Of all the currently airing series, Ikoku Meiro is the one I’m going to miss when it ends. I won’t say it’s the best – others can make their own judgments. But it is the one that transports me with every episode and makes me feel the most deeply, offtimes with very little effort.
While there was so much to smile at in this week’s entry, as there almost always is with this show, it was one of the sadder episodes for me. We got a chance to learn a bit about Claude’s father Jean. He was a master of his trade, a sculptor of iron and Claude’s inspiration. By the looks of things he was also a stern and demanding father, rarely smiling or offering encouragement to his son. He died young too of course, though we knew that. The impact on Claude has been obvious. He’s become a young man full of pride and stubbornness, but also full of resentment at a world he sees as unjust and probably unduly harsh. It’s clear that Oscar tried to make up in providing warmth to Claude when Jean lacked, but a father is a father.
The portion of the episode that dealt with the title theme of “Phantsamgoria” worked on a number of different levels. Oscar comes across in all his mischievous and joyful glory, seizing upon Yune’s discovery of an old slide projector in the storeroom to surprise and delight her with “magic”. It provides and opportunity for Alice to show a softer side, too, especially after the printer Alan shows up and decides to turn the event into a full-on entertainment for the entire gallerie, borrowing two more projectors from the art dealer. Giving up her seat for an old lady and sitting on the floor next to a pair of neighborhood imps may not seem like much to you or I, but baby steps I say.
As delightful as those scenes are, they operate on another level that I found moving and quite sad. This episode really plays up Claude’s status as a outsider, forever apart from the circle of smiling and relaxed faces. He’s physically absent during the fun – off in Dijon meeting with a client of his father’s, a winemaker who plans to open a restaurant and needs a sign. But he’s also symbolically apart from it, consumed with matters serious and difficult. He stubbornly refuses the client’s request to make a sign in the style of his father. Claude obviously holds Jean up as the standard by which he should be judged as a craftsman, but with his father gone, Claude has been robbed of the chance to test his skills against his father’s. And if the Gallerie should go under, he’ll truly have been robbed of something he sees as his birthright. These days we might call Claude neurotic, but really, he’s just a young man who can’t accept what he sees as unjust without a fight, even when acceptance would be the best course.
There are a couple of important moments late in the episode that should be noted. As the phantasmagoria is taking place, Yune looks over and sees Claude in the crowd, smiling – except that he’s not actually there. Later, as Claude wrestles with designs for the vintner’s sign by lamplight, his father’s folio at his side, Yune sees Jean standing at Claude’s shoulder. Yune has already shown what I would call “deep sight” – she sometimes sees the meaning in a moment, rather than the physical circumstances themselves. She’s probably the only person (apart from Oscar) who can see a Claude beyond the hurt and resentment that plagues him, smiling and enjoying his life and at peace. She sees the role the absence of Jean has played in making Claude so demanding of himself and others, and how disappointed at the unfairness of the world. In other words, she understands him in a profound and meaningful way and sees him as the man he wants to be. Oscar is very clearly a kind man, but taking Yune from Nagaski and bringing her into Claude’s life may have been the kindest and wisest decision he’s made.
For all the subtle and profound insight this episode shed on these characters, it was full of the simple moments that make Ikoku Meiro such a joy to watch. Even something as trivial as watching Yune and her Onee-san make shadow puppets or seeing how Yune has adapted to life at the Gallerie, chatting with the neighbors and attracting the affection of children and cats, is a wonder in these capable hands. I’m praying for strong blu-ray sales, because with the manga being relatively young, perhaps we might get a second season a year or two down the line. There’s no way this show can satisfy my curiosity about the future of Claude, Yune and Oscar in two episodes.