Amazing Grace: How Strange the Sound?

What do the captain of a 19th century slave ship, a military trumpeter, a bionically enhance school girl, and sentient coral have in common? Not very much, except that the hymn “Amazing Grace” signaled a turning point for each of them (and the last one is, admittedly, a bit of a stretch). The captain in question was John Newton who had, after a life of hardship and tragedy, penned the words to the hymn after getting caught in a terrible storm at sea. His story is better known since 2006 when the movie “Amazing Grace” about the efforts to end the transatlantic slave trade. His words, set most often to the tune “New Britain,” have become iconic inclusions to funerals, memorial services, and tales of redemption, but the hymn’s appearance in Sora no Woto, Speedgrapher, and Eureka 7 are a little different. Let’s take a little time to look at each in their context and see how hymn provides a lens through which to analyze anime and anime provides lens to interpret this most popular hymn.

Grace from the trumpet solo voice

The world of Sora no Woto is one that holds nearly forgotten echos of the world in which most of us live. The characters make their way in a world that seems to know little besides war. Music has become the possession of the military (such that the idea that music was taught in schools is hard for the girl-soldiers to believe). That doesn’t stop it from becoming the sound of the sky (the translation of the title) for the main character who volunteers for the service and finds herself transferred to a remote base far from the front “manned” by other girls about her age. For our main character the tune first breaks through the most sorrowful day of her life: caught in the midst of war and distraught over her mother’s death Kanata was left alone to cry until a trumpeter appeared and began to play. As the strains of the music rise to the sky, they seem to become the sky … to be coming from the sky. The song pushes the clouds away, the sun breaks through, the song and the musician returns hope to the lost little girl.

The scene from episode three calls to mind the words of the third verse: “Through many dangers toils and snares, I have already come. ‘Tis grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” Grace is a tricky concept theologically, but one way to understand it was described by Paul Tillich the Existential Theologian. For him, the experience of grace is to, “simply accept that you are accepted!” He describes it in terms of a reunion and that is the sense of grace that this third verse describes. Despite having lost much, Kanata has been able to find herself and the way forward. Later in the episode “Amazing Grace” teaches one further lesson. Up to this point in the show we have only heard the song in solo voices, but for some reason the tank has a recording that begins with a trumpet solo, but continues with a full orchestration. Rio explains that (and I’m stretching to universalize) that the human community is like the way that all the instruments play together with no useless parts and make it a richer and fuller sound that one voice (even if that voice is really cool) is capable. Rio shows grace to Kanata.

Kagura sings her heart out in Speedgrapher episode 5

The starting place for Speedgrapher is a much darker place than Sora no Wotoand highlights well the differences between shojou and seinen titles. Caught up in a depraved world of sex, drugs, violence, and corruption the young female protagonist and her photographer protector seek refuge among drag queens in a seedy bar. When asked to sing she simply and without adornment offers the first verse. In the light of the optical difficulties her companion will experience later on the line “was blind, but now I see” carries extra significance, but I want to focus on the song’s commentary on the character of Kagura herself. In the scene just before her surprising stage debut, Kagura visits with the queens backstage. She wonders at their vitality and their freedom. She has a reason to feel the lack of both in her own life, but she has begun to know the difference for herself between being lost and found, between blind obedience and seeing just how big the world is, and that she has a place in it.

There is a delicious juxtaposition between the apparent corruption of the surrounds and the seeming innocence of the song. However in her loving regard for those around her Kagura reveals that the surroundings aren’t really that dirty, and in our knowledge of her backstory we know that there is no greater wretch in need of grace than the seemingly pure singer. This is the promise of grace that the first lines hold out. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” Like Captain Newton, Kagura seems to feel heavily the weight of her wretchedness, but like the eventually good Newton, she hold out the hope that there can be restitution even for the most desperate situations.

Renton and Eureka can understand the jubilation present in "Amazing Grace"

As Renton and Eureka move closer towards the conclusion of Eureka 7 the opening sequence for the last 11 episodes plays out to the tune “Sakura” by NIRGILIS which uses “Amazing Grace” as a background upon which to lay a thoroughly happy vocal track. It call to mind the 4th verse’s promise “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we first began.” The ultimate outcome of grace as experienced by Newton is an eternally joyous life. Eureka and Renton seek perhaps not an eternity filled with praises to God, but the more immediate peace of securing a way for everyone to be able to live the lives they were meant, and to be with the people that they desire to be near. The joyous strains of “Amazing Grace” give the hint that maybe there is indeed room for us all at the Welcome Feast.

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