Firstly, before I begin, my impression of this series is mainly from 2003, when it was originally broadcasted. As such, I’ve sampled the first few episodes in an attempt to refresh my memory, but even so, my review will be less concise and detailed than it normally would be. Hopefully my lasting impression, spanning all these years, will encourage you to watch it.
Last Exile was quite unlike anything released during its year, let alone the season it broadcasted in. Prior to the first episode, I remember the fanfare that surrounded the trailer and the lengthly preview that was written in Animage exclaiming how Gonzo, the animation studio responsible, had outdone themselves in the production department. If the trailer was anything to go by, this was certainly true. After watching the opening episode, the hype wasn’t an overstatement. I was awe-inspired by the attention to detail and how seamlessly integrated the CGI was. I was taken back by the intensity and delivery of the battle that ensured, which was easily on par with many of the Hollywood action features I’ve seen. The character design is by Range (Renji) Murata, an artist that I’ve been following for a while, having purchased many of his individual art books (including ‘Like a Balance Life’ and ‘futurhythm’) and have seen his character work featured in the OVA series Blue Submarine No. 6 shortly beforehand. Taking into account its production date, Last Exile is still a marvel for even today’s standards. The palette is purposefully saturated, using soft grey and white tones. The production is a feat for Gonzo, a studio that has been, from my experience, temperamental at best. In recent years, the drop in animation from certain series by the studio (Speed Grapher and Dragonaut – The Resonance, for example) has made Last Exile all the more distinguishable.
Moving on to the setting, Last Exile is original due to its steampunk genre, which is rarely used in anime or manga. The series is based in a time of war where chivalry is often employed to conduct battle. However, the two opposing factions do not use horses and chariots, they use flying steam-based battleships instead, which are powered by “Claudia engines”. Furthermore, the smaller vessels, known as van-ships, are similar to the aircraft found in WW2 yet are wingless, achieving heights and maneuverability that is far beyond that of normal aircraft. These smaller van-ships are used freely across this world by rookie pilots, but are also employed in battle by trained soldiers of war. However, aside from these two opposing factions, there is one other known only as ‘the Guild’, a third and supposably neutral faction that possesses technology far superior from the other two. This third entity seemed almost misplaced at first (something out of sci-fi, not steampunk) and yet, conversely helped to distinguish the reality the characters were part of.
This will lead onto the two main characters, Claus and Lavie, who are childhood friends that fly together in their own van-ship (inherited from their fathers), with Claus as the pilot and Lavie as his navigator. Claus, from what I can remember, was mature, despite his modest years, but also impulsive in order to protect those he cared for. Conversely, Lavie is headstrong and somewhat brash, but underneath this facade she seemed more rational (archetypal qualities and/or traits for a male and female respectively, but it didn’t seem forced). Overall, both the main characters were likable, along with the remaining cast. I didn’t dislike or feel irked by any of the cast. Maybe Alex, the aloof and cold captain of the battleship Sylvana, he did annoy me at times, but I grew to like him as the series progressed. In essence, the cast were well developed and their relationships changed and altered naturally and believably as the events unfolded around them. There is subtle inclusions of romance, but not needlessly so. Each relationship had purpose.
It’s also worth mentioning the soundtrack and the voice actors (seiyuu) involved. The former was wonderfully produced by a group called Dolce Triade. The soundtrack was really good, so much so, that I decided to purchase the first OST (I don’t really buy many, be it anime or from elsewhere), but Last Exile had a really good orchestral score that could easily be appreciated on its own. The voice actors were reasonably competent, on the whole, but Claus could have been slightly more boyish (or even manlier) than he was. He seemed too feminine. On the other hand, whilst Dio was subjected to the same treatment, given his character design and personality, it was highly appropriate. I also liked the opening and ending songs, “Cloud Age Symphony” by Shuntaro Okino and “Over The Sky” by Hitomi, both repeatable after the first listen.
In conclusion, Last Exile is undoubtably one of my favourite series. The setting was engaging and developed, the characters likable and believable, and the production beautifully executed. This series can be appreciated and enjoyed by both the casual and seasoned viewer.