What set the various series of Aria out as an interesting story both on a personal and conceptual level was their idyllic – genuinely utopian – attitude. Nostalgia for an imagined urban society less insular of the past, as well as a future of economic security where people worked for pleasure rather than survival, provided a backdrop for a series of stories about personal identity and the importance of doing what matters personally, rather than what others might expect. It ended on a hopeful note – the characters all found their places within society and life continued despite the changes that everyone underwent. In this way the story as a whole was a comforting one about coming to terms with how – even in a society where nobody truly lacks for anything – live must change and not stagnate.
On the surface, the series Sora No Woto (or Sound of the Sky) treads similar ground; it depicts a small-town, quite archaic society in which the usual structures of authority are relaxed and apparently idyllic. The protagonist is a naif whose progress the audience follows from amateur to skilled, much like that of Aria, but beyond this surface link it is clear the series approach similar subjects from very different angles. Both stories are futuristic ones in antique clothing; Aria depicted a world where the wealth and scientific power of mankind permitted the construction of a reproduction of Venice on another planet, where the weather could be controlled to ensure that everybody could live in a true paradise of technology hidden behind a historic and cultured facade. It was a constructed world, built on deception, but this was not the focus of the story; it was a tourist town, intended to preserve the memory of a cultural past that was otherwise lost. The artificiality of this “Neo-Venezia” was what permitted it to be a post-scarcity utopia – the only way to allow traditional lifestyles without the concern of want, hardship or poverty. Ultimately what is presented is that the nostalgic idyll is what should be built towards; Neo-Venezia’s nature as a tourist town (albeit one with a flourishing society of locals) – both presents it as a desirable ideal within its world, and also possibly an atypical one. By contrast, Sound of the Sky suggests its rural idyll – and idyllic it seems to protagonist Kanata as she arrives at her new home, with its quirky festivals, local shops and beautifyl scenery – is not a playground of the leisured classes at all but a difficult world to live in. There is a kind of cynicism to its apparent nostalgia that becomes clear with time – the world is “primitive” in science-fiction terms (as the presence of a broken-down war mech in a hangar suggests) but not as a carefully-constructed illusion or idyll but instead the natural endpoint of war. Aria‘s society never even suggests war is a concept that might trouble its utopian society; Sound of the Sky is about an almost post-apocalyptic dystopia, where a once-great nation has been reduced from high technology and advanced weaponry to immature, untrained recruits manning ill-equipped garrisons in remote towns.
Little is made clear at first in Sound of the Sky about the nature of the past war, yet the general attitude – right from the start, where Kanata is shown to be a young recruit among others in a barracks overloaded with weapons and reduced to five soldiers – is war-weariness that suggests her nation lost its great war. She has enlisted to learn a skill, and because it is the right thing to do – yet she is quite incapable of fighting or even performing basic military duties. This is the “comedy” of Sound of the Sky, then – a young soldier learning how to go from a clumsy recruit to – in theory – a fighting woman. It is the same character journey as Aria, but in a very different setting. Kanata and her superior officer Felicia present a face of patriotism and duty, but when considered in the light of what the setting implies it seems a very hollow one – those who the series follows seem to either be ignorant of war, or quite tired of it, but at the same time bound by some sense of duty to pretend to be enthusiastic for it. Aria emphasised, especially by the third series at which point its characters were moving on with their careers, its world being one of doing what you wanted – of looking for a job you would be happy in. Sound of the Sky is about enduring and putting on a brave face, doing what must be done. Its world is impersonal and quite distanced from the viewer – there are genericised cultural touchstones but none of the recreated antiquity of Neo-Venezia. The towns it features are all named after numbers, the maps all have large “No-Man’s Land” areas marked on them. Even the daily crises, resolved in what passes for a lighthearted way, have a much more hopeless feeling – disease striking with no medicine, no spare parts for military equipment, and then the arrival of out-of-town criminals menacing local shopkeepers. Rather than being a post-scarcity utopia, this is a decaying world, one with increasingly little to live for or look forward to. This makes it a very human story, albeit in a different way to the optimistic Aria – in that latter series, the characters develop by learning there are no limits to the world, and the positive messages are all based on embracing freedom to follow personal dreams. Sound of the Sky‘s message is in a fashion hopeful – it embraces the idea that society can rebuild even from an apparent crushing defeat in war – but at the same time only sugarcoats the perseverance of all involved, not the world that is rebuilt into. At the end of the day, it is a story about a world where children feel duty-bound to enter the army from a young age to learn a skill for whatever reason – even if that skill is just learning a musical instrument. It is a series which draws its comedy from unsuitable recruits in the army having to adapt.
It is interesting comparing it, in this way, to another antique primitivist SF series – Turn-A Gundam. The premises of the two series (Sound of the Sky and Turn-A) overlap quite closely; both have unready armies in a post-futuristic world excavating and repairing artefacts of the war which destroyed their past way of life. In Turn-A this begins with the titular Gundam; the most powerful machine of its era, and one of two that were responsible for the apocalypse. Its excavation, and its pilot’s journey (as he himself is one of the “enemy” living among a society unsure of what to do with him) define the series and show – culminating in a trip to the “Black History” archives of the past war in which all the crimes are laid bare. Sound of the Sky more subtly has its characters bring up the echoes of a darker past; the entire aesthetic is very specifically European, and indeed Germanic. The world is almost a post-WW2 Austria or Germany, and so the military posturing and rebuilding of a broken armed forces has a quite different association. While early in the series there is no way of telling if this allusion is meaningful, it does further modify the idea that Kanata’s nation lost its war into suggesting it may have also started it – and thus the militarism is a half-hearted furtherance of a destructive past attitude.