Sora no Woto

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“Amazing Grace! (how sweet the sound),
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see…”

John Newton and William Cowper (Olney Hymns – 1779).

The problem with first impressions is that all too often they are wrong, and this is one of the main reasons why a number of great shows don’t get the recognition they deserve. Unfortunately, every season more anime are added to that list.

Sora no Woto (Sounds of the Skies), is one example of this mindset at work.

The series is the first production of a new initiative known as Anime no Chikara (The Power of Anime), which is essentially a collaboration between TV Tokyo’s anime department and Aniplex that was established in 2009 . Part of the mandate for this project is to create and produce original anime which are not based on any previously published material (so manga, novel and game adaptations are out of the window). One of the advantages of this is that the writers have far fewer restrictions placed on them from the outset, and it seems as though this freedom has been put to good use here.

The story is about a young girl, Sorami Kanata, who, having heard a trumpet rendition of “Amazing Grace” played by a mysterious female soldier, has resolved to become a bugler. She is assigned to the 1121st Platoon, who are stationed at the Time Keeping Bastion in the town of Seize, and is taken under the wing of Master Sergeant Rio Kazumiya.

Now, one would be forgiven for initially thinking that this series is nothing more than K-On! in the army, especially given that the character design is very similar between the two anime (I thought like that too, at first). However, the differences between the two shows are palpable from the very first moments of Sora no Woto. The plot, which is more on the episodic side for the most part, is far more reminiscent of Haibane Renmei, and although there are a few points that deserved more focus, the story is actually very well crafted. The pacing is extremely good throughout the series, and the seemingly slow progression promotes a feeling of relaxation rather than boredom in a manner very similar to Aria.

The one thing that really captures the viewer though, is the bittersweet yet hopeful undertone running through the series, and nowhere is this more prominent than in the characters. While each of them are somewhat stereotypical, the show develops in such a way that the story becomes inclusive of them, rather than having one true lead while the other “leads” are nothing more than glorified support. The upshot of this is that, come the end of the series, the viewer is left with a sense of catharsis that very few shows manage to achieve, especially ones that, at first glance, fit the “moe” archetype.

One of the supposed problems with Sora no Woto is the fact that the characters are designed with moe in mind, however the show is surprising in that, while the characters are reminiscent of certain other shows, this is where much of the similarity ends. In all honesty I found the character design somewhat off-putting at first, however this perception was dispelled very quickly as, although the characters are very clearly “moe” in their design, the fact is that this allows for a great deal of expression as well – something that is put to good use throughout the series. What is most surprising though, is the distinct lack of visual hooks associated with this sort of character design, in particular things like fan service. Instead, the series uses the characters in a manner that is far removed from the norm, and the effect of this is that, come the end of the series, one really begins to wonder why everyone made such a fuss over K-On!

Animation-wise, the series is very good, especially with character and vehicle movements. There is a fluid, almost naturalistic, flow to the animation which is present even during the scenes in which very little happens. The biggest pluses though, are the backgrounds and settings. Unlike most “moe” anime, the attention to detail in this area is truly good, with much of the scenery being evocative of old European towns, villages and countryside. As well as the visual style of the settings, the show also includes a number of European references (Helvetia is Switzerland for example, the Romans speak German, etc), all of which add to the series, and allow the viewer to become more absorbed in the show.

The acting is pretty good throughout the anime, and many of seiyuu really show their talent with their respective characters. Granted there are a few moments where Sora no Woto slips into “moe speaking mode”, however these become fewer as the series progresses. The real star of the show though, is the music, in particular the lone trumpet playing “Amazing Grace”.

Now, one thing that should be clarified here is just how important that one hymn is to this show. Hearing it is what spurs Kanata into becoming a bugler, but it’s also something that links a number of disparate threads throughout the series. The hymn is about salvation and redemption, and ultimately that’s what this series is all about. To be honest though, whenever I heard it, all of that didn’t matter. The image of the lone bugler playing that song is one of the most evocative to appear in anime for a long, long time, and is made more powerful because this show is effectively about the effects of war, not just on the common people or the military support staff, but also on those who fight.

In effect, this is what makes the characters in Sora no Woto so very different to what one would expect. While there is a degree of stereotype to them, the show is careful not to let these personality traits take over, and as the series progresses the characters are allowed to not simply grow, but to evolve, something which although limited at times, is laudable as this type of development is rare in anime.

Sora no Woto is, by any measure, as much a character piece as Haibane Renmei, Kino no Tabi, or any other show of that ilk. While those other shows may have far more character development, this series is no slouch, indeed some of the characterisations are extremely powerful, especially Illya Arkadia, a character who doesn’t appear too often and has very few lines, but whose presence is almost tangible throughout the show.

It should be clear by now that I enjoyed this series immensely, something which I still find somewhat surprising given that I initially avoided it because I expected something extremely “light and fluffy” like K-On! To say that Sora no Woto has far more substance than the series it looks like is an understatement, and while the difference may not sit well with die hard K-On! fans, it should be noted that the aim of this show isn’t simply to entertain, but to tell a story. The subject matter is open to interpretation, but the inclusion of possibly the most recognisable hymn in the world speaks volumes about how the series should be perceived.

That said, Sora no Woto does have some “light and fluffy” elements to it, but ultimately it’s a tale of salvation, redemption and hope, and it’s because of this that the series stands apart from many of it’s visual counterparts.

Sometimes the resemblance is only skin deep.

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