Production I. G.'s The Sky Crawlers (スカイ·クロラ, 2008), which wasn't released in the U. S. until 2009, is a compelling sf anime that deals with some deeply philosophical questions in a tale of war, love and fate. Directed by the legendary Mamoru Oshii (押井守) it is an adaptation of Hiroshi Mori's (森博嗣) ,eponymous novel. As this is an Oshii film you know it will feature a basset hound, and sure enough we see it right after the opening credits. And being an Oshii film you also know there will be some serious philosophy involved, and he doesn't disappointed as within the first ten minutes the protagonist is quoting Camus. In short this is a characteristically accomplished Ohshii film in which philosophical substance takes precedence over shallow spectacle.
The film opens with a fierce dogfight between pilots flying warplanes built using c. 1940's level technology, but clearly not vintage WWII craft of any known make. We watch as a flight of planes is decimated by a fighter emblazoned with a black panther. As we later learn this is "The Teacher," the feared enemy ace who has never been defeated. After the credits roll we see young Yuichi Kannami fly in for a landing. He's perplexed that the pilot he's replacing isn't there to hand over his plane and no one will give him a straight answer about what happened to him. He then meets his commanding officer, Suito Kusanagi, a stiff and taciturn girl who is never without her loaded pistol. Both serve one of the two corporations who stage the deadly battles that both entertain the populace and substitute for actual war, allowing the world at large to enjoy peace. This bloodsport is fought by Kildren, genetically engineered adolescents who experience eternal youth unless killed on the battlefield. As the years roll on and battle follows battle, the Kildren's minds become numbed and they struggle on through a dreamlike existence. And as Yuichi unravels the mystery surrounding the pilot he replaced, he will find his fate intertwined with that of Suito and confront the profound existential dilemma of the Kildren's existence.
In addition to the provocative philosophical issues addressed by this film it also contains some subtle but discernible social commentary. The adolescent Kildren -- a clever translation of キルドレ that evokes "killer children" -- who continually fight the battles of this world are like the innumerable youths who generation after generation have marched off to fight and die in the world's wars. The corporations that stage and profit from these battles recall the military-industrial complex that dominates so much of the world's economy and consumes so much of its resources. And the way the Kildren are glamorized by society is reminiscent of the way in which societies glorify solders by making heroes of them. There is also a religious dimension to the film, with the fate of Kildren reflecting the fate of the reincarnated soul which, to put it in classical terms, has crossed the river Styx and spent a thousand years in Hades, only to drink from the waters of Lethe and return to the mortal world bereft of memories and fated to repeat the cycle of rebirth.
If there is a criticism to be made of this film it's that the central premise is lifted without acknowledgment straight from Mack Reynold's 1968 novel Mercenary From Tomorrow. However, Mori and Oshii have given the material such a serious and substantive treatment that it elevates it above mere pastiche. A more serious charge is that it might be too recondite for the average viewer. Certainly it features some thrilling battle scenes, but they are too few and far between to appeal to the average anime fan. This film has much more in common with the solemn 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) than with the frenetic Star Wars (1977) and as a result it might leave the casual viewer bored and confused
But presumably people watching this will be aware of Oshii-san's reputation and will know what to expect. And they won't be disappointed. The Sky Crawlers is an impressive and moving film that also makes brilliant use of the sf genre to explore some serious philosophical questions.
Edit: I forgot to mention that you shouldn't stop watching when the end credits roll. There's an important scene following them that provides an apt coda to the film.