It’s taken us quite a while to get here, but the journey was certainly rewarding.
I have to give full credit to Shouwa Monogatari, because episode 12 really felt like a penultimate episode should. It ramped up both the drama and emotion, and managed to recall all of the conflicts and plot threads of the series and tie them together nicely, leading up to a real cliffhanger finale. It’s a good example of how to get everyone in the cast involved in the plot – all of the Yamazaki clan (and even beyond) have a series-concluding storyline that fits quite naturally with their individual character arcs.
Things started out covering some pretty familiar ground. Kouhei was looking for some attention from Yuuzou and not getting it, with the Dad proclaiming himself too busy to watch his son compete in the sports festival. Taichi is still arguing with his father about the new age of technology, seeing himself as the herald of a new era and Yuuzou seeing him as a dreamer and a pest. Yuuko continues to mope about the events of the last couple of episodes, and refuses to speak to her father. Same old same old.
But underneath, there are interesting plots simmering everywhere. You know something’s wrong with Grandma – not only does she have an anime cough, but she’s praising Kouhei constantly (including, memorably, declaring that the boy got the speed he used to win the sprint from her). Yuuzou is harboring secret stomach pains – and also holding it secret that he’s been working on the brakes for the brand new Shinkansen. Kouhei’s best friend Toshiya has to move to Osaka after the death of his Grandfather, but he’s pouting about it and distancing himself from his friends. Ryou the mangaka, fresh from safely escorting Yuuko home from Haneda, has indeed fallen for her – though he’s too shy to admit it. And all this plays out against the backdrop of the impending Summer Olympics, with the torch-bearer set to run through the Yamazakis’ neighborhood.
Change is a major presence running through everything here, and that’s a good theme to close a series. There’s delicious irony in old-school Yuuzou and Gorou machining the brakes for the most modern technological marvel in Japan, and who hasn’t suffered through the pain of having a childhood friend move away? Shouwa Monogatari always has a universality to it because the problems it confronts are so “normal” – normal if you’re from a working-class background, anyway. I think my favorite part of the episode was seeing Kanoko-san finally tell her husband off for the shameful way he neglects and mistreats his family – it was long overdue. I know he’s working hard but I have little sympathy for a man who tells his wife “Don’t annoy me with family stuff.”
With the heavy-lifting of setup having been done, the final episode is free to focus on providing the series a sort of benediction. There’s a bit less drama here, but a bit more emotion – and again, Shouwa Monogatari stays focused on the themes that have carried it all along. It may not be the most polished or exciting series ever, but it’s one of the most consistent. And one of the things I like best about the finale is that, like Shouwa Monogatari on the whole, it never tries to be something it’s not.
Did this episode make me feel sorry for that joyless bastard Yuuzou-san? Well, I can honestly use the word “almost” – and that’s a lot more than I can say about any other point in the series. His problem is peritonitis, and like everything else in Yuuzou’s world it’s made much worse by his stubbornness and stupidity. Emergency surgery is the only answer, and the entire family is on pins and needles waiting to find out if Yuuzou really is too mean to die. Yuuko throws herself into taking over managing the house, Taiichi steps in to help Gorou out in the shop, and perhaps most poignantly Grandma spends much of her time shuttling back and forth from the local shrine, praying that her idiot son won’t die before her (and there’s no sign of her cough, by the way).
As for Kouhei, he feels pretty much left out – unable to be much help, not woken up with the phone call from the hospital came, he feels positively vestigial. Here again is something that feels very true to life, because that feeling of being left out as the adults (and even worse, older siblings) take care of the important stuff is something every child, especially a youngest child, can identify with. And in fact, much of Shouwa Monogatari is told from Kouhei’s child’s-eye view – the things that are important to him are important in the show, the things that worry him are worrisome, and the things that puzzle him are portrayed as puzzling to us. If the aim of the series was to present working-class life in Shouwa Tokyo largely from a child’s perspective, I think it succeeded admirably.
Kouhei does find a way to make himself useful in the end, after he’s told that his father helped supply parts for the Olympic cauldron. He decides that Yuuzou really wants to see the opening ceremonies, and needs to do so on a color TV – made challenging by the fact that the Yamazakis don’t own one, and that the hospital doesn’t allow them (how times have changed). It’s Grandma who makes it happen, using her secret savings for a down payment – and the final scene of everyone together in the hospital watching the torch-lighting is touching (Yuuzou-san actually smiles) but restrained. This show, despite what you might be temped to think, usually restrains itself admirably from going heavy on the sentimentality. Life for working-class people was hard, and there’s a hard quality to Shouwa Monogatari, which usually doesn’t pull its punches.
Even if this weren’t a good series, I’d still appreciate it for how unusual it is in the anime lexicon. There just aren’t many series this straightforward and unpretentious, which look at the everyday life of everyday people without romanticizing it on the one extreme, or trivializing it on the other. Fortunately it is a good series – very good, in fact – despite the total lack of flash. The animation isn’t especially fluid or detailed, but it somehow still manages to capture the imagination and take it back to another time and place. The cast isn’t loaded with big names, the kids are played by kids, the soundtrack is a mix of simple piano and violin pieces and popular songs of the time. Yet collectively the impression is one of authenticity, both in terms of the setting and the relationships. Few shows do a better job of selling you that these are real people with real problems, and some of them are problems that don’t go away simply because the episode is about to end. If you have to work hard just to keep your family fed and clothed, that’s how life works.
Ultimately the message here is that the things that tie a family together are stronger than the forces trying to pull it apart. There are plenty of disagreements here and the Yamazakis aren’t especially affectionate towards each other, but in the end they do what they have to do to make it as a family – even down to the little boy and the old obaa-san. There’s something very true to the setting if 1964 Tokyo in that, and even in Yuuzou’s helpless working-man’s rage as he struggles to understand his children and the times that are changing so fast they threaten to leave him behind. 1964 wasn’t a glamorous or especially prosperous time in Japan, but it was how it was – and that’s exactly how Shouwa Monogatari portrays it. And along the way it gives us lovely, simple and evocative images of that time and place in its OP and the superb “Casual Stroll” segments that follow the ED (except, sadly, for the final two – preempted by ads for the DVD).
I don’t think this was a show a great deal of Western fans were going to watch to begin with, and having the subbing process take well over a year probably didn’t help the cause. Still, I’m very pleased to have stayed with Shouwa Monogatari – it was well worth it – and I’m grateful to our friends at GotWoot for making it possible for English-speaking fans to enjoy this underrated gem. I hope they’ll decide to sub the movie as well – if so, I’ll certainly be blogging it here.