I’ve seen it remarked that it’s sad how underappreciated Zetsuen no Tempest has been, and how quickly it’s going to be forgotten. I certainly don’t disagree with the former, but as to the latter I rather suspect the opposite – I think time is going to be kinder to this series that BD/DVD sales have been. It’s a show that will be remembered long after splashier shows with bigger sales are relegated to the ashcan of history. Zetsuen is not a series whose appeal is easy to put into words, but whatever “it” is, this show has it. In a world made up mostly of the ordinary, it’s special. Whatever its faults, Zetsuen no Tempest is a series of signifigance and those types of shows are remembered long after most are forgotten.
I certainly don’t think this was a perfect finale, and there are two things particularly that fell flat for me. The first was the appearance of the
Lance of Longinus Sword of Exodus at just the moment when Hanemura was drawing his last breath, which had more than a whiff of deux ex machina to it. It was certainly grand and theatrical in classic BONES and Zetsuen fashion, but as a way of settling affairs with the Tree of Genesis – which is, after all, the top boss among all top bosses in this mythology – it was pretty anti-climactic. I can even understand the logic behind it, sort of – a kind of “Hail, Mary” pass by the Tree of Exodus, materializing all its power in one object specifically intended to take out the T of G. It just didn’t work from a dramatic standpoint.
The other thing that seemed a bit off was the very end of the episode. Not the moments leading up to it (I’ll delve into those in detail shortly), which were sublime, but the last 30 seconds. I felt pretty confident that the series had spoken clearly on Yoshino and Hakaze – he simply doesn’t feel about her as she does about him. That’s not to say he might not develop those feelings, and I would have been quite happy with an open-ended resolution to that thread. But it feels as if the final shot sequence especially was out-of-character, both for the series and for Yoshino. I don’t feel as if that moment was in-synch with the developments up to that point, and it was a little too neat and too decisive. Now as to whether these two quibbles are anime-original or not, I have no idea (if I were guessing I’d say the first wasn’t, and the second was) and I don’t intend to use them as a cudgel to pound on Okada Mari’s writing here. She did a superb job with the series on the whole – those two elements in the finale just happened to swing-and-miss for me, whatever their source.
In the big picture, though, those are indeed quibbles – the final episode scored on almost every other front. In the first place it was true to the series as a whole – big and operatic, with sweeping background music that refused to be ignored and theatrical behavior on all fronts. It also gets major props from me for allowing time for the characters (Yoshino getting shot was pretty much a red herring, too) to reflect on everything that’s happened and and to show them getting on with the lives – the “coda” for which I plead for over and over but which most series blow off by taking the climax right to the finish line (we’ve seen both Zetsuen and Shin Sekai Yori do a superb job of bucking this trend). And it delivered big-time on the Aika storyline, giving us a real sense of closure and a truly magnificent and emotionally powerful scene to bring that plot to its close.
I grew to like Aika very much over the series, but I’m pleased we didn’t get some sort of troll or reset button where she walked through the door at the end with a “Just kidding!” That’s a surprise that would have been so predictable that it’s almost more surprising that it didn’t happen. I’m also frankly stunned that Yu-chan turned out to be nothing more than a big red herring. I’m quite certain that mangaka Shirodaira Kyou knew full well what the audience was thinking, and the anime did nothing to discourage that by offering tantalizingly vague references to her pretty much every episode. That she should turn out to have been nothing more than exactly what she was described as all along – the ex-girlfriend who dumped Hanemura – breaks pretty much every rule in the anime handbook. But that’s why I love this show, because it doesn’t seem like it’s read that book, or ever cares to.
I’ll go so far as to say the finale pretty much nailed the Aika storyline on every level. Again, the lack of duplicity is remarkable – pretty much everything Aika said from the moment she met Hakaze has turned out to be honest and accurate. I still don’t buy her logic for taking her own life, but as I said a couple of weeks ago I rather like the notion that the most powerful mage in the world, someone on whom the fate of society hinges, is capable of the same bad judgment as any other 15 year-old girl. Not only that, but Mahiro comes right out and says it in this episode – he calls out his sister for being wrong in what she decided to do, and steadfastly refuses to follow her example of following someone else’s script.
Apart from that, there’s also the fact that Aika’s acceptance of her death wasn’t an act – wrong or not, her attitude was quite sincere. I found the final video message via the SD card to be close to perfect, from her fidgeting with the camera right down to her teasing promise to strip (so in-character that I found myself expecting it). It was in effect her statement of purpose, unapologetic and somehow both sentimental and detached at the same time. It was also a very honest and open declaration of love for both Yoshino and Mahiro (more so Yoshino, in truth) that once again impresses with its directness. I loved the way they both reacted almost as much as the video itself, and in fact the entire scene is every bit as necessary in completing their story as it is Aika’s. They’ve both been wrapped around her finger for the entire series despite the fact that she’s been dead – pretty much the whole world has – and this was her admonition to the two of them to move on. For a character who was dead before the first episode started, Aika was a huge presence that was felt at practically every moment.
To the matter of which of The Bard’s masterpieces Zetsuen no Tempest ended up being, it was exactly as the episode title suggested it might be – neither. It was a tragedy and a comedy both, and the above scene demonstrates that perfectly. Life is, in fact, not a play at all but something to be lived, and it’s somewhat surprising that it’s Mahiro who winds up grasping the big picture most clearly in the end. This is really what the battle against the Tree of Genesis was all about in microcosm, the fundamental need of humans to chart their own destiny rather than follow the proscriptive path of a deity, or an alien intelligence, or a dead playwright (or girl). In the final analysis the entire Hamlet vs. The Tempest thread was almost as much a red herring as Yu-chan was, though it was indispensable as a framing device for the story. That metaphor was Aika’s, and as long as she was the one calling the tune, it dominated the narrative. But she took it with her to the next life in the end, and it died along with her, and with magic.
In trying to summarize just what made Zetsuen no Tempest such a special series, I hardly know where to begin. This was not a show that made a big impression on me right off the bat, to the point where I wasn’t even sure I was going to continue blogging it. I liked the atmosphere but found the plot indecipherable and the characters dull, and I wasn’t sure if there was really enough there to carry a series for two cours. But Zetsuen has a funny way of slowly sucking you into its marvellous absurdity – it happens within the episodes themselves (I almost always found myself slow to get into them, but completely enraptured after the break) and it happens over the course of the series. This is not a show that stands up well to being broken down into its component parts – it needs to be appreciated as a whole, almost like a painting rather than a narrative drama. Andou Masahiro is a theatrical director with a great sense of scale and scope, and the perfect choice to work with this material. Zetsuen is Shakespeare, and Beethoven, and Samon pounding his staff on a rock and shouting “Shounen!”. It’s Hakaze with a rocket-launcher and a loincloth facing Aika in a middle-school uniform with a giant sword, and it’s Evangeline calling herself “Fraulein” despite having an Italian first name and Japanese last name, and Junichirou loading up a trunk full of porn to go save the world, and Natsumura looking miserable in an aloha shirt and sunglasses.
Most of all, I think, Zetsuen is Yoshino and Mahiro, and Aika pulling them along in her wake from beyond the grave. I think the friendship between these two young men is one of the more interesting and unique in modern anime. They could hardly be more different in most ways, yet they share a keen intelligence and a love for the same girl. Their entire relationship spent the series skating on a wafer-thin sheet of ice built on lies, yet there was somehow a profound trust between them – even in the face of seeming betrayals and double-crosses – that was genuinely touching. I think it’s very possible that the finest moments in a series full of them sprung from the huge gap in perspective between the boys and Samon (who ended up being one of the most entertaining and hilarious characters of the year) as he found himself completely baffled by their illogical behavior. That’s to take nothing away from the truly magical way the series combined the mundane and the fantastic over the second cour (again, Samon was the source of so many of these great moments) and Hakaze’s hilariously frantic self-analysis over her obsession with Yoshino.
Irrespective of Blu-ray sales (the manga sales did at least get a large boost from the anime) I view Zetsuen no Tempest as an uncommonly fortunate gathering of forces. BONES was the perfect studio to handle this operatic, sweeping story – a story big enough to take on Okada’s invasive writing style. And Andou-sensei was the perfect diretor to conextualize her contributions and make sure they didn’t overwhelm the essence of the material. It takes a big anime to successfully incorporate Shakespeare and Beethoven, and Zetsuen no Tempest was more than up to the challenge. There was a time when bold, unapologetically grandiose re-imaginings of classics were a staple of the anime catalogue but in this day and age Zetsuen plays something like a gloriously welcome throwback to another age. With its sweep, vision and gloriously 2-D animation, this is a series that reflects the best of the parties that created it and reminds us of all that’s possible in anime.