If the most interesting aspect of Sora no Woto is, as I mentioned before, the setting–the content of that setting bears closer examination. It is, in effect, a gentle post-apocalyptic world, a stark contrast to the many post-apocalypse stories that have been in American movie theaters in particular lately (The Road, The Book of Eli, Children of Men, etc). Does humanity go gentle into the good night after all?
Like many good fantasy stories, the incidental details of Sora no Woto‘s world are revealed gradually. Much of it comes through strange juxtapositions: a futuristic tank somehow lives inside a village that does not appear to have electricity. Japanese-like rituals exist in an otherwise very European-looking town. Later, it becomes apparent that the military base Kanata’s unit is stationed in is a ruined school, and the tank hangar a gym with a basketball net. There are the legends of the Fire Maidens and the more direct mentions of “things from long ago” to supplement this close attention to detail.
For some this may appear clumsy, a hopeless mishmash of cultures and time periods that doesn’t seem to have a lot of coherence. From a strict, Western science-fiction standpoint, that might be true: how did this blend of East and West come about? What would cause such a huge technological decline without the requisite nuclear-charred landscape, dead vegetation, famine, despair, etc.? (It is suggested that the apocalypse happened a long time ago–so humanity did survive after all. How?) The sci-fi/fantasy writer part of me sometimes still asked that question, especially once the third episode showed more of the tank with its advanced electronics. What’s powering it?
I came to the conclusion, however, that these questions miss the point of the show. The prominence of the setting in the show is another way of saying that the atmosphere is the most important aspect to consider. Sora no Woto creates a very distinct atmosphere: a gentle, relatively pleasant one that is noticeably shot through with a sense of decline and melancholy. This is not unknown in the anime/manga world: Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou, which is also set in a world in ecological decline and about the small pleasures of life in such a time, achieves something similar. The mood of Sora no Woto has been compared to that of Aria and Haibane Renmei, and I certainly see the similarities: though I would add that the potential for deep sadness has come a lot earlier than expected, with revelations about Rio and Kanata’s past in episode three. (A bit too much on Rio’s part–the panic she succumbs to with Kanata’s fever almost seemed forced.)
One of the ways this gentle mood is achieved is through a small-scale focus on the local surroundings and the main characters. The action rarely leaves the town, and the only link to the outside world is a single “hotline” to the capital–oddly reminiscent of the nuclear hotline kept by the superpowers in the Cold War. That world, however, seems remote. The main hints of the past we get are found through the tank and the various ruins of the school, and the festival rituals.
Most hauntingly of all, there is “Amazing Grace”–whose melody haunts Kanata’s childhood, is found in an orchestral version in the tank, and whose name has been forgotten. (Assuming that this is this world in question, that is; it seems deliberately ambiguous as to whether this is supposed to be our Earth or merely an Earth-like world.) The use of “Amazing Grace” made me wonder what connotation it serves for the original audience: is it merely a mournful melody or anthem? Does it have the association with funerals that it does here in America, or that of a religious hymn, which is what it is fundamentally? In the show it is tied to an early memory of Kanata’s, and also an earlier, more advanced time. Whatever it is, there is a sense of nostalgia–of loss–that permeates its playback. Which is ironic, given its most famous lyric: “I once was lost, but now am found / was blind, but now I see.”
By this point Sora no Woto has moved far beyond its initial impression of being a K-ON! ripoff. The world that is being built piece by piece is a rich and fascinating one, and it’s enough to keep me watching for the rest of the season. Even in the depths of the typically lackluster season, there is usually one show that stands out for quality, and Sora no Woto may just end up being the True Tears of 2010.