Tag Archives: Japan

“Yuki Yuna is a Hero” and Me

21 Dec

By: Stephanie Weirich

Yuki Cover

(WARNING: If you are presently watching “Yuki Yuna is a Hero” but have not watched the most recent episode, or if you aren’t watching it but think you might at some point, I highly advise you to click away because I am about to spoil the fuck out of it for you)

Here is the most personal question I will ever ask of you: Have you ever been diagnosed with a chronic, incurable illness?

And here is the most personal admission I will ever make to you: I have.

In September of 2013 I fell ill. Incredibly ill. So ill that I woke each day surprised to be alive. And this illness lasted so long that at a certain point, when the pain had been so constant, so unrelenting, I stopped thinking that waking up alive was a blessing.

Finally, the last week of September, I ended up in the ER. After one CT scan and a colonoscopy I was diagnosed with an illness called Ulcerative Colitis. This is a chronic, incurable illness that causes my immune system to attack my large intestine, leading to immense pain and bleeding ulcers in the wall of my large intestine.

As of now, according to all medical science and opinion, I will have this disease for the rest of my life. While I take medication that allows me to function (mostly) normally, this will always be something I will have to deal with and the cost it has placed upon my life is immense and permanent. I will always have days where I wake up wracked with a red hot pain that prevents me from doing much more than suffering silently. There are places I can never travel to because should I get a stomach virus, it’s pretty much guaranteed that I will be out of commission for a great length of time. My chances of getting bowel cancer have sky rocketed and the possibility that I may someday need a colostomy bag is very real. I will always have to be careful with what I eat, what I do, where I go and I will always need to know where a bathroom is at all times (but hey, I can definitely tell you which places in the greater Seattle area have the cleanest facilities).

These are the facts of my life now. The ABCs of my existence.

Why I am telling you this at all, but in particular, why am I telling you this now? Because it is important. Because it is an integral part of who I am. Because now, for better or worse, it shapes how I view everything and how everything affects me. And that includes anime.

If you have ever wondered why I promptly disappeared, why my writing for this site has been sporadic at best, this is why. This diagnosis and its effect on my life has been the most difficult thing I have ever experienced and I have struggled to make sense of it all since then. And as with so many other times of struggle, this time too I turned to anime to cope.

At times this coping took the form of hiding from emotional engagement. For a time, my greatest solace was to come home, smoke as much pot as I could reasonably handle (as it turns out, when you have a chronic, painful bowel disease, the gatekeepers of the medical marijuana licenses just sort of hand you a card the minute you show up) and then zone out with anime. The fluffier the better. The gentler the better. I turned to comedies, like “Engaged to the Unidentified” or “Arakawa Under the Bridge”. I sought out shows that would (hopefully) make me believe that the world was still a good place, a kind place, such as “Natsume Yuujinchou.” But the common theme around what I sought out was that I was looking for ways to escape. I wanted to see things that would help me forget the reality of my situation. The reality that I had lost something incredibly precious: the life I had always known.

The world would be a better place if we were all a little more like Natsume.

The world would be a better place if we were all a little more like Natsume.

Over the past year since my diagnosis, I have had to readjust to life as I know it. I have had to grieve the loss of a life that I took for granted. I have had to fight my way back to a new baseline of normalcy. And it has been the hardest thing I have ever done. So now, while I am not always ok, while I am not always at peace, while I still have days that I am angry, so very, very angry, I am better than I was a year ago. I am learning to cope. I am learning to be better. I am learning to be kinder to myself. I am learning how to face the possibility of my increasingly impaired future.

Motherfucking heroes and shit

Motherfucking heroes and shit

The combined impact of all of this now brings me to “Yuki Yuna is a Hero.” If you have been watching “Yuki Yuna is a Hero” then you know that it’s a magical girl show about the necessary and terrible sacrifices of heroism and the way friendship and love gives meaning to those sacrifices and that heroism. You also know that while this show started off gently, beautifully, with a muted pastel color palette that matched the gentleness of the day to day activities of our titular heroes, it has recently taken a darker turn. If you have been watching it, then you, like me, have been able to see all 5 girls—Yuna, Togo, Fu, Itsuki and Karin—grow into their responsibilities of being heroes while their bonds with each other intensify and deepen. We have watched the reality of their world test them in very real and horrifying ways, and we have learned the truth of that world together and with them.

And the truth of their world and their role in it is very simple: in order to be heroes, in order to save the gentle and beautiful world that they call their own, in order to use the immense powers that have been gifted to them to prepare them for this fight, they must sacrifice their bodies. Piece by piece, fight by fight, they must give themselves away, literally, for the greater good. They have been given an ultimate form, an ultimate power (just like in every other magical girl/shounen action show/anime with powers ever made) and every time they use this ultimate power, they will lose a part of themselves. At first, it’s something relatively minor. Togo loses hearing in her left ear, Yuna can longer taste anything, Itsuki can’t speak and Fu loses sight in her left eye. Karin is the one girl who does not use her ultimate form, and thus the one girl left unscathed. Not long after this though, they are introduced to another girl, an older hero, who has lost the ability to do anything other than lie in a hospital bed, gazing out at the world with her one good eye. This, we are told, is the very real cost of heroism: the total obliteration of the girl’s bodies. They are sacrifices, in the way that young girls are always sacrifices to deities and the greater good. They will lose everything, but they will be worshiped as gods and taken care of for the rest of their days.

All of the girls react accordingly, with Yuna the only girl who 100% accepts the responsibility of heroism and all of the terribleness that comes with it. Needless to say, some of the other girls, namely Togo, are not prepared to deal with the reality of their roles. Togo is so disgusted by this (and by an equally disturbing truth about the nature of the world itself) to such a degree that she decides the world must be destroyed to end this cycle of violence and sacrifice. This destruction leads to a dire, do or die situation, and all of the girls must decide to fight for the sake of each other and for the sake of this world.

#teamkarin

#teamkarin

This leads to Karin—a character who prior to her introduction to the other girls had no friends and no greater reason to fight other than that’s what she was told she had to do, a girl who has learned the ultimate value of her life through suddenly creating bonds with people who love her and that she loves in return—making the decision to fight for the sake of her beloved friends no matter the cost. And the cost is immense. As she fights a series of enemies, again and again she enters this ultimate state, each time visibly losing the use of a different body part. First it’s an arm, then a leg, then the other leg, then everything until she is rendered paralyzed, deaf and blind. The cost of her heroism, of her sacrifice, is a fate worse than death.

Now, you might be wondering how my earlier admission of chronic illness and Karin’s fate relate to one another. What I can tell you is that while I watched this scene unfold, while I watched her body be slowly taken from her, a creeping dread set in. I began to feel so overwhelmed, so devastated by this loss of mobility and person-hood that my stomach clenched like a fist while tears came to my eyes. Repeatedly, I found myself talking to my screen, saying “Stop”.

“Please stop.”

“Please don’t do this.”

“Please.”

Because I know what it is like to lose control over your body. I know what it is like to have the use of your body impeded and/or taken from you. Karin’s loss, even though she chose that loss and I did not choose mine, resonated with me on a much deeper and more personal level than I had anticipated. It has forced me to confront in a very real way many of the fears that my own illness inspires within me. On my worst days I have a very deep seated fear that over time, through this illness, my mobility, my person-hood, my body, will be eroded and destroyed, leaving me a shell of my former self, leaving me dependent upon people who love me more than I think I deserve. This fear keeps me awake at night. Now, I have fought to overcome this fear and with the help of family, friends and an excellent therapist, and every day I get closer to moving past it. “Yuki Yuna is a Hero” and Karin’s choice in particular, while it brings that fear to the surface, brings with it hope. Hope that I can always be stronger, that I can always be better, and that I can always learn to cope with the many vagaries and iniquities that life brings to us. I have hope that life has meaning beyond what I know now, that there is meaning in the bonds I share with others, that there is meaning to this illness. And while not perfect, this is perhaps my own personal conception of what heroism means to me: The ability to look at all that has been taken from me, and balance it against that which has been gifted to me, and realize that those gifts outweigh what has been lost. Like all of the girls in “Yuki Yuna is a Hero” have come to learn, the only thing that can be done is to keep moving forward with those that you love at your side, one step at a time.

I want to believe that Karin and myself, that all of us and the anime characters that we love can find the good in the world and in our lives. I want to believe that our personal sacrifices matter. I want to believe that we can all make peace with the consequences of our particular situations. This is one of the greater lessons that anime has the capacity to teach: that the world is good, that it is even better when we are good to each other and when we face whatever comes together. It is one of the many reasons why anime matters and why it has power. It is one of the main reasons I continue to turn to it and find solace in it throughout the many phases and turns that my life has taken. It is why I believe all of us come back to it again and again. It is a mirror that shows us our (maybe only slightly) better selves. It can give us a glimpse of a better future, a better world.

So tonight, let’s be a little kinder to ourselves and each other. Let’s be a little more understanding. Let’s be like Karin and all the girls of the Hero Club and find the greater good in ourselves and in each other. Let’s keep moving forward, together, even if there is fear in our hearts and tears in our eyes, because maybe one day if we try hard enough, there won’t be.

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Sailor Moon Crystal, or how Nostalgia will Eat us Alive

6 Jul

By: Stephanie Weirich

Reach for it you crazy dame.

Reach for it you crazy dame.

Well hey there guys!

I know, I know, it has been a while. A damn long while. And while I could give you a long and poignant description of the many difficult things that befell me and caused that long absence, I’d rather just get down to what I do best, which is talking about anime like a fucking champ.

So let’s do this damn thing!

As I’m sure you’re all aware, this week brought us the arrival of Sailor Moon Crystal, the much rumored about, often disbelieved, much anticipated reboot of the beloved “Sailor Moon” anime. Now, when I say much anticipated in conjunction to Sailor Moon, what I mean is full on hyperventilation, holy fuck I can’t even, I will die right now if I don’t get this thing, please dear god, I need this, etc and so forth level of anticipation from the Sailor Moon fan base. Shit is INTENSE y’all. And rightfully so, I would say, though I’m not personally a huge fan (if we’re talking about a 80’s-90’s Kunihiko Ikuhara joint, I’m a Revolutionary Girl Utena gal myself).

But you know you're always number one in my heart baby.

But you know you’re always number one in my heart baby.

Regardless of my own personal take on Sailor Moon, it is a phenomenon and I will take nothing from that. It is THE seminal magical girl anime, the absolute definitive series. It is responsible for the exponential and frenzied growth of the entire magical girl genre. It’s also one of those shows that hit when anime was making a name for itself on our shores and thus it’s one of those rarefied shows that got many anime fans into anime. I personally know quite a few people who grew up on Sailor Moon and know all of the Sailor’s transformations by heart and will gladly act them out for you (SERIOUSLY, ASK THEM). As such, it is also one of those few series that has had staying power within the collective consciousness of one fan base and it is incredibly beloved, hence all of the frothing at the mouth and the ringing of hands that occurred in the anime blogosphere leading up to the release of Sailor Moon Crystal. And again, I completely understand this. It’s all achingly familiar to me as someone who gets all sweaty palmed, fluttery hearted and crazy eyed just thinking about the next Evangelion film being released eventually.

Even after all of this fuckery

Even after all of this fuckery

So now we’re here, and it’s here and people are watching it and reviewing it. I’ve watched it, though this will not be a strict review. This is more a review of the reviews (INCEPTION). See, the thing that I’m finding is that this show is almost universally being touted as exceptional. Amazing. Magnificent. Excellent. A whole lot of adjectives all amounting to this thing being fucking awesome and totally worth the years of teasing and waiting. It’s a breathless torrent of near reproachable positivity.

But here’s the thing. Sailor Moon Crystal is not actually good. It is a derivative mess with poor pacing, poor dialogue, a truly obnoxious performance by the lead voice actress and a narrative that relies on its audience knowing how this will all go. It is not the worst anime I have seen (because I have seen School Days), but it is not even close to being worthy of the absolutely glowing reviews it’s receiving.

Seriously, fuck you School Days.

Seriously, fuck you School Days.

I know, I know, I’m a real Debbie Fucking Downer who just wants to jump on the hate bandwagon when something comes out that other people love that I don’t. And I’m sure that this one post will attract many people who will say I am exactly that, and so be it. But I am not here to rain on your parade, really. This piece isn’t ultimately about the quality of Sailor Moon Crystal. Ultimately, what I’m talking about is why we can’t have an actual, measured discussion about the actual quality of Sailor Moon Crystal. And the reason we can’t do that is because of nostalgia.

Like I mentioned above, the original Sailor Moon was a juggernaut of fandom, rolling over all in its path. It is a series that has been writ large across the imaginations of an entire generation. There is simply too much passion, too much love for the property, for it to not breed a highly protective form of nostalgia around it and all discussions about it. This is a franchise incredibly near and dear to many people’s hearts, and so they have inflated its value and quality to a near mythic level that is impossible to approach, let alone criticize and we are seeing that now in the reviews for Sailor Moon Crystal that have been cropping up.

Nostalgia is a powerful thing, and it is a feeling that is especially familiar to those of us who came of age in the 90’s. We’re the target audience for all things nostalgia, whether that be Ninja Turtles, Rainbow Bright, Transformers or Sailor Moon, we’re dying to eat up anything that reminds us of our simpler childhoods. It’s most likely a reaction to the swift and remarkable way our world has changed in our very short lifetimes, though that’s just a theory. What can be said is that nostalgia destroys our capacity to be objective. Whether or not that’s good or bad is a personal decision, but it does not make it any less of a salient fact.

How warm are your fuzzies on a scale of 1 to SCALDING

How warm are your fuzzies on a scale of 1 to SCALDING

Because nostalgia inflates the inherent value of something within our mind, it also inflates its importance to us. Our loving of something like Sailor Moon, something that we discovered in the heady and idealized days of our youth, ties it intrinsically to our very selves. Our love for it, our fandom, becomes a deeply important part of our very identity (this is especially true for people who actively participate in Sailor Moon fandom, i.e. cosplayers, fan fic authors, etc). And thus, we cannot handle the idea that something that is so much a part of us could possibly be bad. As a reaction to this very notion, we set about mythologizing this thing that we love, turning it into that hallowed masterpiece that is beyond reproach. And now, if this thing that we love is thought to be less than great by someone else, we don’t just take it as someone not agreeing with our taste, we take it as an insult to our very selves, because this thing is not just something that we love it is very much a part of us and our identity.

In a sense, this is also a way of justifying our very rabid fandom. We’re very afraid of people laughing at what we love, especially us anime fans because people laugh at the things we love all the fucking time. People think the very thing we gravitate towards is childish and not worthy of being taken seriously. This makes us an especially prickly and defensive bunch when it comes to what we love, particularly if we think we’re being attacked by others within our community. And again, I’m not here to attack anyone for loving Sailor Moon.

What I am saying is that we need to recognize our biases. We need to recognize the impact our nostalgia has on the conversations we’re having and the perspectives we’re presenting when we talk about or review anime. We do not need to justify our fandom to anyone. We do not need to justify ourselves and the things that we like to anyone. We just need to be honest with ourselves about the things we like and why we like them. We just need to say “Hey, you know what, this thing might be cheesy, and it might have plot holes, and it might just stroke the part of my brain that remembers being a kid and staying up all night eating Fun Dip and watching anime, but that’s all right”. We need to realize that just because someone doesn’t like what we like doesn’t mean they’re insulting us and our very identities personally. Unless they specifically tell you that’s what they’re doing, at which point they’re a real dickbag and you shouldn’t hang around them. Tell those assholes to kick rocks. But with everyone else, we need to give them the benefit of the doubt that they’re merely disagreeing with us and that’s ok. And we need to recognize that it is ok to like things that aren’t great on their own, but are great to us because of how they personally make us feel.

We need to be able to do this because we can’t talk about anime as art before that happens. As long as we’re attacking anyone that disagrees with us we do look childish. We do look like a fandom that is not worthy of being taken seriously. We also look like a fandom with low expectations that doesn’t deserve to have quality series because we don’t expect them to be great on their own. And this is my ultimate point regarding Sailor Moon Crystal. At the moment, because we’re unable to have an honest discussion about the quality of Sailor Moon Crystal that is divorced from our nostalgia, we’re not able to talk about it as a work of art and we’re not able to say that the fans of Sailor Moon deserved better.

Really, you guys deserved so much better. You deserved a show that would reward your intense fandom. A show that didn’t feel like a semi-cynical cash grab. A show that didn’t feel as though the creators thought they could cut corners narratively because you would watch it anyway. You deserved a show that was excellent on its own merits and not just because “it’s a Sailor Moon show!”.

I cannot stress this enough, but anime IS art. It is a culturally and socially relevant art form in its country of origin and it has made its mark on an entire fan community spread out across the globe. It is important. It is something worth talking about and dissecting and analyzing and obsessing over. It deserves to be taken seriously. We should be having conversations about what anime means and how it can be improved. We should be talking about how these shows we love can reach the potential they hint at. We need to be able to discuss this for the overall betterment of the art we consume. But we cannot do that until we move past our more protective instincts and the nostalgia that has created them. It’s time to start looking at the bigger picture. It’s time to start expecting more.

Presented without comment.

Presented without comment.

Relevent to Your Interests: Books on and by the Japanese

4 Aug

By: Stephanie Weirich

Pictured: My house

Pictured: My house

Well hey there guys! Fancy finding you here on this (depending on where you live) lovely Sunday afternoon. Today, we’re going to be doing something a bit different. And by different I mean that we’re not going to be focusing on anime (I know, shits cray right!?). Turns out, I do other things with my time besides watch anime with a voracious appetite. I also happen to read books with an equally, if not more so, voracious appetite! High amongst my preferences for satisfactory reading materials are books about Japan or books that are by Japanese authors.

My reasoning for seeking out books that fit these preferences should be fairly obvious, but all in all, I read books about Japan and by Japanese authors because it better serves my knowledge about Japan, its people and its culture. It also informs my interpretation of anime. For me, personally, I believe that if you’re interested in something, if you’re passionate about something, you need to look at that thing from absolutely every angle possible. It’s not enough for me to just watch anime and think that I’m getting all of the knowledge I need. I need to read about it. I need to read novels set there. I need to watch movies and dramas. I need to listen to music that comes from Japan. I needed to go and live in Japan and I need to go back again at some point. I feel an insatiable need to know absolutely everything I can about Japan and the best part about this is that I will NEVER know everything about it and thus I will never stop learning new things about it. Neat, right? I happen to think so, and I hope you do too.

So, if you’re at all like me and you’re looking for things to read that will enrich your knowledge about Japan, I’m here to help you out with that. This will in no way be a comprehensive list, and it most likely will not be the only one of these lists I put together. This is just here to get you started. I’m going to cover non-fiction first and then move onto fiction. SPOILER ALERT: there will be no Haruki Murakami books recommended in this list. Why you might ask? Well, truthfully, I’m not a fan of his. I haven’t read a single one of his books that did anything other than leave me cold. I’m not a fan of his empty characters or fetishization of teenage girls and I feel like overall he says very little about the state of the country that he’s from. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing—novelists do and should get to pick their subject matter—it’s just not my cup of tea. I also think that for the most part, he is the pre-eminent Japanese author that most of the book reading public has heard about and so he doesn’t need to be covered again here. Rest assured though, I am going to give you so many other suggestions that you won’t even miss him. I truly hope you can find at least one thing on this list that you enjoy.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s dive right in!

Non-Fiction:

1.) Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created its Own Lost Generation BY: Michael Zielenziger

shutting-out-the-sun

Straight up, this is one of the best books I have ever read about the current state of Japanese culture and social structure. Not Japanese pop culture as it relates to society, it is just straight up about how Japan’s traditional culture has informed their social makeup and some of the drawbacks to that. The book begins with a simple enough conceit: what and who is a hikikomori and why is this a social phenomenon that only happens in Japan? If you don’t know what a hikikomori , it is essentially the Japanese equivalent of a shut-in. But unlike agoraphobics, they are shut-ins because they can’t handle the very rigid and at times brutal rules and expectations of Japanese society. Why this continues to happen and what can be done to help these people who are (usually) children or teenagers has been a continual issue in Japan, particularly in schools. This book deals with the subject and the people themselves humanely and with little judgement, taking great care to present the hikikomori as human beings worthy of our compassion. Zielenziger then uses this unique social phenomena as a jumping off point to examine other social issues that have cropped up as Japan has steadily marched on towards the horizon of modernization.

I recommend this book because it tackles very important issues from a very unbiased perspective. Zielenziger manages to show us some very unfortunate consequences of Japanese social organization without outright condemning them, which is no simple trick. His writing is also clean and straightforward so you never feel as though he’s talking over your head and he doesn’t come off as being a pretentious know-it-all, which is also not an easy balance to strike. All in all, I cannot recommend this book enough and I should actually just buy extra copies to start handing out to people because I pretty much recommend it to absolutely EVERYONE.

2.) Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S. BY: Roland Kelts

japanamerica_cover

This was the first book I ever read about how Japanese pop culture—specifically anime—was converging with Western interests. It’s a fascinating and penetrating read from an author and lecturer at the forefront of Japanese cultural criticism. Kelts does an excellent job at pulling sources from both sides of the Pacific to get into why anime is special and why it’s such an excellent inroad for Westerners who are intrigued by Japan. He also takes a good look at the appeal that anime has to the Western imagination. I haven’t read this book since college, and it’s one that is sitting on my shelf, waiting to be re-read with great anticipation. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in anime (which if you’re on this blog, I have to imagine that you are that person).

3.) Japan: A Reinterpretation BY: Patrick Smith

Japan reinterpretation

Guys. GUYS. This book blew my fucking mind. Patrick Smith rolls fucking DEEP. He takes everything we think we know about Japan post WWII and completely flips the script. His basic premise is that the Japan we think we know is solely the product of post WWII propaganda, that this idea of a conciliatory and meek population is the result of a narrative that reached its peak during the Cold War and that has done nothing but hurt the Japanese—both in the world’s perception of them and in their perception of themselves. He calls out revered American authors and professors who have made a living off of pushing this narrative just as much as he goes in on calling out Japanese bureaucrats who used this narrative to sell out their country for their own personal gain. Yeah, this book is INTENSE. It’s also incredibly important if you’re looking for a very thorough and nuanced examination of both Japan’s history and their culture and how both of those aspects deeply inform the Japanese’s experience of the world and their country. While this book is written by a Westerner, he is not the center of this book, nor is Western culture. Japan sits very firmly at the center of this book. Smith is entirely on Japan’s side. He is invested in the country and the people and he works tirelessly over the course of this book to show the Western world what Japan is ACTUALLY all about. If there is one book you choose to read off of this list, I would say this should be it.

4.) Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan BY: Alex Kerr

dogsanddemons

Ok, let me just get this out of the way. I am putting this book on here with some trepidation. It’s also by far the most controversial entry on this list. While living in Japan, this was the book that everyone talked about in hushed, uncertain tones. It was the book that several of my fellow ex-pats said I should read—but only after I left Japan. When I asked why, the response was some variation on the theme of “because it will make you too angry”. Which, even after I left Japan, it still made me very angry. Not because it wasn’t true, but because it WAS true. Because it highlighted so many things I noticed while living there that never sat right and then fully and brutally explained why those things are what they are. Make no mistake, this book is an intensely angry book. It is written by a man who lived in Japan off and on throughout his entire life who watched a country he loved be ruined by the very people who were supposed to protect it and its interests: the Japanese government. This book is very biased. It didn’t come to the schoolyard to play around. It came to fucking WORK. It has a very clear agenda, and that is to hold politicians, bureaucrats and businessman accountable for what they have done to Japan and its culture. Alex Kerr is not an apologist and he isn’t interested in backing down or downplaying Japan’s problems in order to coddle them from any negative backlash. He is a man who feels like Japan NEEDS to know how bad it has gotten in order to recover.

I recommend this book only if you are prepared to know that Japan is not all that it seems. This should be very obvious, but Japan is a deeply conflicted country that has many good things going for it, but please be very aware that it also has some very terrible things happening within it as well. Please do not mistake what I’m saying as a condemnation of the country—as I have said repeatedly, I love Japan. But when you love something very much, it doesn’t do you or your beloved any favors to pretend that there are no problems whatsoever. In order to love something, you need to know its shortcomings. You need to take all of the good with all of the bad otherwise you are doing it a deep disservice. If you’re willing to do that, then get a hold of this book. It will open your eyes in a way you never thought possible.

BONUS: Books that are up next on my non-fiction reading list:

Straightjacket Society: An Insider’s Irreverent View of Bureaucratic Japan BY: Masao Miyamoto

Office Ladies and Salaried Men: Power, Gender and Work in Japanese Companies

A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine BY: John K. Nelson

If you’ve read any of these three books, let me know what you thought in the comments!

Fiction

grotesque-natsuo-kirino-paperback-cover-art

1.) Grotesque

and

Out by Natsuo Kirino

Out BY: Natsuo Kirino

I am an unapologetic Natsuo Kirino fan-girl. I think that she is hands down the greatest novelist working in Japan at the moment and as such, I couldn’t pick between Grotesque and Out so I’m recommending both. Kirino is a Japanese feminist crime fiction writer who focuses on the ways in which Japanese society hurts both women and men by being deeply misogynistic. She uses brutal crimes—perptrated by both men and women—as a way of highlighting the systemic misogyny within Japanese society and the damage it does to society as a whole. There is no other writer who does it as beautifully as she does, either. Her writing pulls no punches and she demands that you look directly at the scenario she has created without flinching. She will not coddle you. She will not look away from things that are both terrible and beautiful. And she respects her audience enough to believe that they won’t look away either. She also has been lucky enough to have one of the absolute best translators working on her novels—Rebecca Copeland. Copeland is a scholar of Kirino’s work and as such, she has a deep and compelling understanding of what Kirino is doing and unlike so many other translators in the business, you never feel Copeland creeping in at the edges, you instead feel as though it’s all Kirino, all of the time. This is to say it’s an unobtrusive translation that lets the material breathe and live as it was intended to by the original author.

Both Out and Grotesque give me ALL of the feels. But mostly they rip me apart in a very real and emotionally harrowing way, which is something that only the greatest fiction is capable of doing. These books stick with you. They creep into your waking thoughts and daydreams and change the way you see the world. Most importantly, they add a much needed woman’s perspective to the literary experience of Japan. They are must reads.

2.) Popular Hits of the Showa Era BY: Ryu Murakami

Popular-Hits-of-the-Showa-Era-A-Novel-0393338428-L

While I’m not a Haruki Murakami fan, I am a HUGE fan of Ryu Murakami. You may recognize him as the writer of Audition, which is a movie (and book!) that I very much recommend. I see Kirino and Murakami as being two sides of the same coin. Both are writing about the much unseen underbelly of Japan—the dark spaces that could stand to have some much needed light cast upon them. And like Kirino, he is intensely sympathetic towards the plight of women within Japanese society (Kirino actually has two of her characters in Out have an entire conversation about how awesome Ryu Murakami is in regards to writing female characters and yes, I was so excited I just emitted a high pitched squeal for about 10 minutes straight). This novel is about a group of young male outcasts and their dealings with a group of middle aged female divorcees’ who are all named Midori. And by dealings, I mean escalated bouts of violence towards. Also, karaoke. No, I’m not joking. Karaoke, specifically performing karaoke versions of songs from the Showa era, is what binds this group of misfits together. Trust me when I say it works much better than you think it would. It’s a fascinating, odd, strangely scathing and rather funny book. It’s also a pretty quick read, if that’s something that matters to you. Oh, and there’s an equally fantastic film adaptation of it called Karaoke Terror that I also recommend. If the premise of this book doesn’t sound quite up to snuff, I recommend taking a look at Ryu Murakami’s other output, as there’s pretty much something for everyone.

3.) Kitchen BY: Banana Yoshimoto

kitchen

The two words that come to mind when I think of Banana Yoshimoto’s work are “gentle” and “nostalgic”. In terms of how she personifies the concept of nostalgia within her work also makes her the most “Japanese” feeling author on this list. As I’ve mentioned before, the concept of nostalgia is one that is deeply entrenched in Japanese culture. There is always a wistful longing for that which has come before and a deep sentimentality colors many important social interactions that the Japanese have (it’s why work places have welcome, goodbye and year end parties. So that everyone can come together and reminisce about what has come before and lay out earnest hopes for what will come). This is very much Yoshimoto’s wheelhouse and she is the undisputed master at writing about nostalgia in such a deeply human way that you cannot help but feel that bittersweet and rose colored feeling so intensely as you read her novels. After reading Kitchen I promptly went out and bought everything else she has written and I’m pretty sure each and every one of her books that I have read has made me cry at the end. And unlike other books that I feel might manipulated me into tears I don’t want to shed but do, I never feel like she has manipulated me into feeling what I feel. I just feel it because she has made that feeling manifest through her incredible level of skill. If you’re looking for a fully realized, beautiful and sensitively written account of the many layered feelings and desires of the human heart, you can’t go wrong with Kitchen or any of Banana Yoshimoto’s other works.

4.) Shipwrecks BY: Akira Yoshimura

shipwrecks

Something you probably don’t know about me is that primarily, I write fiction. I have done so my entire life and I will do so until the day I die. So for me, this book made a monumental impact on the way I view and construct narratives within my own work. It is such an austerely simple and beautiful book that it hit me as a revelation. There is nothing complicated about the plot and course of events in this book. It is entirely linear and very concise. It’s really a master class on fiction writing at its most simplistic. And yet, it’s a challenging piece of work. It very slowly and deliberately builds a sense of foreboding by doing little more than chronicling the daily lives of a very small fishing village through the eyes of a nine year old boy. It is not a fast paced or action packed book, but once you start reading, you are compelled to keep going. It binds you to it and does not release you until you have finished it, and even then, it will haunt you ever after. It also does an excellent job of detailing what life was like in pre-modern Japan and it will give you quite a few topics to research independently.

5.) Now You’re One of Us BY: Asa Nonami

Now youre one of us

I’m putting this on here for the pure bat shit insanity of it. Really, this book is a pulpy wonderland of family intrigue, cult like overtones, Japanese familial politics and weird sex. I read this in just about one sitting, mostly because I just enjoyed the hell out of it. This book does what it wants and pushes the pedal all the way to the goddamn floor of weirdness. I laughed. I cringed. I was icked out. But I never stopped enjoying it for even a second. All in all, it was a surprisingly enjoyable experience that I think you should let yourself have.

BONUS: Books that are up next on my fiction reading list:

The Thief BY: Fuminori Nakamura

Naoko BY: Keigo Higashino

The Goddess Chronicles BY: Natsuo Kirino

Masks BY: Fumiko Enchi

Ok! So there you have it, my first reading list, from me to you! I truly hope that you find something on here that you like and that you feel enriches your reading life—both with knowledge and perhaps newfound feelings. Also, if you have any suggestions for things that you think I should read, let me know about it in the comments. Or, if you’ve read any of these books and want to wrap about them in the comments do that too! Until next weekend, matta ne!

Pictured: What reading looks like

Pictured: What reading looks like

Aku no Hana Final Wrap Up: Japanese Personhood and the Broken Educational System

28 Jul

By: Stephanie Weirich

aku-no-hana flower1stpic

What is concealed is the flower,
What is not concealed cannot be the flower.
-Ze-ami, 14th Century Noh Master

Greetings ladies and gents! So good to see you again. It’s great to be back here, talking about our favorite sex pervert show, Aku no Hana, isn’t it? And what exactly do I have for you today? Well, I figured it was about time to really get into this show and what it all meant, now that it’s over (maybe? I hope in my heart of hearts that there’s a second season, because if there isn’t, I WILL RUIN SOMEONE) and we can step back and look at the bigger picture. Is that agreeable to y’all? Well fucking ahoy then!

Oh, and for those of you joining us for the first time, this is going to be a very spoilery analysis of the series Aku no Hana. It’s a classic boy meets girl(s), steals some gym clothes from his crush, makes a contract with the human equivalent of a Honey Badger who catches him stealing said gym clothes and through her guidance he learns to stop worrying and love his perversion type story. Look here to find recaps of each episode if you’re so inclined. Also, this is all my personal opinion and I believe any piece of art can have multiple readings and interpretations, so your mileage with my analysis may vary. I am not saying that I am definitively right about anything I say herein. I am merely offering my interpretation. With that out of the way, let’s get all up in it!

Nakamura is ready

Nakamura is ready

You may have noticed I opened this up with a fancy quote from a super dead dude. Well, it’s because that super dead dude is speaking some invaluable truth about what it means to be nihonjin, or Japanese. I also think it very nicely gets at one of Aku no Hana’s core themes. That core theme being: how do we reconcile our inner self with the outside world when that outside world rejects all that we are? What do we conceal and why? What do we choose to show and why? It’s also a classic meditation on the concept of the individual vs. the group that has featured prominently in Japanese thought and writings for quite literally hundreds of years. Aku no Hana just happens to be the first modern series I have seen that tackles that divisive ideology right at the beginning, when the inner conflict between self and group begins: Junior High School.

It is important to realize why this aspect alone elevates Aku no Hana to the level of importance that it has. And for that importance to be conveyed, we need some background on the Japanese school system. I think that we here in the West, and in America in particular, have an idea that Japan’s school system is vastly superior to ours. We’ve been shown statistics about literacy and retention rates, test scores that trumpet their vastly more accomplished math and science understanding, and we’ve been shown images—especially in anime—of happy students, living idyllic school lives, all getting along as one big homogenous group. While there might be a sliver of truth to all of these representations, there is much more to it that’s being hidden behind the highly organized façade.

What do I mean, exactly? Yes, Japan has one of the highest literacy rates in the 1st world and education through Junior High is compulsory and the vast majority of students will continue onward to high school. However, that doesn’t mean that they all want to, it’s just a matter of meeting the rigid expectations of the society they live in and the parents that raised them. And yes, they do trump us in math and science, but much of that is owed to the Japanese educational style, which pushes rote memorization over actual learning. Math, and to a certain degree science, can very comfortably be mastered through rote memorization; however, when you look at scores in things like English, you find that this method of education has severe shortcomings. And yes, while there are happy students who get along, ijime, or bullying, is a facet of everyday school life that is carried out by both students and teachers who might feel as though a particular student is failing to fall in line with the needs of the group.

Pictured: Normal students

Pictured: Normal students

The Japanese educational system has a very traditional goal in mind that is best summed up through this handy quote from Arinori Mori: “Education in Japan is not intended to create people accomplished in the techniques of the arts and sciences, but rather to manufacture the persons required by the state.”. Who is Arinori Mori and why should this quote matter? Well, he was Japan’s first education minister who set the stage for what schools in Japan would be, and while on the surface, that ethos has changed over time from when he first said this all the way back in 1885, the truth of the matter is that the educational system hasn’t changed all that much in terms of the desired outcome for the students that it produces.

The basics of school socialization are thus: elementary schools teach children to be individuals. They are given a sort of attenuated freedom wherein they learn through play and dictate how and what they will focus on. They are the masters of their domain. There is very little pressure put upon them during this stage of their lives and they are mostly just allowed to be children. This is important, because it is the only time in their adolescence where they will freely be allowed to just act like kids. But why do I say attenuated freedom then? It’s because this is a freedom that is meted out by the adults in their lives, and thus it teaches them for the very first time to be dependent upon those acting in the state’s best interest. They both give that freedom, and then take it away.

Personal anecdote time! While living in Japan, I taught both elementary and junior high students. Most notably, I would teach at schools that fed into each other i.e. the elementary schools I taught at fed into the junior highs that I taught at. So I got to see these students grow from care-free children into completely shell shocked mini adults. This was owed solely to how completely different the elementary school experience was from the junior high experience. I one day was talking to one of my junior high co-teachers about how different the two were. She asked me what I meant and I said that in elementary school, the kids seemed to be having so much fun, that they seemed allowed to just enjoy themselves, whereas in junior high it was much more disciplined with many more rules. She agreed with this and said that children were allowed to have fun in elementary school because afterwards, they would be adults and their lives would be troublesome. When I asked her why that was the case, she sighed, shrugged and said shikataganai, or it can’t be helped. Junior high, she explained was when the kids were taught what it meant to be Japanese and that that was very important so that they could get along in society when they were no longer taken care of by schools and their parents. This was one of the more illuminating and sobering conversations I had while there. It also goes a long way towards explaining why junior high is a pivotal moment in the lives of Japanese kids and hence why it’s so important that Aku no Hana is examining this time period in such a provocative manner.

But what does it mean when we say it teaches them to be Japanese? That all goes back into the quote from Arinori Mori. Junior high is the first time they are socialized to be a cog in the social machine, as opposed to an individual who stands outside of it. They are taught that individuality, personal feelings and deep emotions are something that are important, but that it is equally important that all of that be kept inside. Individuality is meant to be relegated to your honne while your obligation to the group, and to a much larger extent the country that birthed you, is your tatemae. Your individuality is only worthy if it serves a larger goal, which means it only matters if it serves Japan. It is, if you want to be cynical about it, a way of subsuming personality with communal obligation. A way of replacing what individuality actually is with everything that it is not.

This is what I’m driving at with the quote I began this piece with. That true individuality, the true person that is to remain concealed is the flower. That which is not concealed—i.e. the personality shown to all others—cannot be the flower.

Which all brings us back to Aku no Hana (which, hey, all that evil blooming flower imagery really makes a lot more sense now doesn’t it?) and the struggles of both Kasuga and Nakamura. We’re dropped into the series at a pivotal time in Kasuga’s life, when he’s in the depths of his Nihonjin education. He should be dropping the artifice of childhood individuality and becoming what is expected of him. He should not be internalizing the esoteric rhetoric of French authors and pining for the Platonic Ideal that is Saeki. He should not be imagining himself to be special because of his reading habits and his perceived superiority to the group he belongs to. From the very first episode, while it doesn’t seem obvious, everything about Kasuga and his internal thoughts and behavior, his desires and picture of himself, are off. They deviate from the very set course that has been laid before him.

Subverting the dominant paradigm has never been so moist

Subverting the dominant paradigm has never been so moist

That flower that he conceals begins to bloom when he steals Saeki’s gym clothes. The flower becomes ever closer to bursting beyond the confines of Kasuga and subverting his reality and that of his entire town over the course of the series. Much of that is due to Nakamura and her I give zero fucks attitude and her unmitigated need to fall well outside of the expectations that are being thrust upon her at school. Nakamura, and to a slightly lesser extent Kasuga, want the flower that they conceal to be seen by all. They reject the idea that individuality should be hidden in favor of group, or state, allegiance.

As I touched on before in my recaps, Kasuga, Nakamura and Saeki are their own well defined characters, and at the same time, they are representatives of larger themes. Out of the three of them, Saeki is the Japanese ideal. She’s the good student, popular with her peers and teachers. She will make childish transgressions, as she does through her interest in Kasuga, but overall, she’ll grow up, get married and eventually die as she is expected to. She will be the ideal shakaijin, or social being. Nakamura on the other hand, represents the path of the outsider. She rejects the path that was determined for her—the path that was laid out for her before she ever came to exist. She doesn’t fit in with her peer group or amongst adults. She has no friends. She has no interest in being a part of any group—not her family, not her school, not her town, and certainly not Japan as a whole. She has no place in this world that she finds herself in. She is what you get if you’re Japanese and yet reject what it means to be Japanese—which is to say that she is not useful to the state because she declines to be a part of it.

By being made of magic and profanity

By being made of magic and profanity

Which brings us to Kasuga. Kasuga is caught between these two possibilities. He is, when the series opens, on the right path from what anyone can tell. He goes to school, he enjoys time with his parents, and he has friends and a girl he likes. Internally though, his thoughts align with Nakamura. He reads French literature that no one else in town reads or understands. He considers himself smarter than his peers, his parents, and the other townspeople. In Kasuga’s mind, he’s an individual. But this is all fine, because his honne and his tatemae are kept separate, as they should be. He can still climb the ladder to Japanese personhood. Once he steals Saeki’s gym clothes and is caught by Nakamura, that possibility gets further from his reach. When Nakamura becomes a fixture in his life that moves increasingly towards the center of it, he deviates further and further from that predetermined path that Saeki represents towards the path less traveled that Nakamura embodies.

This is what truly makes Kasuga and Nakamura “deviants”. It’s not the sexual overtones of the story, though that is a form of deviancy. It’s the deviation from expected societal and cultural norms that truly categorizes them as deviants. Nakamura believes that Kasuga is the kind of deviant that can be so bad, he can actually destroy the town that they live in. She expects him to upend the social order to such an extreme degree that it can never recover. This goes a long ways towards showing exactly how dangerous deviancy is considered in Japan. Plainly put, if there were more Nakamura’ in Japanese society, said society would cease to function as it does. The paradigm would shift, and a new society would be born. There would be a trial by fire if Nakamura had her way (because that lady wants to burn EVERYTHING).

One of the main reasons that Kasuga is so important and why it is that we’re following this story through his perspective is because of the path that he ultimately comes to represent. This is especially true if we consider the finale to be the series finale and not a season finale (because again, there has been no second season announcement made yet). In those final moments, wherein Kasuga sees all that could be for Nakamura and himself if they continue down her path, he rejects it and proposes something different. He represents the ability to normalize deviancy within the context of Japanese society. Rather than burning everything to the ground, he proposes that they drag themselves out of the shithole that is their town by their own means. He decides that they must set their own destiny—one that is neither the expected path that Saeki represents or the path of utter destruction that Nakamura represents. Kasuga embodies a sense of deviancy that reshapes the society that bred them, I would go so far as to say that what Kasuga represents is a necessary inevitability in regards to Japanese personhood.

Pictured: Self Actualization

Pictured: Self Actualization

Before we can get into exactly why Kasuga is so important, there’s something that needs to be addressed. One thing that Aku no Hana goes to great pains to show is how dilapidated Kasuga, Nakamura and Saeki’s town is. Every scene features run down and rusted out buildings, weeds overtaking asphalt, signs falling to ruins. Everything is dying. This is a very specific visual metaphor meant to represent the state of Japan as a whole. If Nakamura and Kasuga had made it outside of their town the night they tried to get to “the beyond”, Nakamura would have most likely flown into a delightfully foulmouthed rage when she was greeted by a town that was almost exactly like the one she had just left. Contrary to what we might think about Japan based upon pictures of Tokyo, the majority of Japan’s small towns and cities look like the town shown in Aku no Hana. It’s easy to forget that Japan is largely comprised of farming and fishing villages and that things are completely different outside of the large showcase cities like Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto. And just as those cities are seductive for us, they are infinitely more so to much of Japan’s youth. The kids that can’t fit in within these towns eventually leave and head to bigger cities, thus contributing to the perpetual decline of their hometowns. The students I taught in the small farming town I lived in that had any talent or who were event slightly different from their peers very emphatically talked about moving to Tokyo as soon as they were able to. They felt that if there was any place for them to belong in Japan, it would have to be a larger, less conservative city. So while I didn’t live in the town that is depicted in Aku no Hana, I lived in a town that was eerily similar to it. It was a town that was equally difficult on its children and having students that couldn’t cope with the huge amounts of pressure put upon them by their families and the school system was an everyday occurrence.

This is why I say that Kasuga represents a necessary inevitability in Japanese personhood. As pessimistic as it may sound, there are certain societal conventions and cultural traditions that are holding the Japanese back. The very rigid pressure put upon children is chief among them. While the school system is very adept at churning out soldiers of Japanese industry—cogs in a well ordered machine—It is not adept at creating individuals with critical thinking skills and the ability to assess much needed change in a broken system. The Japanese educational system creates followers, not leaders, and while this has worked for generations, Japan is currently reaching a point where they desperately need leaders to change the course that they are on. They need people like Kasuga. They need people who will reject the current social order and work to devise a solution that best serves the country. They need citizens that will reject the standard idea of servitude towards the country that has been at the forefront all of this time, and learn to ACTUALLY serve the country in a dynamic and truly useful capacity. By creating cogs all of these years, the educational system has done a great disservice to the country as a whole. And it is necessary to change that path—to end the all-encompassing decay creeping across the country—RIGHT NOW.

This is a risky proposition though, as the concept of true, outward facing individuality is one that Japan has had a long and contentious history with. We see how risky it is through the way Kasuga, Nakamura and Saeki’s parents relate to them. Saeki’s parents are shown briefly, but in the glimpses we catch it’s obvious that they approve of their daughter because she is the ideal child. Nakamura’s father is outright confused as to why his daughter is the way she is. Nakamura is so different, so aggressive, that it leads to a sort of caring confusion. Kasuga’s parents on the other hand, completely reject him once they know what he’s been up to with Nakamura. They blame themselves, they believe that they raised him wrong; they eventually fall silent and cease to interact with him thinking him a lost cause. This is because Kasuga represents the riskiest path of all: the path of new beginnings. He is on a path that completely changes his life’s predetermined course and travels through unknown territory. And as we all know, change, true change, can be an utterly terrifying prospect purely because of the element of the unknown that it represents.

This is what it might look like

This is what it might look like

Kasuga’s true purpose within the scope of Aku no Hana, is to show everyone that the flower he has been concealing is one of personal individuality and his existence is one that declares that this is a type of flower that should not be concealed. It should be what is open and accessible to all. Each person should allow their flower to bloom beyond the confines of themselves. Each person has an individual within them that should—and needs to be—let out. For the good of all. Kasuga shows us that we’re all a little bit deviant and it’s time that we all knew it. Because that deviancy has the power to change the world as we know it.

So there it is folks! My final wrap up of Aku no Hana. I guess the tl;dr summation is that this show is totes a masterpiece of the trials and tribulations of youth denied its pursuit of potential and freedom. But why say that when I can spend 4,000 words getting DEEP INSIDE THIS THING. I hope that this has shed some light on the more important themes of Aku no Hana as I see them, or at the very least, I hope you enjoyed this and the series.

If you did enjoy this and want to know more about anything I have talked about here in regards to the educational system and Japanese societal constructs, have no fear! The next piece I have planned for you guys is a recommended reading list to get you started on your own path towards integrated knowledge about Japan. So watch this space next weekend for that!

And as always, if you disagree with anything I’ve written (or agree for that matter) please let me know in the comments! Until next week, matta ne!

I know Kasuga, I miss you too

I know Kasuga, I miss you too

Aku no Hana Episode 13: The Fallout

2 Jul

By: Stephanie Weirich

Well, it’s all over guys. OR IS IT? /dun dun dun!

Wait...What?

Wait…What?

But seriously, unless there ends up being a second season (which thus far has not been announced) Aku no Hana—that rousing story of a honey badger and her fellow deviant—has come to an end. And what about that ending, eh? Did you hate it? It’s ok if you hated it. Many, many, many people feel that same way. There are elements of it that are definitely hateable. As for me personally, I still don’t know exactly how I feel about it, but man, I give Hiroshi Nagahama and his whole crew credit for having the biggest, most pendulous and low hanging balls to ever gently brush the face of this earth (can you hear them gently whispering against the hot Tokyo pavement with each step, even now? I hear it in my very dreams).

Yeah, it's a bit like that.

Yeah, it’s a bit like that.

Seriously, regardless of whatever you might think about how the ending to this show went, it takes some sort of moxie to give your audience 12 episodes of a show that they think is building towards some sort of conclusion, only to reach the 13th and final episode only to reveal that all of that which they saw, all of that which they were invested in emotionally, yeah, well guess what? That was just set up. Set up for a season that may or may not already exist (has it been filmed? I have to believe it has been. They wouldn’t just shoot snippets would they? They’d shoot whole scenes and then make a montage right?) that has yet to be announced. Because that’s what actually happened, and if that pissed you off, you have every right to feel that way. But allow me to temper that hatred with an alternative viewpoint.

I know, I wanted to see it too you guys.

I know, I wanted to see it too you guys.

You may have noticed that I’m doing this a tad differently, and this is because I feel that this episode deserves to be handled differently. I usually have a recap of what happened in the episode, but I sort of feel like that’s a moot point when this entire episode can be summed up relatively easily. The summation is thus: boy sees girl’s room, boy reaches full understanding of the fragile state of girl’s emotions and psychology, boy has emotional catharsis and becomes a fully realized human being and gains purpose in his life, his purpose being to save the girl from herself. Girl then freaks the fuck out on boy. Uber cray cray montage happens and boy proposes new contract with girl. BOOM /drops mic. Now that we’ve got that, let’s get into a play by play dissection of the important bits, shall we?

Nakamura, you'll always be THE BEST

Nakamura, you’ll always be THE BEST

For me, the most interesting thing to ask when looking at that summation is: what about the girl? What is her role in the self-actualization of our main character? We have, after all, gotten all of our information about other characters through our following of Kasuga’s story. Our interpretation of both Nakamura and Saeki comes about due to how Kasuga perceives them and their actions/reactions to him and their surroundings. The previous episode and this one particularly are the only times where we get to see Nakamura as her own independent person, in her own words and surroundings. The picture we’re beginning to get is much sadder than one would expect. Nakamura is characterized by all that she isn’t, as opposed to what she is and this is conveyed through her room. A teenager’s bedroom is their one safe space and the one place they can feel comfortable truly expressing themselves. It is their psyche made manifest. What did we find in Nakamura’s room? Nothing. So very much nothing.

Well...This wasn't at all what I was expecting.

Well…This wasn’t at all what I was expecting.

Not even a bed. Instead, she just sleeps under a sheet on the floor, surrounded by nothing but bare furniture and a few items of clothing. There’s nothing on her walls but holes she’s punched in them.

Though to be fair, closet doors in Japan are actually made out of structurally unsound paper.

Though to be fair, closet doors in Japan are actually made out of structurally unsound paper.

Her only outlet is a journal Kasuga finds in a desk drawer where we see for the first time exactly how happy Kasuga’s potential deviancy made Nakamura. Throughout the show we’ve seen Nakamura’s attitude and behavior towards Kasuga as menacing, forceful and uncompromising but very rarely have we felt that she was experiencing actual joy. Through her own written words we see a girl who hated everything and everyone and was utterly alone whose world suddenly brightened at the prospect of finding someone like herself for the first time in her life. Her experiences with Kasuga, the time spent with him truly made her happy.

We totally know.

We totally know.

This is why his behavior on the mountain, his rejection of both her and Saeki, brought her so low. It was a betrayal of her only bright spot of happiness, a betrayal of her very being that she thought was shared with Kasuga. His discovery of her final entry about not being able to go the other side of the mountain finally leads to Kasuga’s full understanding of both the situation he caused and of Nakamura herself.

The feels.  I HAVE THEM.

The feels. I HAVE THEM.

That is why he cries. He finally understands and it’s painful. Nakamura’s experience of the world and his now fully known betrayal of her breaks his heart, as well it should.

So does Kasuga.

So does Kasuga.

This is also why she reacts the way she does. She comes home to find the one person who mattered and who utterly sold her out reading her most personal thoughts and feelings and crying over it. He’s an interloper at this point and it’s a violation of her privacy and of the world she’s built around herself for protection. Of course she’s furious.

GAH!

GAH!

Her interpretation is that Kasuga thinks he can reappear in her life whenever he sees fit. It would seem as though he’s fucking with her and her wellbeing. She is absolutely justified in her anger at him in light of everything we have learned about her in this episode. How is she to know that Kasuga is serious this time? How is she to know that he fully understands her and her outlook, finally?

That is the face of abject heartbreak Kasuga.  LOOK AT IT.

That is the face of abject heartbreak Kasuga. LOOK AT IT.

I think it’s important to realize that Nakamura has her own walls, her own burdens to loose herself from and potentially, her tearing down of Kasuga’s walls was a way for her to tear down her own as well. Once Kasuga rejected her, the progress she made was rendered void.

I am not equipped to deal with this sort of anarchy.

I am not equipped to deal with this sort of anarchy.

Now that we’ve got that covered, let’s get back to Kasuga and what we see during his final confrontation with Nakamura. We start out with a pretty innocuous flashback of everything that’s happened between them, Hell, we even go all the way back to Kasuga’s childhood when Nakamura accuses him of living an empty life.

One thing this show didn't prepare me for: The appearance of fat babies.

One thing this show didn’t prepare me for: The appearance of fat babies.

Where this gets interesting, and where I think much of the hatred for this ending comes from lies within Kasuga’s “flash forward”. For those who have read the manga, this has to especially feel like a cheat as everything that is contained in that montage comes directly from the manga and is most likely material that they thought this series was going to cover in full. I know I did. I honestly thought they were going to get to one very specific event that was teased in that montage, but that was not the case. I don’t want to spoil anything for those that haven’t read the manga, but trust me when I say that things were going to get cray.

However, instead of getting to that craziness, we got 13 episodes of set up for it. You could say that this was due to poor pacing, but I don’t think so. I think Aku no Hana has, from the get go, been deliberately paced in the way it has and I think they took this approach to make it feel very much like French cinema. This would make sense, seeing as how the genesis of this series was Kasuga’s love of French philosophers. But why do I say it feels French? If you’ve ever watched a French film, one thing you may have noticed is the very slow and deliberate pacing and the way character is revealed through observed behavior as opposed to exposition. Many scenes in French films might seem extraneous at first and yet, as the film continues, we come to realize that those scenes where nothing seemed to be happening were actually showing us everything we needed to know about the characters and their motivations. Aku no Hana is very much in the same vein. So much of our understanding of these characters has come through what we’ve been shown, not what we’ve been told. So much of the focus has been placed on behavior and actions as opposed to dialogue. This ending is no different.

This conveys more than dialogue could.

This conveys more than dialogue could.

So how are we to interpret that montage then? Especially when it culminates in Kasuga turning the tables and asking Nakamura to make a contract with him? It could go one of a couple of ways. First is that it was all a preview for a forthcoming season and nothing more. The second, and the one that I think is vastly more interesting, is contingent on there NOT being another season. It’s entirely predicated on these 13 episodes being completely self-contained. What if that montage was Kasuga’s interpretation of where his and Nakamura’s relationship could go, now that he fully understands her and her experience? And what if by asking her to make a contract with him wherein she crawls out of the shithole that is their town and their experience of it with him is his rejection of that possibility? What if now, in a move that would distinctly separate the anime from the manga entirely, Kasuga is choosing a different future for himself and Nakamura, one where they save themselves by their own means as opposed to heading further down the path of “deviancy”? For me, personally, if the ending is viewed in that light, it changes things significantly as far as my perception of it is concerned. That’s an ending I can get behind. Whether that’s how it was meant to be interpreted remains to be seen, but a girl can dream.

I'm going to miss you crazy kids you.

I’m going to miss you crazy kids you.

Anyway, that’s about it for this, our potentially final recap of Aku no Hana. I have to apologize a bit, as I know during these last few write-ups my cultural analysis has waned somewhat. I think this is due to the direction it took at the end and the fact that I honestly did not know how it was going to end and what it was all going to be building towards in regards to the message it wanted to send. But have no fear, now that it has concluded, I’ve got a much fuller picture and I am working on a longer piece about the series as a whole and what it’s all been about specifically regarding what it’s saying about being Japanese, so look forward to that in the very near future. And as always, let me know your thoughts on the ending and on the series as a whole! Toodle loo for now guys, but have no fear, we’ll talk soon!

Paging: visual metaphor.

Paging: visual metaphor.