The Earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The Sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.“Amazing Grace”
Major Spoilers to Follow
If you’re heading into the new decade less than optimistic, I don’t blame you. We were already in the midst of a planetary crisis, but regressive political movements over the past several years decided, again and again, to careen Spaceship Earth toward increasingly devastating scenarios. Even in the face of one of humankind’s most courageous and insurrectionary moments of global activism, we’ve never been more certain of a bleaker future. There’s a dread pervading the minds of those even remotely conscious of the current social environment. Not only are we forced to contend with the nebulous grief of something we haven’t lost yet but surely will – if we’re privileged enough to not feel the repercussions of economic, moral, and ecological degradation already – we’re tormented by our inability to fight back on individual terms.
Time recently named Greta Thunberg its Person of the Year for 2019. I’ve only watched one of her speeches, but the spectacle so sickened me I could only stomach a few minutes of it. The young woman shouted into a press room of stately world leaders, begging them to stop applauding her at every turn of phrase, to do something, only to receive another round of applause more thunderous, more convicted, more vapid than the last, a small theater of how our institutions have failed and continue to fail us while paying lip service. Considering the ominous “12 years” report published by the IPCC in 2018, we don’t have enough time to wait for the vanguard of a generational change either. Fatalism is always the wrong response, but so many of us feel defeated because we have, to a foreboding degree, already lost.
It’s difficult enough to contemplate your own demise, but something as abstract as the death of a nation or an ecosystem? How do we even begin to imagine such a thing outside of speculative fiction? In these kinds of tales, we fantasize about passing on fragments: ruins, our stories, our music. If we’re lucky, someone will inherit them, learn from them. If they are not recovered – if we slip away without leaving so much as a trace of our history – then, still, maybe nothing would be lost because the value of our lives is made in the living of them, not in the persistence or narrativization of them. Or maybe there was never any real value to them at all. That might just be a sappy rationalization, but the world we live in today inches closer and closer to the precipice. This is what we struggle to come to grips with, as individuals and members of a much greater whole: if nothing endures and we’re truly doomed from the start, then how do we find substance in a dying world that takes and takes and continues to take, only giving in margins? How do we live in a time of unprecedented personal, societal, and ecological collapse?
Sound of the Sky is deceptive; at a glance, it appears a strangely baked confection of influences ranging from kirara-kei to classic Ghibli. Our main characters garrison a tower-fort that overlooks Seize, a village modeled after Cuenca, Spain and set against a mixture of idealized Southern European landscapes (though the location is confirmed to be Japan later on in the series). The environment is gorgeous, pastoral even: lush, rolling hills and farms cascade the outskirts of town. To the south, vast fields of wildflowers decorate the bases of picturesque mountains, and babbling streams, under the shade of cypress trees, carve elegantly through the grassy, wind-worn valleys between the crags. In town live skilled artisans whose works are displayed proudly in the windows of their Mozarabic stone-brick homes, a sight that wordlessly pronounces the character and economy of Seize. When our protagonist, Private Kanata Sorami, arrives in town, she wanders into the middle of a roaring water-throwing festival and joins the fray with the energetic locals. Aside from the military uniforms, there’s no indication that anything evil is at work. How could the world be ending, after all, when this enchanting village feels like utopia?
We hear then the legend of the Flame Maidens who once saved the town from a demonic invader, and Kanata herself sees the truth of the tale fossilized below the depths of the lake. The Flame Maidens were martyrs, spiritual ancestors of the current Fortress Maidens who preside over Clocktower Fortress. During the festival, Sergeant Major Rio Kazumiya performs the lead role in the town’s annual passion play of the legend, foreshadowing her own struggle to accept the weighty responsibility of her birthright. The Seizeian legend of the Flame Maidens presents one option for humanity in times of distress. In the myth, the Flame Maidens are captured by the other-worldly monster and trapped inside a labyrinth, but they escape together using their golden horns to coordinate with each other. The monster is decapitated, but then its head ignites, the creature’s final gasp of insatiable rage. The Maidens quell the flames by taking turns cradling the monster’s head in their arms, one after another, until the beast’s anger is finally soothed. By embracing the fiery devil’s head, the Flame Maidens take on the brunt of the town’s burdens. They become messianic figures who stop the bringer of destruction through self-sacrifice. It’s a demanding story that paints humanity as a fairly benevolent lot, as the Flame Maidens represent the best of who we are in times of despair, but the tale is nevertheless a grim one. We know this is what we can be, but it’s what we commonly are not and should never have to be.
The legend of the Flame Maidens is our first introduction to the apocalypse that mars the history of Sound of the Sky‘s universe, a zero-point event that ripples outward and connects everything that follows. The anime’s steady worldbuilding counterbalances its dystopic lore with lighthearted characterization and enough feel-good drama that you’re never left in despair, or even concerned for the safety of the main characters, until the anime wants you to be – and whew boy do those tensions culminate masterfully in its final episodes. The show impeccably controls its tone and keeps the focus on the character drama, which, for the majority of the anime, consists of bittersweet vignettes that resonate with the rugged optimism at the core of the series. The most dreadful details come in trickles: that a long, terrible war has just ended, and the newfound peace between Helvetia and Rome is precarious at best; that the majority of the cast have lost family members to the skirmish, and many of our characters are, in fact, orphans; that just past those inviting mountains south and west of Seize is the boundary of an encroaching lifeless desert called No Man’s Land, the fallout of an unparalleled ecological catastrophe wrought by an ancient conflict that sent humanity tumbling back into the dark ages; and that all of Eurasia is now part of that global wasteland while the rest of the world’s status remains unknown. Taken in sum, Sound of the Sky is a world on the brink. Mass-desertification spawns endless wars over what little territory is left. Discord is sown and violence is reaped ad nauseam. Governments operate according to militarism, dooming humanity to live out a perpetual 20th century until its inevitable extinction. Orphans are made into child soldiers, and more orphans are made through combat.
And yet, Sound of the Sky is brimming with hope.
Kanata’s sustained wonderment embodies the attitude of the anime. Many slice-of-life shows place such characters in safer settings to highlight the joys of everyday life, but Kanata’s spunk matters because of the severity of the world she lives in. She’s not a particularly dynamic heroine. There is nothing about her that needs to be redeemed, and she carries no ghosts from her past. Her only traceable internal development over the course of the series involves her learning about the world around her and gaining confidence in herself. Her function as a protagonist throughout the narrative is to spark positive change in others, and she does this through her honesty and infectious cheer, yes, but it’s also due to her willingness to see things not from the bright side, but simply how they are. Acceptance without resignation. Kanata’s most concrete progression, the thread that connects her adventures in town to her decisive performance of “Amazing Grace” in the final episode, is her growth as a musician. It’s no coincidence Kanata’s most pivotal breakthrough as a trumpeter comes after receiving unexpected advice from Carl, the town’s glassblower and most respected craftsman. Kanata’s role in deepening the ties between the 1121st platoon and the town lays out the foundation of Sound of the Sky‘s premise for what a happy life entails regardless of the state of the world: belonging, play, discovery, and work. Don’t misunderstand either; Sound of the Sky doesn’t profess apathy or self-centeredness in times of crisis. Its characters actively strive to save the world. What the anime asks is that its audience remembers itself. Even if tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, it’s important to have something to devote yourself to. For Kanata, her fixation is music and its ability to bring people together. Her desire to chase the sound of the late Princess Iliya’s trumpet is what leads her to the military and to Seize.
There’s a curious defanging in Sound of the Sky of what academia considers two historically oppressive institutions: the church and the military – or, at least they are in the border town of Seize. The church in Seize and the 1121st platoon are contextualized as exceptions independent from their massive, fathering structures. Sound of the Sky doesn’t do this to skirt around criticizing these institutions, however; in fact, the anime enumerates each’s roles in propagating violence quite sternly. In episode four, for example, the war orphan Seiya heckles Corporal Noël Kannagi and Kanata during their supply trip to town, shouting at the duo that all soldiers are murderers. Noël offers the furious boy no resistance, stating plainly, “He’s right. We’re soldiers.” When the injured Roman scout Aisha first greets Yumina as the 1121st’s war prisoner, Aisha calls Yumina a heretic, highlighting the religious tensions between Helvetia and Rome. Although Sound of the Sky lambasts the malicious nature of these two institutions at large, in Seize, the military and church are envisioned as their most positive, progressive ideals. The church is presented as a humble orphanage run by a feeble priest and a single young nun, Yumina. We never witness any sermons or doctrine aside from Yumina’s admonishments about underage drinking and paying reverence to the innumerable gods, which may or may not approximate to eight million depending on her blood alcohol content. In episode seven, it’s mentioned that the Central Orthodox Church wouldn’t tolerate the Fiesta de Lumiéres, a local mutation of Obon, but the church in Seize tacitly endorses it by allowing the orphans to participate. Yumina, the orphans Seiya and Mishio, and the head priest become recurring characters throughout the series. Our introduction to Yumina and the church in episode three constitutes the first act of the slow untangling of Rio’s cynicism. Early in the episode, Second Lieutenant Felicia Heideman offers Rio fortune cookies bought from the church. Rio scoffs, ridiculing the church as a superstitious scam, but Felicia rejects her accusations asserting that “these are good cookies,” emphasizing the Seizian mission’s good intentions. Rio has a (perhaps unfair) linkage between religious healers and her mother’s untimely passing, but when Kanata falls ill to malaria, she has little choice but to seek the church’s aid. Yumina’s medicinal expertise results in Kanata’s speedy recovery, and Rio delivers a fumbling apology to a gracious Yumina afterward. When Kanata awakens, she and Rio have their first open discussion with one another, and Kanata divulges that, beyond wanting to learn music, she joined the military because she didn’t think she’d excel as a farm wife. She calls herself omiso – the leftover strainings from miso soup broth. By enlisting, she hopes to find a place for herself, and that seems to be the greatest function of Seize and its institutions: providing homes and purpose to lost and destitute souls. In episode ten, Rio admits to Kanata that she fled to the maze-like town because it was the perfect place to escape her past. Kanata, again bringing her earnest disposition to bear, assures Rio that getting lost is important, beneficial even; it’s how they found each other, after all. And it’s hard to disagree with her – if you’re lost, then you’re at least moving in some direction. You have to be lost to be found. For the girls of the 1121st, the place they came together was Clocktower Fortress.
The 1121st platoon stationed in Seize, comprised of five teenage soldiers and a broken spider-tank, serves a ceremonial purpose in the town’s culture as the Fortress Maidens but otherwise holds zero strategic importance to the Helvetian-Roman conflict. They act as public servants and emergency responders, at their most useful, but tend to do little else on behalf of the state in Seize. Chief among their tactical duties include maintaining the town’s singular landline to the capital as well as standing watch over a border to nowhere. Betraying the 1121st’s insignificance to the grand mission, Headquarters sometimes even forgets to supply them, so the Fortress Maidens operate an illegal distillery to make ends meet. The 1121st’s participation in the liquor black market is one manifestation of their and the citizens’ of Seize willingness to disobey state authority, which subsumes so much of civilian life and public resources because of the state’s runaway militarism. The most immediate example of the Helvetian military’s complete assimilation of, well, everything is Kanata’s reason for enlisting: only the military has the resources to give her a bugle and teach her to play music. Even forms of artistry that remain independent of state ownership, such as Carl’s glass factory, are swallowed up by the cogs of industrial weapons production. This a driving reason why Kanata, Aisha, Iliya, and Rio’s “Amazing Grace” strikes such a resounding chord: although the anime overtly plays on motifs found in the original hymn’s verses, in the diegetic context of its playing it holds no strategic or religious value, only an artistic one, a human one. It’s a transnational pacifist anthem that calls for an end to the virulent militarism antagonizing the world of Sound of the Sky. It’s not just an inspiring piece of music; it’s an assertion of dignity, especially for Iliya and Rio, whose lives are constrained and consumed by Helvetia.
Of course, the 1121st is still very much a part of Helvetia’s Imperial Armed Forces. The platoon does maintain a semblance of military routine and spends a significant portion of their time training – thanks to Rio and Private Kureha Suminoya’s hard-nosed discipline – but Felicia, the commander of the platoon, keeps things lax. The 1121st feels less like a troop and more like two moms in charge of three capricious daughters, a far cry from the stringent and hyper-masculine image we traditionally associate with soldiers. The moe-fication of military aesthetics here is different from something like, say, Girls und Panzer in that the former uses the infantilized hyper-feminine to subvert and criticize militaristic nationalism whereas the latter fetishizes both the girls and the military hardware (the tanks are, admittedly, pretty cool – God bless you, Mizushima). Sound of the Sky is certainly a cute girls show, but it positions its moe to thoroughly repudiate masculinized fascism whereas GuP attempts to eject politics from its narrative altogether, using the world of its story as a means to tell a (really fun) sports drama. Consider the mantra of Sound of the Sky’s villain, Colonel Hopkins: “War advances civilization and science. I want to bring back the glory humanity once had.” It’s poetic justice that he’s defeated by five child soldiers and a town full of orphans and war-weary commoners, the victims of Hopkin’s shortsighted bloodlust. Because everything is terrible, the economic argument for military action (“World War II solved The Great Depression”) perseveres in modern political discourse. It’s not incorrect that war, like epidemics or revolution, levels the playing field between economic classes and leads to technological achievements. The Black Plague, for instance, decimated Europe but allowed survivors to band together and establish guilds since labor became a rarer commodity. We typically think of the Renaissance as a good development, but the way accelerationists and war-hawks talk, I’m sure they would have dumped the rats ashore themselves. That is what Sound of the Sky understands about this callous discourse: its complete devaluation of human life.
The members of the 1121st platoon are both functionaries and victims of unchecked militarism, and that is why the girls’ refusal to turn Aisha over to Colonel Hopkins carries the weight that it does. Noël, a formerly prodigious inventor of weapons, indirectly caused a massacre at Vingt and experiences severe panic attacks at the slightest mention of the incident. Felicia lost her entire squad in battle and suffers an inconsolable survivor’s guilt that informs her motherly behavior toward the 1121st. The tension that arises between her and Kureha, who advises against harboring Aisha out of concern for the safety of the platoon, crumbles once Kureha breaks down and gives in to Felicia, Kanata, Noël, and the fundamental empathy corroding her desire to safeguard those closest to her. Kureha, the most obedient and protocol-driven of the girls, fiercely proud of her military heritage, renounces the division of Us and Them engrained in her by years of socialization and military training when confronted with the undeniable humanity of her supposed enemy. Her acquiescence is the simplest and most gutting declaration in the anime, a statement she can hardly force out through her tears: “I don’t want to a girl my age to be tortured.” In choosing to disobey orders and resist Colonel Hopkins, the girls reenact the true legend of the Flame Maidens, which had only survived on the other side of the border in Rome. It’s revealed that Seize’s version is a lie told to honor the memory of the Flame Maidens as well as cover up the town’s sins. Rather than a vile demon who ensnares the maidens in a labyrinth, the Flame Maidens nurse and grant sanctuary to a wounded angel of destruction hiding in the valley. Instead of destroying them, the angel returns their compassion by granting them a golden horn. The townsfolk, discovering the Flame Maidens’ have taken in the enemy, set their refuge aflame. The heavens then send forth a host of angels to take revenge, but the sole surviving Flame Maiden, with her last dying breath, sounds the golden horn to appease the divine army, thus saving the world. In both versions of the legend, the Flame Maidens act as saints; the difference lies in who the maidens were trying to protect, and how the people treated outsiders. The Flame Maidens in Seize’s version were guarding the townspeople against a monstrous invader; in the true Roman tale, the Flame Maidens operate on pure mercy. The virtue the tale expresses isn’t self-sacrifice at all, but empathy. The Fortress Maidens follow in the Flame Maiden’s footsteps when they defy their superior officer, but they’re only able to succeed because of their training, access to advanced military technology, and the support of the townspeople, all of which Sound of the Sky develops over the course of its primary twelve episodes. The anime’s relationship to institutions is both naive and nuanced. It paints massive organizations as dehumanizing and corrupt while simultaneously valorizing rogue offshoots like the Seizeian church and the 1121st as centers of communal power.
At first, I felt patronized by Rio’s return to the 1121st platoon at the end of the tv finale. I thought it cheapened Rio’s decision to take up the mantel of her sister’s royal duty, literally her trumpet’s call. That the lecherous Roman Emperor described by Kureha later turns out to be “a pretty decent guy, actually,” is a mark against Sound of the Sky‘s otherwise tightly woven script, narratively speaking; it does, on the other hand, leave room for the epilogue episode to reiterate the series’ themes with finality. In the special, Kanata and the girls directly confront the question of the future. The episode pulls out a (well-established) surprise: Naomi, the shopkeeper, and Carl were once married but got divorced after realizing they were too engaged with their own passions, the shop and the glassworks, for the relationship to last. Sound of the Sky doesn’t present this as a negative turn in the slightest. Both parties split to pursue what they love, and though Naomi snickers, calling their union a mistake of youth, she doesn’t seem to regret it. The framing of self-actualization as a ceaseless individual pursuit more valuable – no, more necessary – to meaningful living than social roles, like familial duty or marriage, underscores the series’ insistence that only terrifying and open-ended personal interrogation can help us navigate a world in which social institutions may comfort us, even save us at times, but ultimately cannot provide answers for the world’s disorder; that’s incredibly fascinating given that Sound of the Sky portrays membership in a community as a primary means of joy-making and self-fulfillment.
Of the Fortress Maidens, only Noël explicitly says she wants to become a bride, though this desire is played as a gag that toys with our expectations of her wishing to become a doctor, like Kureha, or a researcher. This is where Rio’s return to the crew serves the theme; it renders her political marriage a trifling means to a short-term objective. It was an incredible sacrifice that signified her acceptance of the world, her mother’s and sister’s deaths, her own past – but it isn’t the end of her story. Once she embraces her role as an activist and a world leader, Rio sets more ambitious goals than preventing war between Helvetia and Rome. Her laundry list includes establishing world peace, re-inventing aircraft, and searching the world for more arable land and fertile seas. Kanata and Felicia have simpler dreams: Felicia wishes to continue, quite literally, holding down the fort, and Kanata asks to join Rio on her life’s grand work. Rio accepts, musing to herself that she’ll watch over Kanata until the girl finds her own aspirations. In short, Sound of the Sky believes we should dare to look to the future in spite of how fraught it is. We can’t limit our potential or give in to defeatism because, the moment we do, we surrender the small glimmer that makes life bearable, and we seal off any chance we have at making our world a better place for those who come after us. Kanata, had she never heard Iliya’s trumpet, would have married young and inherited her family’s farm, but we know that kind of humble life wouldn’t have suited her. Not because she’s omiso, but because she had to be lost in order to stumble into grace. It’s the same for us, I think, though I can’t fault you if you look at the world today and find it hideous, cruel, and beyond all repair. Our problems are far too grand, far too systemic to be resolved with a little pluck. Sound of the Sky isn’t dealing in empty platitudes though. What it says, over and over throughout these episodes, is that all of our lives are finite and fragile, a non-stop procession of loss into oblivion, and our existence as a collective may be just as tenuous; however, that uncertainty doesn’t mean we can’t find moments of beauty, connection, and contentment. To put a word to it, Sound of the Sky has faith in human resiliency, the innate super-ability to walk through fire and to keep going. When Mishio relents in episode five and shares the final memento of her mother with Yumina, cementing the girl’s resolve to look toward the future, the priest calls it by a different word. He calls it bravery, and he describes it as “a very sad, very dear thing.”
“Amazing Grace” is a song about finding peace under divine assurance. The hymn still moves me (despite the fact I’ve been non-religious for a very long time now) because it’s essentially a piece about accepting the end of all things with elegance and tranquility, elation even. As a small child, before I started going to school, my father used to take me to the countless funerals and visitations that formed part of his work as an ordained minister. Although I hate I can readily conjure the odor of funeral home carpets because of those gloomy field trips, as an adult I understand what my parents were trying to teach me early on in life. We were always going to die. Everything has an expiration date, even the universe. Grief is appropriate, and so is despair. But what the world needs right now aren’t people who give up. What the world needs right now is you, all of your passion and excellence and fortitude – and, yes, grace. So please, take care of yourself, and remember to dream in spite of this new decade of ghastly premonitions.