Last Exile is notable for being steampunk anime. Better yet, the story is centered around airships, so most of the series takes place in the sky. That was very neat and different for me. The cool part was that the airships were sort of a meld between spaceships and regular ships. Giant warships could float in the sky and deploy hordes of Vanships just like the Galactica deploying Vipers. But the battles are just like sea battles, with two ships coming close to each other and then blasting from short range. On top of that, you have awesome dogfights. Although the series is hand-drawn, the airships are computer-generated, so they look really cool and move very fluidly.
Why is there all this fighting? Well, there's a war going on between the countries of Anatoray and Disith. Our heroes, two couriers named Claus and Lavie, get caught up in this war when they take on a dying man's mission: deliver some precious cargo to the legendary warship Silvana. This precious cargo happens to be an adorable girl named Alvis. They run into some opposition from the Guild and their awesome starfish ships that can slap you around and call you Susan. Who are the Guild? Well, they're the arbiters in this war, and no one really likes them.
I've already told you too much! I knew next to nothing going in, which I think is the optimal way to watch this series. It reminded me of Neon Genesis Evangelion in the way the worldbuilding was the story. We spent most of the early episodes incredibly confused because no one would bother telling us A) what was going on and B) what had went on. The nature of the world and the characters' pasts slowly unfolds, as do the main objective, Alvis's importance, and what the hell Exile is. It's such that when you finish the series and read the Wikipedia summary, you find yourself nodding along because it makes sense even though most of it was never stated outright, only implied.
There are a lot of characters. Because this is an anime, Claus and Lavie are teenagers, but the rest of the cast (save Alvis) are largely adult. The relationship between Claus, pilot, and Lavie, navigator, is a major focus of the series, although it sort of gets dropped in the last half as the show becomes increasingly Claus-centric. I believe a full third of the dialogue in Last Exile is his goddamn name. "Claus." "Claus?" "Claus..." (Another third is "Roger that!") I did find it interesting to see Claus and Lavie, childhood friends, struggle as they both reexamined their places in an ever-changing world (an anime about coming-of-age, no WAY), but one of my problems with the series in general was its constantly shifting focus. It was hard to find the throughline, even though the plot remained fairly coherent. One thing that never changes is Claus and Lavie's fierce protectiveness of Alvis. Al is truly adorable and carries around an awesome stuffed goat that bleats at inappropriate times. She's on the safest ship in the world, the Silvana. The crew of the Silvana are a diverse lot: Alex, tortured captain (essentially Spike Spiegel with a warship); Sophia, XO, who becomes progressively cooler (...Tigh? although she's more like Adama); Tatiana, angry hotshot pilot (Starbuck); Alister,
The problem with all these characters is that I didn't really care about them deeply, even though I liked them well enough superficially. My feelings are pretty well expressed in this blog post. The show seems so intent on not telling the audience things that it's hard to be really engaged in the story and invested in the characters' fates. The characterizations were often puzzling, on top of that; it wasn't quite clear WHERE this angst was coming from.
We had to keep watching, though, because Last Exile is not so much a television series as a 26-episode miniseries. Pretty much every episode starts right where the last left off, which means most episodes just stop on a cliffhanger. This gives the narrative a good drive since so much is happening all the time, even if you don't know what the hell is going on. Each episode's title is based on a chess move, and this manifests in the structure of the series: each episode builds on the next to culminate in the finale. There are no "stand-alone" episodes: everything moves the story forward to its ultimate conclusion. A conclusion that will certainly leave you scratching your head as so many anime endings do. As I said above: when you have it explained, you can see it, but it's a little difficult to get everything without doing your own thinking.
Holy crap, I haven't even mentioned the Grand Stream! Which is this killer air current up in the sky that's likely to obliterate your ship if you try to fly through it. And it's important. Because it's grand. Complex series, like I said.
I did have my issues with Last Exile, and I was sad not to love it as much as I imagine allsunday wanted me to, but I did like it. The worldbuilding (once I fully understood it) was interesting, which I think is one of the strengths of anime in general. The airship battles were hella cool, and I want my own Vanship. The story was intriguing, if confusing. The characters were likable, if not fully developed. If you're interested, you can totally watch the show online. Sometimes you don't know you've been craving steampunk anime until you're offered it, after all.