The Infinite Zenith

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Showering Sound of Cicadas: Spirits Down the River- Sora no Woto Seventh Episode Review and Reflection, Addressing Misconceptions about Existentialism in Sora no Woto

“Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world.” —Joel A. Barker

On the day of Fiesta des Lumiéres, the 1121st begin preparations to honour the spirits of those who’ve passed on. However, Felicia begins recalling her old platoon, who were killed in battle. While wandering the battlefield, she fell into a derelict subway tunnel and encountered a dead soldier. As fatigue and exhaustion sets in, Felicia hallucinates a conversation with the soldier, who expresses regret that they were unable to prevent the conflict from devastating the world. She very nearly succumbs to despair, but is rescued by none other than Princess Iliya herself. Back in the present, while watching Kanata and the others set paper lanterns on the river, Felicia and Rio share a conversation about the purpose of their existence; in such a world, where all meaning and value had been stripped from their lives, Rio had long wondered if there’s anything worth fighting for. However, seeing Kanata, Kureha and Nöel leads Felicia to draw a new conclusion — a world intrinsically devoid of meaning is akin to a blank piece of paper, leaving everyone free to find their own paths. Existentialist elements are briefly presented here, and notions that “life is what one makes of it” thus begin taking shape. These themes together form the core of Sora no Woto‘s message as the series progresses, and by setting a precedence for it early on, Sora no Woto establishes itself as having a clearly-defined objective for the audiences.

The seventh episode deals primarily with Felicia’s experiences in an earlier conflict, which yields some insight into the world prior to its devastation. The artifacts and relics left behind are modern constructs, and while the enemy that decimated humanity is never explicitly shown on-screen, it is seemingly equipped with directed-energy weapons. That Felicia is fighting even after this conflict shows that humanity did not learn lessons from the greater war, and while the combat she experiences is in much smaller scale, it nonetheless leaves a substantial impact on her once she loses her comrades, leading her to despair and the edge of death. Her being saved by Princess Iliya is probably intended to show that sometimes, it takes a presence beyond oneself in order to find salvation. Iliya has thus left a significant impression on both Kanata and Felicia, giving the sense that it is fate that Kanata should find herself posted to the Clocktower Fortress; this is intentionally similar to the sort of the sort of coincidence that brought the different events of the previous episode together, reinforcing the ideas of chance meetings and coincidences that took shape earlier in Sora no Woto. From a narrative perspective, the seventh episode also allows Sora no Woto to reiterate the impacts of warfare on the human psyche: earlier episodes depicted the indirect effects of warfare in tearing families apart and devastating the world, but here, the anime exemplifies the direct consequences of warfare. Physical and mental damage invariably result, and to have a core member of the 1121st be effected is to reiterate that the horrors of war can affect anyone indiscriminately.

While existentialism is brought into the picture through Filicia’s remarks towards the episode’s end, it is a comparatively minor aspect of the series. Standing underneath a starry sky, and with a river filled with lanterns in the background, Filicia wonders why she alone survived of her old tank crew. She deduces that her survival was probably a stroke of luck with no inherent meaning, taking joy in the fact that this allows her to project her own meaning into life. This is a core tenant of existentialism, which places a great deal of emphasis on the agent’s choices in governing what is moral or meaningful. Although relevant to Sora no Woto, the prevailing thought is that existentialism is the central theme to the anime. This conclusion is untrue, a misconception reached as a consequence of an incomplete understanding of the world at large. Existentialism here is simply the belief that life has meaning because we choose to give it thus, but it holds a dangerous implication for Sora no Woto‘s thematic element. If we suppose that Sora no Woto was about existentialism, then the anime would suggest that it is sufficient to merely find one’s own meaning in order to have accomplished something meaningful with one’s life. However, existentialism does not exist in a vacuum; values and beliefs only have meaning if they have a tangible impact on a society or those around them. In Sora no Woto, the characters do not merely hold a belief, but they also have a strong enough conviction to act and do what they feel is right. In doing so, they impart that impact to realise their ideas in a tangible fashion: it is necessary to draw meaning from a world inherently lacking so, but alone, it is not sufficient to merely hold ideas if one wishes to impart positive change upon a world. That Kanata is Sora no Woto‘s central protagonist serves to reinforce this point, as she is the one who seems to leave change in her wake through her actions, and so, it should be clear that, while existentialism is very much a part of Sora no Woto, it is by no means the central theme within the anime.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • The main aim of this extended post is to properly explain what the seventh episode’s aim was; easily the best episode in Sora no Woto, the episode left in its wake a flurry of discussion about what Sora no Woto is meant to be about. Besides the additional paragraph explaining why existentialism alone is not Sora no Woto‘s theme, I’ve also included ten additional screenshots so that I may flesh out my own remarks further. In a sense, this post will be intended to act as a MythBusters-style discussion as to whether or not existing ideas about Sora no Woto are correct, as well as dispel any misconceptions so that viewers are not predisposed to accepting one particular viewpoint on the virtue that it was first to be presented.

  • With this in mind, I understand that my rebuttals and counterarguments come seven years too late. My disagreements with the notion that Sora no Woto is wholly about existentialism actually dates back several years, when one persistent fellow by the name of sluagh insistently maintained that every action in the anime is existentialist in nature. I firmly digress and remark that it is a common disease of the mind at Tango-Victor-Tango, that ideas have value without action. It’s a testament to the sort of laziness that plagues that crowd, and so, when they see something in an anime that resembles their world view, they chisel that view into something that supports their own belief system without considering other elements in said anime.

  • In a fierce battle between two nations, presumably Rome and Helvetia, Filicia’s tank advances and fires for effect at the Battle of Vingt. However, they manage to hit one of the tanks, causing it to explode. As one of Filicia’s comrades-in-arms steps out to signal a successful shot, a hidden tank takes fire before her crewmates can react. The round mission kills her tank and decimates her crew. The seventh episode opens by establishing the earlier Clocktower Maidens that Filicia alluded to during the fifth episode.

  • In the aftermath, the bugler is blown apart by the round: her arm is the largest bit remaining that’s still intact, bringing to mind the sort of carnage that the 2014 film, Fury, is known for. A fantastic film about a M4 Sherman crew in the Second World War’s final days, it is remarkably visceral about its combat sequences. A German soldier explodes into chunky pink mist when a tank runs him over, and an 88mm round from a Tiger I tears a man’s body open during an armoured engagement.

  • In the heat of summer, Filicia encounters a shadowy, filmy figure standing in the plaza just outside of the Clocktower Fortress. Continuing on from the earlier point, I encountered resistance when I suggested that there’s more to Sora no Woto than just existentialism; the mere suggestion that one must also work hard to achieve their goals is apparently an offensive one. With this in mind, I was originally wondering if the folks who asserted that Sora no Woto‘s theme is entirely driven by existentialism had not seen the series in whole yet. I was hoping this to be the case, as it is an honest mistake, but such beliefs propagated after the last of the OVAs aired, suggesting an unwillingness to commit any effort towards something of value.

  • Kanata constructs animals using eggplants and tomatos in preparation for the Fiesta des Lumiéres; approximating to “Festival of the Lights”, Kanata knows it best as the Obon Festival — lanterns are used to guide the spirits back after their visitation. The Obon festival a Buddhist custom honouring spirits of ancestors, although in Sora no Woto, this festival appears to have been extended to include the spirits of the dead in general, similar to the Día de Muertos (“Day of the Dead”) celebrated in Mexico, as seen in the opening of Spectre. While Kanata holds a sense of wonder towards the Obon, Kureha is concerned about the onryou spirits.

  • Before their conflicting beliefs cause them to clash, Rio and Filicia return to base with supplies for making paper lanterns, as well as a pair of watermelons. While carving the wooden sticks into the slats acting as the lantern’s frame, Filicia accidentally cuts herself. The sight of blood triggers a memory from her past: her old friends were lost in the battle, and as the sole survivor, Filicia is afflicted with a milder form post traumatic stress disorder, occasionally recalling with great clarity what had happened in the aftermath of that incident.

  • A mental illness with a prevalence of around 3.5% in a population, PTSD is poorly detected owing to numerous factors affecting diagnosis. As interpersonal factors are more likely to trigger PTSD than natural causes, it is likely that Filicia’s affliction stems from watching her friends die before her eyes. It speaks volumes about the complexity of the mind when under even these conditions, the mind continues to stress self-preservation. Filicia leaves the site and wanders the battlefield before falling into a subterranean room.

  • The complexity of the biochemical processes within the brain and their effects on an individual are such that even experts have difficulty agreeing on what the mechanisms behind PTSD are: a well-cited article suggests that PTSD results because a traumatic event induces hormonal changes that elevate adrenaline levels and suppress hypothalamus activity (the hypothalamus is an area of the brain central in memory-related functions). Further to this, decreased cortisol levels can result in a longer homeostatic recovery time, lengthening the time to restore brain function, causing a trauma to become more vivid.

  • There are a handful of prominent editorials on Sora no Woto out there dealing with existentialism and memories, but their rambling, imprecise nature suggest that the authors do not fully understand either the implications of their over-generalisations or the science behind why certain things occur. Although I am definitely late to the party, it is not too late to set things right: Sora no Woto is a fantastic anime for dealing with the more challenging topics and depicting them in a plausible manner, but it takes a better mind to work out that these ideas do not make Sora no Woto. Rather, they augment the central themes by crafting characters with depth. Back in the present, Filicia’s patched up and good to go, but the subdued atmosphere, in conjunction with the faded lighting, illustrates that while some physical injuries can heal, mental ones are more difficult to recover from.

  • The warm light of a hot summer’s day streaming through a hole in the gymnasium’s ceiling and the resulting Crepuscular rays evokes memories of the deep summer. It was around June in 2011 when I reached this point in Sora no Woto, and it was a weekend when I watched the episode shortly after finishing the construction of the HGUC Unicorn Gundam (Destory Mode). This episode impacted me in a way unlike any of the others, acting as the magic moment where Sora no Woto suddenly became more than just another anime I was watching. I subsequenrly watched Sora no Woto at a much higher pace, finishing this series before leaving for a trip to the Eastern Seaboard in early July.

  • The dark lighting of the space where the Takemikazuchi stands in comparison to the beautiful weather to create a sense that the burden that Filicia carries is a difficult one, overwhelming the warmth of summer with an internal sort of cold that results in her feeling much different than her usual self. Nöel shows sign of having her own troubles: having established in the fourth episode that Nöel is mistrustful of others, her own responses to the upcoming festival is yet another indicator that she has a checkered past.

  • While the Karabiner 98k is the successor to the Gewehr 98, the weapon has a turned-down bolt handle that makes the bolt far quicker to operate. The weapon features a tangent leaf sight, making it easier to aim compared to the Gewehr 98, and here, Filicia recalls her early days with the old squad, where she is training to fire her service rifle.

  • These memories give a powerful insight into why Filicia runs the 1121st the way she does: far from being the subordinate/commander dynamics seen in the military, Filicia’s old squad also seem to share the flat hierarchy that Filicia herself uses in operating the 1121st. Besides being comrades-in-arms, they are plainly friends, sharing both joyful moments and duties together.

  • Filicia’s CO, Captain Yukiko Miyaoka(name sourced from supplementary materials) notes the possible extinction humanity faces in a dying world. It is revealed here the extent of the damage done to the world is beyond comprehension: whatever conflict humanity fought with their unknown opponents, it was severe enough to destroy the oceanic biosphere. The only comparable events in history is the Permian–Triassic extinction event, where upwards of 96 percent of all marine species became extinct. Geological records show that recovery from this cataclysm took upwards of ten million years.

  • It turns out that Filicia had fallen into a derelict subway tunnel. Underground, Filicia is isolated and very nearly becomes consumed by her guilt at survival where her friends had perished. It is likely that humanity survived total extinction only by fleeing into the tunnels and awaiting the day when the surface became safe to inhabit once more. Although the air down here must be dank and musty, it has enough oxygen to permit Filicia a small fire to light her surroundings.

  • After chancing upon the corpse of a soldier and finding Hiragana scratched into the walls, Filicia desires to read it: translated, the solider who inscribed it into the walls is expressing regret at not being able to protect his family. In the blackest depths of despair, she hallucinates a conversation with a long dead soldier wielding an assault rifle similar to the Howa Type 98. In this conversation, the soldier apologises for having lost their war against an unknown enemy.

  • A large number of Vector-Type Zero Autonomous Tank Walkers (tanks of Takemikazuchi’s family) are seen opening fire with their main guns against an unseen enemy. The electrostatic discharge suggest that their rounds are electromagnetically accelerated, imparting a far larger amount of kinetic energy than achieved with conventional chemical means used in modern armour. Despite the improved firepower, their enemy returns fire with a laser that destroys the entire area. While the presence of a large, raptor-like organism suggests that their enemies are organic in nature and seemingly corroborates with the fossil seen in the first episode, the largest counterargument against this is that the world in Sora no Woto is not currently under any threat from raptors. If the raptors had truly been the aggressors, they would have distributed themselves over the planet following their victory and eliminated the remainder of our species well before the anime would have started. More than likely, this war was the consequence of human actions (perhaps, if Axis had successfully dropped in Char’s Counterattack).

  • The soldier’s words speak of Filicia’s own desolation, suggesting that she’s losing the will to live where everything else has been lost. While this conversation is depicted, it is likely that she’s considering suicide, having wondered what point there is in living when all that she holds dear is no more. However, upon hearing a trumpet on the surface, Filicia shouts out, hoping to catch their attention.

  • Moments later, a rope is thrown down, and Filicia finds herself face-to-face with Princess Iliya, who is sincerely sorry about failing to arrive earlier to prevent the massacre of allied forces. While subtle (and likely to be missed), it’s another indicator of the coincidences that Sora no Woto is increasingly working into its theme: had Iliya arrived on time with her armoured group, it is unlikely that Filicia would have suffered, leaving her with a decidedly different world-view than the one she’s depicted with in Sora no Woto.

  • Princess Iliya is depicted as being very nearly a messianic being, whose belief in good is imperturbable, and whose actions are largely responsible for shaping the Clocktower Fortress’ inhabitants very fates, binding them together. This adds to her mystique and gives the impression that she is otherworldly, an entity representing purity and hope. Only a handful of fictional works I’ve gone through have such characters, with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lady Galadriel being one such being.

  • While Kanata and the others play with fireworks in the background to signify the innocence of youth, Rio and Filicia share a more serious conversation. Rio’s relationship with Iliya is an interesting one: she looks up to Iliya as as role model of sorts and yearns to defend the people in their place. Feeling as though she’s fallen short of expectations, she declined participation in the previous year’s Fiesta des Lumiéres. She nonetheless expresses concern about Filicia, who outright lies that her troubles arise from gaining a few extra pounds in the wrong places. Her concern for those around her is admirable, and also brings to mind Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller from Saving Private Ryan:

“I’m a captain. There’s a chain of command. Gripes go up, not down. Always up. You gripe to me, I gripe to my superior officer, so on, so on, and so on. I don’t gripe to you. I don’t gripe in front of you.”

  • When the last of the fireworks are extinguished, Kanata notices that the lanterns are lit in the river below as crowds gather for the Fiesta des Lumiéres. The strong emotions of Sora no Woto‘s seventh episode are sufficient such that even I feel something, leaving a powerful impact on all viewers; even those critical of Sora no Woto found themselves pleasantly surprised, that the anime was willing to break barriers and do something completely different.

  • While everyone else is holding onto a lantern, Nöel is noticeably empty-handed, with her eyes not visible. Each lantern is meant to represent a guiding torch for the spirits of those whom one wishes to send off, and in Nöel’s case, coupled with her remarks in the fourth episode, further suggests that there are spectres in her past. While I’m technically not supposed to reveal things from future episodes, I do remark that Nöel has chosen not to go with a lantern because a single lantern would not be enough for her to properly participate in Fiesta des Lumiéres.

  • It is in the episode’s final moments where existentialism comes into play, from Filicia’s dialogue. Her remarks mirror the definition of existentialism nearly word-per-word, and it is from this one moment that folks, including vucub_caquix, draw their conclusions. While existentialism is mentioned in Sora no Woto, it is not the singular thematic element within the anime. There is no credit awarded for partial answers, and while I do not dispute that existentialism is a part of Sora no Woto, one particular claim stood out as being problemmatic:

“It’s the difference between us thinking we are paper-knives, made with a predetermined purpose, as opposed to us actually being bits of flint on the beach which can be MADE into something useful and purposeful in reality.”

  • I take exception to this statement because it implies people are free to be shaped by an external force, rather than guiding their own decisions internally. By suggestion that people can be likened to apparatus, this removes responsibility from the individual to act and find their own course. This is untrue, and people must find their own will and motivation to act in order to become useful or purposeful. What vucub_caquix ultimately misses from Sora no Woto is that it is insufficient to merely find one’s meaning in life: it is necessary to have the will to act that makes the difference, and this is where Sora no Woto shines.

  • Filicia is ultimately able to honour her fallen comrades without being consumed with remorse because their existence has given her something to work towards. Thus, when Kanata tearfully asks Filicia to be more open, that the 1121st will be there for her, Filicia warmly accepts the gesture. Each of the characters find the will to act in subsequent episodes, and it is this that ultimately allows Sora no Woto to bring something new to the table relative to other entries in the moé genre.

  • Filicia and Rio watch as the lanterns float on the river below. Her dialogue demonstrates that she’s come to terms with what’s happened, and with this, her story comes to a close. I’m curious as to how much flak I’ll be drawing for pointing out that existing assertions on existentialism in Sora no Woto are incomplete — I was originally intending to do a separate post to discuss what place existentialism has in Sora no Woto with the final OVA, but decided that here would be a better place to do so because there is so much to talk about within the episode.

  • Near the riverbank, Nöel, Kureha and Kanata share a warm moment with the children under Yumina’s care. Earlier, the children were working on lanterns for the festival; this is a meaningful activity for them, as they are orphans and affected by warfare to a great extent. To see them here in conjunction with Filicia’s optimistic outlook is a central aspect to the episode, that there are things to hope for and look forwards to.

  • With the longest of my Sora no Woto posts coming to a close, I’ll be returning to the smaller posting format for the remainder of the episodes save the finale.

Easily the darkest episode of Sora no Woto insofar (and in the entire series), the seventh episode completely surprised its viewers at the time of its broadcast. Those who were dismissive of the series for its moé were not expecting the series to suddenly bring philosophical elements into the open, and those who figured that military elements would take a backseat to music suddenly gained insight into the wars that were fought before Kanata joined the Clocktower Fortress. It is at this point where Sora no Woto makes it clear that it is a full-fledged anime with its own directions and objectives, and here where I truly took an interest in the world where it is set: while elements of modern humanity have largely been eliminated save for a few traces here and there, the values that motivate and drive a large number of individuals in society appear to have remained intact. The human spirit thus endures, and moving into later episodes, it was pleasant to see how these ideas continue to drive characters and their actions to make a positive difference given their situation.

2 responses to “Showering Sound of Cicadas: Spirits Down the River- Sora no Woto Seventh Episode Review and Reflection, Addressing Misconceptions about Existentialism in Sora no Woto

  1. medievalotaku February 23, 2017 at 08:05

    The only other anime I can recall which dabbles in existentialism is Shakugan no Shana, where the hero needs to grapple with his death and whether there is any real meaning to his new mode of existence. When Sora no Woto came out, I could not get past episode one, but your post makes me want to give it a second chance.

    Liked by 1 person

    • infinitezenith March 3, 2017 at 22:44

      The story of how I found Sora no Woto is lost to time, but one thing I remember very well were the landscapes I saw in the opening moments of the very first episode. It was not really until episode four that I began enjoying the anime, but by episode seven, I knew that Sora no Woto was something special.

      It’s definitely worth taking a look at, even if it is a bit of a rollercoaster here and there with respect to how the narrative flows.

      Liked by 1 person

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