Last Exile is a big classic adventure anime featuring a heavy steampunk aesthetic and dodgy early 00’s Gonzo CGI. It tells the story of Klaus and Lavie, two pilots of little messenger aircraft-type things called Vanships. They take over a mission to deliver a little girl called Alvis to a renegade sky ship called the Silvana. The story has a very natural progression in the classic adventure story fashion, to the point that you can practically plot its path exactly the same as the Lord of the Rings. First two episodes give you a broader understanding of the world and the scale the battles can be. Then we cut to the sleepy little town where the main characters are given a Powerful Artefact which they have to deliver to a council of colourful characters while being chased by what might as well be Black Riders. The scale keeps getting bigger and bigger as the story goes on until everyone is involved in this big battle for the entire planet. Also one of the characters they meet turns out to be the Future Queen.
The characters all have their own dreams and fears. They all go through their own fully functioning character arcs with a beginning, middle and end for each of them. For example, Lavie is an orphan girl living in poverty with a desire to fly through the Grand Stream in her father’s vanship, but when the going gets tough and she realises there’s things she doesn’t want to do to achieve this goal, she finds her own way. Through a little soul-searching she finds her own place amongst the engineering team. Mullen meanwhile is a lowly musketeer desperate to get away from his dangerous and pointless job. After he goes through his stint on the Silvana he finds what it is he wants to do and how he can help the people around him.
I’ve picked out Lavie and Mullen in particular because they are two of the best characters and offer clear examples of this narrative arc, but even very minor characters going through this arc. When Klaus and Lavie meet their rival vanship pilots from their home town some 20 episodes after being originally introduced, they have been recruited as part of the war effort and all look like it was decisions they made on their own. Their town had been destroyed and they felt this was how they could help. Or the noble’s wishy washy daughter who we don’t see for like 24 episodes after her original introduction until right near the end where we see her working as a nurse in an army hospital, professing how she had found how she can help. Each character goes through a finding their part in the world and fulfilling their potential.
What’s great is each character’s arc and story is integrated perfectly. The best example of this is during episodes around 10 and 11 where the crew on the Silvana all get together for an endurance race that’s actually a front for an underground auction to steal some relic. Through this race format we see what each character is thinking and where they are in their respective arcs. Lavie is trying to redeem herself after blacking out during the flight earlier as she interacts with the engineering crew who are teasing the newbie Mullen who is finding his feet after deciding he wants to stop being a musketeer and wants freedom, who in turn is trying to be useful to Tatiana, the uptight lady pilot, who is busy getting annoyed by everyone around her being tardy while the little girl Alvis is helping the engineering crew and coming out of her shell. It’s seamlessly worked together and fits with the adventurous tone.
The characters are generally pretty great with the unfortunate exception of the main character. Klaus is Blandy McNoPersonality for the vast majority of the show. For the first half he just wanders blindly forward into everything and you don’t get the feeling he made these decisions with any goal in mind. Thankfully in the second half of the show he improves and gets some motivation of his own. Last Exile seems to realise that Klaus isn’t the most interesting character anyway and likes to let other characters do most of the talking. The engineering crew in particular are an eternal source of entertainment because there’s a great jokey camaraderie between them. It’s exactly like you would imagine an engineering crew to act, between all the light ribbing and bullying the new kid and showing off to girls and then all snapping to attention and looking a little embarrassed when one of their superiors walks in on them.
I particularly liked the one bald gay guy on the crew with his fashionable black turtle-neck. I liked him because his gay-ness was never a joke, nor was it ever explicitly drawn attention to, nor did he ever act camp or any of the usual stereotypes you see with gay dudes in anime. It was just part of him. The other engineering crew members made fun of him for liking one of the other guys, but it was part of their usual banter and was definitely nowhere near the jostling they gave the new kid Mullen for fancying their captain Tatiana. The show did have another character in Dio who did some of the things you might associate with vaguely offensive depictions of gay dudes in anime, but they were just presented as being creepy because he was invading personal space, not because it was gay.
This being my second time watching Last Exile and knowing the giant reveal about the nature of the world they live in, I was able to follow the politics and over-arching story way better this time around. I’m a little amazed at how much thought went into this world they created. Most of the world building is completely in the background which nobody ever stands back and explains it all to you. What’s great is you don’t have to be able to follow how the world operates to enjoy the character stories. This means you neither get bored by lengthy monologues explaining how the world works before you can even start understanding the story, nor do you feel confused and frustrated by how little a grasp you have on events. It took me until right towards the end of the show before I realised the reason the Guild controlled the skies in that world is because they provide the engine cores to each nation for their giant sky-ships. This is central to the entire conflict in Last Exile, yet I was never particularly bothered that I never quite understood this. Admittedly that might say more about me than Last Exile, so if you’re really anal about details perhaps this will annoy you.
All this gushing aside from one second, because I have to mention this one episode that almost single handedly undermines the entire fucking show. Klaus has basically no personality but everyone around him seems to think he’s amazing. He gets marooned with the tough captain Tatiana and when they finally get back to the Silvana it is heavily implied that she now has the hots for Klaus. This makes Lavie mad because she has the hots for Klaus. Then Klaus meets with the vice-captain who is about to leave the ship, who then gives Klaus a passionate kiss. Klaus is about 14-15 years old. He’s got Lavie in love with him, who is about the same age. He’s got Tatiana, who is a recent college graduate so early 20’s. He’s now got the vice captain, who judging by the age of her dad is in her early 30’s. Throw in Dio, a 15 year old albino dude, and the gay engineer, who is also implied to have a thing for him, and Klaus suddenly has the biggest harem seemingly out of nowhere without doing anything. What’s worse is it makes all these otherwise independent and incredibly well-rounded female characters act incredibly stupid because they’ve all fallen for this fucking teenager. And then in the next episode they forget about all of that and it never becomes relevant again and you wonder what the hell the point in it all was. Incredibly stupid episode. Also while I’m bitching, the final villain Maestro Delphine is too overdone to the point that I just rolled my eyes whenever she started talking.
Those problems aside, Last Exile is one of the best and most complete adventure anime around. It’s paced perfectly, scaling with each episode and getting gradually more interesting and complex while never losing sight of its core cast of characters. They’re all developed really well and go through interesting arcs with beginnings, middles and ends which mirror the events going on in the world around them. It has a genuinely thrilling ending with a final reveal that is still one of the best in anime. Even its dodgy CGI vanships and sky battles hold up surprisingly well and work within the design of the rest of the show. I didn’t expect Last Exile to hold up because my memory of it faded to the point that I couldn’t remember specific moments from the show that stood out. But it totally did hold up. It turns out that what it does well is just being consistently good in every single area.