Certainly, naming the amusement park at the center of this episode “Hanayashiki” can hardly be called subtle – hanaya means “florist”, and shiki (as most anime fans know) has associations with death and the undead. But most of what happens in Natsuyuki Rendezvous is subtle, and it’s refreshingly lacking in both conventional anime pandering and easy answers. Despite its easy, wistful tone and pace, this is a series that’s actually a fair amount of work to follow if you want to try and get the most out of it.
What leaps out at me about the awkward “date” Hazuki and Rokka share at Hanayashiki is just how obvious the age difference is. It doesn’t help that both of them are always aware of it, of course, but it seems as if it’s a much bigger deal to him. Hazuki is shy and fumbling in the superficial elements of the courtship, and he’s also constantly overthinking every aspect of the day. Atsushi’s involvement obviously makes it worse but I suspect Hazuki would be struggling with the boyfriend role anyway, as he’s still very much the shy teenager when he and Rokka are together. For her, meanwhile, even as she struggles with her ever-present memories of Atsushi she’s very much the sophisticate in the relationship (even when it comes to the choice of hats), and even enjoying the attention – as she says, “It’s fun to be wooed.”
It’s worth asking just what Hazuki had in mind for this excursion, as he never really makes it expressly clear to the audience. I’d thought of it as a kind of exorcism – perhaps in recreating that fateful trip he’d be helping nudge Atsushi on to the next world. But then, Miho didn’t join them this time – there was no mention it, despite Hazuki suggesting it to Rokka last week – so perhaps this is nothing more than Hazuki trying to step into Atsushi’s shoes by walking the same path with Rokka. No doubt, he’s very much trying to act the lover here in his bashful way – pausing for photos, buying shaved ice, holding hands – hell, he even asks Rokka straight out to have sex with him. But it never quite takes. Neither one of them can get past Atsushi’s presence (figurative if not literal) to focus solely on the other. Perhaps the key line of dialogue for Hazuki this week was his “I’m not asking you to choose between the two of us” – delivered in response to Rokka’s “I guess I’m still not over Shimao-kun.” I think that’s the right direction to go – but is it enough?
Atsushi seems to have become much-reviled by the viewers, and I suppose it’s easy enough to understand. His actions seem extremely selfish and he’s generally a nuisance – all that I stipulate to. But I don’t think we can judge Atsushi as we would a living person. My take is still that he was effectively imprisoned on Earth as a result of Rokka’s plaintive “Don’t leave me!”, and he’s trapped in an existence that’s pure torture for him. As Hazuki struggles to grow up and play the role of the man in all this, Atsushi finds himself sipping more and more into the role of the petulant child – “If I can’t have her, no one can!” Of course this is directly opposed to what he wished for when he was alive – and he’s surely aware of this, and it makes him even more miserable. He’s not likeable – none of the characters in this series are easily likable in the conventional sense – but he’s thoroughly sympathetic, at least for me. If this story is a tragedy, he’s certainly a tragic figure.
With that said, I certainly allow for the possibility of something sinister in his desire to possess Hazuki’s body – a wish Hazuki (probably unwisely) grants in a state of drunkenness after the Hanayashiki date doesn’t go as he’d hoped. Hazuki, very much the awkward boy, always seems to get it wrong with Rokka – too cold or too forward at the wrong moments – and he takes the youthful path of avoidance by getting drunk on convenience store beer as Rokka waits for him with tea. With permission granted Atsushi does indeed take over Hazuki’s body (and it’s undeniably curious that the imagery used is of Rokka’s spirit doing so, not Atsushi’s), though just what he intends to do with it remains to be seen – for the moment at least, it appears he doesn’t intend to reveal his identity to Rokka. It’s a natural enough desire for someone in his position simply to want to feel alive for a few moments, to be able to talk to his true love and touch her – but I can’t believe we’re going to get off that easily. And Hazuki certainly doesn’t figure to either – I suspect the upshot of all this will be that his worth in Rokka’s eyes has taken a serious hit due to his behavior while in Atsushi’s possession. If you’re cynical enough about Atsushi you might even think that was his plan all along – but I guess I’m either too soft-hearted or too much of a romantic to believe that.
I definitely enjoy the fact that the characters don’t spell out their motivations for the audience in bright, bold letters here – it’s up to us to make our own interpretations based on the way they behave. It applies to Atsushi and the possession, it applies to Hazuki and the amusement park, and it applies to Rokka in pretty much every respect. We know the most basic things that drive these people – Hazuki is in love with Rokka. Rokka is struggling to move past Atsushi. And Atsushi can’t bear to let Rokka go. But beyond that it’s all an open question, and I think that’s quite an interesting twist – because after all, people don’t usually know themselves exactly why they behave the way they do. We’re learning about these people as they learn about themselves – and as in real-life, it’s a slow and painful process.