Last Exile: Series Review

Matt Brown (Editor in Chief) — November 22nd, 2008
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Last Exile might be the ultimate underdog story. Set in the skies of the strange world of Prester, it is a story of basic survival, and an all-or-nothing class war that threatens all human life. With heavy western influences, and a bit of steampunk rolled in, its style is one of the more interesting to come out of the Japanese-animation world. My initial impression of this Gonzo Digimation title, is that they took the unique world conceived by Overworks (for the Eternal Arcadia video game), with its floating continents and air pirates, and ran with the idea. But what they ended up with is most impressive, and a definite must-view TV series.

As with many such stories of life under an oppressive regime, Last Exile begins at ground level. The main characters, pilot Claus Valca and navigator Lavie Head, fly their fathers' wingless "vanship" aircraft for a living. They work as part of a vanship-owners' union, which takes odd jobs from both governments and private citizens. Life is difficult but sustainable for them — food and clean water is hard to come by, and much of their earnings go toward maintenance and upgrades for the vanship. Their dream is to fly the vanship across the Grand Stream — a volatile region with dangerous air currents, at the upper reaches of the atmosphere — to find answers about their fathers' disappearance. The jobs they take and races they fly in are all preparation.

Their fortunes change, for better or for worse, when in the middle of a race they nearly collide with an out-of-control vanship that soon crashes. The pilot asks Claus to take over his charge — a little girl named Alvis Hamilton, who is to be delivered to the Silvana, a widely feared vessel. Silvana, captained by a man named Alex Row, is an independent ship — beholden to neither the kingdoms of Anatoray or Disith, nor the tyrannical world ruler, known as the Guild. (She is in the temporary service of Anatoray when the story opens, though.)

The Guild is the arbiter of a sick chess game, which continually pits Anatoray against Disith in war. It is led by a woman named Delphine, an egomaniac who sees it all as entertainment. Their power over the people is guaranteed by their Claudia units — advanced technology that all large vessels need in order to become airborne — and fear of Exile, another foreign technology, which lies dormant in the Grand Stream. As with any tyrant in human history, Delphine and the Guild are overconfident.

Lavie opposes the new assignment at first, thinking it's too dangerous. They have no time to make a rational decision, however, as some strange machine stalks them at every turn. The trip to the Silvana sucks them up into the whirlwind of world events, from which there will be no escape. There, they find a captain out for revenge, learn a hard truth about their vanship, and witness the desparate acts of an ailing nation. And all of it is tied to Hamilcar Valca and George Head's lonely venture into the Grand Stream, several years before.

Alvis turns out to be the central character in the series. (I know. Shocker.) She might be a cute little girl by day, but she moonlights as a Pandora's box — the key to activating Exile. We receive confirmation of this at one point, when she starts glowing and parts the clouds in the area. (There is so much marketing potential here — I hardly know where to start.) Oddly enough, the interesting thing about "Al" isn't Al herself; it's the motives of those who come in contact with her. Alex wants to use her to get back at the Guild. Delphine wants to acquire her to further ensure their control over the populous. Claus and Lavie want to protect her, and seem to be the only ones concerned about her safety.

With Al aboard the Silvana, the stage is set for the latter half of the story. The Guild is clearly nervous about Alex having Al on his ship, and tries to capture her several times. And there's a changing of the guard in Anatoray, to a new empress that wishes to reopen peace negotiations with Disith, in a time where the people are quite fed up with the Guild's games. The plot progresses like one would expect, at this point.

Beneath the surface, Last Exile places most of its focus on the "ai yori aoshi" principle — the new generation surpasses the old. Claus and Lavie seek to do what their fathers couldn't: cross the Grand Stream into Disith on their vanship, and come back alive. Empress Sophia seeks to do what her father couldn't: form an alliance with Disith and challenge the Guild's rule. The cruel acts and circumstances that plagued the former generation cannot be undone, but the present can provide hope and healing. That's really what the show's about.

A couple of the characters seem to be stuck in between the old and new, though. Alex enables the new faces to make progress against their adversaries, but is himself chained by his past to a path of revenge. And Dio, the younger brother of Delphine and expected heir to the position of Maestro (highest in the Guild), isn't wild about taking over the family business, but his sister has no interest in letting him choose his own path. Inspiring as the performances of the others are, it's hard not to take pause and sympathize with these two.

The only suitable action in an unfair game is to change the rules. The people of Anatoray and Disith, and Silvana's crew, are driven by necessity to fight the good fight, because their way of life is failing. And right in the middle are Claus and Lavie, who face incredible danger to find the answers they seek, because they have to in order to live. I can't recommend this series enough. If the visual style and action don't hook you, I'm certain the characters will.