With its indelible characters, brilliant soundtrack, gorgeous animation and subtle and powerful writing, this is a show that’s stamping itself as one of the best anime in recent years. As great as it is on a surface level, Ikoku Meiro keeps revealing layer upon layer about itself and its characters. There seems no end to the depth of emotional exploration here – every time you think you’ve reached a pinnacle, it gets turned up to eleven. And it’s all done with style and dignity, and heavy lifting – no dramatic shortcuts here.
I think a very interesting picture is being painted of Claude and Camille – both of who they are as individuals and as a former couple. I’m not normally overfond of flashbacks as a dramatic device, but I can’t think of a time I’ve seen them used better than over the last two episodes. What we’re seeing is a real sense of how these two got to be the people they are, what drew them together – and what pushed them apart. Camille has dark places inside her, though she’s as good as masking them as any character you’ll see. As clever as she is, she’s as much of a prisoner of her status emotionally and intellectually as she is physically. What she said as a little girl with honest intent (albeit also ignorance of the double meaning) – “Even after we’re grown up and married, you’ll still come and play with me!” – and the act of comparing Claude to a stray cat were extremely insulting. You can see the spark of that realization in Claude’s eyes even as a little boy – and the impact it will have on the man he becomes – but to Camille, it’s an innocent remark. This is the gulf between them – for her, it’s perfectly natural that Claude would be happy to be her plaything forever. The notion of a working man’s pride is lost on her, as curious about and fond of Claude as she is.
And fond she is, no question. I think the teenaged Camille is equal parts angry at her situation, namely the demands and restrictions it places on her, and at Claude for not happily accepting a role as her stray cat. She does feel for him and the fun they had as children was real and heartfelt, and I think she admires the very qualities that keep Claude from submitting to her (even if she doesn’t fully understand them). In some ways, I would say the relationship between Camille and Claude is (quite intentionally) similar to that between Alice and Yune. Genuine affection, even infatuation, admiration, but ultimately a desire to possess and not to have a relationship as equals. Claude and Yune are the same things – exotic and entrancing and fun, and most importantly not part of the narrow world the Blanche sisters inhabit. There’s no malice in that possessive attitude for either of them, but it’s not something to build a real relationship – romantic or fraternal – around.
While there were some light moments – most memorably Alice’s disastrous attempts to make matcha tea (and to drink it unsweetened) – this episode continues a trend towards a somewhat heavier tone. I don’t mind it because it’s handled with such a deft touch that it doesn’t feel heavy. The direction, music and background out serve to soften the harsh edges of the denser material and frankly, it’s so emotionally true that I don’t even have time to think about the overall tone. It’s enough to let what’s happening wash over you, and when a development happens it feels perfectly natural. For example, the growing understanding between Yune and Camille. After all, they have some obvious – affection for Claude – and less obvious things in common. I think as a Nadeshiko in training Yune can understand the way Camille chafes under the weight of expectations. Though she wouldn’t have to wear a corset in Japan, there would be plenty of rigid requirements of Yune in terms of behavior and public comportment. In a way, coming to France has freed her precisely because there, she gets to taste the same freedom Claude can – and Camille can’t. But while Camille will never have to worry about bread, wine or a roof over her head, Claude must worry about all of the above, and keeping the legacy of his family alive. Yune, in a sense, understands both worlds better than anyone.
As we go forward, it looks as if we’re going to continue to see more of the past. Specifically, more of the wonderful Oscar (I missed him this week) and our first real look at Claude’s parents, or his father at the very least. I haven’t seen any word on the ratings on pre-sales on the BD/DVDs, but with three eps to go and the manga still ongoing, I sincerely hope Satelight is being rewarded for their stellar labor of love and that there’s hope for a second season. These are people I want to keep spending time with.