A beautiful experience! This is a perfect example of how a lightly dramatic slice of life anime should be. Beautiful, carefully crafted artwork, heartfelt characters and storyline, and to top it off, amazing audio work! I don’t know much about playing instruments of any kind, but I know I love the sound of trumpets when the setting is right for them. It’s quite beautiful, just like everything in this anime is beautiful.

As I write this in February 2021, this anime is even more poignant. Rio’s VA is Yuu Kobayashi. For those who don’t know why that’s important at this moment in anime history, she’s also the VA for the irreplaceable, and now unhappily departed, Sasha Blouse from Attack on Titan.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Characters

Rating: 9

Here’s the most interesting part about this set of characters to me. I’m glad this anime only lasted 13 episodes, because I don’t think I could have taken much more. The happy sadness these girls place on your heart is astounding. I don’t know how many more times I could have looked at Rio without my heart eventually stopping from love. Or even listened to her. Such a beautiful voice! Perhaps this was more heightened by the loss of Sasha in AoT and her connection to her through their mutual VA. But nonetheless, from voice to appearance to behavior to character development, Rio Kazumiya is one of those hidden and priceless gems that we happily find from time to time in our adventures in animedom. As great as all the characters are together in this show, she stands head and shoulders above the others to me. And to the others, who she is in fact head and shoulders taller than! Only Lt. Heideman is similar height among the girls at the fortress.

I love the depth of personality in Rio’s character. For a 13-episode anime, accomplishing this much development is quite something. She realizes the value of an outward appearance of strength, but as time passes we realize she’s let this bleed over into her inner self as well. It conflicts with the pain and uncertainty in her heart, and the fear the she wrestles with there. As I watched this show, and I was enjoying watching her as she interacted with the different personalities and situations she encounters, I found it all very engaging and heartfelt. But I was not prepared for the moment when she finally found her way and decided therefore to leave the fortress. I sat there in disbelief and sadness and asked myself “Why is she leaving??” Ultimately we found out why, and that made everything better, but it didn’t make her departure any less sad at the moment she left. I forget the exact trigger that gets her to this resolution. A more in-depth analysis might find that reason intriguing I’m sure. I was so overwhelmed with the fact that she was leaving I couldn’t even bother to think about all the underlying threads in her character that would lead to that.

One of the best parts of this show is the interaction and friendship between Rio and Kanata. Rio is reticent and somewhat severe outwardly, while Kanata is exuberant and happy, finding excitement in the most ordinary of things. Kanata is able to break through Rio’s shell, eventually getting Rio to teach her to play the trumpet. How could she not agree? Between Kanata’s innocent enthusiasm for the instrument and the terrible sound she initially makes with it, Rio had to capitulate! I think this shared point of interest for these two, trailing all the way back to their experiences with Princess Iliya, has a lot to do ultimately with Rio’s newfound resolve.

It’s easy to say their mutual love for the trumpet allows two such different people to become friends. But teachers don’t always become friends with their students, no matter how enthusiastic the student is. So there’s something more to their friendship than just that. One of the more interesting parts about this show, to me, is that the depths of the “why” in their friendship is so hard to discern. One time through watching this show isn’t enough to explain it. While the inexplicable can easily be a negative in anime, in this case I think it’s a huge positive. Perhaps it’s not inexplicable, just the reasons are difficult to find. But that’s often how friendship is, and certainly love. There isn’t usually a reason for it. I love that about these two. Watching them interact and converse when they’re alone together is a wholly unexpected pleasure in this show.

It’s obvious that Kanata has a catalytic role in this anime. Her arrival and single year spent at the fortress prompts all the events we witness. Again, a single time through this series doesn’t suffice for me to explain if there’s a reason she’s the force behind everything. Yeah she’s the MC and all that, and it’s an easy plot device. But I have a feeling there’s more to it than that. Kanata is so unlike the other characters, so innocent and good, that I wonder if this obvious contrast is intended to have an effect on the story and the other characters in a less-than-obvious way.

Not that the other characters are not innocent or good. It’s just that all their individual struggles have led them to a darker place in life. Felicia has learned to cope with it since she’s more mature, but she can’t unseat her past easily from her heart. Noel and Kureha are both still young, and therefore struggle mightily with their past troubling experiences. Rio herself has become very fatalistic. And while Kanata doesn’t necessarily help them remove these parts from themselves, she does enable them to face their fears and their injuries. They are able to live life more freely and happily, letting their pasts enhance their futures rather than detract from them. All of this is due to Kanata.

All the different personalities are very well handled. I already told of Kanata’s excitability and Rio’s moodiness. Noel is that fun kind of character that speaks in a muffled tone all the time, and you can tell she’s always thinking something peculiar about what she’s seeing! Kureha wants to live up to her expectations of what it means to be a soldier, whether that’s yelling and screaming as often as possible or ensuring that newbies (Kanata) know their place. Felicia de-emphasizes rank and importance, preferring everyone get along and work for good. It’s a lot of fun watching these personalities clash in the amiable but forceful way they do!

Above all, these characters live in a beautiful and harmonious existence. They’re in a good place at this point in their lives. As it is said, how beautiful it is when people live together in peace! This show, and these characters particularly, have a beauty about them that’s difficult to describe, but impossible to ignore.

Artwork

Rating: 10

I took one look at this artwork and thought Sword Art Online. When I finished the series and started my usual researching, I learned that this show was produced by A-1 Pictures, who of course also produced SAO. The giveaway is in the characters’ faces. Just like in SAO, the faces look very anime typical, but they also seem slightly different somehow. The faces seem to lack depth, the iris of the eyes is very oval, and cheeks are more pronounced. And it’s beautiful! Just like SAO, there’s an inexplicable beauty about these designs.

Rio in particular will make your heart skip a beat. Her rather angular eyebrows and dark eyes give her a ferociously calm expression. Tall and well-built, she has shades of that badass kind of appearance we see a lot in those kinds of anime characters. Maybe the low-cut undershirt contributes to that a little too. I love the three-pleated design on her hair. I’m always partial to that hairstyle, one pleat over the center of the forehead and two others just outside the eyes. A lot of my favorite characters have that design feature. But it looks really good on Rio.

The way this show turns out, and looking back in hindsight thereafter, I find the idyllic landscapes both unusual and very appropriate. Everything is clean and green and bright. While the coloring is slightly desaturated to dim the tenor of the show just a little, mostly everything seems really cheery and peaceful. The green grass and shrubbery and trees all connote prosperity and that happy small-town feeling. They seem to be in a valley too, which always speaks of peaceful seclusion. Lots of pretty sunlight shines on many scenes. Even the fortress has a homey feel somehow.

Since the word “sky” is in the title, I wondered if anything would be special about the sky. As far as I could tell (when I wasn’t looking at Rio) there wasn’t anything unusual there. If anything it had the most realistic appearance of any of the drawings. Usually a handful of realistic clouds adorned the sunny skies, or ominous gray clouds would envelop the world in gray. Perhaps the skies simply give a feeling of normalcy to the show, if they’re meant to provide any extra meaning at all.

There’s something strange and wonderful about the whole appearance of everything put together. Between that unique character style and the coloring and the scenery, it’s strangely beautiful. As I’ve said many times, it’s difficult to describe that which is truly beautiful. The artwork in this show is a great example of this. It’s evocative beyond words. I guess that’s how beautiful sounds are, too.

Story

Rating: 8

For a show essentially about young girls finding their way in the world, there’s two unusual parts to this story. One is the element of myth introduced through the Fire Maiden legend. I won’t go into that too deeply. I think mostly the purpose of that story is to hearken to the past, where history is sometimes lost or lacking in detail, giving rise to interpretation and misinterpretation, etc. But also I think it’s supposed to provide some explanatory power. We would pass the entire Fire Maiden story off as myth if it weren’t for two key parts of it. First, we see the skeleton of the unexplained creature in the lake. Second, this particular fortress is manned by girls, based on the tradition of the myth.

That brings me to the second unusual part of this story: they’re at war. Until the last few episodes, there isn’t any sign of war except the fact that the girls maintain the fortress and run a few ordinary routine checks, maintaining a state of preparedness. While you’re told they’re at war, you get the feeling not much of the action reaches them here. For one thing, five people can’t defend a fort, even if they could manage to keep it in working order. Additionally, their mech/tank is in disrepair, and has been for some time. Noel is constantly working to return it to a functioning state. But more importantly, the girls don’t act like they’ve been in war recently. We later learn that many of them have seen action, mostly very tragically, either in combat or as civilians. But initially the war seems so distant that it almost seems as much a myth as the Fire Maiden stories.

Who is fighting who? It’s very unclear for a long time. You see their mecha thing, and you realize pretty quickly we’re in the fantasy realm. It makes you wonder if their enemies are monsters. Initially that sort of makes sense, since we see the skeletal remains of the large, birdlike creature in the lake pretty early on in the show. The Fire Maiden legend might make sense at that rate.

Unhappily, the truth slowly becomes clearer. Whatever happened between the Fire Maidens and the bird demon thing, that’s well in the past. At the first mention of Rome, you begin to realize this isn’t purely a fantasy. Or not anymore. Whatever happened in the past, we find ourselves in the far aftermath of it here. We start to see snippets of written language, most of which is French. The names of the nearby areas are French, Spanish, and Swiss (Helvetia). Eventually we hear tell of the lands of Gallia and Frank, likely referring to the Iberian regions. The familiarity of all this begins to feel eerie.

When we finally encounter the enemy, a female scout from the Roman army, things really start to become alarming. She speaks German.

The post-apocalyptic nature of this story instantly becomes clear. This is Eurasia from our world sometime in the distant future. Some great calamity has befallen the known world, perhaps which the skeleton is a distant remnant of, and history has turned out quite strangely. Germany has gained control of a lot of Europe extending eastward, and for long enough that Romans speak German as their first language. The map Felicia and Rio show to us is extremely vague, but I believe there’s some chance that where they are now, under the name Helvetia, may actually be as far east as Japan!

The details are not important. What I like about this is how suddenly this story handles this element of surprise. This show feels like a slightly unusual slice-of-life anime until suddenly this truth dawns on us. From there, a apprehensive sense of desperation clouds over the story. You start to wonder if the reality of the war really will strike this peaceful place. You wonder if some of the girls won’t make it out alive.

No sooner than we get a glimpse of this possibility, things become extremely sad. We hear tell of Rome. We hear of an impending resumption of hostilities. We learn more about the semi-legendary Princess Illiya. We learn of Rio’s half-sister. We meet an old woman living alone in the nearby mountains, holding on to the dream that her beloved would return to her one day. We hear the old woman had a daughter who was lost to her. We come to realize the man she’s waiting for was the Helvetian ruler, who’s daughter was Princess Illiya, who’s half-sister is Rio, who’s mother is this old lady.

Surrounded in the sadness of the old lady’s disappearance in the snow and the mystery of this situation, Rio and Kanata have one more heartfelt talk on the tower at the fortress. And without any warning, without any reason to expect it to happen, Rio gives her trumpet to Kanata. And then she’s gone.

She doesn’t die, but it almost feels like it, given the way everything was built up to that point. You don’t know where she’s going or what she’s resolved in her heart. You just see her leaving, and you know she’s gone, and it hurts. Right after this the Roman soldier shows up, all hell breaks loose for a while, and ultimately everything is resolved. But it’s an extremely surprising turn of events right through there.

That’s the highlight of this story. The reality of their situation, the need to face their pasts, culminating in these very surprising events, all unfolding in such an unexpected manner is a masterful touch on this story. This show is not completely story-driven, but the way the story suddenly forces itself upon us and upon the characters is very well done. It will leave you emotionally drained.

It’s a happy moment when everything is resolved without loss. You’re happy the Roman soldier survives. You’re glad for Noel, that she overcomes her past and even gets her machine to work. You’re happy for Kureha, who doesn’t have to feel alone now. Felicia becomes the commander she expects herself to be. Rio returns in power and triumph. And above all, Kanata rains the sound of the sky down on her battlefield. It’s a little convenient there at the end, but without doubt very fitting. Finally it ends hopefully, as we find out Rio wants to bring back the power of flight to the world. The whole thing right up to the end is quite uniquely powerful.

Overall: 9

The sound of the sky! The sound of a trumpet playing from the ramparts! A warlike instrument, played by a soldier, from a tower in a fortress, rains a hopeful and beautiful sound down on a thriving city of peace. How beautiful is the human mind that can imagine such an ironic, wonderful idea!

The sound of the trumpet is amazing. I’ve always been partial to that sound, but I’ve never heard it portrayed in quite this way before. Certainly I’d never heard Amazing Grace played on the trumpet. I’ve heard it played on bagpipes, in the context of military funerals and such, and that’s already an immensely powerful experience. I know there’s some reason the writers chose this piece, but I can’t discern it after watching just one time. But its effect is magnificent. Hearing this simple and beautiful piece played so beautifully in a beautiful anime made my heart soar. It was kind of a surreal experience, and it elevated this show to a level I had not experienced before in anime.

Little things like music or something special about the audio in general are those little bits of icing on the cake we expect to find in great anime. Even little things like how the Japanese title is split up as So Ra No Wo To, kind of like the solmization we occasionally see in musical notes, are special little touches of a masterful and caring artist’s hand. And that interlude in the middle of the series that explains their little alcohol workshop is hilarious. It’s totally and perfectly out of place. Either by accident or artistic vision, the creators of this anime crafted an exceptional work through the combination of all the different elements I’ve mentioned here. This little, unassuming anime is a fine work, a little gem among so many greats in animedom.

It’s shows like this that make our journey through the world of anime so wonderful. I’ll never say I outright hate any anime, but we probably all have seen shows where we end up feeling like we wasted our time watching them, to put it lightly. It’s hard to discriminate whether we’ll like an anime when we start it, but after those first few episodes, if it’s bad we either drop it or plow through it because we gotta finish what we start. For all those instances, you live for these shows where your search was rewarded. Sound of the Sky is that kind of anime. It was a pleasure to watch from start to finish.

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