There may in fact be another significance to the name of this series and the titular gang at the heart of it, and while I certainly was suspicious of the significance of a a certain vehicle that’s cropped up as a motif a few times this season, it wasn’t until I saw this scene that I actually considered the naming question. That could all be coincidence of course, and I could be dead wrong with that entire line of thinking – but what I’ve learned over the years with conspiracy-based plots is that coincidences are rarely coincidences.
I’ve spoken in the past about how Little Busters! has a sort of two-track narrative, with the “Secret of this world”line running simultaneously with the surface plot and character dynamic. One thing that’s happened with Refrain, of course, is that these two tracks have increasingly run closer together – but there’s actually a third spur to this story that this episode really brought to mind. I’m very interested in the nuts and bolts of the Secret itself, of course, but just as much so about what it symbolically represents. In a cultural zeitgeist like Japan’s that’s obsessed with mono no aware symbolism is never far from the mind, and LitBus seems an especially appropriate sort of series.
Thematically I’ve always felt, right from the very beginning, that Little Busters was primarily concerned with childhood innocence, and the sense of sadness that comes from the fact that it must eventually be surrendered by all of us. There’s a line in the great 80’s film Stand by Me, spoken by the protagonist Jordy – as an adult reminiscing about his past – “I never had any friends later on like I did when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?” Stand by Me and LB are soul-mates, I think, and while this series has increasingly become complicated in terms of the plot and the conspiracy behind it, I don’t think it’s ever wavered from the unwavering focus on the power of friendship and the joys of childhood. And, of course, on the pain that comes when those things must be left behind. That process may be more literal and tragic in this story, but symbolically I feel it’s very much the same.
Connections run through LitBus at all levels, packing great significance. All of the cast is connected by friendship, but the five kids at the heart of the story share a special bond that makes their place in the Secret fundamentally different than the others. And then there’s Riki and Rin, who share a connection deeper even than that. They’re the ones who don’t know the Secret, and the ones all the others are working so hard to protect. But protect from what? Symbolically from growing up, but what in practical terms? Kengo frames it in terms of protection more than any of the others – he says over and over in this episode that he just wants Riki to have fun and not worry about anything else. I was put in mind of a parent who wants to see their child stay a child forever – a perfectly natural impulse, but one that’s unhealthy and unrealistic.
And so it goes. Kengo remembers, Riki and Rin don’t – or rather, they remember only in bits and pieces, flashes as if from past lives. Kengo describes Kyousuke’s actions in the last cycle (I don’t know of a better way to refer to it at this point) as a scheme that “failed miserably“, which is his explanation for why Kyousuke is in his current sorry state. I don’t see it as quite that simple but it’s clear that Kengo wants to keep whatever illusory safety net that’s encircling Rin and Riki intact for as long as possible. There’s a strong implication here that whatever the construction that was used to create this repeating “closed-off” world is, it can’t be extended forever. If the alternative is bad enough, perhaps seeing Riki and Rin exist forever in the same bubble of time isn’t such a bad option. But for them the experience is new every time – if one were aware of the cycle repeating itself, wouldn’t living in that bubble become torture after awhile? Is this a great sacrifice they’re making for Riki and Rin’s continued existence, and are there limits as to how long they’ll be able to endure it?
How does one take Kengo’s breakdown at the end of this episode – “They’re tears of regret. I wanted… I wanted to play more.” Kengo is very much the strong, silent type. He’s a serious and dutiful soul – indeed, the debt it seems he owes Kysousuke is for releasing him from a little of that sense of duty – and he takes his duty to protect Riki and Rin very seriously. Kengo’s breakdown was out of character, which made it all the more painful to watch, and it felt like these were the tears of someone who knows something he loves is ending. This is the essence of mono no aware (which is itself the essence of Japanese literature) – awareness of the transience of things, and a sense of what will be lost with the passage of time.
To tie this all back to the core themes of the series, perhaps for Kengo, Kyousuke and Masato all of this is about trying to make Riki and Rin strong enough to carry on without them (and in this loop it seems to be working) – and really, isn’t that the ultimate duty of any parent? It’s a balancing act – to be too protective is to keep your children from growing strong and independent, but to expose them to danger they’re unprepared to face is irresponsible. It’s in dealing with pain and challenge that children learn and grow, but every loving parent wants to shield their children from being hurt. This is what Kyousuke has been wrestling with, it seems to me – erring at times, but always with the intent to do what’s right for Riki and Rin. The practicalities of the story are growing increasingly clear, but the emotions at the heart of Little Busters! haven’t really changed since the series began.
Author’s note: Please “refrain” from posting any VN spoilers (or hints, or confirmations or denials of guesses, or clever spoilers disguised as jokes) into the comments section. I don’t want this experience ruined for me, and I don’t want it ruined for any other new viewers. Read the comments at your own risk, because I make no promises about catching every spoiler soon after its posted. All I can do is delete the comments as soon as I spot them, but that might be after you do.