The story of Gonzo could well be seen as the story of anime fandom itself. Formed in 1992 by former GAINAX employees, it blossomed during the Noughties, growing into a multimedia corporation that covered not just anime but manga, videogames, feature films and even music videos, having the weight and gravity to pull in star quality as Samuel L. Jackson took top billing in Afro Samurai. Gonzo once bestrode the anime world like a colossus, an industry unto itself producing as many as six to eight shows a year, even having the staff and resources to run multiple shows concurrently during a season. But the Colossus fell, and so did Gonzo. The company subsequently became the prick that burst the anime bubble, humiliatingly de-listed from the Tokyo Stock Exchange after posting losses of over thirty million dollars in its 2008 accounts. Gonzo contracted massively as our own licensing companies began tumbling down, and it did not even release any anime at all in 2010. While Gonzo is much smaller than it was, however, it did not go out of business entirely and in recent years it made a modest but noticeable rally. One of the titles Gonzo released to announce the end of its fallow year and its return to anime was the sequel series Last Exile: Fam, the Silver Wing - a confident declaration of the company's perseverance and desire to reclaim its earlier stature, as the original Last Exile was commissioned to mark the company's 10th anniversary over 2002-3, at the time when Gonzo was entering its golden age.
The appeal of the Last Exile setting is easy to understand - "sky pirates" evoke an image of energetic and spirited pulp adventure and exploratory romance, the giant graceful grandeur of airships and the rugged whirl of biplanes, reminiscing an age when aviation was new, free and eager, engines could be coaxed by a tinkerer's touch and the sky was an undiscovered country full of secret coves within the folds of the clouds. Gonzo cast off its dreams and ambitions into Fam, the Silver Wing and hoped they would take flight: does it soar high or crash & burn?
Fam is a teenage girl, orphaned as an infant and brought up in a society of sky pirates who scud and skip along the clouds, capturing rich airships by snaring them in nets of harpoons that lash them to the mountains that the sky pirates confidently command. In a divided world of many squabbling countries there's lots of opportunities for a pirate, and as a daughter-of-a-gun raised in the cockpit Fam is a veritable bird, happy and free and eager to land the first mark and glorify a prize as hers, her adopted sister and kestrel-eyed navigator Giselle as her wingman. As brisk as business is, though, Fam wants to soar with even higher dreams - years ago, before the world collapsed into fighting again, a Grand Race was held, bringing nations together in friendly competition. Fam wants peace to prevail so that there can be another Grand Race... that she will win, naturally!
It's a dream that may soon be realised as two major powers, Tyrion and the Federation, are meeting at the holy pristine waters of the Grand Lake to sign a historic peace treaty. The two princesses of Tyrion, the regal Liliana and her younger sister Milia, acting for their invalid father, are nervous but eager to bring about a new age. The Federation also believes in peace and dissolving borders... by conquering them. After all, corpses are remarkably non-violent. The Federation meets Tyrion not with olive branches but fixed bayonets - in a gross act of both treachery and blasphemy, the Federation defile the serene sanctity of the Grand Lake with gunfire, smashing apart the unsuspecting Tyrion fleet and seeking to kill the two princesses.
Fam and the sky pirates catch wind of the battle and think it profitable to get a whole country into their debt by helping Princess Liliana and Milia escape. Fam's instinctive sympathy for the underdog lets her immediately identify with the princesses (even as Milia is anxiously fretful about these vulgar and uncouth sorts), and when she's dispatched to escort Princess Milia back to Tyrion she witnesses first-hand the grim determination of the Federation as they deploy one of a secret weapons to ensure victory - one of the Exiles, the huge spaceships which orbit the planet as relics of an ancient lost age. The Federation have discovered how to operate the Exiles and demonstrate this to devastating effect. Princess Milia thus very suddenly finds herself a refugee, a vagabond queen ruling ashes on the wind... but taken in by the sympathetic Fam, will she find the authority that she was born to as the Federation continues to advance across the world?
Although Fam, the Silver Wing is a sequel to a series that's a decade old now, it doesn't spend a lot of time on exposition, dropping us into the world and rolling on as you find it. I approve of this wholeheartedly, and I appreciate a series that doesn't patronise its audience with reels of hand-holding. You can learn relationships from observation just as much as from a series bible - when Fam declares that the ship's leaking Claudia and it starts sinking, we don't need a separate aside walking us through the engine to infer that Claudia's the phlebotinum that keeps airships afloat. I haven't watched the original Last Exile but I had no trouble following what was going on.
The reintroduction of characters from the first series is treated very matter-of-factly. The arrival of the Sylvius, the ship which links together both series of Last Exile,is very smoothly and smartly handled. It's a playful episode welcoming old friends, as Fam boldly declares that she's going to capture the ship - we crack a smile at her innocent youthful naiveté as know better, of course, and true enough the Sylvius herself meets Fam's ballsy boast with a smirk and a "how about no". As the trio of Fam, Giselle and Princess Milia are captured, the Sylvius' commanders tell them that the only way to avoid being executed is to go out and capture Federation battleships for them... trusting in no binding stronger than Fam's sense of honour at being beaten fair and square that she will follow these instructions and not just buzz off. It's all very sporting! After a rushed opening arc depicting the invasion of Tyrion, this mission does give a stable story arc for the rest of this half of the series.
Even with the appearance of old characters, the two stars of the show are definitely the new arrivals Fam and Princess Milia. Fam veers dangerously close to Mary Sue territory - there's even an actual dialogue where Princess Milia and Giselle talk to each other about just how amazing Fam is - but to be fair to her she isn't implausibly the centre of attention and she does earn her stripes with vigour, determination, and a certain amount of braggadocio, which is no bad thing. While Princess Milia's endless whining about her sister during the first few episodes may turn even the most ardent monarchist into a regicide, she does move past this and grow into her own. In these sorts of stories the royal usually goes native, but Fam the Silver Wing matures beyond that and treats Princess Milia respectfully as she acquires new skills and develops friendships, but equally does not lose sight of who she is and her role and expectations. Other characters do put in a fair turn - Fam's sister-like friend Giselle demonstrating her knowledge by inferring the capabilities of a ship from its silhouette, and the Federation Premier having sinister ingratiating tones talking a great deal about his war reclaiming land stolen from the common people - sounding worthy on the face of it, but you can hear the strains of 'lebensraum' in its undertones. One of my favourite minor characters was the Augusta, the young girl-empress of the Federation - she's a courageous little thing, confidently delivering the speeches that are given to her (which she dutifully recites even as the content revolts her), and it's fascinating to watch her sitting on a general's lap, studying the map intently as they talk strategy over her. I'm reminded of the firm loyalty of the Sikh armies to their boy-king in the 1840s.
These characters, though, do have to make their way through some confusing incidents. Fam the Silver Wing suffers from a very uneven tone, dithering indecisively over whether it wants to be a light-hearted and free-spirited blue-sky adventure or an impassioned and dramatic war epic, veering one way and then that, and stumbling over its own feet. Dialogue is straightforward but effective in natural conversation, but becomes rather stiff and arch when talking politics; comedy scenes make an effort but more raise smiles than laugh-out-loud moments.
The uneven tone becomes most apparent midway through the series when Fam, ever-game for bold new ventures, makes a high-stakes bet on a race: challenging a Federation leader for her personal battleship and wagering Princess Milia (who definitely wasn't informed about this part of the plan before she agreed to come along) as the forfeit. It's all very daring and gamesome and a fine set-up for an exuberant challenge. The starting pistol bangs, the vanships roar - and then we cut to the Federation Premier conducting a mass execution. Oh. Err... suddenly the race doesn't seem quite so fun anymore. It's a veritable blow to the solar plexus which completely knocks the wind out of the show's momentum.
A similar problem affects the show's action set-pieces. It's intermittently brilliant - a couple of standout highlights for me include scenes where Fam and Giselle go flying through the innards of enemy ships, skilful sequences showing the sisters deftly and dextrously jinking and viffing through the perilously constricted confines of knotted pipes and crushing gears in the engine spaces. They're reminiscent of the assault on the Death Star's core in Return of the Jedi, which does have an unfortunate upside when these ships also have Death Star exhaust-port weak spots. However ridiculous the events emanating from this are on one occasion, it does work well from a dramatic standpoint because the emphasis of the scene is instead on Princess Milia's development into a very capable aviatrix in her own right, as a success on her part contrasts with Giselle being overtaken and left behind.
However, on the other hand, other action sequences are incredibly clumsy. The "Exile" space-battleship which is so catastrophically devastating in the opening episodes might naturally be seen to be quite a big deal for the entire planet, but once it annihilates Tyrion's capital it drops out of the narrative and is tacitly forgotten for almost all the following episodes, as it would awkwardly make all future battles rather one-sided. In one big battle the Sylvius is confronted right out in the open by an entire fleet of Federation warships - they unleash a tremendous barrage, drowning out the screen with blazing and gouting flame erupting from literally dozens of guns. The Sylvius's response is to just charge headlong straight into this firestorm - and emerge out of the other side completely unscathed. It may be terrifically brave, but it's also total bollocks! If that seems too much like nit-picking, there is a serious offender in the final episode of this collection, which features a flashback to the Grand Race that's Fam's obsession, and the assassination of a VIP that sets the whole story into motion. This has to be quite possibly one of the worst-directed battle scenes that I've ever seen in anime - characters standing utterly stock-still as bullets land around them, not even looking mildly curious let alone frightened; bystanders similarly just gawping blandly until we can cut to a shot of them looking oh-so-tragic and distraught; and there's a moment of unintentional comedy when someone goes through a door and kills a bunch of attackers off-frame to biffing-boffing sound effects - you expect him to emerge in a cartoon disguise. "How could this happen? On this day of all days?" a younger Fam cries miserably. Gee, Fam, I dunno... if the VIP's bodyguards weren't too busy jumping up and doing flashy aerial combos instead of getting their client under cover then maybe the character wouldn't be lying bleeding on the ground right about now. This incident is all the more disastrous because this death is meant to be the spur to many different characters' motivations, but the whole event is such a farrago that these characters can't help but come across as morons by letting themselves be influenced by such ham-fisted nonsense.
Fam, the Silver Wing does look lovely - the various nations of the world have distinctive dress with credible designs that are both aesthetic and functional and aren't just "steampunk Germany" or "steampunk Japan". The architecture of the Fedration in particular has an impressive sense of grandeur that avoids evil-empire tropes - what would be stark fascist walls are instead wreathed in ivy, strategy-map hexagons are filled with flowerbeds. Although the very opening shot of the series is Fam sleepwalking in her underwear, the fan service of the anime is not focused on the human girls, rather the flying ladies. The ships look splendid with a variety of elaborate designs that are rendered well in CG, from the classic superfortress bare steel of Tyrion's fleet to the industrial 'paddles' of Federation craft and the stabbing-fast dagger-jets of Giseis. In battle scenes though these models don't cope well with damage, with crude fire effects blotted on top of them and smoke visibly seen clipping through them.
The music in the series is very good, although I fear that the sound mix has some odd levels - the background music threatens to drown out the actual dialogue in a few quieter scenes. Where you can hear it though there are some nice touches, such as the Russian spoken by the Giseis and the Tyrion characters' very determined English accents.
Having bemoaned the lean selections of extras in some of my recent reviews, I'm pleased to report that there's a fat and healthy assortment in Fam the Silver Wing with a wide range of items. Clean opening/ending sequences are present and correct, and generously there are two episode commentaries with the dub cast - although they're a little rambling with no moderator. it's good to see the cast chatting amiably together (voice acting, solo in the recording booth with no-one to bounce your dialogue off, can be a lonely affair) and it's quite remarkable to see Liliana and Milia's voice actresses in their natural American accents after they put on such convincing ladylike Englishness during the series! More direct information on the construction of the series itself is available in the "Anime Expo 2011" segment which records Fam, the Silver Wing's international premiere at the large American convention with a Japanese director interview. The poor chap looks uncomfortable in front of the camera, but he does soldier on and takes care to answer some intelligent questions about both the original Last Exile series and the reception of Fam, the Silver Wing. Engendering reception through promotion, there are also a collection of adverts - commercials are generally the most disposable sort of extra, but I really enjoyed the "Friday Night" series which take a different tack from the usual clip-shows and are instead a collection of expressive and jaunty comic-style comedy shorts. might viewers might want to avoid the "Fam Introduction Event" item - although it is nothing spoilerish in terms of characters dying or anything that specific, as a music video of action scenes it does include a number of shots of battles that will not take place until the second half of the series.
Last Exile: Fam the Silver Wing is really a mixed bag. It looks and sounds great with good design and decent animation, but an adventure story requires danger as much as it does beauty, and unfortunately its battle scenes can be clumsy and confused. The show is certainly very earnest in its desire to explore the boundless skies, and although currently there are clouds that obstruct the view, they could blow away for a grand vista in the second half.