As guest-hosting gigs go this certainly is a pretty good one, so thanks to Zephyr for asking me to fill in for him covering Zetsuen’s penultimate episode at Random Curiosity. As my LiA readers know (I actually covered an episode at RC earlier as well) this series has emerged as one of my genuine favorites, probably second only to Shin Sekai Yori in the class of Fall 2012 and a very likely bet to end up on my 10 best list for 2013 (unless it’s a truly amazing year). In terms of pure unapologetic BONES grandiosity, a better fit between studio and material could hardly be imagined.
At times like this I’m glad I’m not a manga reader, because I can enjoy the last few episodes of Zetsuen without obsessing over what changes the anime makes. My relationship with Okada Mari as a writer has been a rocky one, a kind of love-hate affair, but as with BONES I think in Zetsuen she’s found a perfect muse for her talents – and I’ve always felt she’s at her best working with a strong director who can reign in her overreaches (Andou Masahiro certainly qualifies). Of course with a series like this overreaching is really a big part of the charm – as I’ve said before this isn’t a show to be watched so much as experienced. It’s as operatic and grand and excessive as any anime in recent memory, and I think it’s the fact that it not only accepts that about itself but celebrates it that really makes the whole thing work. And what better writer to feed the beast in a situation like that but Okada?
It’s been fascinating to watch the way the various characters’ roles in the larger story have shifted over the course of the narrative, with their respective stars waxing and waning as circumstances changed (very much in the Shakespearean tradition, in fact). It seemed quite fitting to me that Mahiro and Yoshino would be the ones to emerge as central to the finale given their essential role in the overall story, but while Mahiro’s place was obvious – he was the one who thought of the plan all of the older and theoretically wiser heads decided to pursue – Yoshino’s was less clear. And it seemed that Hakaze was going to struggle to find relevance in the end, given that her magic was effectively neutered within the likely battle zone surrounding the Tree of Genesis’ central pillar.
So how did Zetsuen find a way around this? Well, in Yoshino’s case it seems to have been getting shot – which is certainly an attention-grabber, especially as it seemed he was pretty much along for the ride in Mahiro’s plan. In fact neither of them were originally going to be involved at all, though they weren’t about to accept that (thankfully, from a dramatic standpoint). Having them be part of a skeleton-crew attack on the survey ships closest to the Pillar seems like a sensibly safe choice, but I’m not really sure why the normally suspicious Mahiro would assume that just because they were science ships the crew would be unarmed – either that, or the boys let their amateur status show though and forget to thoroughly check the crew for firearms before restraining them. I’ll withhold judgment on this development until we learn more about it next week – at the moment it seems a bit forced, but Zetsuen is so good at Byzantine plot twists (and selling them) that I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt on this one.
As for Hakaze, the way her role in the plan is handled is much more obviously ingenious. Having she and Hanemura switch places – she posing as the Mage of Exodus, he as the “Dancing Princess” (yes, Okada-sensei – you finally managed to get Kaji Yuuki in drag after all, but I’ll forgive you this once) is a darn good idea by that scamp Mahiro. Not only that, but having Hanemura swap places with Tetsuma in the middle of the battle – very clever indeed. It allows Hakaze to use her magic in an effective way, in a place where it can still be used – and allows the “Mage of Exodus” to appear to be a greater threat to the military fleet than would have been the case if Hanemura had taken them head-on. As with pretty much all the major battles in this series it was handled beautifully from an animation standpoint – it’s quite simply a joy to watch BONES indulge their passion for good old-fashioned hand-drawn action sequences, and Andou Masahiro is a director who excels at the broad canvas as few others in anime do.
This episode is full of the touches that make Zetsuen no Tempest such a majestic and quirky series – the food porn, the sweeping orchestral background music, the use of Samon as one of the most unorthodox yet brilliant comedic devices of the year. But it leaves us with many questions still to be answered in the finale, and that’s not even factoring in Yoshino’s condition. I for one refuse to believe everything will come down to a one-on-one between the Tree of Genesis and Hanemura, a second-tier character – it just doesn’t fill like something Zetsuen would do, and his “It’s my fight and no one can help me” speech had the feel of ironic foreshadowing. We still know little of Samon’s role in the final plan, though there are hints it might be a suicide run. And I continue to believe that the mysterious girlfriend card is going to be played – though time is running out – or else it’s one of the great red herrings of the anime year. Add to that the fact that Aika hardly seems like the sort of character who’d let everything play out without directly impacting it in some way, and certainly guesses could be made – but we’ll find out soon enough, and at the very least we’ll surely see the contents of her “posthumous” letters to Yoshino and Mahrio revealed.
Whatever happens I expect it to be preposterous, spectacular and probably better suited to Puccini (or Shakespeare) than conventional anime. And I wouldn’t want it any other way, because it’s that quality that makes Zetsuen no Tempest stand out so boldly in a medium where shows that truly break from the pack are all too rare. Ultimately, I suppose, the question comes down to what it’s seemed likely to be all along – are we watching a tragedy, or a comedy, Hamlet or The Tempest? Zetsuen is a series that excels like few others at juxtaposing the mundane and the grandiose to great effect, and the title of the final episode – “To Each, Their Own Tale” – suggests that it’s going to deliver a conclusion that transcends the distinction altogether, and gives us something that’s neither (and both).