The term “flawed gem” was created for shows like Golden Time. For me this show definitely has some significant flaws, but it’s undeniably a gem – it connects with me in a way very few anime do. Part of me can’t help but wonder how good this story could have been in the hands of one of J.C. Staff’s top dogs like Nagai Tatsuyuki or Kasai Kenichi, because many of the issues seem to stem from a general awkwardness that sometimes invades the pacing and presentation – which is perhaps surprising given that Kon Chiaki, while hardly a standout, is quite experienced and generally competent. But it is what it is, and what it is remains one of the best anime of the season.
This episode was intense even by Golden Time (I didn’t realize it was the name of the izakaya) standards, both in terms of the amount of content crammed into it and the power of the emotions in play. GT is a series that deals in big emotions, there’s no question about it, and even if it reaches for some storybook elements that border on fantastical it’s the core authenticity of those emotions and the characters who display them that makes it resonate with me. I like stories about basically good people with flaws who just want to be happy and spend much of their time screwing it up, because that’s what life is for most of us.
I find myself slipping into a dangerous place with this series in terms of shipping, which is an area of fandom I try to avoid but not always successfully. I feel as if I have a pretty good handle on where the story is going with all four of the main principals, and I think they’re all excellent characters, but the intensity of my rooting interest for Linda is getting to the point where I worry it’s going to rob me of my impartiality. Sometimes we find fictional characters who just resonate on the same frequency as we do, and Linda is one for me – it’s the design, the seiyuu, the circumstances – I feel as if I totally understand her. So when I see warning lights flashing when Kouko tells Banri she loves him (and believe me, I do) I wonder if that’s the shipper in me seeing them.
This is, simply, quite a mess. There are loads of interesting symbolic moments in this ep, starting with Banri’s name being missing from the graduation T-shirts – and his reaction, and Linda’s reaction to his reaction. Linda seems to have had a classic big-sister relationship with the old Banri – clearly she was a better student, and she seems to have taken it on herself to look after him. My sense of Banri is that he’s found a certain “fuck it” freedom in his current situation and it’s made him generally more willing to be impulsive and embrace the unknown whereas in high school he was a bit timid, but I give him credit for having put it to Linda to make a decision about how she felt about him.
There are some big questions unanswered about what happened on that bridge. What would Linda’a answer have been (all signs point to “yes”)? Last week strongly hinted that she was responsible for Banri’s accident but her reaction this week seems to point towards her simply being too late in arrival to give him her answer. The symbolism is hot and heavy here – Banri and Kouko’s meeting (with a different result) likewise happens on a bridge, and we have her running into him on a two-wheeled transport. Then there’s the shoes – the ¥20000 sneakers Linda supposedly “fell in love with at first sight and bought on impulse”. My gut is telling me she bought those sneakers for Banri (“Cinderella”) in the first place (men’s sneakers, and presumably way too big for her) and simply hadn’t had the guts to tell him so – maybe she’d even done so back in high school, and brought them with her to Tokyo. But the end result is Banri running away in Linda’s shoes and being caught by Kouko, on that bridge over the old outer Imperial moat next to Sotobori-dori.
It would be easy to blame Linda for not being more open with Banri (and maybe it’s my shipping goggles that keep me from doing so) but I understand where she’s coming from here. Fact is Linda clearly saw Banri as fragile even before his accident – an accident which she either symbolically or literally feels is her fault. Now he’s, as she says “a bomb” – and she’s terrified of being the one to detonate it and cause his house of cards to collapse when he’s seemingly living a fairly happy life. Yet she does indeed love him, that’s clear. I could see this going a couple of ways, and the most obvious would be that Takemiya-sensei is telling us that Linda belongs to the ghost Banri, while the real Banri now belongs with Kouko. But I could also see a scenario where both Banri and Kouko realize that they’re substituting the other for someone else that they truly love, and one way or another have to move on based on that realization.
As for Kouko, I have no doubt that she loves Banri – though I wonder if she loves him romantically. Rarely have we seen the friendzone quandary portrayed so realistically and in such a dignified way in anime. Banri is clearly sick of being stuck in it (further evidence that his soul remembers much that his brain currently does not) and again, he risks everything and lays himself bare to Kouko. It was a hard and painful moment when he broke off their friendship – this series is good at those, and I liked the conceit of the Awa-Odori “Yes/No” fans – but it leads to troubling questions. Is Kouko merely so afraid of losing Banri as a friend – at the moment still her only friend – that she convinces herself she loves him romantically to avoid that catastrophic alternative?
I have serious reservations about whether Kouko is ready to enter into any kind of serious relationship, never kind one with someone in Banri’s situation. Kouko is a mess, as witness her behavior towards Chinami and later Yana. She can’t move on until she sorts out her feelings for Yana properly, and that’s obviously nowhere close to happening. For the first time this week I felt both that Yana was out of line in his behavior towards Kouko (at the party) and that he may, in fact, have some suppressed romantic feelings for her himself. That messy tangle complicates everything that happens in Golden Time, and it certainly makes it hard to take Yana’s confession to Chinami in any way seriously. Everyone in this cast just has so damn much past they’re carrying around with them that it makes the present a colossal mess – but so much so that it’s easy to forget we’re only six episodes into a two-cour series, and much time remains to try and make sense of this emotional whirlpool.