Laughing Under the Clouds is a very strong character drama, supported by some world-focused drama and some action sequences. Even on a superficial level, this anime puts on a strong face, making it interesting for viewers of all levels of experience. It’s full of twists and turns that slowly reveal a larger and more complicated story. Much of the complexity comes from subtlety and attention to detail, which ends up making this anime a Masterpiece (albeit at the lower end).
Purpose: Masterpiece. This is an anime that is difficult to talk about without spoiling it. Generally, the anime is about Tenka, the oldest brother of three. It’s generally split into two parts – the first half is about the man himself and the second is about the effect he has on other people. The camera generally follows Soramaru, the second brother, who is also the viewer’s point of entry. Although the first and last episodes were pretty much the weakest, the anime is strong enough throughout to forgive those weaknesses.
What is particularly special about the purpose is the constant eye on the details. They properly added subtle cues and details that served as foreshadowing. When looking back, there are lots of little things that set the stage for big reveals that, while surprising, are not out of the blue. In addition, they manage the flow of information in such a way that the anime is constantly evolving the viewer’s understanding of characters. Basically, they manage the viewer’s perception and attention in a really powerful way. One of the easiest examples is with the theme of the anime, contained in the title “Laughing Under the Clouds.” Even here, they manage to constantly evolve the viewer’s understanding of that phrase as the anime goes on. This afforded them great control over the mood, which they used to great effect.
Characters: Excellent. One of the best points of the character development was that we were shown depth – personality, character, and motive. All three of those were developed through characters acting and reacting to events in the world. Character development itself included both the viewer’s evolving understanding of some characters as well as other characters evolving based on events that happened.
The absolute strongest and most well developed character was Tenka. He was the star of the show, both in his personality and his character. Most of the other main cast were strong in their own right and had a solid amount of depth to them. If brief, they do manage to grow characters to the point that you’re involved in all these characters’ lives. Even certain side characters had an appropriate amount of depth and even growth for their place in the story.
World: Excellent. There’s ninjas, magic, giant snakes and some indescribable weapons all set in the early Meiji era. While it may sound crazy when listed like that, they’re combined with the practical in such a way that they don’t seem out of place. Rather, they’re an organic part of the world, not tacked on. Perhaps a part of this was a result of the really interesting blending of eras – pre-Meji, Meji, and some modern thrown in there. The modern flair ends up making it more easily accessible because it’s prevents it from feeling stuffy, like many period dramas.
That aside, there are many different “factions,” or groups of actors that each have their own interests. They often have different goals and motives for acting which puts them at cross purposes. Here also, is a lot of subtlety – alliances shift, allegiances shift, and motives change. If you’re not paying attention, keeping track of who’s doing what can become a bit confusing.
One final note, the costuming was really fantastic. There were lots of really interesting and distinctive getups.
Plot: Excellent. The basic structure of the plot was pretty standard, providing a good series of challenges and resolutions for the characters. Generally speaking, there were two large sets of plots – one involving the brothers, and one involving the world. Ultimately, they were blended together pretty well by the end. The brothers’ plot was a plot of discovery – it was more about growing up and learning the bigger, darker, and harder aspects of adult life and the sacrifices adults make for children. The world-focused plot appears to be a standard fantasy saving the world plot, but there’s a lot more going on under the surface. The undertone can be summed up as “overcoming the past.” Here, it represents confronting grief, anger, and sadness on the road to saving the world.
Storytelling: Masterpiece. Overall, they managed three separate storylines quite well and tied them together fairly seamlessly. Part of the strength of the storytelling lies in how they made a place for everything and every character. More specifically, everything had some role to play. On a broader note, it was the little things and the attention to detail that strengthened the story. The details ranged from trivial to extremely important, but lots of the important details were subtle and often easy to miss. On the trivial end, a guy who loses his tooth early on is always missing a tooth. On the important side, the demeanor by which one character treats another ends up being extremely subtle foreshadowing of later events. For that matter, the character relationships were built in such a powerful fashion that even you will be caught up when things go south.
A final note – the buildup through episode 6 was truly exceptional. If taken alone, it’s one of the standout story arcs that are extremely hard to find in anime . Even though episode 6 was such a powerful climax, they still manage to hold a strong amount of interest and intrigue through the resolution. While the resolution wasn’t exactly the strongest, the rest of the storytelling was strong enough to carry its weight.
Pace: Excellent. Quite a strong pace throughout. One of the most interesting choices was proving a “break” episode after episode 6 and before characters deal with the aftermath. The break provided a great deal of context to what was going on and set the stage for what was to come. It also let you reset so that you were ready to start dealing with the aftermath along the characters.