One of my pet gripes about anime and manga is the over-abundance of school settings used throughout both mediums. Over the last few years there has been an increase in the number of stories that are based in or around a school, and while the majority of them are nothing more than mediocre offerings, some of them turn out to be rather good.
It's unfortunate then that, of the good ones, many don't get the recognition they deserve.
Sora no Manimani (lit. Sport of the Air, not "At the Mercy of the Sky"), is based on the manga by Kashiwabara Mami that began in November 2005 and, at first glance, seems like just another school based comedy in the style of School Rumble, GA, Azumangah Daioh, etc. The story follows a "year" in the life of Ooyagi Saku, a freshmen student at Souei High School, located in the town he and his family lived in 7 years ago. Because of his love for books and reading, he is eager to join the school's famous Literature club, however he is somehow roped into joining the school's newly formed Astronomy club by a girl he hasn't seen for a long time.
As far as stories go, this is a surprisingly simple and straightforward affair. While the concept of childhood friends has been used innumerable times in countless variations, Sora no Manimani is unusual in that the scenario doesn't follow the stereotypical conventions. There is no sudden blossoming of romance, no harem (even though some of the girls in the show are clearly interested in Saku), and mostly importantly, matters are allowed to progress slowly. Unlike many other shows of this type, the honesty of the plot, coupled with a healthy dose of comic relief and pacing that allows a degree of introspection amongst the characters, gives the show the same kind of feel that the original To Heart has.
That's not to say that the plot is perfect though. The series adopts a quasi-educational stance with regards to astronomy, and explanations abound throughout the show. That said, those who have any kind of interest in astronomy or outer space will find these tidbits rather pleasing, and the fact that they are presented in a manner that maintains the flow of the story allows the viewer to absorb the information without disturbing their enjoyment of the show.
Sora no Manimani is a bit of a dichotomy in terms of it's looks. Generally the series adopts a style of presentation and animation that isn't really any different from most other school based shows. The characters are all fairly plain in terms of design (although I did chuckle at the reference to Saku's "Ghibli hairstyle"), and the series makes good use of various comic styles to enhance the viewer's amusement. The backgrounds and backdrops are nicely presented, and are surprisingly detailed in a number of scenes. CG is also well incorporated, and while it's sometimes easy to spot those moments, this doesn't impinge on one's enjoyment of the series.
I will mention one thing that separates Sora no Manimani from the herd though, and that is the numerous, varying, and highly detailed skies that appear throughout the show. Given that there is a heavy emphasis on astronomy, it's to be expected that the sky would appear several times in any one episode. It's to the credit of Studio Comet then, that they have produced some of the best skies to appear in anime over the last few years. They're so good in fact, that the viewer may find themselves wondering if the real thing is just as good, such is the detail and sophistication of their presentation.
One of the things that I liked about this show is that it's easy on the ears. The OP, "Super Noisy Nova" by Sphere, is a nicely choreographed J-Pop track with an upbeat feel. The ED, "Hoshikuzu no Surround" by CooRie, is also pure J-Pop, but has a much more melodic style. Both tracks, surprisingly, maintain the spirit of the show very well, and while I'm not a huge fan of pop in any form, I found that these two tracks worked well with the series proper.
Generally the show doesn't really place great emphasis on the use of mood music, with much of the series having no background accompaniment. That said, the tracks that are present are well used, and lend to the atmosphere of the scene.
In terms of acting, the cast provide a repsectable portrayal of their respective characters, however there are no Oscar winners here. While the cast is able to emote rather well, the type of story, as well as the scripting, precludes the need for any stellar performances.
That said, I have to admit that I did like the characters.
Since the advent of Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu there has been a glut of school based slice-of-life comedies involving a selection of odd characters from the annals of anime - Lucky Star, K-On, Seitokai no Ichizon, Geijustuka Art Design Class, Hyakko, etc. The one thing that each of these shows has in common is that character development doesn't really play a big part and the jokes are set to rapid fire. Sora no Manimani bears a striking resemblance to all of these shows in that there is a lot of humour, however this is tempered by some degree of development, especially where Saku is concerned.
While the development of the other characters is sporadic at best, the show does present events in a fairly realistic manner, and although there is some predictability with regards to how the story will go, the show makes good use of what it has. In this respect the characters, while mainly being funny, are also more easily accepted by the viewer, especially when events take a more serious turn.
That said, the characters are generally one dimensional, and while this isn't necessarily abad thing in a comedy, it does sometimes impact on how the viewer perceives any development that occurs.
I will admit that I do like astronomy and comedy, so watching Sora no Manimani was an enjoyable experience for me. Whilst the humour is a tad juvenile at times, there is enough variety in the gags to keep the viewer interested, and the surprisingly detailed explanations of astronomy make a nice counterpoint to all the humour. Also, the characters, especially Mihoshi, radiate an excitement for the subject matter that made me remember what I was like as a kid first looking up at the stars.
All in all, Sora no Manimani is a surprisingly enjoyable series that, while having it's flaws, displays a passion for it's related subject matter that many other shows lack. It's this passion that makes the show far more enjoyable than it would normally be, and while the series may not be to everyone's tastes, the honesty in which the series is presented allows the viewer to relate more with the characters.
After all, sometimes it's nice to watch something that's just.... nice.