「近くて遠い距離」 (Chikakute tooi kyori)
This is one of those “If you didn’t feel it here, might be time to bail” episodes, because Kono Oto Tomare! really nailed it this week. This was every reason why I adore this series bundled neatly into 22 minutes, and as it did with the first real watershed episode (#5) the anime totally stuck the landing with the adaptation. And it was the second time this season an anime choked me up a little – it’s no coincidence it was the same one (and no mystery which the first episode that did so was).
Obviously, we’ve seen club training camp episodes ad nauseam in anime. But we’ve seen club drama just as often (well – the two go hand in hand), and those of us that love the good ones are still coming back. It’s all about the execution, and Kono Oto Tomare works because what it does well it does very well, and those things it does well are very important. The virtues here are pretty simple – sincerity, authenticity, a sense of respect for every character in the cast as an individual.
The feeling I got in watching this episode was very similar to Chihayafuru in the early days, before it all started to go wrong. Good shows of this genre tend to make you feel such deep and genuine affection for the characters – in younger viewers it’s probably mostly camaraderie, with older ones a sense of protectiveness. These are such good kids, all flawed in ways we can relate to but genuinely trying to do their best. A sense of belonging somewhere is an incredibly important lifeline when you’re an adolescent to be sure, and that’s something anime frequently tries to capture but rarely with this level of success. Again – sincerity, authenticity, and real characters instead of archetypes.
Everyone matters in this story, and Kouta gets his turn in the spotlight this week. Kouta is pretty much as we see him – a sweet, innocent kid who really just joined the club because he wanted to help Chika out the way Chika had helped him. But he got more than he bargained for, both good and bad – and now, what the koto club is doing (and how he impacts it) actually matters. That’s a lot of pressure, especially as Kouta proves to have less natural inclination for music than his buddies. Rhythm, especially, is a mystery to him – much to the frustration of Hiro, who as his fellow third koto is more or less in charge of bringing him up (or down) to speed.
Rhythm is a problem for the first kotos too, as Takezou and Chika are out of synch. Satowa provides them a metronome, which helps – but it’s not until Chika walks in on Satowa and demands she play his part so he can observe that he really connects the dots (and she’s enough of a pro to understand how impressive his natural abilities are). As for Takezou, he displays some real growth here himself – not on the koto but in his role as the president. After suggesting the idea of a training camp, he gets the expected response from Takinami-sensei – at which point he displays a most un-Takezou like resolve and asks the advisor to resign in favor of someone more willing to help the club achieve its goals.
Honestly, moments like this really do play into the “proud parent” mindset for me – seeing growth of this sort for Takezou warms the heart in a big way. It seems to be a watershed moment for Takinami, too, who must acknowledge now that his students are serious. Surprisingly, he’s recorded the group’s last performance, which he plays on the bus on the way to the inn owned by Hiro’s uncle (by Japanese law, it’s as if every school club must have a member whose relative owns an inn in the mountains). This is a splash of cold water to be sure, but as Chika says, it lets everyone know just how much ground they still have to cover.
I think anyone who’s everyone been in Kouta’s situation – part of a group where everyone seems to be leaving you behind – knows just what a spectacularly awful feeling it is. Hiro and Satowa want to help, but they’re not professional teachers – and finding the balance between pushing Kouta and being patient is beyond their skill level. For him, their holding back makes him feel even worse. It gets so bad that he disappears after everyone has gone to bed, which naturally sets the others off in a panic. But Kouta hasn’t bailed and gone home – he’s retreated by himself (with only a metronome for company) into the woods to practice by himself. I love the misdirection of this development, since given Kouta’s gentle nature it would have been easy to believe he did flee outright. But we don’t know all there is to know about him yet.
There’s just something so elemental and pure about this – Kouta doing what he did because he’s desperate to stay with the others. The emotional peak – which KoT once more nails – comes when Chika finds Kouta in the woods and (after a bit of admonishment) says “I’d hate it if you weren’t around”. Honestly, what an incredibly powerful thing that little sentence is – so much is packed into it – and it’s exactly what Kouta wanted to hear. Chika is as good a friend as you could hope for when the chips are down, when his usual indelicacy becomes a blessing rather than a curse – he says what he thinks, and his loyalty knows no bounds.
There’s one more rather elegiac moment here, and one hugely important for one of the cast. That comes the next morning, as Takinami-sensei listens to Takezou recount the frustration the boys are having in helping Kouta get past his mental block, even as they’ve identified the nature of it. He gives Kouta a very simple and practical lesson about the upbeat and how to identify it – and in doing so, reflects qualities in himself (an ability and inclination to teach and a deep understanding of music) that he’s heretofore kept under wraps. Not even Takinami, it seems, is immune to the persuasive power of friendship and youthful martial spirit.