If you’ve watched anime before, you’ve probably seen Tokyo on screen. It’s the neon cityscapes of Akira, the mechanized skyline of Tokyo 3 and the underground train system of Mawaru Penguindrum. It’s taken for granted that when the world is about to end, giant monsters are about to attack or a freakish discovery is about to occur in a work of Japanese media, it’s going to happen in Tokyo. At the same time, the ubiquity of Tokyo breeds familiarity. All it takes is a crowded train, a crosswalk, telephone wires, and you see the city’s shadow. The city itself though? That remains out of reach.
Someday’s Dreamers: Natsu no Sora is a series about a girl named Sora who goes to Tokyo to learn how to perform magic. But it doesn’t look anything like any other version of the city I’ve seen on screen. All of the show’s backgrounds are constructed out of photographs taken by series director Osamu Kobayashi. As a relative novice to anime production, I don’t know what black magic the staff used to transpose animated characters onto real-life photos without breaking the illusion. For me, though, it works. I was able to follow Sora’s adventures through the city without ever doubting the emotional reality of what I was seeing.
There’s something more to it than just “photographs,” though. Other anime have attempted Natsu no Sora’s grand trick, but few are as successful. I’d even say that it goes beyond “technique.” In addition to compositing and the photography itself, it’s the choice of locations that sets Natsu no Sora’s Tokyo apart for me. For instance, take this homey dive bar Sora’s instructor likes to visit. It’s cluttered with signage and T-shirts, bordered by cables. The little animated figure there is almost dwarfed by the claustrophobia surrounding him. Yet there’s something warm and cozy about the red and brown colors, the casual stack of chairs in the corner, and how the darkness is set off by the light emanating from the window above:
So many anime backgrounds set in cities like Tokyo can’t help but deliver simple, realistic versions of what you’d expect. Kobayashi and his team give you something more: not just a bar that you’d like to visit, but a bar you could swear that Kobayashi has almost certainly visited himself. Other location shots are hilarious jokes. This one’s my favorite:
At the beginning of the series, Sora arrives at her homestay only to realize that her new bedroom is a shrine to classic rock music. It’s funny because Kobayashi himself is a big music nerd, drawing on his love of underground rock and punk in shows like BECK and Paradise Kiss. But it’s also funny because I remember the room at the homestay where I slept in the Chinese city of Kunming: every wall and lamp was covered with posters and stickers celebrating the Taiwanese boy band Fahrenheit.
The secret to Natsu no Sora’s magic is its specificity. The show’s version of Tokyo has plenty of trains, crosswalks and wires, but its sympathies are with the back alleys and cafes. The show’s Greek chorus and most important secondary character is a singer we see playing her guitar each night on the street. Another series (perhaps even an ambitious one) might make her a one-off visual gag, and forget her. But Natsu no Sora keeps bringing her back. At times she speaks to the main cast, or gives them directions. Passers-by clap and sing along to her songs. She’s given a scene to herself in the show’s epilogue, along with Sora’s fellow classmates and teachers, because she was as much a part of Sora’s experience in Tokyo as they were. We learn from the lyrics of her final performance that even if she didn’t know Sora well, Sora’s presence meant something to her too.
Part of the magic of animation is that no project is made by just one person. As much independent work as Kobayashi did for this project, you can’t ignore the work of the scriptwriter, the composer, the animation directors and everyone else who contributed to make Natsu no Sora what it was. But in the same way that Natsu no Sora would be very different without the woman singing on the street, I think you’d have a totally different series if Kobayashi wasn’t there. It’s his eye for detail, mediated by his staff, that gives us Sora’s perspective on Tokyo. Maybe not the real Tokyo, but the Tokyo they chose, one that could never be mistaken for anybody else’s.
Natsu no Sora’s Tokyo gleams with possibility, but is finite. The show itself is twelve episodes long; it begins with Sora preparing for her trip to Tokyo, and ends with her return. In the final episode, she dies of a terminal illness whose shadow haunts her from the first episode. In the same way, Osamu Kobayashi died of cancer at the age of fifty-seven. We will never know what might have happened if Sora was more fortunate, if she had not inherited her father’s illness: could she have lived? What would Tokyo look like through an older Sora’s eyes? We’ll never know. Natsu no Sora isn’t just about the Tokyo we do see, but the Tokyo we don’t. Because the heroine, and the creators themselves, only had so much time.
I’ve never been to Tokyo; as a child passing through Japan my family would visit Narita by train between flights, but the city has always remained beyond my reach. With the Covid-19 pandemic raging across the planet, I don’t know when I’ll have a chance to visit. But I have Kobayashi’s Tokyo, and Sora’s Tokyo. I’m sure the real Tokyo is different. I’m sure my Tokyo would be different. But looking through these photographs, at what they chose to share and reveal, I think I understand their point of view. Maybe that’s all you can ask for from a work of art.
And don’t forget: