I really think you’d be hard-pressed to find two consecutive episodes of any anime series that aspired to realism better than the last two of Gin no Saji, no matter how far back you look. They’ve been perfection, really – so emotionally accurate and honest. Even as unpretentiously profound as this series usually is, these eps have really taken things to another level. They’ve been painful to watch at times, but it’s the sort of pain we shouldn’t run away from – which is the lesson Hachiken is learning himself.
I don’t want to overdramatize the point, but Gin no Saji and Arakawa-sensei are really doing the world a service with material like this. There’s the obvious fact that anime needs all the smart and challenging series it can get, but above and beyond that Arakawa is really shining a light on the struggles of people modern society – Japan no less than the West – tends not to like to think about these days. By telling this story – her story, largely – so brilliantly, she’s speaking for those who don’t have much of a voice in popular culture, much less with young people. And it’s a story people really should hear, because it says a great deal about where we are as a modern society, what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost.
I said last week that I hoped Hachiken wouldn’t be able to help Komaba save his ranch – not because I didn’t feel terrible for his family, but because it would undercut the realism of the series. And few series’ success is so dependent on realism as this one – everything from the emotions on up is built on its foundation. As terrible as losing the family farm and a young person forced to give up a dream is, it happens, and not at all rarely. I buy milk from Hokkaido even though it costs a little more, and organic when I’m feeling especially idealistic that day – and while it tastes better, I harbor no illusions that it comes from a family ranch. I’m sure it comes from a giant corporate mega-farm, as most milk in America does.
It’s hard to believe something as simple as the drinking of a mug of hot milk could bring a tear to my eye, but watching the characters do just that did just that. It was the perfect way to end a very sad day – the very last milk from Komaba Ranch. I loved and hated the way that day was depicted – hated it because it hurt so much to watch, loved it for the same reason. Because it was the simple, unvarnished bleakness and dignity of the moment that made it hurt so much. This kind of thing happens all the time, and people try and pick up the pieces and move on. There are no miracles for them – only finding something to focus on, even something small like a part-time job, and getting on with life.
Hachiken wasn’t able to do anything in the end, except simply to be there – and that’s exactly as it should be. A 16 year-old kid – even a whip-smart achiever like Hachiken – can’t lick this problem. I’ve come to realize that the major plot drivers of the first and second seasons are teaching essentially the same lesson – simply because you want to solve a problem doesn’t mean there’s a solution, and simply because something is painful doesn’t mean you shouldn’t experience it. There was no easy answer to the Porkbowl situation and the dilemma of eating meat – at least not for Arakawa or Hachiken – but at the very least, people should understand what’s lost in order to put meat on their table. And simply because Hachiken has no answers for Komaba – or Mikage – doesn’t mean he shouldn’t stand beside them when they’re struggling. This is the essence of Hachiken’s journey for now, a kind of Taichi-esque “be a person who doesn’t run away”. “You’re a curious one.” Aki’s father tells him when he arrives the night before Komaba’s cows are to be sold of. “No part of this is going to be fun.” But Hachiken knows that full well, and in fact it’s the very reason why he needs to be there to see it.
Hachiken learns many lessons over the course of this series, and they’re incredibly universal lessons. That makes Gin no Saji one of the best coming-of-age stories that manga and anime has seen, in my view. One of those lessons he learns is that money really, really matters – and that when people talk about how it doesn’t buy happiness and isn’t important, it’s a good bet that those people have enough not to have to worry about it. Through Komaba and Mikage (and not just them) Hachiken is learning that his own problems are minor compared to some, and that the value of what his parents – even if they “suck” as he puts it – have worked to provide him can’t be overstated. And of course, that goes hand-in-hand with the notion that he has a responsibility to them as a result – and acts as a reminder of what his brother’s rejection of his college education really amounts to.
There’s no easy answers here, as is always the case with this story. There are competing impulses at play, the urge to honor our parents’ sacrifices and the need to be our own person and pursue our own dream. Shingo isn’t a villain for what he did, but he’s walked away from a privilege most in this series will never have. As for Hachiken, it’s important for him to share Mikage and Komaba’s pain because he senses how critical it is to his own growth as a person to not run away any longer. There are other reasons too, of course – there’s no secret any longer of the mutual affection between these two, and Mikage even confesses that she likes Hachiken (sort of). But it’s a testament to how substantial the other issues raised in this arc are that this moment isn’t the headline, only a side-story.
As great as this episode was, I could hardly believe the end credits started rolling when they did – and indeed, we had a six-minute postscript in store for us. It was a tense, powerful and palpably genuine sequence of events as Hachiken walked Mikage back to her ranch, where the family was about to meet to discuss the future of their own business. Hachiken shared with Aki his own self-made crisis of identity – he became so obsessed with living up to his parents expectations that he lost himself completely in the process. For Hachiken, the crisis is the lack of a dream to chase. For Komaba, the dream has already been surrendered – in part so that Aki won’t have to give up on hers. But for Aki, the scariest thing is to have a dream, and not be doing anything to get closer to it.
The issue with the Mikage ranch goes deeper than the loan (¥15 million, about $150,000) that her family co-signed for. Aki has her own dreams, and they’re not to take over the ranch. We haven’t heard the full details of what that dream is, but we know the basics – and we know she loves horses. Her grandfather declares that the family will sell all their horses – “just a hobby” the old man says, though he clearly loves them – to help raise money to pay off the loan. This is the last lifeline gone for Aki, the one thing that made the idea of running the business almost tolerable. Hachiken doesn’t hesitate in urging her to speak her mind at the family meeting, and he’s being a good friend in doing so – but this is serious business, and a difficult situation to say the least. He is indeed an outsider, as he says himself – and even if the family is already sizing him up as a potential husband, he has no right to a say in this discussion. But he has a duty as a friend, too – as always with Gin no Saji there are two sides to the story, and no easy way to bridge between them.
This is obviously a critical moment in the story, and will almost certainly be the central focus of the last two episodes. But in the larger picture, this is still preamble – a part of Hacihiken’s journey towards himself. Life is a giant puzzle, and he’s finding pieces everywhere – in the lives of his friends, and in the realities of farm life. Whatever the Mikages decide, whatever path Aki chooses, Hachiken still must discover his own path – and even if that’s at Mikage’s side, he still needs to decide where it is he wants to go. No matter what lessons he learns from the lives of those close to him, ultimately Hachiken has to face himself and find the answer in the mirror – he can’t find it anywhere else. That leg of the journey may never be depicted in the anime, but it will almost surely be the focus of the manga’s eventual concluding arc.