「最強の証明」 (Saikyō no Shōmei)
“Proof of the Strongest”
As much as any episode in Little Busters!, this one felt as if it was a long time coming.
Inohara Masato has always been something of a singular figure at the heart of Little Busters. He’s the guy that was always there – Riki’s “best friend”, in his own words – but always outside the main plot and usually the B plot as well. He’s the comic relief (and indeed, the funniest character in the cast along with Kud-o – “Am I supposed to live by myself in a concrete pipe?!”), the butt of the jokes, usually the loser in his battles with Kengo and Rin, the eternal sidekick – but also the one who seemed at random moments to drop the most hints about what was really going on here.
It’s been something of a painful process to watch Masato’s personality change over the last couple of episodes, as the shit got real when it came to the conspiracy underlying everything in LB. But this episode frames that in a way that’s almost poetic, because we see the exact same thing happening to the child Masato before Kyousuke showed up in his life. That’s the point, of course – this episode and indeed the early part of this arc seems to be a process of Riki trying to step into Kyousuke’s shoes and recreate what he did with the Little Busters – but it was executed with a grace and subtlety that might not fully present itself until the episode is watched a second time. It might have been a bit brief for me – after this long of a wait, I could have done with a longer arc for Masato – but it delivered the emotional goods.
Canna Nobutoshi is one of the more experienced seiyuu in a cast with a lot of less well-known names, and for me he’s always managed to humanize Masato even in his absurd moments (which was most of the time), which for my part ensured a lot of buy-in when this episode finally arrived. Seeing the little Masato doing his silly dance while the local kids laughed at him was actually one of the sadder moments of the series for me because it reflected what Masato basically is – an innocent child, a happy guy who isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer and doesn’t fit in easily with the rest of the world. It was that which caused him to become obsessed with being the strongest, which ultimately provided him protection from bullying but not what he really wanted, which was a connection to other people. It was Kyousuke who provided that, and quite literally changed the world as far as Masato was concerned.
In a sense, Masato and Riki are polar opposites. Masato’s isolation was caused by his strength, and Riki’s by his weakness – but Kyousuke sort of “leveled off” both of them and brought them into his inner circle. I’m dead-certain it was Kyousuke who pushed the two of them together as a sort of opposites-attract, boke-tsukkomi BFF pairing. And it worked – right up until the moment that Kyousuke seemed to deliberately tear apart this world he’d spent so long building up. Just why he did that is probably the biggest question overhanging LitBus at this point in the story, and one we’re likely going to have to wait until closer to the finale to have answered.
The least interesting part of this episode was the act of “taming” Masato, which was pretty standard stuff. But the point wasn’t the silly scheme to trap him like a bear – it was in seeing Masato’s descent into what seems very much like madness, and Riki’s re-enactment of Kyousuke’s plan with only the details changed. We don’t know why Masato has changed of course, any more than we know why Kyousuke has done the things he’s done. Why does Masato see “those guys” – clearly, visions of everyone else looking exactly like he does? It’s thinly-disguised symbolism for his self-loathing, here, seeing Masato lash out at himself. As Kyousuke did, Riki endures some of Masato’s rage in the form of physical abuse while adopting the same basic strategy – tire Masato out and make him realize that he doesn’t have to be the strongest after all to get other people to like him.
But of course, this isn’t the same scenario as before – not really. These are teenagers, not grade-schoolers. And while Riki is quite deliberately trying to step into Kyousuke’s shoes, the real Kyousuke is actually present – living a sort of self-imposed hikikomori lifestyle and refusing to be drawn into this world he seems to have brought to pass. When Masato finally gives in to his weariness, it’s a different Masato than the little boy who Kyousuke tamed – there’s a tinge of fatalism to his ominous pledge to Riki that he’ll “follow him all the way to the end.” This Masato knows more than that one did, and it’s changed him – no matter how carefree and genki he acted for most of the series.
Next up is Kengo, as we’re seemingly seeing the creating of the Little Busters re-enacted block-by-block with Riki stepping into Kyousuke’s shoes. What we don’t know is why he has to do so, and as always the man at the center of the mystery is Kyousuke. But this certainly represents a huge moment of character growth for Riki, and it occurs to me that rather than simply being an organic part of the story, that may in fact be the very point – that the crucial final step for whatever it is Kyousuke wants to happen is for Riki to fully emerge as a confident adult and a leader. And if that can only happen if the world is brought to the brink of despair and Kyousuke himself is so alienated from the others that he’s no help at all to Riki, than Kyousuke will make that happen. I don’t think Kyousuke’s bleak depression is an act – I think this way of living is brutally painful for him – but I do think he’s doing it with the big picture in mind. “Taking one for the team”, in about as literal a sense as you could imagine – which is exactly the sort of thing the Kyousuke we’ve come to know over three cours would do.
Author’s note: Please “refrain” from posting any unmarked VN spoilers (or hints, or confirmations or denials of guesses, or clever spoilers disguised as jokes) into the comments section. I don’t want this experience ruined for me, and I don’t want it ruined for any other new viewers. Read the comments at your own risk,. Zephyr has kindly offered to pop his head in here and look for spoiler comments, but that will not necessarily be before any potential spoilers have been posted for a while. Untagged spoiler comments will of course be deleted, and serial offenders will meet with further and more decisive response. Let’s be respectful and keep this a safe place for people who want to experience Refrain to the fullest without having to worry about that experience being spoiled because they want to participate in a discussion.