The alchemy of this series is still working for me, and the reason I know that is because I’m conscious of the fact that Okada is being herself and making me like it. I see red flags all over the last two episodes, but with a couple of exceptions they’re still just that – the content itself has been as good as ever. It seems strange to say it as late in the game as we are, but despite the strong run Nagiasu is on I have a lot of trepidation about whether the paths it’s laying out are ones that lead to a satisfying conclusion. The only one that can stop Okada from succeeding here is Okada – but there’s nobody better at doing just that.
I really see a split in the narrative effectiveness of the episode in the last two weeks, one which reflects this new post-timeskip reality. The stuff with Hikari is off-the-charts, almost entirely because of Hikari himself. Okada is in a zone with him, and he’s fast making a case for the best male character in any of her shows (I’m still partial to “good boy” Shin’ichirou). Hikari is just awesome at the moment – the perfect balance of juvenile snark and a sense of perspective and regret that tangibly makes him more of an “old soul” than his classmates. All of the seeds that were apparent in the beginning with his character are bearing fruit, and he’s turned out to be a rock-solid core around which the series can be built, its beating heart and troubled soul.
On the other hand, the stuff with Miuna and Sayu is only marginally less painful (and not the good kind of painful) than it was before the timeskip. Sayu is a pill altogether, a thoroughly annoying presence whose self-aware dramas have no pull for me whatsoever. Miuna is better, but she still reeks of audience manipulation (the specialty of the bad Okada) and her romantic entanglements with Hikari seem quite contrived to me. It’s all very convenient – the timeskip being exactly the right length, Miuna’s discovery of Ena at precisely the right moment (in itself this is defensible given that her mother was a sea kiddo – it’s the timing that makes it a stretch). I don’t especially want to see a second cour told from her perspective as she pines for Hikari – or one where she ends up paired off with him. I don’t think we’ll get the latter, but I suspect we’re going to get the former. And that, sooner or later, will be a major problem.
By far the best part of this episode – and everything since the timeskip – is seeing Hikari deal with the new reality he faces. I loved his presentation to his classmates, and the way he simply acts like himself (he doesn’t think twice about pantsing himself in front of Miuna, for example). But it’s clear that much of this is a cover, both so that others won’t worry about him and so that he’ll appear to be a tough guy. Itaru has it exactly right – this is a facade. But it’s a good one, and this conflict in Hikari is the most compelling storyline the series has going. But Hikari is forever reminded of the hard truth – Tsugumu’s four year-old uniform fits him like a tent, Miuna is almost as tall as he is, and he can’t be sure if the five years of growth he missed out on will ever be paid back to him. It’s Hikari’s nature to be a smart-ass, and to be the one that tries to take care of everyone else – to be the vulnerable one doesn’t suit his nature, and he’s trying hard to avoid being placed in that role.
I’m not that crazy about the rest of the episode, mostly concerned with the trip to the uniform tailor, especially the convenient (there’s that word again) incident of the shipping crane falling and leading to Miuna’s awakening. It’s interesting trying to gauge the vibe between Hikari and Miuna, which suggests to me that he still sees her as more of a little sister (uncle is just too strange) than anything despite their new relative ages. It’s not hard to see where she’s coming from – she’s in love, plain and simple – but setting aside all concerns for Manaka I don’t think he sees her in that way. He certainly didn’t seem too upset at the notion that she might be dating Minegishi (I still think that subplot has legs). But mostly this felt more manufactured and less natural than the rest of the episode, and the descent into wailing and tears between Miuna and Sayu was just a complete reversion to a place I hoped Nagiasu would never return.
Frankly, I think Kaname’s return couldn’t have come at a better time – but I worry now that we’re going to see the same sort of romance of convenience angle played up between he and Sayu, and that would be a disaster. Love isn’t simply a matter of convenience and calendars, and I don’t like the message Okada would be sending if the Hikari-Miuna and Kaname-Sayu relationships are pursued seriously. I want to see all the heavy lifting of the first 13 episodes – all the interpersonal development that we saw – explored and resolved, not tossed aside because of a plot contrivance. That could certainly still happen, but the unease that’s been growing at me (and the general distrust of a timesekip that I’ve felt since it was first discussed) is growing stronger. There’s a disconnect between how good Nagi no Asukara is now and how good I sense it’s going to be from now on, and even if Okada’s track record is part of the reason I’ll be the first to admit that it wouldn’t be fair of me to presume a train wreck is coming while for the moment we’re still on-track. Hikari is Nagiasu’s best hope – he’s a great presence to build around and so far, Okada is at her best in writing him. Let’s hope the show keeps its focus there and doesn’t toss aside all the hard work it put in getting us to this point.