It’s finals week, my brain is fried, and I’ve already spent way too much time writing about anime and not nearly enough studying. I haven’t got a whole lot left in the tank, but series like Hunter X Hunter and Kyousougiga can always inspire me with their sheer brilliance. I often say about a series that it’s the sort of show that makes me glad I watch anime, but there are very few about which I can also say “this is the sort of show that got me watching anime in the first place.”
I pretty much (and not by choice) live my life as an anime fan by the old philosophical question “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Or rather, live it by the belief that it does make a sound. Kyousougiga predictably bombed on Blu-ray and DVD this week – we don’t yet know how badly because it didn’t make the Monday cutoff, but it’s going to be 2K combined at the very best. This is not a series for today’s anime commercial environment – there just aren’t many people who want their anime to challenge them the way Kyousougiga does. Most want shows that pander to a fantasy that never existed, and what’s left over want shows that deliver a lot of bells and whistles and don’t ask them to think too hard.
I think that tree in the forest is a fitting thought for this series, as despite its Western origins it’s a riddle very much in the manner of a Buddhist koan. This is a show from another time, really, a product of Japan’s first animation studio that’s a shining example of the sort of anime that the experimenters and geeks in the industry were making 15 years ago. If there’s a positive – or at least a solace – in Kyousougiga tanking commercially it’s that Toei is a studio that can afford a noble failure (One Piece is among their more mainstream properties) if any can, and in a sense this show might be looked at as something along the lines of the “prestige titles” American publishers used to release, thoughtful and brilliant books that were never going to make money but cast the publisher in a positive light. Toei will be just fine no matter what Kyousougiga does, and I’m proud of them for producing it in the first place – but of course, its commercial failure certainly won’t do anything to encourage them to try this sort of thing again anytime soon.
Even now, only one episode from the end (the final airing in two weeks is scheduled to be “Episode 10.5”, another special episode) this is a series that refuses to give up all its secrets. As was the case with this years other great series set in a fantastical Kyoto, Uchouten Kazoku, underneath all the surrealism and complexity I think Kyousougiga is very much a story about family love. This one is a lot more dysfunctional that that one was, no doubt, but ultimately it’s the tug of familial feelings that seems to be driving everything that happens in the story. Everyone has their own place in that tapestry, but in the final analysis the three characters that matter seem to be Inari, Yakushimaru and Koto. Everyone else – even Lady Koto, Kurama and Yase, wonderful and important as they are – primarily matter for how they influence the course of those three.
It’s going to be very easy after this episode to cast Inari as the villain this series has been lacking, but I’m not sure if it’s quite that simple, and lacking a villain isn’t the same as missing or needing one. As he tells his story here, he’s the son of God himself – and the younger brother of the Chief Priest of Jinja. And it was Myoue/Inari who was given the power to create life by his father, though in the end always answering to him (though that father has long since disappeared, in a sense passing on the same burden to Inari that Inari did to Yakushimaru). It really solidifies the whole question of why that name change – or rather two of them, from Myoue to Inari and Yakushimaru to Myoue – is so critical, because Inari passed everything onto his “son”. The name, and beads, and what they symbolize – the ability to create life. And one, it seems, that the new Myoue has never (or at least very rarely) ever taken the opportunity to use.
Perhaps the most damning charge one might levy against Inari is that he resurrected Yakushimaru with this is mind all along, and I’ve no doubt that’s what the latter suspects. And Inari certainly does plenty of other things in this episode to make himself the bad guy, not least of which is stabbing both Koto and his brother and rendering Lady Koto unconscious. But what’s not clear is just what his endgame is in all this, and just how much power he still has in his physically diminished form. Most of it seems to have passed to Koto and Yakushimaru – his son and daughter of sorts – and it seems he may be manipulating them to try and cause the destruction of Mirror Kyoto, the “13th Parallel”, and the creation of a new world that can come closer to his ideal universe. But again, I don’t think it’s that simple. I get the feeling that Inari is trying, in his capricious way, to try and right the wrongs he’s done his family – especially Yakushimaru. Perhaps he wants his son to create a world he can finally feel comfortable in, as he’s never seemed to feel comfortable in the one Inari created – no matter what the latter did to try and change that.
As always, I think the younger Myoue’s feelings are going to be the key to everything in the end. It seems clear that his “older” siblings have always known that he wished to die, and that it was he who held the real power in Mirror Kyoto should he ever choose to exercise it. Yet I don’t think they resented this – Yase just wanted her mother back and Kurama just wanted to see the outside world, but they don’t seem to have begrudged Myoue his solitude and melancholia. Rather, I think they pitied him. As Kurama says, they were “the fake siblings created to comfort you”, but it seems that the feelings they have for Yakushimaru are very real.
The best scene in the episode comes when Kurama confronts Myoue in a cave after Koto’s hammer has laid waste the city (while she was under Inari’s control), very much in the manner of an older brother sternly but lovingly trying to snap his otouto out of his depression and into action. “Desiring a future does not betray the past”, Kurama tells him, and with this simple yet profound statement captures the dilemma of Yakushimaru’s existence perfectly. This is a heartbreaking and emotionally accurate moment – Kurama has been slowly revealing the true nature beneath his dour exterior over the last couple of episodes, and as for Yakushimaru he’s been living in a self-imposed state of walking death every since he was brought back by Inari. He never saw himself as fit to live, never mind exercise the power Inari entrusted to him, but now he’s been left with little choice but to do both unless he wants to see everything crumble a out him. And as Yase tells him in her own tender moment of interaction before she seemingly fades away, it was his own death Yakushimaru desired, but never that of Mirror Kyoto itself.
Perhaps, in the end, that’s at the heart of Inari’s plan and indeed, the thread that’s been running through the entire series. This world we’ve been visiting, this Wonderland, is a play set up for Yakushimaru’s benefit by Myoue (who, after all, wrote the Chouju-giga). And now, finally (I’m oddly reminded a bit of Kyousuke in Little Busters!, here) he sees fit to cast himself as the villain in order to finally force his son to step out of the grave and accept both the life and responsibilities his father gave to him. Mirror Kyoto needs him, Koto needs him – and that’s what his father wanted all along. “The sun is so bright when you climb out of a hole” Kurama says as he takes his leave of his younger brother – he’s full of wisdom in this episode – and it’s clear it’s really Yakushimaru he’s talking about. That makes a nice metaphor for where the story stands at this point, and gives us good reason to hope that the ending will offer some redemption along with the bittersweet pain it seems certain to deliver.