Review for Sound of the Sky: Complete Set - Limited Edition
I'm a great advocate of free and legal online streaming. It's the equivalent of television broadcasts when it comes to anime, a chance to get the product out there and into fan consciousness. It also helps in that not everything that is worth watching is necessarily worth releasing. That way fans get to see the lesser, niche titles, experience different ideas and creative directions, which when it comes to DVD might only justify a few tens of sales. Best of all, it's a chance to get a sneak peek at the shows that will be coming to DVD a few months down the line, know in advance what the next big thing will be, rather than take a blind chance on dropping a few pounds on an unknown series, as was once the way. The irony of it is, that despite my advocacy, a constant supply of review discs means that I have barely enough time to watch my own purchases, let alone find the time to stream an online anime show. While my initial passion for Crunchyroll and its ilk has certainly been justified given the titles that are now being released on DVD, I haven't watched a thing online during the last couple of years.
To get caught up, I decided to watch one series in its entirety in 2010, and scanned a few reviews to see what looked most promising. I chose Crunchyroll's Sora no Woto, which by that time had completed its simulcast run, and I could now blitz through all twelve episodes at my leisure. I fell in love with the show with just the first episode, and by the fourth episode I knew that I wanted it on my shelf. This was a problem, as at the time no one had licensed it, but it was a problem quickly remedied when Beez announced a UK release, although in subtitle only form. It was then a matter of waiting for Beez to finalise the release date. And while I was waiting, Nozomi Entertainment in the US announced that they too would release Sora no Woto, although the title would be translated to Sound of the Sky. They then announced that it would have deluxe packaging, a special booklet, the two bonus episodes and further extras. Then they announced the release date. Then they announced that early purchasers would get four art cards as a bonus gift. Forget the announcements, I had the set pre-ordered the minute it appeared on online retail sites. As for Beez, at the time of writing, they are still to announce their release date…
In an unspecified distant future, and in a world wrecked by incessant warfare, music continues to inspire, and society continues to prosper. It was the sound of a trumpet heard as a child that inspired Kanata Sorami to enlist in the Helvetian army. She couldn't afford music lessons, but the army trains musicians, so she signed up to be a bugler. She gets assigned to the 1121st Tank Platoon, and sent to the border of no-man's-land, in the town of Seize. It's hardly the cutting edge of the military though. The platoon, headquartered in the Clocktower Fortress isn't exactly the epitome of military readiness. There is the outspoken and brash Private Kureha Suminoya, the wryly soft-spoken Corporal Noël Kannagi spends her days trying to repair the Platoon's sole walking tank, and the brusque Rio Kazumiya has her hands full trying to teach Kanata the fundamentals of music. The Platoon's commander 2nd Lieutenant Filicia Heidemann on the other hand is so laid back and easy-going, that the Platoon feels more like a family than a military unit.
It's an idyllic time for Kanata, as she bonds with her new friends, learns to make music, and fits in with the people of the town where she is stationed. But there are secrets and hidden truths, both about the people she now lives and works with, and the world in which she lives. And after a lengthy ceasefire, the spectre of war suddenly looms large again…
The twelve broadcast episodes of Sound of the Sky are presented across 4 discs from Nozomi Entertainment, along with the two straight to DVD bonus episodes, listed here as episodes 7.5 and 13.
1. The Sound that Fills the Air - The City of Dawn
2. First Battle - A Chair Story
3. A Day with the Squad - Rio Runs
4. Rainy Season Sky - Quartz Rainbow
5. Mountain Hiking - The Edge of the Earth
6. Kanata's Day Off - Hairdressing
7. The Song of Cicadas - Spirits Down the River
7.5. Drinking Party - Fortress Battle
8. Phone Duty - We Have An Emergency
9. A Typhoon Passes - Illusion and Reality
10. A Departure - The First Snow
11. The Visitor - A Burning Field of Snow
12. Fill the Blue Sky
13. The Sound of the Sky - Dream's Horizon
Sound of the Sky gets a truly gorgeous 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer, courtesy of Nozomi Entertainment. It certainly helps that four dual layer discs offer generous real estate for the fourteen episodes. The transfer itself is progressive, which if you have the compatible equipment means that the animation comes across with a smoothness and fluidity that more common interlaced titles lack. The image is clear, sharp and colourful throughout, and a there is a quality filmic look to the show
All of which is great news, as Sound of the Sky is one of the most beautiful anime shows in recent years. The character designs conform to the usual anime norms, but are distinctive and warm in their own right, as well as more than a little familiar to fans of K-On. The character animation is expressive, detailed and emotionally engaging, which really draws the viewer into the story. But it's the world design where this show excels, based on a Spanish town and Mediterranean architecture, there is an old world feel to the show, and the settings and locations really give it a distinct signature. There is also a wonderful mythology to the show, and that comes across in the visual expression of these ideas, particularly in the opening credit sequence. It's very much a lived in world, a rich and complex society that gives you the feeling that this is just one story in a potential cornucopia of stories.
Sound of the Sky gets a DD 2.0 Japanese stereo track, with optional English subtitles in two forms, straightforward subtitles, and subtitles with Japanese honorifics intact. It's a nice touch, although Sound of the Sky isn't a show that makes a big point of using honorifics in a meaningful way. That said, there is one joke in episode 2 that does only work with the honorific track turned on.
The audio is very pleasant, a nicely presented stereo track with no issues with dropouts or the like. The show gets enough space to breathe, and most importantly for a show about music, the sound puts that music across exceptionally well. Michiru Oshima's score for the show is whimsical yet emotionally resonant, and the use of certain classical pieces, most notably Amazing Grace really increases the impact of the story. The dialogue is clear throughout, and the subtitles are error free.
Sound of the Sky is released on 4 discs presented in thinpack cases, gathered in a thick card artbox. The box has artwork front and rear, while the thinpack sleeves have character art on. Behind the cellophane of the case, you get a thick paper sheet with the disc blurb on, while with the four thinpacks, there is the commemorative booklet as well.
On the discs you will find jacket pictures and static menus listing the various options. Each disc ends with the translated English language credit reel.
The Alternate Version of Episode 01 is here in its entirety, and it's 90 seconds longer than the broadcast version. The broadcast version went straight into the story, and played the credits over a montage of Kanata's journey to Seize and the fortress. The Alternate Version has the show's usual credit reel at the front of the episode, while the montage is now credits free, and has a different piece of music to it.
You'll also find the episode previews for episodes 2 and 3 on this disc, 6 character biographies, the US trailer for the show, and Nozomi trailers for Aria, and Emma - A Victorian Romance.
Here you will find episode previews for episodes 4 - 7, 8 more character biographies, and trailers for Nozomi's release of Revolutionary Girl Utena, and The Third, The Girl With The Blue Eye.
This time you get episode previews for episode 8, 9 and 10, 7 character biographies, a line art gallery with 13 images and some text captions, and finally trailers for Antique Bakery and Maria Watches Over Us: Season 1.
For the final disc, you get the episode previews for episodes 11 and 12, 5 character bios, a line art gallery with 7 images, and trailers for Dirty Pair and The Irresponsible Captain Tylor.
The sweetest extra with this set is actually the commemorative booklet, 40 glossy pages worth. In it you will find contributions from the anime's staff, as they recount their experiences creating this show. There's also a look at how the credit sequences were created, plenty of character and background art, and several pages of promotional artwork as well.
There are a couple of lyrics in the irrepressibly peppy end credits theme that translate to, "I was so happy I cried, It hurt so much I laughed" that describe this wonderful series to a tee. Sound of the Sky is the most evocative, heart-warming, delightful, and uplifting anime show I have yet seen. It's about delivering an emotionally powerful yet deft and subtle experience. The story isn't as important as immersing you in this rich and complex world, about investing you in the characters, making you care about their lives, and letting you lose yourself in the narrative. It's the rare episode that doesn't elicit tears of joy, and never have I been presented with an anime that actually makes you nostalgic for an imaginary 2D reality. That's not bad for a story about the end of the world.
If we're going to create new genres, then I guess that Sound of the Sky is the first post-apocalyptic slice of life show. It's set in a world that has seen more than its fair share of conflict, so much so that the society that now survives is a pale shadow of the heights that humanity had once achieved, with a lot of what we would consider convenient modern technology lost to the ages. The protagonist is Kanata Sorami, a young girl who from an early age was inspired by the music of an army trumpeter. It's no easy matter to learn how to play music, and the only affordable path that Kanata has is to join the army, where she will learn to play the bugle, and get paid. When we meet her, she's travelling by steam train to her new assignment, the town of Seize in the mountains near the border of Helvetia.
She arrives in time for the town's Festival of the Flame Maidens, commemorating the protectors that used to live in the Clocktower Fortress. It's where she will be assigned with the other members of the 1121st Tank Platoon. Sound of the Sky follows Kanata's day-to-day life as she gets to know her new comrades, and as the friendships and relationships between them grow and deepen. Kanata is the eager young space cadet of the platoon, finding wonder in every new experience, enthusiastic and likeable. Kureha Suminoya is the other private in the platoon, a little bratty and loud, and being the youngest she is more of stickler when it comes to regulations, but she uses her outer abrasiveness to hide a sweet disposition. The vocal antithesis of Kureha is Noël Kannagi, who is soft-spoken and retiring. She rarely speaks above a whisper, and even then tends to the monosyllabic, but it turns out that she has a playful and wry personality, and she has a somewhat twisted sense of humour. The leader of the platoon, 2nd Lieutenant Filicia Heidemann is the least appropriate commanding officer you can imagine. The isolated posting certainly helps, but she treats the 1121st as more of a family, and the three youngest members more like daughters or little sisters. She approaches her duties with a sense of fun, rather than sternness, which can occasionally exasperate her second in command, Rio Kazumiya. Rio is a little more traditional military, at least in her more masculine bearing. But even she uses the 1121st as an escape, and despite her military demeanour, she's as much a part of the family as anyone. She's also the Platoon's trumpeter, and it falls to her to wring a musician out from Kanata's eager but unskilled enthusiasm.
Most of the show is spent developing these characters, exploring this world, and meeting the various people that live and work in the town of Seize. They are wonderful, self contained episodes with the Flame Maiden Festival, Kanata and Kureha going ghost hunting, Rio having to take care of Kanata when she falls ill, Noël and Kanata visiting a glass factory to get a spare part for the tank, a day hiking in the mountains, finding out what the 1121st do to earn money, and so on and so forth. With each, seemingly inconsequential episode we learn more about the characters, and more about the world in which they live. It turns out that the girls of the 1121st being posted out at the edge of nowhere has a reason, and that most of the platoon has things in their past that they are running from. There is also a lush tapestry of history created for this world, as we learn about the past that shaped it. At the heart of the story is the Legend of the Flame Maidens, the source of the festival that takes place in episode one.
All this while, little seeds and concepts are being planted in the overarching story, and despite its slice of life nature, there is indeed an overarching story to Sound of the Sky. It comes to a head in the final three episodes, where certain secrets are revealed, and the world teeters at the brink of war once more. And for this story, Sound of the Sky has one of the best endings for an anime that I have yet seen. It epitomises those two lyrics that I quoted earlier, an ending that liberates the soul.
If that isn't enough, there are the two bonus episodes, 7.5 and 13, an out and out comedy, and something a little more reflective and forward looking. Sound of the Sky is the sort of anime that I long for, crave for, and the sort of anime that comes across so very rarely. It's just perfect. In between me starting this review and now writing the conclusion, Beez have announced the release date of their Region 2 version, 25th July 2011. But this Region 1 release from Nozomi Entertainment will take some beating when it comes to packaging and extras, but more importantly, the visual transfer. These Region 1 discs look absolutely divine. The only way they could be bettered is with a Blu-ray release. I've got another favourite anime…