Right off the bat, I get to talk about a two-parter where most of the meaty payoff will be next week? You’re killing me, Smalls.
Episode Specifics: We open in media res, on a duel between Utena and Miki. Having established its intrigue, the rest of the episode backtracks to how sweet and noncombative Miki is (screw you subs, I will not use Mickey), and how he has a super duper crush on Anthy but totally doesn’t want to duel. At the same time he claims that Anthy reminds him of something and someone he lost (‘so long ago,’ said with the shortsightedness only a 13 year old can manage) – his little sister, in fact.
Included in the list of things I won’t be able to talk about until next week: duel music! Flashbacks! A special shout out, however, to the ‘faceless shadowed individual’ motif making its first appearance outside of the Shadow Girls – on the one hand it makes for an aesthetic uniqueness, and thematically it creates an uncanniness to the scene (in contrast to a lot of flashbacks, which are by default ‘aww, look how cute!).
More importantly, it makes the figures in the memory general rather than specific – they’re not two unique people who played the piano together, they’re stand-ins for feelings of disappointment and nostalgia and loss, contained in the unfortunate body of a person (whose personhood has been lost along the way).
Creator Commentary: “The Sunlit Garden” is a song about the world you can never get back; the nostalgic world you can never return to again. Its true meaning will become clear during the climax of the series.
I made such a radical departure in the second half of this that you might well ask yourself, “Is this the same show?” I did it to solidify the positions of Nanami’s and Anthy’s characters, but by the storyboarding stage, Anthy was becoming even more of a mysterious girl (!). Meanwhile, Nanami became more of an entertaining girl.
Is that alright? Sure it’s alright.
I decided to operate according to the rule “Never give a character only one personality.” I didn’t want to reject “fun” on the grounds of “I can’t get this character to be uniformly consistent.”
THIS SONG IS A METAPHOR IN MORE WAYS THAN YOU THINK, MIKI
Character Spotlight: It’s difficult to discuss Miki without also bringing Kozue into the discussion, but let us try for a few general observations.
During my Fujiko Mine series I talked about the Charlotte Perkins Gilman novella Herland, a bit of early 20th century feminist dialectic that lays out three male ‘types’: the man who views women as lesser beings to be controlled by men, the man who puts women on a pedestal as completely unknowable beings, and the man who views women as equal partners and fellow human beings (guess which one is the ideal).
Miki, I’m sure you can gather, falls squarely into that second category. He’s in awe of Anthy, and he views the abstract of ‘his sister’ as a sort of vessel of good memories and happiness that he’s lost by losing her (even if he hasn’t really ‘lost’ her so much as gone away from her). And it’s difficult, intentionally I think, to find his actions anything other than endearing in this first part. He’s kind and helpful, and positively in awe of Anthy when every other character besides Utena has only shown her contempt.
But when women are placed on a pedestal they’re not allowed the frailties and failings of other human beings – and any woman who falls from that ideal all but ceases to exist, as we’ll come to see. Compounded, as it will be, by the ways in which that awe can be corrupted into condescension and selfishness masquerading as the desire to ‘protect.’
Ain’t that just like a dame,
gettin’ offended when you leave them for not being a flawless fantasy
Have You Heard: In fact, today’s shadow play discusses the very themes we were just discussing – a young couple meets and declares their love, only for the man to ride away once he’s learned her fairly normal habits. This can easily happen to both parties in young love, but has a particular clench in this ‘fairytale’ situation.
It becomes easy to idealize one’s partner as all the things that they ‘should’ be (young women particularly), making perfectly normal habits seem like monstrosities. Suddenly that person is no longer special, no longer the hard-won prize that was being pursued. They are just a person with flaws, which wasn’t what the other person was looking for at all. They were looking for a reflection that would fill their own lack.
And the heavens parted and the angels sang, decreeing
‘damn, son, that girl plays some fine-ass piano’
Anthy Watch: I’m a bit in love with that final, sepia-tone image of Anthy in this episode (call it a Gorgeous Cinematography Alert). The framing of the trees and Chu-Chu at the piano give a strong fairytale vibe to the scene, and to Miki’s image of Anthy (notice how her face disappears, as Kozue’s does in the flashbacks). The lost nostalgia of it is palpable, and there’s very little that’s visibly ‘of Anthy’ in it, with even Chu-Chu a small and indistinct shape on the whole.
This is the first, but far from the last, time we’ll be drawn to the way that Anthy, both through her own survival tactics and through the insistence of others, disappears into the roles that others want her to have. It makes for a nice bit of foreshadowing on the end of the first arc.
Themes: The creator commentary speaks on a wholly independent level of what’s going on in this episode. That is to say, it has a wonderful sense of outside applicability that I’d love to plaster all over the walls of every college English department and coffee house writers’ meeting. While Ikuhara frames it as worrying about character consistency, I would call it the wonderful practice of depth.
Anime in particular (and anime involving teenagers even more particularly) is often guilty of the sin of writing characters to unshakable molds – the flustered tsundere, the noble lech, the bland and mealy everyman, the lonely ice queen, and so on. Too often these characters are marketing tools more than they are ever allowed to be people – there’s nothing unique or even believable about their dialogue, about their actions, and we’re left with cut-out dolls enacting lifeless and repetitive fantasies for an increasingly lackluster audience.
But people are not stereotypes, and the best anime (and stories, period) build multi-faceted characters to hang familiar archetypes upon. Even in fantastical settings there should be a sense of cause and effect, a logic behind how these people we’re expected to care about came to exist as they do. Art is heightened reality, a beautified reflection of our hopes and desires that we can learn about ourselves from. And we learn nothing from impossibly proportioned paper dolls enacting shrill pantomimes wholly divorced from human emotion.