「笑顔の守り人」 (Egao no Mamoribito)
“The Protector of Smiles”
As good as last week’s episode was, getting its best character back really makes a difference for Nagi no Asukara.
Note: Kairi’s internet is being an “S” at the moment so I’m filling in this week…
After a really strong episode, I normally have a good amount of scribbles on the notepad I keep with me when watching anime I plan to blog. But right now this episode only has two words scrawled on the page: “sick” and “change”. What that tells me is that this episode did an admirable job of speaking for itself – which makes my job as a blogger either easier or much harder, depending on how you look at it.
One of Okada Mari’s gifts as a writer is emotional clarity. Not that she always displays it, but when she chooses to she can get to the heart of what we feel as well as any anime writer in the business. Shows like AnoHana and Nagiasu (and even HanaIro when dealing with the generational relationships in Ohana’s family) are not especially subtle, but they’re very effective because they build a bridge between the audience and the characters. We feel what they feel because the feelings are universal. It sounds easy enough, but there aren’t many writers who can get there without the material seeming false or preachy. Okada does too, sometimes – but not when she’s on. And with this show, she’s been very much on.
The story of this episode, really, is Hikari. It’s in his reactions after waking up from a five-years nap, and in the way his appearance impacts those around him. Watching Hikari dealing with those feelings was pretty heartbreaking, and watching the way he rose to the occasion was pretty inspiring. You’ll be seeing a lot of “Wow – it’s amazing how much Hikari has grown!” posts in wake of this episode, I’m sure. And there’s truth in that, but there’s also this: the qualities we’re seeing in Hikari now were present in him from the beginning, even when his immaturity and adolescent anger made them harder to see – as many of us pointed out at the time. The fact that some people chose not to see them then doesn’t mean those qualities didn’t exist.
That, folks, is a well-written character arc. And it would be a disservice to the writer and the character to dismiss what we’re seeing now in Hikari as some kind of miraculous transformation – dismissing it suchwise is really ass-covering more than anything else. No doubt Hikari has grown, but the signs of that growth were visible like new leaves poking through the snow, right from the beginning. The Hikari we see now has more reason than ever to be angry, and even more to wallow in self-pity. The growth comes in the fact that he realizes this much sooner than the boy we met 15 episodes ago would have – even if those close to him are a little slower arriving at that realization.
The “sick” I have written on my notepad refers to Hikari pretending to be ill when he saw the Ofunehiki flag the Fisherman’s Collective had saved for him. This was a concession to his pride – Hikari never liked the idea of showing his vulnerable side in public, but all the more so now that everyone he knew (apart from those still sleeping) has aged five years, making him all the more aware of his own youth. And the “changed” refers to Hikari telling Chisaki she hadn’t changed – something he did simply to make her feel less despair over the situation. In truth Hikari had every reason to be angry at Chisaki for not visiting him, and every reason to be the immature one – he’s the child now, not Chisaki. Yet he took the high road and acted to spare her feelings, which as much as anything shows how mature he is. I’ve repeated over and over that one of the major themes of Nagiasu is the transition from childhood to young-adulthood expressed through a growing sense of empathy, and Hikari is certainly the most obvious example.
I’m not going to be too hard on Chisaki here, even though not coming to see Hikari for two days (and who knows how much longer, had he not stumbled upon her at the seashore), knowing how hard this must have been for him, was a selfish act. As I said last week, it could be argued that Chisaki has had it harder than anyone – while her friends were sleeping, she had to experience those five years. For Hikari it might be the day before yesterday, but Chisaki has endured 1800 or so day-before-yesterdays feeling herself slipping further away from everything she knows, and from the boy she loves. And not even Hikari’s kindness can spare her the hard truth – she has changed, no matter what he says, and if there was ever any chance that they might end up together (I don’t think there was), it seems impossibly remote now.
For Hikari, now, it’s a question of staying himself and staying the course – hoping those he’s left behind under the sea will rejoin him someday. As with Chisaki, Tsugumu and Miuna have it pretty rough. It seems unlikely that, if after five years under one roof Chisaki hasn’t grown attracted to Tsugumu by now, he ever will. And Miuna must deal with the reality that Hikari still considers her a child, and a family member – anything but a potential mate. I hope Okada doesn’t gnaw at the doomed relationships too obsessively in the episodes ahead – they have real pathos, but that could get too gloomy pretty fast. Ideally I’d like to see a transition to the relationships that are possible – but without Manaka’s presence, it’s hard to see that train leaving the station – her return would be the event that would trigger a chain-reaction and allow the frozen time to move again for all of the main cast. As I doubt that’s going to happen anytime soon, I think we’re entering a dangerous period for Nagi no Asukara, even as good as it’s been of late.