A young girl named Kanata Sorami (voiced by Hisako Kanemoto) is inspired to take up the bugle after a childhood encounter with a beautiful female military trumpeter. Years later, the now fifteen year old Private Kanata becomes the newest recruit in the five-member, all-female 1121st Platoon stationed at Clocktower Fortress near Seize, a town on Helvetia’s border with a vast No Man’s Land. Hyper-enthusiastic, Kanata sparks up a sisterly relationship with stern seventeen year old Sergeant Rio (Yu Kobayashi) who introduces her to easygoing eighteen year old Captain Filicia (Aya Endo), fiery fourteen year old Private Kureha (Eri Kitamura) and soft-spoken, silver-haired mechanical genius Corporal Noël (Aoi Yuki) who maintains the platoon’s sole robot tank. Together the girls undertake various mundane military tasks, getting into various scrapes while Kanata hones her trumpeting skills. All the while the grim spectre of war hangs over their future along with an ominous prophecy.
Cute girls go to war is a long established formula in anime though rarely done any better than in Studio Gainax’s seminal Gunbuster (1987). For this latest variation on the theme director Mamoru Kanbe serves up what is possibly the most genteel and leisurely war drama of all time. Our soldier girls’ daily routine consists of running pointless drills, maintaining their meagre arsenal, cooking, cleaning or arseing about in an oh-so-cute-and-adorable manner liable to infuriate anyone who is not a hormonal teenage boy or girl with a military fetish. You know who you are. At first glance, Sound of the Sky is Dad’s Army but with hot young things instead of crusty old codgers. On that level alone, it’s genius.
Delve a little deeper though and one slowly discerns that while the set-up and character archetypes are over-familiar, the style and tone are pleasingly ambiguous and offbeat. This is one of those anime that favour oblique storytelling, inviting viewers to piece together a far broader story from titbits of information scattered throughout a deceptively innocuous plot. We come to realise this story takes place on a parallel Earth devastated by centuries of war. A world where marine life is now extinct, knowledge is restricted, the church seems to wield greater power and technology has regressed seventy years or so, save for a few robot tanks left over from the last civilisation. Drawing imagery from the Second World War and the Balkan conflict, a uniquely melancholy streak undercuts the superficially wacky goings on, weaving an affecting portrait of naive but resilient youth defiantly optimistic in the face of looming tragedy.
Although frustratingly vague at times, the serial draws viewers into its strange yet oddly familiar, quasi-mittel European world. It boasts a vibrant colour palette including gorgeous murals inspired by the art of Gustav Klimt but adopts a low-key, character driven approach that graduately ingratiates its characters into our hearts. Klutzy Kanata proves the catalyst that inspires the other girls to open up and gradually brightens their lives. The bonding between these burdened young women proves the most compelling aspect of the story as Rio nurses Kanata through a bout with malaria and other characters grapple with personal tragedies, unrequited love and survivor’s guilt. Also intriguing is the suggestion that the beautiful blonde trumpeter that inspired Kanata’s passion for music, may in fact be Rio’s mother. For a story all about the power of music it is fortunate that composer Michiru Oshima delivers a soundtrack that is quite lovely.