What a stunning series from start to finish.
Seriously, that's all I can really put into words as to how incredible this series was. I remember seeing Last Exile on DVD once here when I was a bit younger, and I didn't buy it because it didn't seem like my kind of thing. Oh, how I wished I'd watched it a little bit earlier.
Last Exile tells the story of Claus Valca and Lavie Head, two orphaned van-ship pilots who work as couriers, competing in races whenever they're not delivering cargo. Their country, Anatoray, is at war with the country of Disith, while the floating arbitrator between the nations, the Guild, floats malevolently above in the skies. Claus and Lavie's lives change, however, when they are assigned to deliver a little girl named Alvis to a mysterious ship called the Silvana, captained by the enigmatic yet peremptory Alex Rowe (who is voiced by Crispin Freeman, my favourite English dub voice actor). They remain aboard just in case, taking on flying missions and just helping out around the ship, all while the battles outside intensify and the Guild reveal their true motives...
The first thing I love about this series is the art and design. The battleships are so realistically-drawn, animated, CG'ed, etcetera... that it made me notice something about myself that I'd never really paid much attention to; I absolutely love old-style planes. Enough about that, though - the animation in this series is so good that I often felt like I was watching a cut-scene in an extremely-engaging video-game.
It has been criticised for looking too murky, too dull, too brown, and too gray, and I agree with that to some extent, but I barely noticed it and it's nothing that severely impacts on the quality of the series. The character designs, all done by Range Murata, eschew the typical big Bambi eyes and bright design pallette of your typical anime, and have this lovely realism to them - even Dio and Delphine, two strange white-haired elf-like beings who command the Guild and seem to have a passion for intricate make-up. I never really noticed any weaknesses in animation, and I loved watching every single combat scene. It's such a shame that the animation studio, Gonzo, have come from this spectacular height and now tend to work on anime that aren't as good as this, which is pretty sad (notable exceptions being She: The Ultimate Weapon, and Full Metal Panic!). However, since there is a sequel to this series coming out some time this year, I suppose this could elevate their reputation.
The second thing I have been enjoying while watching this beautiful story play out, is just how good the music is, as well as the English dub. The music is absolutely beautiful, and it serves all the scenes it is in very well. Dolce Triade (and Yoko Kanno, I believe), have made a rich feast for the ears, using Celtic-inspired melodies (yes, I love this kind of music), electronic-sounding tunes and deep orchestras. There were times when it was a wee bit out of place, but for the most part, I enjoyed the music and it's very sad that the soundtracks are out of print and somewhat expensive. (...Even though I did once spend £28 importing Alexander Rybak's debut album from some guy in Norway. Hehe.)
Voice-acting is just as important as music, and it was fantastic here. Almost everyone in the English dub (I preferred the dub so I watched that, but the Japanese dub wasn't too bad) fit their character. Almost. Dio, Delphiné, Claus, Alex, Sophia, Tatiana... everyone was perfect. Except for Lavie. She's very sweet, but I found her voice is awfully grating, this nasally whine that cracks all the time because it seems like 99% of the time, she's shouting. Kari Wahlgren, who voices her, is usually an extremely good actress, so this is just one black stain on her record for me. I think my favourite voice performances were Dio (pictured right - I swear, he is a boy), who sounded so creepy at first but had me in tears by series' end, and of course, Alex Rowe. Ooh, his voice is delicious to listen to in English. That's Crispin Freeman for you, folks - the man's range is great, from a mirthfully dark-humoured vampire (Alucard in Hellsing), to a short-tempered, violent strongman who actually hates violence (Shizuo in Durarara!!). I highly recommend the dub, out of personal preference, because it is just so good.
All in all, more people should be watching this series. I've been going through and filling in the gaps in my anime knowledge by watching pretty much anything and everything that has been critically acclaimed. Many believe there is an incredible dip in quality once Lavie decides she doesn't want to be a navigator anymore (around... episode 12/13 'til the very end), but I really didn't notice it, because I was too absorbed in the beautiful world they had managed to create in a mere 26 episodes, and I felt so close to the characters I didn't really care about any of their flaws. The ending made me cry, but explaining it will lead to tonnes upon tonnes of spoilers that I really don't want to reveal.
Go and watch this right now. That is all. 9/10