The first time I watched Last Exile, I was blown away.
I was in my mid-20s, and I picked up the show mainly on a whim. But I had never seen any combination of 2-D and CG animation look that good. The first moment when the vanships float through the air like WWI biplanes was exciting. That’s not to mention the giant airships.
That was the first thing I fell in love with.
Then I was swept up in the Victorian-era romance of it all. I still get shivers when I think about a soldier huddled over a steam-powered rifle mumbling, “Disith bullets will avoid Mullin Shetland’s body.” Alex Rowe is still the best inheritor of Captain Harlock, and Delphine is the quintessential mustache-twirling villain.
These are the reasons I loved, and to be honest, still love Last Exile. At its best, it is a steam-powered epic filled with high adventure and well-earned tragedy.
That is why it’s been on my list of favorite shows of all time for nearly 20 years.
And this is the start of my break-up letter with it.
To be honest, I’ve spent a long time thinking about my list of all-time favorite shows. When I started this blog back in the ancient year 2007, I didn’t consider the implication of naming the blog “In Search of Number Nine.” At the time, it just seemed like a catchy name.
But I created a paradox for myself. If I ever found my ninth favorite anime of all time, I wouldn’t have a reason to keep writing this blog. On the other hand, the stated reason for the blog is to find my favorite anime of all time.
I discovered this problem shortly after I started. Granted, I could have just renamed the blog, but, at that point, it would just seem silly.
On top of that, I always wondered if my list of all-time favorite shows was fed by youthful enthusiasm for discovering new anime. All of the programs come from the heady days when I started collecting. I was more likely to love the shows because I was newer to anime.
I also had incentives to love those shows because I had fewer of them. I had sunk hundreds of dollars into buying disks, so I wanted to like them.
I struggled with it until I put the blog down in 2009. At that point, I figured I would never need to address that question.
Even when I resurrected the blog, I figured the list was an artifact. It was the reason for the blog’s name, and no one was going to look at it too closely.
Well, now I need to. See, after more than 15 years, there is a show I want to add a show to the list. But that means I need to consider if all of the shows really deserve to be there.
What makes a favorite?
I’ve always been the type of person to categorize things. I tried to develop a whole scheme to classify giant robot pilots. Is it necessary? No. But the thought exercise is a way to put my brain on a problem and not think about the dozens of real-life concerns surrounding me.
OK. That turned strangely dark.
All of that said, while I like a lot of things, there is a bright line between a show I like and a show that makes it to my vaunted list. After a couple weeks, I’ve come up with three factors that all of my favorite shows share. I can easily explain two of those factors, but the third one, well, that is far more amorphous.
The first factor is pretty straightforward. There has to be something about the show that I find thought-provoking.
For instance, let’s take Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex. The Standalone Complex is an interesting concept to ponder. How often do we, as people, blindly accept the ideologies of others because they seem more attractive to us? How often do we, as people, internalize our experiences? Without getting political, we can all point to times where people build a worldview based on experiences that aren’t theirs. Isn’t that just another form of the Standalone Complex?
OK. You might say, “Standalone Complex is easy mode. It’s a show designed to make you consider how people interpret information as society becomes more connected. What about Ruroni Kenshin? Isn’t that just a classic shonen story? How is that thought-provoking?”
Here’s the thing about Ruroni Kenshin. It subverts both classic shounen stereotypes and the new shounen stereotypes. As a character, Kenshin is basically Kenshiro from Fist of the North Star. He is unbeatable. But to achieve that, he must discard his humanity. So he’s the strongest swordsman, who can’t be the strongest swordsman without abandoning his soul.
On the other hand, he subverts the new shounen archetype. He’s not a young teen trying to become the strongest. But what he’s trying to do is become the strongest without costing him his soul.
That is a fascinating thing to think about.
I could do this with almost any of the shows on my list, but it would take up a couple thousand words, and I’m not that charming of a writer. So let’s move on.
My second factor is that the story has been compelling. This comes down to good storytelling. For instance, I’ve been rewatching The Twelve Kingdoms and binged five episodes in a row without intending to do that. Even knowing where the story goes, I still find the show fun to watch.
The third factor is the hardest to explain. I have to love the show.
As much as I tried to come up with an explanation for this, it’s really ephemeral. There is some sort of alchemy that exists for any of the shows on my list of favorites. I can easily explain why I don’t love a show, whether it’s a problem of character, theme or just personal preference. But it’s much harder to say why I love a show.
I just do.
My break up with Last Exile
When I decided I needed to add a show to my list of favorites, I figured I needed to be honest about whether all of them really deserved to be on the list.
Here’s a basic synopsis for those who don’t know about the show. I’m going to give a brief description. Prester has two countries, Disith and Anatoray. They have been locked in a permanent war. But the true power in the world is the Guild, which controls the terms of warfare and the engines that keep the airships aloft.
Last Exile tells the story of two couriers who fly a vanship, which is basically a biplane without wings that runs off some sort of anti-gravity rock. They end up falling in with the one airship that isn’t controlled by the Guild — the Silvania, which is captained by Alex Rowe.
Here’s the thing, I still love sections of Last Exile. All of those things I said at the beginning of this post are true. I get chills whenever I hear, “Disith bullets will avoid Mullin Shetland’s body.” I’m still awed when Claus and Lavie emerge from the clouds and see the Anatoray ships or the first encounter with the Silvania. I still want to see Delphine meet her final punishment, and I am devastated at Dio’s soul being crushed.
The first and third acts of Last Exile are pure pulpy greatness. They are filled with airship battles and Claus and Lavie racing through the skies. They are compelling and beautiful.
It’s even thought-provoking in its own way. The world is built like an hourglass. To do battle, the Disith descend to Anatoray, so their ships have guns on the bottom, while the Anatoray ships have guns on the top. The design of the world and the hints of the weather machine give me some things to think about. But it is a little thin.
But I can’t overlook what has become the growing elephant in the room with Last Exile.
I don’t like the middle of the show.
An event happens at Episode 13 that ends up dragging what had been a spirited epic tale into the mud of soap opera shenanigans. Tatiana is in love with Claus, and Lavie misunderstands when she sees Claus’ overalls. In one of the worst moments in the show, Sophie, the Silvania’s XO, who is in love with Capt. Rowe, kisses Claus because he’s a sweet boy. None of it is horrible, but it’s confusing and just feels like the show is conjuring up drama for drama’s sake.
Finally, somewhere around episode 20, the show turns a corner and picks up to its final heroic conclusion.
In recent years, I’m not usually able to muddle my way through those middle episodes and even when I have been able to, they leave a bad taste in my mouth.
When I was 27, I could forgive those faults, but at 45, I’m simply not that forgiving, and I’ve begun to feel that Last Exile is on my list more because it always has been, rather than because I love it.
So, I’m moving it into an honorable mentions section for now. There may come a day when my love for it is rekindled, but for right now, I’ll just hold on to my happy memories.
Next week, I’ll talk about my new addition to my list of favorite shows of all time and what prompted all of this soul searching.
But for now, thanks for reading.