Saturday, February 21, 2009

Sora o Miageru Shoujo no Hitomi ni Utsuru Sekai: Episodes 1-5

Despite my anticipatory fervor for season 2 of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (my friend Adrianna is grudgingly ignoring/blaming both this title and Clannad for pushing back the second season of Haruhi), I really wanted to like this series since I've enjoyed everything Kyoto Animation has animated so far. (Granted, now I realize how...higly questionable/implicitly creepy Ayu's childlike character design in Kanon is, even though I didn't realize it when I first watched it.)

Sora o Miageru Shoujo no Hitomi ni Utsuru Sekai
is about a 13 year old girl named Yumemi who has always been able to see an island floating in the sky that nobody else has been able to see. She isn't crazy, because the island does exist in a magical sky world in another dimension in which Akuto (the magical energy the people of that world depend on) has been running out, and certain individuals/nations have taken advantage of that shortage to attack other nations that heavily depend on it. Munto is the king of one of the magical nations being attacked, and he attempts to reach Yumemi in the "normal" world to get her help restoring the Akuto. Meanwhile, Yumemi goes to school normally with her two best friends, caring tomboy Ichiko and cute, childish Suzume.

From the outset, the visuals don't disappoint. By anime television standards, the animation in this series is as smooth as butter. Gestures are expressive, backgrounds are detailed and evocative, and everybody looks their age (one thing that isn't a trademark of KyoAni). The character designs aren't especially beautiful, but appealing enough, ranging from Munto's slightly ridiculous flaming red hair and royal clothing (which I've gotten used to by now), to Yumemi's pretty but not cutesy girl-next-door look, to tomboy Ichiko and believably cute (but not fetishized, thank God) Suzume. I definitely found it questionable that 13 year old Suzume had a high school aged boyfriend (Kazuya, who she's still with when the story leaps forward 1 1/2 years later), but thankfully their "relationship" seems to be more like a close emotional interdependence than anything resembling a romantic relationship.

Characterization is the best aspect of this series, especially the lead, Yumemi. She isn't a character with any unbelievable quirks or extreme behavior, while still being interesting and likeable. (The one real quirk being her umbrella habit, which is a viable idiosyncrasy for an introverted kid in her circumstances.) I dare say that she fits into an increasingly shrinking pool of anime females whose personalities exist to serve a story, not to fit a one-note character type with a pre-established otaku fanbase (genki girl, tsundere, adorable idiot, ice queen, strong woman who drinks, take your pick). Heck, if I didn't know that this was a KyoAni show, I would be comparing Yumemi to shoujo fantasy characters like Fushigi Yuugi's Miaka or Pretear's Himeno. ("You are the girl of destiny!") The other characters are likeable also, although one can still see traces of other KyoAni girls in Suzume. The only real weakness in characterization is that none of the characters in the magical world really have fleshed-out personalities so far (although I really like that warrior woman who's been appearing), especially Munto (which is a bit of a glaring negative, considering that he's the most important character after Yumemi). Refreshingly, though, there isn't anything resembling romance between Yumemi and Munto. He sees her as the person who he needs to get help from, and she sees him as an annoyance at first, but gradually embraces her role in helping him because it validates what she's been seeing in the sky for her entire life. And that's it. Yuri fans will note that there are some moments of cute, mostly one-sided romantic subtext coming from Ichiko towards Yumemi (beginnning in episode 5). Not a huge amount, but enough to give yuri fans something to chew on besides the new season of Maria-sama ga Miteru. Even if Yumemi and Ichiko's friendship remains status quo by the end, it's still organic and well portrayed.

As for the plot, it's nothing earth shattering but still fairly complex and satisfying for fantasy fans (it helps that the fights are animated well ^^).

What is noteworthy, however, is the execution. KyoAni does a good job of creating a relaxed, measured, ethereal atmosphere, which isn't what one normally expects from a fantasy action/adventure, but it works here. It's really pleasantly surprising that this show doesn't have a trace of postmodern self-awareness, which has been all the rage in recent anime, especially KyoAni productions. As a result, it almost feels like I'm watching a story that was created in the 90s (the Munto OVA that this is based on was made in 2003, before every other anime series started "cleverly" acknowledging its own cliches). It's refreshing, in its own strange way. The beginning felt a little slow, but now the show has settled into a decent pace.

Despite my previous criticisms, even though this is far from a perfect show, I'm enjoying it. The eye candy animation alone is worth it.

Rating: 4 out of 5 (and expecting better)

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