「八軒、咆える」 (Hachiken, Hoeru)
Nothing in fiction is quite so heartbreaking as that which is completely believable and realistic.
There are definitely times where I feel as if I’m doing a series a disservice by writing about it, because an episode does such a perfect job of speaking for itself. And that’s something of a specialty of Gin no Saji, which is so lacking in artifice and pretense that it manages to be emotionally profound and emotionally transparent at the same time. Even if the events of this episode were easy to predict, they packed a knockout punch just the same.
The first part of the episode did little to prepare us for what was to come. The mystery of Nakajima-sensei’s absence is solved – it was indeed related to the cheese tragedy he suffered (that, too, was predicted here last week). This is classic slice-of-life GnS – lots of interesting information about cheese making, repeated jokes at Tokiwa’s expense, some light-hearted bovine fanservice (my favorite moment came when Hachiken cried “My daughter!”; when imagining the dairy calf he’s been asked to name being ogled and fondled by Tokiwa and the Holstein Club). I was wondering why Nakajima-sensei was so concerned with what everyone had eaten over the last 24 hours – turns out Natto has bacteria so potent that even the breath of someone who’s eaten it can contaminate the cheese process (it’s also utterly revolting in every way).
This segment also brings us the first overt reference to the titular “Gin no Saji” in quite some time – a reflection on the fact that agricultural kids will never starve because they can produce the food they need to survive. It’s a very different take on the term than we’re used to, and the timing is no coincidence leading as it does into Komaba’s story. It’s Ayame – someone who represents the image of the silver spoon most people have in their heads – who breaks the news to Hachiken and the others (though not Mikage, of course) – Komaba’s farm is going bankrupt, and he’s not coming back to school.
This is a hard, cruel slice of agricultural life, and if you’re expecting the blow to be softened by sentiment and trope-powered plot twists, you’ll be disappointed. This sort of thing really does happen all the time, and certainly in the harrowing financial world of the modern family farm. In this case it’s a matter of bad timing – Komaba’s father borrowed extensively to expand the business just before he died, too soon to reap any benefits from the money spent. The upshot is that Komaba feels he has no choice but to quit school – and baseball – and get a job to help repay the loan. He has a mother and two little sisters to think about, and an important additional incentive besides.
As with everything in Gin no Saji, this development is important not just in itself but for what it means to Hachiken. His natural instinct, always, it to help. He’s the fixer – the guy who always steps in whenever something extra (a pizza oven, expertise in planning, a home for a stray dog or love for a doomed piglet) is needed. But this isn’t something Hachiken can fix – this is just a hard, painful thing that simply is. And accepting that cuts against everything Hachiken believes in, his very nature. Even worse is that both Komaba and Mikage chose to keep this from him – and even now, both express concern for the impact it’ll have on him. There’s something quintessentially Japanese in this scenario of everyone wanting to spare others the burden of sharing their pain, an element of what makes the mindset of this culture so admirable and irritating at the same time. By expressing concern for Hachiken – absolutely genuine concern – when they should be worried about themselves, Komaba and Mikage are actually making him feel much worse.
There’s another element that makes this story even more painful, and it’s revealed when Hachiken foils Komaba’s plan to sneak into his room and gather his belongings while everyone is in class by faking sick (he suspected the truth) and catching Komaba in the act. Komaba’s father got Mikage’s father to co-sign the massive loan he took, which means her family is going to be dragged into the financial mire if the loan can’t be paid back. There are many valid reasons for what Komaba is doing, but that doesn’t make the fact that he’s saying goodbye to all of his dreams any less painful. It’s equally heartbreaking watching Hachiken hopelessly struggle for answers and rage at the situation, and watching Komaba express nothing as he fatalistically accepts the end of his dreams. “Yeah, I’ve lost them all… Baseball, taking over the business, everything.” And most painful of all is his final, calm “It can’t be helped.”
That’s real, genuine heartbreak there – not an ounce of push-button melodrama, just real-world injustice. “It can’t be helped” – these words are anathema to Hachiken, but they too are part of the lessons he needs to learn at Ezonoo. Mikage gently reminds him of the key to not getting hurt too badly when you fall off a horse – “Just let go” – but that, too cuts against his very nature. This is continuing education in the truest sense – a reminder for Hachiken that whatever his problems, he needs to appreciate how much he has because most people aren’t nearly so lucky. Coming-of-age drama just doesn’t get much better than this – brutal honesty, absolute believability, unvarnished truth. It’s a beautiful, terrible sadness – and that is a necessary part of growing up. It’s just that we almost never see it portrayed this simply and profoundly in anime.