Last Exile

July 20, 2006 on 12:58 am | In Last Exile | 16 Comments

Imagine a world in which the people on the ground are in a state of ecological turmoil, one half in danger of freezing, one in danger of melting. In the sky of this world lives a faction that governs the battles of the cold and the hot, and doles out technology as it sees fit so that the groundlings may themselves, to a limited extent, take to the skies … if only to wage war in it.

Next, imagine going to a casino and winning a million dollars. Then imagine leaving that casino without remembering to cash in your chips. What you’ve got there is something that represents one million dollars, but most definitely is not one million dollars.

Last Exile is a million dollars worth of chips: uncashed potential that never let me underneath its skin despite its best efforts to forge a sense of community among its characters. It’s a mixed case of simply not disclosing enough of the situation to the audience, and then compounding the problem by holding the characters at arm’s length.

Claus and Lavie live in the world of Prester as couriers. They fly in the recovered vanship of their deceased fathers and vow to do what their fathers had failed to achieve ten years previously: cross the Grand Stream, a particularly turbulent air space that separates the perpetually warring countries of Disith and Anatoray.
Unfortunately Claus and Lavie’s plans are derailed when they take over a courier job for a dying man: they must take a young girl, Alvis, to the ship Silvana. Once aboard, Claus and Lavie find themselves embroiled in a war with the all-governing Guild, and they must reassess their feelings for the sky.

Last Exile begins with the promise of good things to come, but it fails in capitalising on them. Right from the start we’re given the idea of two idealistic young folks, we’re even given a potentially fun cadre of vanship pilots, and then we’re given the ultimate in potential: a girl who holds the key to all of the intrigue, handed over in an impressive rite of passage.

Then Last Exile kind of loses itself in failed attempts to build up the crew of the Silvana, a group of ostensibly lovable misfits who are kept at a distance that doesn’t go much further than “this one has an inferiority complex”, “this one is gay for Claus”* and “this one wears glasses”.

This is not to say I disliked Last Exile: wasted potential means more of a disappointment than anything else in this instance. I was not once grabbed by the weight of the situations at hand, but I was admittedly impressed several times in the run of the final six episodes.
The key problem is that Gonzo never really gives us any reason to understand what is happening. It may be “insulting” to give us a straightforward overview of the situation in Prester, but you must squeeze a great deal of blood out of Gonzo to realise the most basic of plot details about the war or the Guild, and it’s still not firmly in place.

The first episode presents a war between Anatoray and Disith, with the battle being watched over by “The Guild”. One gets the idea that wars are kind of like games for these people as they have a governing body watching from on high and they choose to attack each other by way of musketeers firing at each other from parallel airships over using their ships’ actual artillery. The impractical nature of the battles and the presence of the Guild above promises something different to what we get.

The Guild turns out to be the true evil: this is revealed fairly quickly, but the reason for the people of Disith and Anatoray approving of them beyond the obvious disparities in their technological advancement is forever unclear.
This muddiness is Last Exile‘s biggest fault, with entire episodes going by without making any sense. Claus makes an “enemy” but also a best friend in Dio, the brother of Delphine, Queen of the Guild. The circumstances under which Dio comes to stay with the Silvana and become a part of their crew can simply not be explained by anyone because he is supposed to be their nemesis and has actually fought them. There is no moral quandary for anyone involved, and Dio’s problems do not even begin to chase him until the one point that the writers make Dio actually fit with the crew.

It’s the sort of story where secret Princesses turn up partway through and intense political discussions relating to no common thread culminate with double murders. Gonzo even pulls a “Lady Une” on us by having one character behave totally different once she takes her glasses off and puts her hair down.
Claus and Lavie become one note characters who have a time release rift based on their different interpretations of using the sky for warfare. After this point Claus becomes incredibly dull and Lavie almost non-existent. I haven’t even mentioned Alvis here because, besides her portrayal by Shiraki Anna, she is just the traditional “girl who holds the key to all secrets”.

Maybe my experience of Last Exile would have changed if I had a higher opinion of Delphine, played with freakishly warm psychosis by Neya Michiko. Some grow a hatred of the character that sustains them through the series but I found her ultimately as unfleshed as the rest of the program and, besides some particularly good scenes with Dio’s friend Luciola and Alex, captain of the Silvana, she did not have much to do. My favourite sorts of series are the ones that build a huge story, where the stakes are so high by the end that everything has to soar or crash down. Last Exile, despite holding the fate of the world in its hands, seemed like small fries to me.

Unlike many Gonzo shows that can rely on spectacle to get by where the story fails, Last Exile falls rather flat. I like Murata Range’s character designs but they are put to ill use here: the idea of a barren world translates into the colour scheme and so the world is populated by people with washed out skin and faded hair living in corridors of brown and grey. The people and places featured give no sense of life, and there is not even the freedom of the air can escape from the oppressive colour design.
The mechanical designs show the vanships existing as simple silver cannisters, made of admittedly well-integrated CG and absolutely no personality. There is no sense of majesty in the large airships and the whole exercise simply looks dull.
Rather than distracting from the written content of the show, Last Exile‘s aesthetic serves to emphasise it in the worst possible way: the OP picks itself up a little bit but it really sounds like a dirge is welcoming you to partake of the whole adventure.

Last Exile tells a story that is supposed to be one of hope and optimism but is ultimately bogged down by its obstinate disregard for helping the audience. All of the characters receive attempts to endear themselves, but it’s never quite enough. Perhaps this would have worked better as an OVA, but barely anyone makes those anymore: the concluding episodes had the right sort of theatrics for that sort of atmosphere, with none of the strength of body to back it up.

*When I say “Gale is gay for Claus”, I mean “Gale has romantic designs on Claus”.


  1. Lady Une is a bit… strong for this comparison. Her different actions are amply explained by the differing demands of being a warship XO and a head of state.

    That said, it really did need a better plot.

    Comment by HC — July 20, 2006 #

  2. I’m speaking mainly about the physicality; the mentality change does make sense. I think the plot would have been fine if it had any flesh on its bones.

    Comment by Alex — July 20, 2006 #

  3. What can I say? LOL GONZO Clause.

    Comment by DrmChsr0 — July 20, 2006 #

  4. I think you miss the point of the show, especally on the part of the aesthetics.

    For me, the aesthetics of a show are very important and Range’s designs suit the story and world of LE perfectly.

    “the idea of a barren world translates into the colour scheme and so the world is populated by people with washed out skin and faded hair living in corridors of brown and grey.

    The mechanical designs show the vanships existing as simple silver cannisters, made of admittedly well-integrated CG and absolutely no personality. There is no sense of majesty in the large airships and the whole exercise simply looks dull.”

    Range’s designs have always centred round the colours of brown, grey and black. So it fits in perfectly with the dusty and mechanical world of LE.

    As for Vanship and ship design, it’s quite subjective but I’ll like to point out that it’s a lot more functional and practical in design that say a mecha. Range’s degree in industrial design comes through here, and his mechanical works tend to look like they exist with a purpose rather than exist for looks.

    I actually think the ships are quite majestic. What would be an example of a majestic fleet of ships in your opinion then?

    As for stuff like character development etc, I didn’t see anything wrong with how it turned out in the end. Sure, they could’ve been fleshed out more, but I’m very satisfied with the outcome already. Besides, how many shows flesh out their minor characters?

    Comment by tj han — July 20, 2006 #

  5. I heartily agree with pretty much everyting you said in your critique. I believe Last Exile to be a vastly overrated anime. It is true that this show had a lot of potential. It is a series that was meant to soar high in the skies but was shot down by its own creators so as to attain the lowest commom factor in its viewership. It starts with a bang and shows a lot of ambition but somehow backs down when it really matters and present us with a tedious story that feels cliche at best. Even the ending was I believe not satisfying, somehow I never felt that the main protagonists were in charge of the events. When I say main protagonists, I don’t mean only the good guys, even the bad guys seem quite clueless to me. It could have been a great plot point if it were because of the influence of some other part. But actually, it only felt like the half hearted composition of bored screenwriters. Deus ex machina at its worst.

    Though unlike you and like one of the previous posters, I did like the designs of the airships. I considered the whole visual aspect of the anime to be its one and only redeeming point. It really looked great. A beautiful empty shell. A bit like one of the FPS video game companies release to show off their new 3D engines.

    Comment by Boulayman — July 20, 2006 #

  6. Well, in a contrast, I find Last Exile to be basically my favourite anime in the world ever, and not just because of Range Murata’s designs as impressive as they were. The fact that, as previously mentioned, the ships (of varying sizes) look like they’re designed with a purpose in mind as opposed to just being designed to look pretty (ok, so one particular battleships purpose seemed to be cutting open other ships with a pair of huge mounted saws, but still). Oh, and if nobody felt anything when the fleet of vanships destroyed the guild mothership, then you must have a heart of stone. 🙂

    I foudn the characters to be well set up in this anime, and unlike most other series, even my favourite ones, I could easily point the majority of the characters, even some of the fairly minor ones. And what’s this, an ending that actually ties things up quite nicely? There are a good few animes that could have done with taking a leaf out of that book.

    Ok, so no one anime is perfect, but if you could name one other series (of a similar setup) that could best all of Last Exiles aspects, I’d like to hear about it.

    As far as the war that was going on was concerned, I think it was made rather clear that the whole thing was really just orchestrated by the Guild in order to keep the two nations under control. Why bother actually fighting your enemies, when it would be so much easier than to have them duke it out amongst themselves instead?

    Anwyay, As Last Exile is one of my top anime loves of all eternity and the thought of anyone picking the slightest fault in it can turn me savage, I’ll better clear out before my basest vagaries get the better of me!

    Each to their own I guess.

    Comment by GDM — July 20, 2006 #

  7. I’ve explained why LE is great far too many times to various people. I think I need to put up an FAQ haha.

    Basically, for those who say the characters aren’t in control or individually playing a big part, this is cause the whole thing’s a war. Nobody plays a Yamato Kira type role in wars. Even Klaus, the main chara, was just a despatch flyer and always will be.

    Comment by tj han — July 20, 2006 #

  8. I partially agree with your opinion. I must say that I really liked Last Exile for the first say 15 episodes. But afterward it just failed to live up to it’s own hype. Let’s put it that way: I saw the first half of the series in a day, watched the next quarter of the series over the course of a few days and then put it down for half a year and only finished it because I had to give it back to the friend that I borrowed it from.
    In terms of animation Gonzo is in their element during the vanship scenes, the opening is gorgeous, and the character design is very good. The music is good, and most of the voice acting is fitting. Even the characters are generally likable, maybe not as well developed as I’d like them to be, but they all have potential to be interesting. Basically most of the aspects of the series are good, it just that about midway through the story looses all point and direction.

    Comment by lana3007 — July 20, 2006 #

  9. I find myself agreeing with you on comments about Last Exile (regardless of the fact that I don’t know who Lady Une is… ;;^_^). As strongly as the show tries to make you feel like you’re watching something unique and special, in the end it really couldn’t use the potential that the setting and characters built-up for a satisfying conclusion. But then, all I have to tell myself is that this is a GONZO production (good build-up, excessive CG, weak plot). ^_^

    Comment by Tim — July 20, 2006 #

  10. I thought that this was something not very well written, and only published it to kick it out of the way. I thought it would cause some sort of controversy, which is why I was concerned about its perceived crappiness. But no one has cornered me about the structure, so it\’s just king controversy!

    TJ Han: I knew that you wouldn\’t like what I had to say! You don\’t need to put up an FAQ of explaining why it\’s great, you could just put out your own definitive review, kind of like a monolith with God\’s last words to man etched upon it for all eternity.
    I don\’t know what I can say about a properly majestic fleet of ships. I wish you hadn\’t quoted me because then I could deny ever having mentioned majesty. At any rate, aesthetic is entirely subjective and the show was not helped by me in that regard.
    On the point of characters, I simply feel that they tried to give us too much of nothing. If you want an example of a good supporting cast – one that I know you\’ve certainly seen – I think Berserk is all over that. Aww yeah.

    I didn\’t raise the idea about the characters having no effect on the situation at large, but I\’ll address it. I don\’t think that it\’s necessary in a war story and I will cite the example of Macross. The people in that story unite around one character, the symbolic Minmay. For the most part it is the story of Ichijo Hikaru, one man who decided to join the war effort against his better judgement. In that series, while Hikaru has connections to the high levels of warfare, you get the distinct impression of one man who desperately wants to live.
    That is one of the reasons why Macross is super great.

    GDM: I can\’t really think of a series to compare Last Exile to that I\’ve seen. I suppose I could say at a stretch that I liked Nadesico, but my last half watch of that proved it to be less than perfect and for some reason everyone hates its ending (what\’s wrong with its ending?)
    As for the vanships taking on the fleet: that was one of my \”aww yeah\” moments.

    Tim: Lady Une is from Gundam Wing, possibly the best thing about that ultimately lacklustre show.

    Poor GONZO! Will they never catch a break? Don\’t worry, Vandread, I still think you\’re good.

    Comment by Alex — July 21, 2006 #

  11. Lol no one really cares about structure in anime blogs. I post crappily organised stuff but people still comment. It’s the points that are more important.

    Anyway I’m not too sure the cast of Berserk is superior to Exile. Beyond Griffith, Castella (or whoever the chick was), the others are mere cardboard. That said, Berserk is still great.

    Dontworry Alex, I think there are still a lot of great GONZO shows. I just watched Sunabouzu and it’s fantastic. And NHK seems to be coming along nicely while we have Mardock Scramble coming up.

    Comment by tj han — July 21, 2006 #

  12. I grew an affection for the Berserk characters, which means they succeeded in their jobs. I was, naturally, upset by their spoilerish fates.

    Comment by Alex — July 21, 2006 #

  13. […] Alex has finished Last Exile and takes the time to enumerate the show’s various flaws, shortcomings, and missed opportunities. I was glad to see I wasn’t the only one who thought the show left the viewer in the dark on too many occasions. Some of the omitted details were so fundamental that I was starting to wonder if I just wasn’t paying attention. […]

    Pingback by Twenty-Sided ? Blog Archive » Last word on Last Exile — July 26, 2006 #

  14. The Wikipedia entry helped me understand the anime. The plot is a bit cryptic!

    Most notably:

    (a) The world is shaped like a big hourglass, but we only see this once. It is not spinning properly, which is why one end is heating up and the other is freezing over. (Also remember Alistia’s comment about the stars acting funny.)

    (b) The Guild did not mean to ruin the world’s weather patterns, and now do not know how to fix it except by activating Exile and hoping this works.

    (c) The Guild obtained its superior technology from Exile, but has forgotten a lot about it.

    So the fight to activate Exile is also a fight to save the world — but both “teams” want to be in control afterwards by being the ones who activate Exile.

    Comment by David V.S. — July 26, 2006 #

  15. Very good reading. Peace until next time.

    Comment by WaltDe — September 2, 2006 #

  16. I believe that it is an Anime that is really just meant to show you a vision of a world but not realyl answer a whole bunch. Actually you see this in the first dvd. Ti rahter really shows you what goes on inside this world of clouds but doesnt tie very many things together. But I believe that different shows show us different things.

    I am a big fan of somethign called Vision of Escaflowne. Possibly the best piece of tv that I have ever seen in my entire life. Everything was perfectly balanced. Last Exile is not that but more of a vision of a steam punk world, a vision of a world of clouds. Its really show us that and what goes on inside of this world.

    Also probably why it is so unbalanced is that each episode is based upon a chess piece or a chess manuever. So once you research what each word means you will understand why each episode went the way that it did.

    Comment by Dominic — April 8, 2008 #

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