One of my favorite accolades, “simple, yet profound”, definitely applies to this series. At its heart it’s just a story of three people, nothing too complicated. But the way it quietly explores the cultural differences between East and West and develops the relationships between Claude, Oscar and Yune is artful. For example, the different ways they look at freedom. For Yune, it’s all about serving others and putting their needs first. For Claude it’s brass in hand and a city to spend it in.
Oscar is somewhat of an expert by now on both cultures (certainly by the standards of Europe at the time) and for all her shyness Yune is very perceptive about these subtle and not-so-subtle gaps. But Claude isn’t – it takes a couple of tries for him to figure it out, and he’s not above flashing his temper at what he sees as Yune’s ignorance of Parisian life. But he always comes around in the end – he may be learning more in the arrangement than Yune is. One of the paradoxes of Claude’s life is the clash between his ideals and his reality. He sees the squalor that exists in Paris and the way some are forced to live, and the way of life he cherishes slowly being bypassed by time. Yet as an idealist and an egalitarian, this repulses him. And in the intent of preparing her to face what’s out there, he inadvertently causes Yune to have an exaggerated view of the dark side of the city. It was sad to see her recoil in fear as Claude’s friend, Alan, tried to help her get home.
It’s certainly true that Yune’s kindness was taken advantage of the urchin who stole the candlestick, but I think Claude comes to realize that this is a part of Yune he doesn’t ever want to see change. We’ll see that boy again, I’m sure, after his brief reappearance after the ED. But he brought about one of the high points of the series when Claude “rescued” Yune, telling her that her safety was more important than any of the items in the store. Most weeks for most series, that would have been the emotional peak but for me, that was Oscar talking about how like the old oil lamp, bypassed by gas lighting and soon electricity, the shop and the Gallerie would be forgotten and abandoned.
It didn’t get much fanfare, but Oscar’s return was actually a major moment for the series. He’s a man with a wanderlust, but part of that comes from his belief that the shop is doomed (as did his half-serious suggestion that he and Claude move to Japan with Yune). In the manga this is made a little more obvious by the fact that Oscar says he expects to be gone “about three months”. So when he shows up that night – with a new wick to fix the old lamp, no less – it’s an important symbol of his re-committing himself to Paris, the shop, and to Claude. As he says, Yune lit a light in their life, just like the lamp.
There was certainly a little more melancholy to this episode than to the first four, as heartwarming as the ending was. It seems clear that Claude’s desire to save the shop is a losing battle in the long run, whether befriending Alice and her family makes any difference in the short run. But Yune might just be the first thing in his life other than his family and their heritage that gives it any meaning, and it’s easy to see a path where Claude could grow to accept that things change and that life could be worth living anyway. As he teaches her about his city and his culture, he’s seeing it through her eyes – and perhaps appreciating some of the things he took for granted about it. One of the marvels of Ikoku Meiro is the way it explores the cultural divide without a bit of judgement or condescension towards either side, something rare in anime and indeed anywhere. It’s due in part, I’m sure, to the team at Satelight being comprised of both French and Japanese, and the fact that they’ve probably come to appreciate the unique qualities of their colleagues’ culture.