The Infinite Zenith

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Controversed: Moyatori’s November Workshop (Part III), Considering What Lies Beyond Existentialism in the Execution of Sora no Woto

“I’ve never been a stickler, certainly not Latin names [for plants]; I’ve never known the Latin names, but even just general names, even if it’s good to know. I’ve never been a stickler about it because, in the end, in a survival situation, it doesn’t matter what it’s called. It only matters whether or not it’s poisonous or edible, or useful.” –Les Stroud, Survivorman, Director’s Commentary

Before delving into the third round of Controversed, for readers who are coming in for the first time, this is a special community project that a handful of peers are helping Moyatori of The Moyatorium of with – the aim is to gather a wide range of perspectives on controversy with the goal of inviting discussion and becoming familiar, versed, with controversial topics and criticisms being at the heart of the conversation. In this week, Moyatori has set us up with three prompts this week, all of which are driven by literary criticism rather than controversy – for this post, I’ll be returning to one of my favourite anime of all time to look at where the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre fit into a series that followed a girl and her journey of learning about music’s impact in a world devastated by warfare. The first prompt had been to examine a work using a critical theory of some sort, and admittedly, I found myself having a bit of trouble with this one initially. Fortunately, something has come together in this post, and I hope that it is up to satisfactory standards. In addition, Moyatori also poses the question of whether or not all art is inherently political, a very touchy subject that has seen its share of debate on social media, and lastly, I consider the question of why anime isn’t scrutinised the same as something like literature or film. It’s a wide range of topics this time, and I’ll start with tackling the place of existentialism in Sora no Woto, as well as how this illustrates the need for some practises in the anime community to be adopted such that more interesting and meaningful discussions can be had. Without further delay, then, we delve into Sora no Woto, an anime dating back a decade that was created as a part of the Anime no Chikara programme, which sought to create new and exciting anime not based off any manga or light novel.

  • Initially, I was contemplating sitting this round of Controversed out: upon reading Moyatori’s prompts, I realised I was out of my depths with the topic of choice: while I’ve taken literature courses during my time as a university student, my preference was for courses that focused on literature as a representation of society, and how interpreting a work gave insight into technology and science during that work’s period. As such, critical theories, the so-called –isms, were not those that I learnt to wield in great depth. However, while out on a stroll, it hit me that I had spoken of such a topic previously, albeit in more casual terms.

Sora no Woto follows a young girl named Kanata Sorami, who transfers to a remote outpost in a town called Seize. Besides dealing with themes of self-discovery and optimism, Sora no Woto caught viewers by surprise at its halfway point: on the eve of a festival paying respects to the dead, squad leader Filicia Heideman recalls the horrors of losing her original squad-mates during a brutal engagement: these were fellow soldiers that had mentored her and trained alongside her. When an enemy tank managed to flank them during combat, Filicia was the sole survivor, with the remainder of her squad blown to bits. Filicia subsequently wandered the battlefield aimlessly and fell into a subway line. Here, she began to feel the hopelessness of her situation, and succumbed to despair – delirious, Filicia hallucinated a conversation with the corpse of a fallen soldier, who had believed that the world was inherently meaningless, and that all human actions would be futile in the long term. In the black pits of her despair, Filicia even contemplates suicide, wondering what good was left in the world that would be worth protecting. However, in the darkest of moments, she hears a trumpet, and after calling out, finds herself face-to-face with Princess Iliya, a member of the royal family and an active soldier. Filicia is saved, but since then, suffered from the post traumatic stress disorder of losing her old squad and coming close to death herself; every year during the festival of the dead, Filicia becomes quiet and withdrawn. When Kanata arrives, the sheer joy and energy she brings helps Filicia to understand what makes life worth living – the world might’ve been intrinsically meaningless, but it is up to its inhabitants to inscribe meaning unto the world. Thanks to Kanata, Filicia is able to accept her past and honour her fallen comrades without breaking down. This episode completely took viewers by surprise: Sora no Woto had been, up until that point, a light-hearted series resembling K-On! more than Saving Private Ryan.

  • I’m not quite sure where the original assertion, that existentialism is Sora no Woto‘s main theme, came from. I believe it began when an anime blog, whose name I cannot recall, wrote that it existentialism was a central piece of Sora no Woto a year after the anime ended, and then someone at TV Tropes took this to mean that existentialism was the main, overarching theme of Sora no Woto and moreover, this was supposedly not a matter opinion because Filicia’s words is, word-per-word, the definition of existentialism. While it is true that existentialism exists in Sora no Woto, the anime’s emphasis on music means that the story is by no means purely about existentialism, and moreover, many attempts to analyse Sora no Woto, especially at 4chan, were unsuccessful because they never explain why existentialism enhances the Sora no Woto experience. With this in mind, I now had the perfect Controversed topic.

The brand of philosophy that Filicia voices in Sora no Woto is existentialism, a form of thinking characterised by the belief that the individual holds the responsibility of giving meaning to a world that, in the absence of a human observer, lacks meaning. Existentialists believe that the world does not naturally have any values or definitions we would be familiar with; that is to say, existence precedes essence. The premise, then, is that by default, nothing has meaning, and that the human consciousness is what creates this meaning as a result of existing in the universe, giving it an essence. In Sora no Woto, both existentialism and nihilism are juxtaposed: in the subterranean halls, Filicia succumbs to despair and wonders why anything exists at all if suffering is the end result – seeing the horror and desolation of warfare, the lack of meaning in her fight, causes her to lose all hope. The despair described in existentialism might be seen as a form of existential nihilism, in which one believes that what qualities make up the individual (and by extension, the universe) have no intrinsic worth. Consequently, in the presence of hope, something to look forwards to, the existentialist necessarily believes that intrinsic meaning or no, the individual has the agency to define the meaning of something for themselves, and this counts for something. Sora no Woto has Filicia subscribe to an existentialist point of view to emphasise its message of optimism and positivity. She had lost her way after her squad perished in battle, and even now, still feels guilt and anguish at their untimely passing. However, with Kanata, Rio, Kureha and Nöel, Filicia begins to appreciate that as long as there are people in her corner, there will be hope. Per the role of hope in existentialism, then, where there is hope, there is meaning and value in living.

However, while existentialism is a means to an end in Sora no Woto, it is by no means an end-all: after the seventh episode aired, anime critics immediately jumped to the conclusion that Sora no Woto was solely a tale of existentialism. The world Sora no Woto is set in is decidedly grim, and while Kanata and her squad manage to find the cheer in the most mundane of things, their world is suffering: global devastation wrought by the last war is eroding the arable land, oceans are devoid of life, and the planet’s capacity to support life is falling. In spite of this, Kanata and the others carry on, resolute in doing what they can to give their lives, and world, hope. It therefore seemed logical that Sora no Woto was indeed an existentialist story. However, this conclusion has long been something I counted incomplete. In a vacuum, existentialism only supposes that the individual has agency in determining their development and actions. This agency exists, but by those terms, it means the individual also has the agency to choose whether or not they end up taking the path to advance themselves. Thus, a purely existentialist theme in Sora no Woto would leave discussions open to the implication that it is sufficient to find meaning in one’s life, but then it is not necessary to act on the meaning:

“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.”

This is quoted from one of the earliest, and most well-known assertions that Sora no Woto is purely an existentialist tale: I always found this to be an irresponsible way of thinking, as it implies that people are shaped by their external environment. Further to this, the quoted passage above actually deviates from the definition of existentialism, which requires that the individual be the agent shaping their course. The latter, of course, places responsibility on the individual to make of life what they will (and correspondingly, accept the consequences of their actions). Consequently, to remove this ambiguity, I stepped outside the realm of existentialism and looked to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to clear things up. A quick glance at Sora no Woto, after Colonel Hopkins is defeated, all of the girls’ basics are secured. Rio begins setting her sights on bettering the world, and the first step to accomplishing this is to rebuild a hot-air balloon that will allow her to travel to previously uncharted regions. Rio has not only found her meaning in the world, but she is taking the initiative to actualise her vision and act on her goals. By drawing on a concept completely unrelated to existentialism, I conclude that it was insufficient to merely find one’s meaning, but one must also do something with that knowledge in order to leave a tangible, useful legacy that indicates their agency was one with value. This is what conclusion can be reached about the role of existentialism in the execution of Sora no Woto. The point of extending the discussion was so I could be explicit about where existentialism fits in with the series’ theme: existentialism on its own is not a theme in Sora no Woto, but rather, a part of the theme. The series leaves viewers with the optimistic, hopeful message that through people, hope is rekindled, and through hope, there is meaning that makes pursuit of one’s goals worthwhile and valuable. Themes in a story are nuanced, complex topics that speaks to the author’s views on an idea, and as such, it is rarely the case that an author will merely draw from one critical theory to guide their story. As such, anime critics must also be able to discern the idea that a single theory cannot neatly encapsulate all of a work’s themes into one particular critical theory. I’ve noticed this to be a recurring theme in anime discussions, where individuals oftentimes will only ever reach the comprehension stages of Bloom’s Taxonomy, where they are able to identify a principle or concept by its traits, but fail to do more with it. For the individual quoted above, they’ve demonstrated an understanding of what existentialism is, but do not go beyond this. To really make an insightful statement about existentialism, one must go further and synthesise the observation with other events in Sora no Woto to create a new, noteworthy perspective of it, and then evaluate how successful Sora no Woto was in its execution. Through this examination, my aim has been to illustrate how to effectively bring a critical eye to anime in such a way as to synthesise and evaluate different critical theories as they appear to in works of fiction in general to create a novel idea – the entire enjoyment of reading what others write about anime lies in gaining insight into how they see the world. Simple identification or regurgitation of knowledge does not allow for these more engaging and meaningful discussions to be had.

  • If there was a take-away from this post, it’s that attempting to fit the theme of a fictional work into one critical theory is usually doomed to failure, since authors often draw from multiple viewpoints, and correspondingly, multiple theories, to craft their themes. In Sora no Woto, looking at existentialism in a vacuum is not particularly useful, but seeing how existentialism inspires the characters to do something more with their lives creates a much more exciting discussion. As it stands, I find anime analysis to only really be useful if one can draw conclusions from what they look at in a work, and the best discussions occur when folks begin discussing things like how their experiences impact their perspectives of a given series in the context of a critical theory.

The matter of existentialism allows for a curious segue into the next of Moyatori’s prompts – if we were to extend the ideas in existentialism to literary discourse, that meaning is dependent on the individual, the debate of whether or not all artwork is intrinsically political would be reduced to a matter of personal preference. There are no correct answers for which side of the coin holds true, since whether or not one views a work as political is governed by their experience and background, and so as long as the decision was made by an individual with agency (obtusely, anyone who does not draw upon retweets and upvotes to shape their world views), both perspectives are potentially valid. Some works are naturally more political than others by definition: Tom Clancy’s The Division 2, for instance, can be seen as a commentary on whether or not governments can be trusted in times of crisis, whether or not individuals should act in collective or individual interests and understanding the motives behind our opponents is critical, especially if one does not have a full picture of whom they serve. While it is perfectly fine to approach The Division 2 as a game where the object is to blow stuff up and collect increasingly cool toys to play with, the setting and topics of The Division 2 naturally invite political discussion. Similarly, anime such as GochiUsa are inherently difficult to draw politics into – Cocoa and Chino becoming closer to one another as a result of their adventures is far removed from topics of ecological responsibility and whether or not social issues are a valid reason for imposing sanctions on a nation’s economy. For this particular issue, I fall back on an old classic that my instructors and PIs in the Health Sciences programme stated to be valid: it depends. Here, the outcome hardly matters – whether or not art is inherently political is secondary to how thoughtful the discussion is, and whether or not discussions can remain civil by steering clear of ad hominem attacks, as is usually the case when upvotes or retweets are involved.

  • There’s a reason why I’m not insistent on using the –isms of the philosophy, psychology and sociology worlds in all of my talks: in a conference for academics, using the terminology is critical because it streamlines communications; here on a casual anime blog such as this, there is not such a need. Being a good communicator means knowing the audience, and knowing what level of detail one should go into depending on who’s listening. The page quote is from Les Stroud: like Stroud, I’ve never been a stickler for the fancier terms for something because I’m not writing for a specialised reader who’s got a background in philosophy or psychology. I’m writing for any reader who is looking to know what I thought of something and what I got out of it. Sounding impressive isn’t half as important to me as being clear, and if being clear means keeping my concepts simple and cutting down on jargon, then that’s what I’ll do. For instance, if I said I optimised a networking call to ensure that two blocking-operations are not synchronous, that wouldn’t mean much to someone who isn’t a developer. For someone who isn’t familiar with programming, I would simply say I made a function run faster by making sure the screen isn’t waiting for two things to load before updating by reloading the screen whenever one thing is done first. Yes, that takes longer, but now, I’ve become very clear on what I’ve accomplished, and that clarity is worth it.

Finally, on the question of why anime does not invite the same breadth or depth of critical analysis as other works of fiction, such as literature and film, I do not believe that accessibility or popularity is the issue. The reason why we don’t take a philosophical hammer or psychology axe to works like GochiUsa, Girls und Panzer or Strike Witches is because those works do not naturally invite such discussion. Most anime is produced with the intent of entertaining its viewers, not creating a commentary on society or the human condition, and as such, finding any philosophical conversation or psychoanalysis on some series, especially slice-of-life and military-moé anime, is tricky because the work was not aimed at making a statement. Anime conducive towards such discussion do exist, and when properly written, can be as insightful on society as something like Charles Dickens, H.G. Wells or Leo Tolstoy’s novels. The reality is, however, such works are inherently fewer, and there are similarly works that may appear to utilise deep, complex themes and ideas, but utterly fail to adequately (or even correctly) wield them. With this being said, a good analyst can find meaning and insight in almost anything they watch: even if one does not have a particularly strong command of the different theories and principles behind philosophy and psychology, it remains more than possible to write about and participate in discussions on the less obvious facets of a work. The point of critically evaluating a work is to see what the work’s aims were, and how well it conveys its messages, rather than demonstrate one’s familiarity in principles taught in undergraduate courses, and as such, I’ve seen and participated in discussions where folks without a formal background have brought insightful, meaningful thoughts to the conversation. The take-away message here is that critical thinking and literary analysis can occur in all forms, and just because someone does not have a grasp of the terminology does not mean that they understand something to a lesser extent than someone who is happy to throw around –isms all day. Folks who keep an open mind and appreciate that analysis can be conducted in more informal terms will find that critical analysis of anime does exist, having the additional benefit of not requiring the same academic rigour as something like a term paper.

One response to “Controversed: Moyatori’s November Workshop (Part III), Considering What Lies Beyond Existentialism in the Execution of Sora no Woto

  1. Pingback: Controversed Showcase: 2020 November – The Moyatorium

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