This was a big episode for Gin no Saji in many ways, and it came with a lot of expectations as a result. I would argue that they were largely met, mainly because the series did as it usually does – it didn’t try too hard and let the material speak for itself. When they teach you knife skills in the kitchen, one of the first lessons is that when you’re chopping, you should let the weight of the knife do all the work – your hand is just there to guide it. If only more writers of manga and anime could understand that notion as well as Arakawa-sensi does. Of course, as anyone with cooking experience could tell you that notion works a lot better when you have a knife with some heft to it. If you’re using a light, cheap stamped knife you have to do too much work and the end results suffer (plus it’s dangerous). Likewise with anime, if your material has substance you don’t have to try too hard – which of course means the opposite is true, the sad evidence of which is the legions of mediocre shows with mediocre character dynamics that populate every schedule. Happily there are exceptions every season, and Gin no Saji is certainly one of them.
But back to those expectations, starting with the fact that last week’s ep left is with the kind of dramatic event that this series almost never relies on for narrative punch. As well, this week promised the first direct interaction between Hachiken and his parents, obviously a milestone event of the first importance. Like life itself, Gin no Saji is mostly about the details, the routines – but it’s punctuated with watershed moments. And as with life, how those watershed moments are handled is of critical importance. For a show like this (Uchuu Kyoudai is another good example) there aren’t many opportunities to present conventional drama, and that makes each one even more vital. And like that show, this one tends to get the big moments right.
As expected, the drama here really isn’t in Hachiken’s condition – it’s pretty obvious that he’s collapsed due to exhaustion – but the impact of that event. Hachi is in the hospital on an I.V., and his friends are back at school – because the show, after all, must go on. Sakuragi-sensei is the first to visit, but Hachi-kun’s father the first to do so when he’s awake. We know that he’s a difficult man, and we know that Hachi blames him for many of his problems. But apart from a very short phone conversation this is the first time in the series they’ve talked.
Father-son interaction can be a heartbreaking thing. It’s painfully obvious (and this is such a common thing) that despite blaming his father for most of his problems, Hachiken is driven by the urge to please him. That’s why he’s so devastated to learn that his mother lied about his father praising the bacon he’d sent (such a small thing, seemingly – sigh…). Hachiken-san lays into Sakuragi-sensei pretty hard for allowing this crisis to happen, and he and his son have a revealing conversation about why the boy has ended up at Ezonoo. Of course Dad is right – Hachiken has found it easier to make friends here because he doesn’t consider these kids a threat academically. Hell, that’s why he chose the school in the first place. But he’s wrong in using the fact that none of those friends have come to visit as evidence that they don’t care about his son.
It’s easy to hate Hachiken-san, especially in a series that has only a gaping hole where the antagonist(s) would normally be. So is he an antagonist in the truest sense? Certainly, he’s an unpleasant man. He’s clearly emotionally cold and remote, clearly judgmental. It seems very likely that Hachi has inherited some of his competitive streak from his father, knows it, and resents it. But it’s not clear that he wants anything but what he sees as best for his son. He did allow the boy to attend Ezonoo, though he surely disliked the idea. He has every right to be upset with the school for allowing so much to be dumped on Hachi-kun that he’d be driven to physical collapse despite the superhuman physical resilience of youth. Hachiken-san has driven two sons away both physically and emotionally, so it seems safe to say he’s not an especially good father. But I don’t think we can call him a villain based on what we’ve seen so far – just a stubborn and short-sighted man (and well, probably a jerk). But he’s a part of Hachi for better or worse – children don’t shrug off the weight of their parents that easily.
Hachiken-san isn’t the only parent making his first on-screen meeting with Yuugo of course – his mother Misako is, as well. These two seem largely trapped in the traditional Showa-era box of Japanese parents – she clearly feels uneasy about her husband’s distant and hard persona, but mostly tries to cover up for it as best she can. On the superficial level Yuugo’s resentment against his mother (we’ve seen how thoughtless he could be towards her while he was staying with Mikage’s family) is harder to explain away – she’s clearly kind and supportive towards him. My sense is that Hachi-kun dislikes the way Misako-san lets her husband dominate the family, and that’s why he’s so upset that she lied about the bacon approval – a small thing, but a symptom of what he sees as a larger problem of her glossing over the ugliness and trying to pretend nothing is wrong when it clearly is.
Back at Ezonoo, the festival is going off largely as planned – thanks in part to the detailed notes Hachi left behind. Ookawa-kun is disqualified when his horse makes two refusals in a row, but we learn that he still needs to make the horse jump the gate so that his confidence isn’t shattered for next time (no subtleties there). Mikage asks Ayame to help out, which she does in her own way. Mikage leads the draft horse in the Ben’ei race against teams of humans – the prize for winning being poor Nakajima-sensei’s precious cheese (we even get to see Todoroki-sensei pull the sled, a sad reminder of the passing of Utsumi Kenji – and of how many great seiyuu we’ve lost in the last year). But the real drama comes with the return of Hachi-kun, on the second day of the festival. He stops to get his glasses fixed – donation all of the change from the ¥20000 his mother has given him to the Touhoku earthquake fund – and dallies all the way back so that he won’t arrive till the festival is over.
None of this last bit is especially surprising or subtle, but it’s very effective because this is a payoff that’s been well-earned by the story. Hachi’s club sempai quite literally gives him a well-deserved butt-kicking when he announces he’s going to skip the after-party because he “doesn’t deserve to go”. Of course we know he’s done more than anyone, but he knows it himself – he just needs to be reminded. When he finds Mikage alone on the clubroom, despite the residual awkwardness over where they left things she manages to make him realize how immature he’s being (she also gives him – and us – a good laugh when she accidentally slips into her small-town dialect in her excitement at describing the day’s events).
Mikage also shares the guest book the club used the empty pages of his notebook for, complete with a range of observations from (alarmingly) critical to grateful – and this moment is quite emotionally powerful both for Hachi and us, because it’s a reminder of the fact that he’s truly made an impact here, and just how important that idea was to him. Like the reject potatoes that end up being the most delicious (again – no subtleties with this metaphor) it isn’t always the flashiest or prettiest who make the biggest impact. There’s room in the world for all kinds of potatoes, and effort matters more than anything else. It’s a simple and heartfelt lesson, and one perfectly suited to the modest series that doesn’t have to try too hard in order to say something important.