Without wishing to complicate things further, let me introduce a quote from yet another of Shakespeare’s plays (A Midsummer Nights Dream) which seems appropriate here:
Captain of our fairy band,
Helena is here at hand,
And the youth, mistook by me,
Pleading for a lover’s fee.
Shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be!
“Love” is the wrong word for how I felt about this episode – it simply isn’t strong enough – and it’s the wrong word for how I feel about Zetsuen. My relationship with this series is complicated, quite unlike any other I’ve had with an anime – it’s hard to describe, but somehow it sort of hits me on a different level than any other show. It’s a unique series and it elicits unique reactions from me, somewhere between my heart and my head and my gut. I never find myself blogging it first when it’s released and I don’t think about it much during the week, but the experience of watching an episode like this one (and ZnT has had a few) is exhilarating in a way no other anime I can recall can match.
If I had to pick a word to describe this masterpiece of an episode, it would be “exquisite”. It was absolute, pure genius – impeccably paced, beautifully drawn, with all the elements of plot, humor and drama in unimpeachable balance. The thing about Zetsuen is that it isn’t afraid to try and be great. In fact, it isn’t afraid of anything, including being so idiosyncratically weird that it struggles to find a conventional audience. It just does what it does in its unique and strange way, and the result is unlike anything else in anime. There’s clearly a very quirky sensibility inherent in the source material, but I also think this is a series that’s been paired with a perfect studio, writer and director. BONES has never shied away from operatic grandiosity and indecipherably complex plots, this kind of fearless excess is perfect for the loose cannon mind of Okada Mari, and in director Andou Masahirou it has a theatrical veteran who can give it the sweep and majesty it needs to flourish. It’s a shame no one is buying the DVDs, but at least the manga seems to have seen a sales bump.
The real acid test, of course, will be to see how the triumvirate of studio, writer and director concocts an anime-original ending for an ongoing manga that surely won’t get a second season – but that’s a problem to worry about later if it’s to be a problem at all. For now, let’s just bask in the glory of what the series can do when it’s on fire as it was here. I can pick so many things about the episode that worked, but let’s start with the way it continues to interweave the past into the present as well as any anime in memory. These aren’t “flashbacks” in the classical sense – it’s as if there are two presents running in parallel, and I don’t think this is coincidence – the blurring of the borders of time is a recurring theme here, and with the powers of the Tree of Genesis and the hints about Aika’s role in the story, it’s sure to continue. These glimpses have also done a wonderful job of developing the relationship between Aika and Yoshino slowly over time, to the point where both it and her character are compelling elements in the story.
It can’t be ignored that Zetsuen no Tempest is quite simply a very funny show, too – for one that isn’t a true comedy it delivers some of the finest humor in memory. Hakaze’s recurring inner monologues have grown on me to the point where I now love them for the hilarious way they send up the preposterous strictures of anime love comedy in a way that’s true to the story. Her at long-last confession was a gem:
“I want to touch your earlobes!”
But for me the pinnacle was the scene where Mahiro, Samon, Junichirou and Hanemura were debating who Yoshino’s girlfriend was. For my money it was the funniest scene in anime so far this year, starting with the mere premise itself – to see the fate of the world distilled down to this discussion – with a whiteboard no less – is a perfect display of how Zetsuen can combine the absurd with the epic. Loli? Teacher? Older woman? Boobs too big – or too small? Cafeteria lady? The seriousness of these suggestions, combined with Hanemura’s reactions, were utterly priceless – it was gorgeous to watch and listen to. And in fact all these powerful and self-important men were avoiding what was obvious to any fool who cared to see it, and it took the fool in the room to point it out them. Oh what fools these mortals be!
I could go on for hours but you get the point. I knew when the episode started with Yoshino saying “Let’s be sure to chew our food carefully” that we were in for a display of Zetsuen’s glorious weirdness, and it didn’t disappoint. That the main story is still dizzyingly complex doesn’t even bother me, because barely being able to keep up forces you to react viscerally rather than intellectually, which is exactly how this show should be watched. There are so many sides at work here – we even got some focus on Hayakawa the political climber this week, with some hints of his ulterior motives (how ironic if this bit player turns out to be the puppetmaster in the end). Has the Mage of Exodus been split head over heart into Hanemura and Yoshino, as Samon says, or is this just another failed theory? What will happen now that the others know the truth of Aika’s relationship – will Mahiro even believe it, and what will the knowledge do to a potential Yoshino-Hakaze romance? These should be fascinating questions to see answered, and there’s one more turn in the story I love to see – the delicious irony of the Tree of Genesis itself turning into a flash point for conflict between humans. That’s a perfect cherry on top of the grand story here, a repudiation of the very existence of the Tree of Genesis and what it represents. I don’t know what BONES has in store to tie all this together, but based on the work they’ve done so far I’m going to go into the last several episodes with a fair bit if optimism that they can pull it off.