albinos for some reason (I honestly believe it’s just a rite of passage), while Harlock and Princess manage to forge an alliance between the two kingdoms to distract the Albino Guild until they can find the Last Exile.

Interstingly, the Guild can just turn off the antigravity, sending the ships crashing to the ground, so this rebellion doesn’t go well. It all comes to sort of a sad pass, with Harlock getting captured by the evil queen of the albinos (Sexuality unknown). She ties him up and tortures him with roses n’stuff, meanwhile the kids do things and stuff happens and it’s all rather hard to follow.

Then Harlock gets a hand free and strangles the evil albino queen, and the Last Exile turns out to be a starship which brought everyone to this planet millennia ago, and which is the key to getting their descendants away again. And then we’re sort of done, I guess. Oh: Gay albino boy falls off a plane and dies.

The end.

The problem I frequently have with anime is that they’re very, very good at setting up a mood, and not so good at endings. The story is a prime example of that. It starts out intriguingly, builds nicely, then makes a disastrous wrong turn when Lavie is demoted and Gay Albino Boy is promoted.

You probably think I’m being all homophobic – or perhaps albinophobic – because I continually call him that. I’m not: he’s super creepy. Tasting blood and doing crap like that. He’s an uncomfortable presence, and he goes crazy eight bonkers and slaughters a lot of people, too, though he’s ultimately a benign and indeed rather sad presence. It’s also a little unclear if Gay Albino Boy is aware of the nature of his attraction to Klaus, though it’s obvious to everyone else.

But honestly a lot is unclear.

For instance, in looking up info on the series after the fact, I find that it took place on a planet named “Prester” (Never mentioned in the series) and that the planet is hourglass shaped, two balls joined at a single point, and the Grand Stream is a perpetual torus of nearly-impassible bad weather at the equator. Ok, that fits with what we see, but none of it is explained, and there’s not any clear way to figure this out from what we see onscreen. There are many many many details like this in the series, and while I appreciate this level of worldbuilding, the storytelling is clearly inferior to the task of showing it off.

The show held my interest, though it indefineably creeped me out at several points, and I nearly stopped watching it during the phase where they were just being mean to Klaus for no reason. I probably also would have dropped it during the Captain Harlock torture scenes, had we not been so close to the end of the story by then.

Bottom line: It’s worth watching for the great animation and production design and some awesome action pieces, and neat music, but the story bounces back and forth between “Why bother” and “Whaaaaaa…?” Ultimately it’s a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. It’s not the kind of thing that’s an instant classic, or that will keep you coming back for repeated viewings.

I understand a sequel series was broadcast in 2011/2012. Should that end up dubbed into English, I’m interested enough to give it a shot, but mostly just ‘cuz I’m an SF geek who’ll watch anything, not because I have any great hopes about it.

Bottom line: Not bad, but definitely a sprawling, disappointing mess of a story.

PLEASE NOTE: No Captain Harlocks were harmed in the making of this production, nor were there really any Captain Harlocks at all, though the Sylvan’s captain is clearly a knockoff.

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Kevin Long used to be the head writer of this site here, but then he had a crisis of some histrionic sort or another, and quit, and now he’s the head writer at http://www.kevin-long.com which is pretty awesome and you should check it out. He’s currently a hired gun here at Republibot, but not a member of the staff anymore.

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