If there’s one word that springs to mind for me in connection with this series, it’s empathy. It seems to be a critical component of everything that’s happening in the story – and an equally critical factor that’s lacking on the part of the viewers that aren’t buying the characters. Is it plain and simply a fault of the series if it can’t persuade many members of the audience to sympathize with the characters? Perhaps – I’ll leave that to others to decide. For me, though, the empathy is there, even if the attitudes and behaviors of those characters sometimes put it to the test. I think that’s quite intentional on the part of the mangaka.
Because my sense is that this is a show where the symbolism is rather pointed and psychological and not one where we’re supposed to simply suspend disbelief and chalk it up to fantasy, I think it’s important to decide just what’s happening between Hazuki and Atsushi – and where Hazuki is at this moment. I’m still stuck on the fact that it appeared to be Rokka’s spirit that entered Hazuki’s body at the time of the possession. Rokka appears as Thumbelina before Hazuki, first in the same relative proportion as in the fairy tale, then in the same size as him. It seems clear that this is a world that’s drawn from Atsushi’s sketches – but it is really Atsushi’s world, or is it Rokka’s? Or even Hazuki’s, in part?
Of further interest is the fact that Atushi – using Hazuki’s hand – draws a sketch of Rokka as the Little Mermaid in his old sketch book at the shop, and then later in the episode the “Thumbelina” world becomes a kind of dark version of “The Little Mermaid” after Rokka confesses her love to Hazuki in the “real” world”. So we can say with certainty that the world Hazuki perceives while possessed is directly impacted by what happens in the real world – but given that this real world event takes place in the presence of both Rokka and Atsushi (and Hazuki, physically – he could even be aware of what’s happening while he’s away from his body) that doesn’t tell us much. I’m convinced that this fantasy world – and thus the ghost of Atsushi itself – is somehow a hybrid of both Atsushi and Rokka, as if their souls have been fused by her command that he not leave her, and only by untying the knot can everyone move on.
Perhaps Rokka gave a little part of her soul to keep Atsushi behind in the real world – and the only way he can be free to move on is if that part of her soul is returned to her and she becomes whole again. And the only way Rokka can be whole again is to reclaim the part of herself she gave up when Atushi died – to embrace that part of herself again, along with the grief that goes along with it (to “stop using her dead husband as an excuse” as Atsushi-as-Hazuki himself puts it). There’s a certain poetry and symmetry to that idea which I like, and it inevitably leads to the question: just what is it that has to happen for Rokka to become whole and Atsushi to move on? Obviously Hazuki seems like the key to all this. He’s given Atsushi the chance to interact with Rokka again, to say the things he never said in life – and he’s given her something to cling to and a chance to feel again. And with her confession it seems clear that she does – although, irritatingly, Natsuyuki Rendezvous makes us wonder if it was the presence of Atsushi’s spirit that prompted Rokka to say what she did to him. Again, determined not to make things easy…
That roundabout thought brings us back to empathy, and to the fantasy world Hazuki currently inhabits – whatever its true nature. It seems as if inhabiting Hazuki’s body is giving Atsushi more consideration for the pain and loneliness Rokka is living with, which is hardly surprising, but it also seems to be making him see Hazuki’s side of things too. Thumbelina-Rokka implies that Atushi could make it difficult for Hazuki to ever reclaim his body, if he so chose, but I don’t think that’s likely to happen – it’s as he says, he’s just not quite ready to move on yet. Hazuki’s perspective is that “There’s no rain that doesn’t stop at some point – not as long as you’re alive.” This is the unstoppable force that will drive him forward, and which Atsushi is slowly coming to acknowledge – this world is the privilege of the living, and Rokka is alive. He knows that while Hazuki is the key to helping Rokka move forward, and he can do is hold her in place – with one foot in the world of the dead. And that isn’t where she belongs.
This is a hard, bittersweet story, and I suspect it – like life itself – will yield no joy without considerable pain. Rokka is the one very much caught in the middle here – between life and death, between Hazuki and Atsushi, between hope and grief. Atsushi, it seems, was not just the love of her life but the only love of her life – and the only man she’s ever been intimate with (physically or emotionally, most likely). If Atsushi and Hazuki are the opposing forces, she’s the pivot, the thing that connects them and unites them. Ultimately the choice to move on (either with or without Hazuki) rests every bit as much with her as it does with Atushi. Indeed, the place where Atushi’s soul ends and hers begins is hard to see – and as much as that’s a reflection of the fact that they loved each other deeply, it’s only when that separation becomes clear that this story can truly move on.