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"The Sound of the Sky": Death by Killer Drone

by on September 19, 2011

Well, here’s a personal first: an anime series so boring it made me want to barf.

Yes, halfway through the seventh episode of The Sound of the Sky I actually had to put my head down, close my eyes, and breathe slowly until the nausea had passed. The energy needed to concentrate on the series’ tedium, its vacuity, its lack of direction; on its cipher-like characters, its incident-free plot, its bland and empty dialogue; on the purposeless way it wandered around saying nothing and doing nothing except suck on my time like a hole in the bottom of an hourglass … It all finally made me physically ill. This is a series that needs to be sold only under prescription; and it needs FBI warnings less than cautions against operating heavy machinery under its influence.

I’d tell you what it’s about, but there is so very little to tell that it’s almost impossible to describe; and the little that can be said would make it sound far more interesting than it is. Suffice it to say it’s about five female soldiers manning a dilapidated fortress that overlooks a quaint little town of Early Modern vintage. The main character is Kanata Sorami, a prepubescent girl who joined the military because she wanted to learn how to play the trumpet. Her commanding officer at The Clockwork Fortress is Filicia Heideman, one of those stock-anime girls who is sweet, simpering, deeply empathetic, and wise beyond her years. Next in line is Rio Kazumiya, who is the tough-talking martinet tank-girl who hides a heart of gold beneath her forbidding exterior. Noel Kannagi is the mechanical genius with the single schtick–in this case, she’s a daytime narcoleptic because she works all night on the fortress’s non-functioning tank. Finally, there is Kureha Suminoya, who is more or less the same age as Kanata, but acts brash and hyper-militaristic in order to cover up her insecurities.

And what do they do? They act out their anime cliches, that’s what. Kureha endlessly and pugnaciously insists that the new girl follow her orders; Rio trains and harasses her; Filicia smiles and makes cookies and imparts little life lessons; Noel crosses her eyes, breathes through her mouth, and face plants with mechanical regularity. For her part, Kanata is one of those Little Miss Sunshine moppets whom neither rain nor sleet nor dark of night can deflect from her appointed rounds of smiling like a maniac at everything and everyone.

And they do nothing else. Nothing happens in this series. Far and away the most involving episode is the one where the girls spend the day having a water gun fight and then get really, really drunk. It’s the kind of light-hearted episode that in other series would be a break from the drama: just a lot of nonsense, a breathing space between early developments and the final climax. In The Sound of the Sky it’s very nearly the action/dramatic highlight. The other episodes are so lacking in incident I can’t even really say what happens in them: characters go shopping, or they fix breakfast, or they visit a glass factory. In one of them, heaven help the viewer, Kanata sits at a desk for twenty minutes waiting for a phone to ring.

Eventually some deep, dark revelations dribble out. The world is dying, we learn, thanks to the enveloping effects of an ill-defined apocalypse. Tank-girl Rio turns out to be the bastard daughter of the local archduke. Noel is a mechanical genius on the run from psychotic military thugs. Filicia is the sole survivor of a tank crew lost in action. When a war threatens, Kanata stops it single-handedly by standing between the massed ranks of soldiers while playing “Amazing Grace” on her trumpet. None of the revelations can goose the interest meter off zero.

The best that can be said about The Sound of the Sky–and this is damning–is that it’s a clodhopping imitation of the Miyazaki style. But it dwells on the worst aspects of the style while ignoring the best. It is set in an archaic world but gives it no style, no personality, no surprise. It is resolutely, even melodramatically, pacifist in its philosophy, but refuses to give its antagonists any depth, complexity, humanity, or interest. It is mindlessly sentimental about little girls without admitting that they can get on one’s nerves. It stands in one place, noodling and doodling, but never comes up with a convincing sketch or portrait of the place or its people; and then it steps sideways to stand in another place to noodle and doodle some more. It is precious and saccharine and it never stops being precious and saccharine, even though you need lemon juice if you are ever going to make lemonade. Imagine Kiki’s Delivery Service without the witchcraft or the talking cat; My Neighbor Totoro without Totoro or the cat bus; Spirited Away without Yubahba or the spirits or the bath house. Imagine all their most boring and tedious scenes, but doubled or tripled in length with only one-tenth to one-twentieth the character; and then imagine them playing out for six-plus hours. That is The Sound of the Sky.

At least it looks halfway decent, with realistic character designs and some nice backgrounds that echo (though without coming within shouting distance of) the kind of architecture that gave Kiki such a vibrant feel.

Typically, when a series or movie fails so abysmally, the standard critical disclaimer is to say that it was a good idea that somehow went wrong in execution. But The Sound of the Sky is so shapeless I can’t even imagine what it was trying to be. The title in this case is dreadfully apt, for what sound does the sky make? Only, at best, a droning, undifferentiated white noise.

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