To end my short break and string of initial impressions, I present to you my thoughts on Last Exile, an anime from 2003 with steampunk themes and a thrilling, though short, adventure story. I have always been enthralled with the idea of steampunk, as vague as my early picture of what the term represents. My first memories of this genre include early readings of Jules Verne back in my middle school days, specifically 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, as well as Disney’s 2001 film, Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Later on in my undergrad years, I found Miyazaki’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky and Howl’s Moving Castle. These all share a common vein of steam-powered machines, be they oriented for the sea or the sky. It wasn’t until I went to a pop-culture seminar in 2010 that I heard the term, “steampunk.” Late to the punch, huh? I became fascinated with the whole concept of it all, so of course jumped at the chance to watch Last Exile, which I heard included plenty of steam-powered goodness. What follows is a discussion of how Last Exile fulfills many of steampunk’s criteria, as well as my final impressions of the anime as a whole and my excitement for the newly announced anime, Last Exile: Ginyoku no Fam.
Steampunk imagines a future with machines still powered either solely, or mostly, by steam, instead of our current modes of power. Though, it visions much more advanced forms of the steam engine. Some of the greatest representations of this include steamboats, submarines, and airships. This is a very obvious connection and one of the easiest ways to tell if a work of art is influenced by steampunk. The genre is also interesting in that it often also incorporates fantastical elements, such as alchemy, while completely ignoring the feasibility of using materials like plastic instead of metal.
Last Exile‘s two main characters, Claus and Lavie, aspire to be trusted with the high responsibility of delivering messages between parties; this task is especially treacherous given the nature of the delivery. The mode of transportation is by vanship, air vessels that fly through the sky like planes, but that look more like metal boats flying through the sky. The anime takes inspiration from the 1920s German monoplane, Junkers A 35, which was also used for “…postal, training, and military purposes” (Wiki).
Some other notable constructions include the battleships, the Silvana being our main focus throughout the series. The battleships are tremendous in size, and can house entire crews of members, along with battle stations, docking bays, several vanships, living quarters, and dining areas. They are the main modes of war between nations in the world of Prester, though Silvana itself is more of a privateer, licensed by the kingdom of Anatoray.
One of the main markers for steampunk is its set era, which typically opens into a world heavily influenced by the Victorian Era, though sometimes goes as far back as the Edwardian Era or the dawn of the Industrial Age. However, instead of the tale being simply a story of the past, steampunk takes that era and transplants it into the near-present or future. What would life be like if we had continued to further our studies of steam? What would our world look like if the trends of Victorian England held sway? Last Exile fits right into the appropriate period, as its characters dress the part, be they commoners, soldiers, or nobility.
Claus Valca and Lavie Head are the owners of the vanship inherited after the deaths of their fathers, who too were partners as vanship pilot and navigator. In order to keep the vanship and their dream to navigate the Grand Stream alive–an area of air space between Disith and Anatoray that is extremely difficult to fly due to the high winds and low visibility–they sell their home and train together. Because of this, they live modestly and can only wish to drink First Water, the cleanest form of water.
Mullin Shetland represents the typical soldier of war, one who does not enjoy what he does, but is still proud of his part. He dresses for each battle immaculately and cares for his rifle equally well. The form of battle he must execute imitates code of conduct practiced during chivalric European battles, the idiotic taking of turns at shooting down entire rows of perfectly lined-up men.
Nobility takes form in Sophia Forrester, although we are not aware of it until later on in the anime. She originally stands in as the Vice Captain to the Silvana, and her deeper feelings for its Captain, Alex Rowe, are very apparent all the way through. It is then revealed that she is the princess of Anatoray, who was sent to keep an eye on Alex’s movements. She, too, takes great pride in maintaining her professional appearance, taking care to keep her long hair tied up and back away from her face. Once it comes time for her to leave the Silvana and take up the leadership role of her country, she carries with her her noble presence and authority.
In steampunk, the world also usually teeters right on the edge of a utopia, in direct contrast to the concept of “cyberpunk,” which visualizes a dystopian future. We easily see this in the warring between Anatoray and Disith, which could have at once been diffused if only Claus and Lavie’s fathers, Hamilcar Valca and Georges Head, could have delivered their message of peace. The one-time attempt promises the possibility for the attempt to happen again in the future, this time in the hands of their children who share their passion of flight.
Anatoray is the main country from the start, as most of our characters are Anatoray-born. Despite this, we see in several scenes the possible corruption of its leader, as well as in its generals and soldiers. By no means is the country the ideal, or in the “right.” While Disith stands in as the main enemy, we again are forced to re-think our assumptions after meeting Disith soldier, Dunya Scheer. The female soldier is young and highly sympathetic, as her actions show her feelings for her country and its people. They are not the faceless enemy, but people very much like the citizens of Anatoray, or like us, the viewers.
The Guild comes across as the big evil, the one that unites Anatoray and Disith in a war against the Guild and its leader, Maestro Delphine Eraclea. It is this union between the two previous warring states against the Guild that sets up the stage for an upcoming utopia. The very name of the anime, “The Last Exile,” includes the name of the greatest piece in this fight: the great warship, Exile. At times considered myth, the Exile has the potential to do the worst or the best, depending on who is able to control it. This is obviously where Claus and Lavie come in, the two current guardians of the mysterious girl, Alvis E. Hamilton, a girl greatly desired by all those who wish to use the Exile. As the “key” to the highly-advanced battleship, she is the crux of conflict.
“Nostalgia and the longing for a simpler age are central players in the production and appeal of Steampunk.” (Sakamoto 126)
Sakamoto’s above observation rings very true for steampunk works. It’s hard to describe without actually feeling it yourself, but there is a certain fondness for the bygone era, one tinged with Romanticism and the wonder of budding technological possibilities. Is it the shiny brass clockwork and moving gears? The steamy pilot goggles? The clothing, ranging from extravagant dresses to boyish suspenders and trousers? Nostalgia and hope simply infuse themselves in everything steampunk, both seen in large amounts in Last Exile.
Claus and Lavie become Prester’s instruments and salvation, with their innocent view of what the world should be and their desire to fly not for battle, but as couriers. Alvis and the Exile likewise represent a future both terrifying and exciting.
Overall Impression: 9/10 (Great)
Last Exile definitely surprised me. I was already a fan of steampunk, so seeing it in anime-form thrilled me. I also love adventure anime, so the premise behind the show also caught me. While the concepts of the story itself are nothing new or innovative, they are executed extremely well and with high respect for the world and its characters. And I would expect nothing less, since this show came about as celebration for producer Gonzo’s 10th Anniversary. Any anime made as commemoration for such an achievement should of course be, at the least, decent. Thankfully, Last Exile takes it several steps higher, creating a wonderful adventure story and a tangible world with relatable characters who act like they should in given situations. Lavie annoyed me for a good portion of the show, but again, I understood why she felt and acted the way she did.
However, Last Exile is not without its flaws. Those more impatient with slower-paced shows should be aware that this anime does start off at a relaxed pace, and has lulls here and there. This doesn’t bother me much, since I enjoy the lack of action in exchange for character and setting development. I also felt the title a bit misleading; though it does represent the “crux” of the anime’s entire world, yes, it does not come about until very near the ending. Very little is explained about Alvis, and why in particular she is the key to this mythical battleship. Where does she come from? Why can she control the ship? What happens to here afterward? These questions still bother me, but don’t significantly detract from my overall liking of Last Exile. I would love to see more anime like this, ones that veer away from the typical fantasy, school, and harem plots and settings.
This is also why I’m so excited about the newly promised anime, Last Exile: Ginyoku no Fam. While the two anime share titles, the producers have clearly stated that the world and its characters will be completely new. What brief synopsis I’ve bothered to look for states that the anime is “A new series of Last Exile set in a different world with different characters and story than the original. Starring a young girl named Fam, this series follows her throughout the sky.” Vague, yes? Vague, but oh, so, exhilarating.
- Dru Pagliassotti’s blog entry, “Steampunkology: The Transcendent Steam Engine.”
- Michaela Sakamoto’s 2009 essay, “The Transcendent Steam Engine: Industry, Nostalgia, and the Romance of Steampunk.”
- Authors Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Mary Shelley
Other Steampunk-influenced anime (only naming those that I have seen):
- Studio Ghibli’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
- Fullmetal Alchemist/Brotherhood
- Samurai 7
- Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water
- Kino no Tabi (specific episodes)