Toaru Hikuushi e no Koiuta could be a poster child for any number of phrases: a mixed bag. Scratching the surface. Leaving a lot on the table. In sum, there’s an awful lot that can be picked apart with this series, and the flaws are pretty glaring when you really step back and consider them. But on balance I think it was pretty enjoyable – more so than it probably should have been considering those flaws – and I’m pleased that it ended on a fairly strong note.
If there was ever a series that really could have used two cours to tell its story, Toaru Hikuushi was it. There was no way the finale could be more than a superficial attempt to deal with the innumerable hanging plot threads and unexplained gaps in exposition, and it wasn’t. But it did get something right that seems so simple, yet is muffed by so many shows – it actually had an ending that felt like an ending. That’s pretty important in my view, and even a finale that doesn’t resolve everything can still feel like a conclusion.
That finale started out rather weakly in this case, with another unannounced timeskip (about two years, it seems). Worse, it then explained the mechanics behind its world setting with the worst kind of exposition, people standing around explaining it to each other obviously for no purpose but to let the audience in on the secret. The explanation itself was fine – a “staircase” world of three oceans, will the water effectively recycled by the Spring of Life – it was the manner of explanation that rankled me. On balance this feels very much like a Last Exile scenario, and this world very much like an artificial construction.
All in all it wasn’t a promising start, but things improved quickly with the return of the Isla mission to Balestros. I very much like the character of Michael and the older sisters are OK too, and the family scenes from the first episode (and flashbacks) were some of the best in the series. The family reunion was the emotional highlight of the episode, though the main event is Karl revealing his identity to the crowds gathered to welcome the mission home. Michael cynically – and quite correctly – points out the irony in the government throwing a big welcoming party for a bunch of outcasts effectively exiled for being inconvenient. But Cervantes has a plan – to use Karl’s declaration of love for Nina Viento to rally the public behind the idea of going back to the Sky Clan and bringing her home.
Did the crowd go from refusing to believe Karl was even really the Prince to buying into his story too quickly to be realistic? Of course – but the funny thing is there’s more than a little truth in the notion that such drama is what tends to sway public opinion, and it can’t be denied that Karl’s is a pretty dramatic story. As is often the case with this series I’m probably more forgiving of its silliness than I should be because I liked the way it was presented. What all this means is Karl – now with a prototype single-seat fighter that looks on par with Sky Clan technology – joining the mission to find Claire and bring her home. It also means another tearful family goodbye and Ariel finally making official the ill-kept secret that she’s in love with Karl. That wasn’t my favorite part of the ep and Ari isn’t my favorite character by a long stretch (she gets one last chance to be especially annoying here) and I could happily have made do without either.
While much is left unsettled this still plays like an actual conclusion, and that’s good enough for me. There’s too much packed into the postscript – the bombshell that Shizuka (“The RA”) is a spy, likely for the Sky Clan just for starters. We get codas for most of Karl’s classmates too, and one last dogfight with assistance from the mysterious Lavamme pilot but no confirmation of his identity (I think we can guess) and while we never actually get to see Karl rescue Claire, it’s pretty strongly implied that it’s going to happen – and she even (unless he’s imagining it) uses the wind to speak to him. It’s an open ending, but it feels like the last episode just the same.
I can never read through one of my posts on this show and find the justification for enjoying it as much as I often did, but Toaru Hikuushi is simply a case where the whole is more than the sum of the parts. There were a few clunker episodes, don’t get me wrong, but considering how clumsy the narrative often was and how many outright silly moments there were, I shouldn’t have liked the series as much as I did. As I said earlier, I think there’s a sprawling, romantic epic trapped inside a low-budget one-cour show here, and there are enough moments when its true nature shows through to give it a real charm.
That said, it’s pretty hard not to think about what might have been. Have been, if this had been another movie from Madhouse or a two-cour series from a studio who could provide the visuals to do the imagination of the story justice. There’s some lovely art here, but the lack of resources certainly shows through (especially in the big action sequences). But that’t not what we got, and what we got was still pretty good. Good enough, in fact, to make me hope this isn’t the last animation we see in this mythology – light-novelist Inumura Koroku has a vision, romantic sensibility and gift for scale that gives the material a distinctiveness no matter what the packaging. He’s an interesting and talented writer, and even if Toari Hikuushi e no Koiuta isn’t the finest adaptation we could have hoped for, it does at least give us a sense of his gifts.