Yukikaze Anime Review
Sentou Yousei Yukikaze
Combat Fairy Yukikaze
US Release By
Surrealist Top-Gun Sci-fi Melodrama
5 episodes, about 40 minutes each (186 min. total)
2002-08-25 - 2005-08-26
When a huge portal opened in Antarctica, the world changed--on the other side was a world that came to be known as Fairy, but also a faceless and relentlessly hostile alien force known as JAM. Decades later, life on earth has changed little, but half-forgotten on the other side of the portal the Fairy Air Force (FAF), composed of humanity's best, fights the JAM in semi-autonomous planes developed to combat the JAM's incredible technology.
Within this force is the SAF, an elite reconnaissance division also known as Boomerang Squadron, who make use of advanced aircraft with AIs capable of detecting JAM. The top ace in the SAF is Lt. Rei Fukai, who trusts his plane Yukikaze more than he trusts the humans who built it, more even than James, the loyal comrade whose painful duty it is to send him out time and again to combat the JAM. But what are the JAM, what is their real goal, and why does Rei's fate seem to be part of it?
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I'm not quite sure what to make of Yukikaze. On one hand, it's absolutely gorgeous--the aerial combat sequences between the wickedly fast JAM aircraft and the just-the-far-side-of-real human planes are arguably the most spectacular ever put on screen, and the mechanical design and animation is uniformly gorgeous. The drama, as well, is emotionally nuanced and full of multilayered allegory about how those who devote themselves to fighting to protect others distance themselves from that which they risk their lives to protect. On the other hand, the dreamlike setting makes it hard to get emotionally invested in the characters and over-pruning from the source novels leaves the series lacking the setup, background, and backstory that makes the characters' relationships and the how and why of the setting and political story make sense. It's also rather slow at times, though the skilled voice cast does a lot with the taciturn characters and subtle drama.
If you're the sort who goes for vague implications and read-between-the-lines characters, you might well love it, but in the end I can't get past thinking of it as an extraordinarily pretty, somewhat experimental series missing too much substance to get caught up in.
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A mix of military-aircraft-fanatic extravaganza, spectacular computer-animated aerial combat sequences, melancholy antisocial relationships, multilayered allegory, and surreal imagery, Yukikaze is almost as strange and scattered as it is gorgeous. As interesting as it is, the plot seems to be missing key pieces and I'd call it something of an acquired taste.
It's nigh-impossible not to be in awe of the lavish Gonzo animation. The aerial combat sequences between the wickedly fast JAM aircraft and the just-the-far-side-of-real human planes are arguably the most spectacular ever put on screen, in any medium. They flawlessly capture breathtaking speed, precision among chaos, and brutal firepower in a violent ballet of believably near-future hardware and palpably real physics.
The particle effects alone--billowing clouds of flame, smoke, water, and snow--are practically worth the price of admission, and I'd believe it if you told me the whole thing was an exercise to show off Gonzo's fluid dynamics modeling software. Another Gonzo trademark that further heightens the sense of reality is the absence of music in these sequences (and little elsewhere), only an enveloping three-dimensional soundstage of aircraft noise, explosive impacts, and radio chatter.
Yukikaze is named after the protagonist's intelligent aircraft, a work of mechanical art made up of futuristic arcs and apparently-real aerodynamics. The sense is of a beautiful technological marvel of precise engineering that is nonetheless operating so close to its physical limits that it could shatter at any moment, giving the battles a unique sense of tension.
I do not toss around adjectives like flawless lightly, but that and a couple of dozen other gushing words of praise are entirely deserved by the action sequences in Yukikaze. The rest of the artwork is also of the highest caliber, in particular the realistic, finely-detailed character designs. Considering the two comely male leads and equally pretty hardware, it's a bit ironic most of the women aren't terribly attractive, but they look unique and full of character.
The visuals are otherwise notably soft, with muted colors and an almost dreamlike quality--we spend far more time in the green skies of Fairy than on its surface, for example--which contributes heavily to the atmosphere of the series. Notable exceptions are a few detailed interiors, and a couple of massive, awe-inspiring flying fortresses.
This surreal atmosphere and the low-key drama that takes place in it are in stark contrast with the adrenaline rush of the action sequences, and while they are an integral part of the series' makeup, it's also where I started having problems with it.
The story is built around the relationship between the detached, apathetic Rei and the emotional, sad-eyed James, nominally his superior officer. Although the nature of their relationship isn't explained, it's hard not to interpret James' interest in Rei as more than just one friend trying to pull another back from the brink of an emotional breakdown; if there was no romantic subtext intended, it certainly came across that way. Either way, the emotional nuance is memorable--Rei's subtle mood changes whenever he's in the cockpit and James' corresponding sense of forlorn desperation.
Rei's relationship with Yukikaze is interesting from a number of perspectives. The angle of competition for Rei's affection is one possibility (interesting to note that no one refers to it has having a gender--they only call it by name). However, the machine shows very little personality past the terse phrases of loyalty and advice that flash across its display. It could thus be interpreted as nothing more than a somewhat loyal machine that Rei has latched onto as a lifeline in a world where death is never far away. The third option would be somewhere in between, and this seems most likely since later in the series James and a staff psychologist analyze Yukikaze's AI and explicitly discuss its emotions--it just doesn't have any way to express them outwardly.
This final interpretation of course presents the cruel dilemma: Every time Rei works with Yukikaze he's staring down death, yet if there were no war to fight there would be no need for either of them--though James tries everything to change this, Rei is as much a combat machine as Yukikaze. This is allegorical to the message in the broader story; the SAF's sole purpose is to protect Earth from the JAM, yet it exists in isolation from Earth. The message of the entire series seems to be a musing about what happens when people devote themselves to fighting to protect others, yet in doing so distance themselves from that which they risk their lives to protect. The relationship between Rei, Yukikaze, and James is a personal-scale allegory, while the war story is more of a sci-fi illustration of the same.
This is where the dreamlike atmosphere of the series fits in--it evokes the other world (both literally and emotionally) that the SAF exists in. In a literal sense, the JAM are revealed to employ manipulation of physical space to play psychological games; the fact that everything on Fairy has a sense of being slightly detached from reality drives the same point home subconsciously.
My issue with this is that the sense of detachment also left me feeling detached from the characters, and so less involved in the story. Others may not feel the same way, of course, but that made me a lot less willing to overlook a number of other flaws.
For example, it's rather slow, Rei has several temptingly symbolic dream sequences that end up going nowhere so seem like artistic filler, and the political end of the plot is a challenge to follow, mostly because we seem to miss key bits of background information. Any of the above could be a plus or huge minus, depending mostly on your taste, but that last one gets at the real problem I have with the whole affair: It doesn't make sense.
More accurately, Yukikaze is missing all the setup, backstory, and structural details that would make it make sense. First and foremost, Rei and James' background is almost completely absent save for the briefest of flashbacks implying--I think--that they were friends. Given how much of the drama rides on their relationship, not having any idea what, exactly, their previous relationship was--Friends? Teammates? Lovers? All three?--left me having a hard time understanding why James is so attached to Rei, and an even harder time caring one way or the other. Having such finely-realized characters without any explicit history made the whole thing feel like melodrama for the sake of itself.
We're similarly in the dark about the how or why of Fairy's vast amount of literal and political machinery, even taking into account the intentionally vague setting. Such basic sci-fi stuff as the SAF relying heavily on the decisions of a central computer is barely mentioned, let alone justified as part of an otherwise exceptionally realistic military apparatus. As with the characterization, this makes all the military detail feel like window dressing.
I assume the blame falls on over-pruning during the transition between novels and anime--it's telling that many of the confusing technical details, at least, are laid out clearly in the supplemental material that comes with the videos. Reading the background first does help, but not with the characters, and I still see that necessity as a failure of the anime.
At least the final episode explains, in speculative terms, what the heck is going on, and does (a bit surprisingly) thoroughly conclude the story, so it's not totally unsatisfying or left up in the air. Incidentally, be sure to watch through the final credits--there's a significant extra scene afterward.
The only other thing to comment on is the acting. I've only watched it in Japanese, and the two leads are well-cast and voiced with skill. Joji Nakata gives James' voice a palpable sadness to match his eyes, and Masato Sakai (normally a live-action actor) as Rei is monosyllabic without seeming stiff. The remainder of the smallish cast is equally skilled, with a pleasant-sounding, older writer from Earth voiced by Masako Ikeda narrating occasionally. More memorable, however, is the constant barrage of military radio chatter, most of it in English, ranging from native skill to abbreviated but acceptably accented aviation-speak appropriate to the multinational SAF.
On balance I'm not quite sure what to make of Yukikaze. On one hand, it's absolutely gorgeous, and the action sequences are in a class of their own. The drama, as well, is emotionally nuanced and full of multilayered allegory. On the other, the dreamlike setting makes it hard to get emotionally invested in the characters, and for all the depth there are big holes where the backstory and emotional hook should be. If you're the sort who goes for vague implications and read-between-the-lines characters, you might well love it, but in the end I can't get past thinking of it as an extraordinarily pretty, somewhat experimental series missing too much substance to get caught up in.
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The more consistent (and generally stellar) Macross Plus is the most obvious parallel on every level--intense, adult relationships, Top Gun-style sci-fi setting, and gorgeous visuals. The relatively obscure and less stellar Big Wars is even more similar, right down to an alien adversary who uses both aircraft and subtle manipulation of humans. Monster is worth noting as a similarly intense, detailed series, though it's completely different in setting and details. Gasaraki is a somewhat more traditional anime series, but it does have a similar cast of detached, introspective characters and military workings. Finally, Boogiepop Phantom and Serial Experiments Lain deserve a nod mainly for their distorted sense of reality, which bears some similarity to Yukikaze's mood. Oh, and Rescue Me: Mave-Chan is a sort-of-spin-off/parody that references the mechanical design, if not much else.
Notes and Trivia
Yukikaze is based on a pair of novels of the same name by Chohei Kanbayashi. They're available in English from VIZ.
"Yukikaze" is a word meaning "wind that brings snow." I've seen it translated as "blizzard" which isn't exactly accurate--the word for "blizzard" is either "fubuki" or "moufubuki," while "yukikaze" has a more gentle connotation. In addition to this anime, it was also the name of a WWII Japanese destroyer.
Masato Sakai, who voices Rei in Japanese, is a relatively prolific live action actor on TV and in movies; he has only done voice work in this and a couple of other anime productions.
The Blu-ray release includes a 5-minute bonus "Yukikaze Experimental Movie." It's basically a 5-minute teaser for a sequel (which, as of this writing, was never made). This is a bit of a spoiler if you haven't seen the rest of the series, but it consists of James narrating a brief recap of the last episode, then saying that the JAM are preparing for an invasion; this is backed by some new footage implying that Rei is back along with the JAM (which is entirely possible, given the extra bit after the end credits in the series proper). Interesting, and certainly changes the story's ending, but no more than a teaser.
There is a sort-of-spin-off series based on Yukikaze, called Rescue Me: Mave-chan. It's ostensibly a parody in which a Yukikaze fan gets sucked into an alternate dimension where the fans of the series' feelings have created flying girls who embody the planes of the series. It is every bit as spectacularly stupid as it sounds, and has absolutely nothing to do with Yukikaze other than the names of the planes.
This has nothing to do with the review, but I found it mildly amusing that the box art has all the hallmarks of shoujo-style prettyboy melodramatic romance. I had seen an episode some time ago, so when a friend commented on the box art I insisted that it was just coincidence, and that the actual series didn't look like that and was more about confusing politics and really pretty dogfights. It indeed doesn't look like that, but my memory was either selective or just plain wrong, because the actual feature is so loaded with ambiguously "Just friends or something more?" overtones it's pretty much impossible to ignore and borders on a Gundam Wing fanfic.
US DVD Review
Yukikaze is available on three individual DVD volumes or a single, much cheaper set. The first individual DVD is also available in a "limited edition" that kicks in a second copy of the disc with DTS sound, plus a Boomerang Squadron patch. Audio is Dolby 5.1 or DTS in both English and Japanese. Extras include a making-of featurette (which has some unusually interesting stuff, like the sound crew recording fighter jet flybys), interviews with the director and voice actors, trailers, and promos, plus a variety of technical and background information that's more necessary to understanding the series than usual.
Blu-Ray: As with the rest of Bandai's Honneamise label Blu-Ray discs, the set's most notable feature is that it's fantastically expensive--list price is $150 and street isn't a whole lot less. That works out to US$30 per episode; even when you factor in the bonus disc, which has an interview with a JDF fighter pilot on the accuracy of the series and a 5-minute "experimental movie" with a bit of extra material, that's still kind of ridiculous for the US market. I assume the "reason" is that the discs are identical to the Japan-release version other than the packaging--the first thing you do when you fire up the disc is select the menu language--but that isn't much of an excuse for paying the same usurious prices as you would for an import.
As for what your money gets you, less than you'd hope. The physical set is beautiful--a very nice, heavy, matte-finish box for the three attractive discs, plus a small, well-illustrated booklet with plenty of technical info, interview text, and such. The video, however, has an old-style 4:3 ratio, not widescreen, with 1080i resolution. The 4:3 is because the source material wasn't widescreen, either (odd, though it is older), but if you have a high-def TV (and if you don't, why the heck would you buy the blu-ray version?) this of course means that you're watching with black bars on the sides. Likewise, the 1080i means the resolution isn't as big of a step up from DVD as a 1080p version would be, even less since it's 4:3.
This isn't to say the picture isn't pretty--if there are any interlacing artifacts, they weren't visible on my setup, and the images are sharp, with no noticeable banding in soft coloring and gradients, which the series makes plenty of use of. But, more importantly, I'm really not sure how much the extra resolution will be noticeable versus the drastically cheaper DVD version.
The audio consists of bilingual TruHD 5.1 to show off Gonzo's trademark 3D soundtrack. Certainly no complaints there--sounds beautiful to my ears. No uncompressed tracks at all, though.
Since the booklet extras don't amount to anything over the DVD version, this brings it down to the interview and "movie" on the third disc (which is widescreen--there are currently a bunch of screenshots from it on the Japanese website for the set). The interview has no reason for being high-def (it's just two guys talking on a stage) and the "movie," while it is a step up from the series in that it's widescreen, is only 5 minutes long. It may be intriguing from a story standpoint, but isn't anything more than a teaser for a potential sequel, and the new footage amounts to maybe a couple of minutes (the rest is a very brief recap of the last episode). Certainly not worth getting the set for. The audio on the bonus disc is 2-channel PCM (the short is mostly James narrating, so that's not an issue).
Now, you may have noticed I didn't mention the lengthy making-of video included as an extra on the DVDs... that's because it's not on this set. Seriously. Most of the information is replicated in the booklet, but the fact that you're actually missing out on special features (ones which are, in fact, more interesting than the bonus interview in this set) is somewhere between outrageous and outright insulting. That alone is reason enough not to buy this set.
The bottom line here is that while it's the best quality you're going to get Yukikaze in, and the physical end of the box set is quite nice, you'd have to be both a massive fan and incredibly picky about video and sound quality for it to be worth triple the price of the DVD version for marginally improved quality and less special features.
Though relatively violent, most of the combat takes place in the air, so there's little blood. There's little else to find specific objection to other than generally mature themes, so I'd call it a 13-up.
Violence: 3 - Apart from a couple of scenes late in the series, the violence is mostly during airborne combat sequences, which are bloodless but intense.
Nudity: 0 - None.
Sex/Mature Themes: 1 - There are broadly mature themes, but nothing specific.
Language: 2 - Relatively mild language in the subtitles.
Available in North America from Bandai on three individual bilingual DVDs, a budget-priced "Anime Legends" box set of the entire series, and a very expensive ($150 list) 3-disc Blu-Ray box set under the Honneamise label which now appears to be out of print. RightStuf carries the DVD set for about $30, and AnimeNation has it for a bit more at last check. Amazon also has the DVD set, though like most other non-anime retailers they don't generally carry Honneamise Blu-ray releases (though they did have a nifty 1/100 scale model of Yukikaze, now sadly discontinued).