Mahoutsukai ni Taisetsu na Koto: Natsu no Sora

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Before talking about the show with any depth I think two disclaimers are probably in order, one major and one minor. The minor disclaimer is that I am not familiar with Osamu Kobayashi’s work as a whole and with how personal this project is I’m certain a more complete look would include his history as an artist.

The major disclaimer is that I watched this series in Japanese, a language I am far from fluent in. While I am confident I picked up the major beats of the story I doubtlessly missed a fair bit of nuance and I think people should take that into account and decide for themselves what my opinion is worth.

I honestly didn’t expect to even watch this show when I hit play. I certainly didn’t expect to end up loving it.

I hit play on a whim, having been told that for my particular aesthetics the backgrounds would probably put me off of the series, and at first that was certainly the case. What I didn’t expect was that before even hitting the opening credits the direction of the series would have already grabbed me.

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Photographed Backgrounds

There is a very particular pace to the direction, and the show as a whole. The second shot of the series is of Sora picking and eating a tomato but the first is of her house. Over both shots you hear the sounds of her rustling the plants and plucking the fruit before she ever comes into view. Over the next shot we hear the sound of a bike being rolled off the property before the bike comes into view, over the shots of her biking we hear a phone dial before we cut into an in progress conversation in the city. From the lag between audio and the associated shots a very lazy and relaxed tone is instantly established.

If not always with these exact techniques this pace is indicative of the flow of the entire series. Rarely do you see a show so at peace with itself, slow moving but with a clear destination in mind.

Obviously a lot of that clarity has to be placed on the staff which is among the most focused you’ll ever see in anime. Every storyboard is handled by Osamu Kobayashi himself. Every background comes from photographs he directly took. He directed (and provided animation for) the opening and ending. He directed 4 episodes and worked as an animation director and key animator across the most essential points in the series.

It’s frankly an absurd level work for one person to put on themselves but the results are clear. On top of that the entire series is scripted by Norie Yamada the original writer. Like I said, it doesn’t get much more focused than that.

On the animation front you had a relatively small list of animators and AD’s. I would call attention to Director and Animation Director Hori Motonobu and special animator Kenichi Kutsuna both of which ensured an excellent episode whenever their names popped up in the credits.

Visually my favorite choice in the series is a heavy focus on letting scenes play out at often significant distance, and a corresponding de-emphasis on facial expression. Often characters have little more than dots for eyes and a smiley face but through carefully considered movement of the full bodies the characters emotions are still easily conveyed. Despite the animation being loose and the designs being simple there are few series that feel more real and grounded.

Something you quickly notice in the series is it’s very rare to have a long shot with background characters who are fully static. One stand out example to me was this scene where we start on a conversation between two members of the main cast. As soon as the kids in the background start moving we flip perspective and get to watch them while the previously focused conversation is relegated to the background. The series is full of a casually wandering eye and I can only assume these shifts were heavily detailed in Osamu Kobayashi’s storyboards.

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Characters in Distance

These distances shots also move the photographed backgrounds from being a purely aesthetic choice into a functional one. The initially jarring separation of characters from the background allows the focus to be clearly directed even when the body is only taking up only a 10th of the image.

At this point I want to talk about the ending so if you for some reason read this far without watching the series it’s time to hope off the train.

In the last few episodes of the series we take a turn and it becomes clear that Suzuki Sora is not going to be okay and the general melancholy of the series was not an incidental choice. What is powerful to me in the way it progresses is how often undramatic it is.

Yes, Gota has a deep misunderstanding. Yes, he does dramatically search for Sora and they have a simple conversation, direct and frank. But then just as quickly we return to normalcy the very next day with a basic graduation ceremony and celebration. Eventually we get a series of shots on empty streets as Sora leaves the city alone, goal accomplished.

There is something I find deeply honest in the approach the series takes to death that I’m not sure I can fully convey. Where it has visited me in my life has felt exactly the same, a series of peaks and valleys. Emotional turmoil, hope, and despair all mixed in a pot but even the strongest soup you can’t drink all the time. When dealing with a long term illness things get twisted up and bad news can feel like something to hang onto because it at least isn’t no news at all. Mystery can be the scariest thing and for Suzuki Sora there was no mystery. The jumps in her dramatic conversation with Gota between tears, fear and quiet recognition felt deeply real and relatable. Sometimes things are desperate and sometimes they are normal in waves.

The last episode of the series is perfect from beginning to end. It would be easy to have Gota drop everything and rush to be by her side before she passes. We could have a long funeral scene where everyone discusses what Sora meant to them so we cement that she made an impact and won’t be lost in their memories like she feared.

But we don’t. Gota loved Sora but still has his own life to live, by the time we see him travel to Hokkaido its been 5 years and his hair has grown long. Despite everything time kept moving.

My favorite scene in the show is a conversation between Gota and a woman who he stopped for directions. The whole scene plays out at distance and till this point we haven’t seen Gota’s face but from the conversation it becomes clear who he is and that he is speaking to Sora’s mother.

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Gota and Sora’s Mother

From the moment he asks about the old tree it’s clear that she has figured out exactly who it is but the series manages to avoid the drama even here and she decides to just point him on his way — and toss him one of the tomatoes Sora loved. The very same way Sora knew it was enough to bring the proof she became a mage back to the tree she knew that he was there for her and needed no more.

In the end Gota finally tries the tomatoes Sora talked about. In the end she gets to see the ocean he promised.

Waves roll in and waves roll out.

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