Reviewby Theron Martin, Feb 1st 2010
streaming episodes 1-4
In a land decimated by a long war, young orphan Kanata Sorami finds inspiration in a military trumpeter. Years later she joins the military to get training to be a trumpeter herself (since the military is the only place one can get free music training anymore) and is assigned to the 1121st Platoon at Clocktower Fortress in the town of Trois, on the very edge of the nation of Helvetia. After some misadventures she finds herself as the fifth of a five-woman platoon, including the captain Felicia, the sergeant major (and fellow bugler) Rio, the mechanic Noel, and the young tank gunner Kureha. Although woefully short on skill, Kanata gradually integrates into the way of life at Clocktower, begins to connect with her fellow soldiers, and learns what it takes to become the trumpeter she has long wanted to be. The effect she has on the others is also not insignificant.
At the height of the moe boom in the mid-to-late 2000s, innovation was typically far from the mind of moe anime producers. Only as the peak of the moe frenzy started to fade in 2009 did some true innovation begin to happen. Kyoto Animation started a little down that path with K-ON! And A-1 Pictures now takes it a big step further with the title whose pretentiously-written Japanese title literally translates as Sounds of the Skies. Yes, the designs and personality distribution amongst the five young ladies may be representative of almost any moe title, but the setting and theme of the show are not, and that is what may make this series watchable even by those who normally despise moe styling.
The biggest and most striking difference is the tone of the series. This is not some mix of comedy, light romance, and school drama with a hint of the supernatural, nor is it some tragedy-laced tale of cute, defective girls in desperate need of attention. It is, instead, a more soulful and contemplative story about a group of young women coming together on the edge of a civilization which has decayed so far that even commonplace literacy has become a casualty. The setting of Trois (most of the towns and regions are apparently named after French numbers – the region's name, Seize, is French for 16, for instance) and the Clocktower Fortress seems pleasant enough in a rundown way, but underlying the setting is a vague but pervasive sense of loss that more purely post-apocalyptic stories often aim for but rarely achieve as well as this series has so far. Occasional hints dropped about some upcoming event that people don't feel a need to tell newcomer Kanata about yet, with the implication of it dimming her bold spirit, only further this impression.
Yet this is not really a dark series, either. None of the four episodes so far have focused on overly heavy fare; after Kanata's problematic arrival at Clocktower Fortress in the first episode, each of the ensuing ones instead emphasizes Kanata connecting to one of the other ladies while some mild form of action plays out. In episode 2, Kanata connects with Kureha as the two investigate a possible haunting. In episode 3, Rio and Kanata bond when Kanata falls ill and Rio must look after her. In episode 4, it's Noel's turn as the two run errands that include trying to get proper parts for their tank. Doubtless Felicia's turn is coming, too. Throughout these episodes we see regular hints of a possible past link between Rio and Kanata which should certainly become important at some point (the same woman appears in both of their backstories, for instance), but for the most part these relationship-building exercises form the substance of the series so far. Where the series might head from this point is very unclear, given only vague hints about an underlying plot and the focus on playing to the series' title, but wherever the series might go, these early episodes have laid a solid foundation.
The girls themselves offer a standard moe personality distribution. Young Kureha is the resident tsundere type; Kanata is the innocent, enthusiastic, starry-eyed newcomer; Felicia is the faultlessly nice one; Noel is the reserved, minimally-speaking one; and Rio is the hard-edged but still compassionate one. Nothing particularly fresh or exciting here, unfortunately.
Anyone who has ever seen even advertising pictures for K-ON! will instantly recognize its artistic influence on this one. The style of the character designs here – especially for Kanata, and to a lesser extent for the rest of the girls – is almost identical to that seen in its predecessor, even down to a certain degree of roughness in their execution. In fact, character designs in general are the weak point of the series' visuals to date, as it features some exceptionally fine background artistry. The attention to detail in giving the settings a worn, rundown feel is truly remarkable, to the extent that the artistry even makes the most ruined settings look beautiful in a way. The first episode pulls some neat and effective tricks with coloring, too, and all four episodes have small, subtle hints of nicely-crafted CG. The animation looks good when things are animated, but the series is more conspicuous than most in the shortcuts it takes to avoid animating scenes.
Opener “Hikari no Senritsu” helps set the soulful tone for the series, while closer “Girls, Be Ambitious” seems a little incongruously upbeat. The soundtrack in between is not especially remarkable in sound but does have a good sense of timing and features some solid trumpet solos.
Since this series is currently airing live in Japan and being streamed on Crunchyroll, it (naturally) has not been dubbed yet. Amongst the Japanese cast, the lead role of Kanata goes to a newcomer voicing only her second role, but veterans Yu Kobayashi (Rio) and Eri Kitamura (Kureha) anchor a core cast which has turned in a remarkably generic-sounding set of vocal performances so far. Vocally, this sounds like almost any other moe title you may have seen.
The languid pacing of the series so far will doubtless discourage some viewers, but that's fine; this is definitely not a series for everyone anyway. It has a presence and sense of feeling to it which makes its fan-pandering side easier to overlook (let's face it, this is moe in military uniforms) and an interesting premise which offers plenty more room for exploration. This one might eventually crash if it never amounts to more than this, but it is off to a good start.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B-
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Sharp background art, interesting premise, soulful undertones.
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