There is in Japanese media a distinct trend to syncretize things that, in the West, are often kept in different buckets to keep them from spoiling each other, or so we tell ourselves. We like to keep the fantasy here, and the science fiction here, and the alternate history here, and if they all slop over into each other we need to give that a specific label to avoid confusing the poor suckers who might try to gulp down the resulting concoction. Japan, on the other hand, chugs that stuff down and asks the bartender to hit 'em again. I respect that audacity, even when I know full well sometimes the end product makes me tipsier than I'd like to be.
Last Exile: Fam The Silver Wing made me tipsy, but not in a way I would regret the morning after. Any mix of Range Murata design work, airborne steampunk hardware, Final Fantasy-esque worldbuilding, and Chosen One mysticism is likely to induce giddiness by sheer dint of its scope and scenery. The good news is Fam also remembers to include a story, a cast of characters, a plot worth caring about, and even some musings about the themes it brings up, and so the results are more than just a sales pitch for the artbook and the other tie-in merchandise.
Let me admit upfront to not having seen the original Last Exile, something that might work as much for me as against me. On the one hand, I'm at a disadvantage as far as knowing how redundant or recycled — or at odds — Fam is compared to its predecessor. On the other hand, that made it all the easier to see this series for what it actually was, and not what I wanted it to be. Fam explains enough to be coherent to the newcomer without being clunky; to the degree that it ties back into its predecessor series, Fam isn't at that show's mercy.
Piracy on the high skies
Anime and exotic settings; peanut butter and chocolate. Fam is set in a world where various nations clash over what little land and natural resources there are, and do so with the aid of giant sky-sailing ships that come off like crosses between zeppelins and the USS Nimitz. There are pirates of the sky as well, and given the romanticism of the setting it only makes sense that a batch of said pirates figure in as our main characters.
Among the sky pirates is the sprightly Fam of the title — full name "Fam Fan-Fan", which gets easy laughs every time it's trotted out. Fam and her more demure-spirited companion Giselle hijack ships for a living, ensnaring them in a web of lanyards. They have no allegiances to any particular nation or army, but they have a code of sorts, and that code includes helping others in distress. When they discover the Federation of Ades is planning a surprise attack on two princesses of the Kingdom of Turan, Fam and the others drop in on the war party, uninvited. The princesses — the elder Liliana and the younger Milia — are taken aback by these ruffians offering them safety in exchange for their ship, but if there's anyone capable of faking out a Federation battle fleet, it's sky pirates.
The ruse works, and soon the two princesses realize forging an alliance with the pirates isn't the worst plan they could have come up with. But the Federation commander, the icy, one-eyed Hāfez, retaliates and kidnaps Liliana. Her strategic value is far greater than that of just being a scion: she has control over the "Exiles", the huge, crescent-shaped craft hanging in orbit. An army that commands such a thing would be invulnerable, and Hāfez wants to be leader of just such an army, the better to bring peace — his peace, that is. Milia is horrified at what her sister has been ensnared into, but can't bring herself to kill her own sister and thus spare both of them a ghastly war.
That incident that sets up a recurring theme throughout the show, the notion of power awarding itself to those who can get their hands dirty without flinching. But it also ties into another theme, that of doing the best you can with what you have. With Liliana under Hāfez's thumb and Milia effectively stateless, she takes a cue from Fam's improvisatory playbook and sets up her own little empire in exile. And with that, Fam, Milia, and Giselle (along with a diverse supporting cast) embark on a slew of adventures that — I imagine not coincidentally — lead them into encounters with either the leaders of, or representative members of, all the other major forces struggling for power.
Naïve optimism and cynical power
A story this dense with incident benefits well from having this kind of world-tour approach. Not just because it gives the designers an opportunity to show off a whole world's complement of clothing and machinery, but because it allows the main characters to play off all of the forces arrayed against each other in this world, and show them in action instead of just talking about them. Fam has a startling amount of plot and backstory — it's hard for it not to have a ton of backstory when it's a sequel show — and so it helps that the majority of it happens in front of us instead of being reported about from offscreen somewhere.
An example. Early on, Fam, Milia, and Giselle attempt to hijack the infamous "ghost battleship" Silvius. Instead, they end up being taken captive there, but Fam works out a deal with Captain Tatiana to capture fifteen Federation battleships, in exchange for giving Milia a place from which she can set up her empire-in-exile, and maybe stitch together a coalition to take on the Federation. As cutesy as this concept is — Milia's base of operations is the ship's galley — it becomes a vehicle for demonstrating one of Fam's most powerful qualities, one common to many other wide-eyed anime protagonists: the ability to make friends and allies out of total strangers and even enemies. By the time Fam has finished harvesting battleships for Tatiana — one for each of her birthdays, with a bonus ship thrown in when she turns sixteen — the crew has gone from holding her at gunpoint to having impromptu hockey games with her on the deck. Even a small cadre of the normally standoffish, isolationist Glacians (who speak Russian, in both the English and Japanese dubs for the show) grow that much closer to Fam and her friends, which makes it possible to count them as allies-of-a-sort.
Fam's naïve optimism — at one point she actually implores others, "Why can't we all just get along?" — is echoed in another character, one who sits in a diametrically opposed position of power and authority, the Empress Sara of Ades. Even younger than Fam, she believes in and hopes for the best, much as her saintly mother did, but it is the man behind the throne, Hāfez, who wields the real power. The show is wise enough to point out that Hāfez is not a bad person because he wields power; it's not that Fam and her friends are inherently better because they're scrappy rebels, etc. Rather, it's that he uses power ignobly and selfishly — to bring about a "peace" which is merely a pax Hāfezica, and also a way to exact revenge for the death of the previous empress.
The show's power game is complicated even further when Liliana, after her kidnapping, decides it might be in her nation's best interest to ally with Hāfez (the fact that Liliana and Hāfez were close in childhood doesn't help either) and to ultimately annex her own country. This portion of the story, and all that branches out from it, is the dark side to the light represented by Fam and her friends: for all the good intentions that Liliana and even Hāfez have — and Fam, and Sara, and most anyone else in this story — it matters little when the end result is merely the exercise of power for the sake of keeping it. Even Fam realizes, in time, that she was hidebound that much more by their naivete. The adults around her have the experience — and perhaps also the cynicism — to understand that not everyone can get along, that any situation involving more than one person has some inherent political dimension, and that violence may be inevitable. By the end of the show, she also knows this in her bones — but she's also all the more certain because of that, not in spite of it, that it isn't naïve to seek a better future where everyone can enjoy a race in the sky.
Mysticism and personality
One element of Fam that stuck in my craw as soon as it was introduced was a mystical dimension to the goings-on, and perhaps I ought not to have flinched at since the show is such a rollicking genre gumbo in the first place. The eldest in Liliana's bloodline has the power to control the Exiles, quasi-psionically; this explains a big part of Hāfez's interest in Liliana — and, later, her younger sister, after some smartly deployed plot elements I won't ruin here. I cringed when this first came in, if only because the presence of such doubly fantastic things in a story already populated with the fantastic is almost never healthy. The same problem plagued another show, Shangri-la (which, coincidentally, also featured Range Murata's design work), although that show managed to work anyway by dint of sheer brazen-faced brio.
My main gripe with such elements is how they're too easily abused as Get Out Of Plot Jail Free cards. It's not what they are that's the problem, it's what the story does with them that's the problem. When a story can't pull itself up by its own bootstraps and instead waves a wand to fix things, that sends a message to the audience that it doesn't really care about what's going on. A story where anything is possible quickly becomes a story where nothing is worth caring about. Fortunately, Fam doesn't fall into this trap: it sets up its rules about the bloodline and the Exiles, and then has the good sense to follow those rules as they serve the story. Unfortunately, at its climax, the show falls into another, possibly even more egregious trap — that of having a main adversary simply having a change of heart by being talked out of something they have been clearly set up to do no matter what. I guess this was set up as the culmination of Fam's skills as an impassioned advocate for unity and harmony, since she has more than a few such speeches in that vein, but I couldn't hear her lines over the sounds of the plot's cogs grinding against each other.
Those issues are nowhere nearly enough to sink the show, though, in part because it has so much else to offer. I mentioned the design work and the visual worldbuilding, but I should also mention the elaborately choreographed aerial action sequences, which are second only to something like The Sky Crawlers or the underappreciated The Princess and the Pilot (which, now that I think about it, bears more than a passing aesthetic resemblance to this show). There's also what amounts to some clever visual-pun world-building: the first time an uninitiated audience see the Exiles, we assume they're actual crescent moons, and that the fact there are a bunch of them implies that this isn't Earth. We are wrong on both counts. Even the fanservice has a quaintly charming, period-appropriate flavor to it: when the girls hop into a hot-spring bath, they're clad in bloomers and camisoles.
I noted earlier that Fam is one of a number of shows released lately (Eureka Seven AO also comes to mind) that work both as successors to existing shows and as standalone projects. I liked Fam slightly better than AO because while it does make an attempt to connect its story back to the original Last Exile, it does so via a supporting character rather than a central one. Here, that character is Dio, the puckish, devil-may-care, sometime-member of Fam's group whose flip manners conceal — what else? — a fairly bleak past, which he does his best to not let dictate his present or future. And in true best-supporting-character style, he shamelessly steals most every scene he appears in without even trying. It's not hard to see why he ended up being the bridge between both shows: a whole show could have been made about him alone.
It's character which ultimately binds any show together and gives it its biggest and most appealing reasons to be. Imagine something like Steins;Gate without all the byplay and the horn-locking and the quirks; you'd have maybe one-fifth of the original at best. Fam's ornate designs, complex setting, and convoluted politics all give us a lot to watch for, but in the end it settles for being a people story, which is harder than it looks.