Gin no Saji Second Season – 09

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Once again Gin no Saji brings us a beautiful, terrible sadness.

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.

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  1. E

    A beautiful episode which made me shed tears. A masterpiece which every high schoolers out there should watch. I am glad that I hold myself back from reading the manga.
    Yup. For us who live in modern society, money is very important. Even entering a public toilet needs money, at my town. The only thing which is really free, is breathing. As someone born from a fatherless family, myself; Komaba's situation has really, really strong impact. I hope the author will let him obtain scholarship or something.

  2. s

    It's occasionally terrifying how frequently anime can drag out actual events from my own life, put them on screen, and assess them far more honestly than I was able to do myself at the time.

    In this day and age where college extends youth by another four years in America, I've met plenty of people (myself included), who still have no idea what they want to do with their lives, what their "dream" is. Hachiken may be in high school, but his lack of a dream is something I'm sure many high school students, many college students, and probably many adults struggle with every day.

    Like I said before, terrifying. Terrifying, yet profoundly beautiful.

  3. R

    I literally don't have the words to express my emotions. I can try, and I can feel what it's like, but to try and articulate it, I feel like a very important piece of it goes missing.

    And I suppose that's a testament in of itself to the emotional weight this series can pull. It isn't epic or dramatic in the way conventional series are (including other slice of life) but there's a depth, a kick your heart knock out punch kind of weight to something as simple and honest and REAL as these last few episodes. And my heart is simply left an aching mess, and yet it fits. It hurts to watch but its something you SHOULD watch, to put all the little miracles you take for granted back into perspective.

    Like you mentioned earlier, I don't know why Arakawa sensei decided to do such a radically different series after FMA but I'm immensely glad she did.

  4. S

    It is indeed a wonderful, realistic and emotionally resonating masterpiece of an episode, but I’d like to emphasize the “side-story”:
    I just love how the relationship between Hachiken and Mikage is developed. It isn’t based on romantic gestures, glancing, blushing, angst, accidentally falling on each other, holding hands or clearing up misunderstandings, it’s simply done by talking to each other. And they talk a LOT! Not the shallow “do you like me or not” talk, but very meaningful conversations spanning a wide range of topics including agriculture, dreams, family and dilemmas. They deepen their bond by communicating, by opening up to each other and trying to understand the other person’s thoughts and it’s resulting in an amazing couple chemistry. Their natural, comfortable interactions and confidence in each other is a joy to watch. I’d say it’s almost as great as Spice & Wolf in that regard.

  5. S

    Yes, that's true as well. I think they are incredibly sweet. It made me think of Lucy and Hasebe from ServantXService, even though those were actually still a bit more animes-que in many respects. Hachiken and Mikage just feel real (maybe even too mature for their age – but then again, there are teenagers that break their back in a farm since 5 AM every day, of course they'll be more mature!). I was reflecting today how the greatest thing about Hiromu Arakawa is how she doesn't just create characters – she creates PEOPLE, she creates characters so real, with emotions, thoughts, desires, faults, fears, that they kinda pop out of the page or the screen, whose two dimensions can hardly contain them. Which is a mark of very few writers. It's what made FMA an amazing shonen and it's what makes Gin no Saji an amazing slice of life. Everything's better with good characters.

  6. "Everything's better with good characters".

    Can we frame that and post it on the wall of every producer's office in Japan? Better yet, on the inside of their Google glasses?

  7. M

    Make sure you mount it to the offices involved in Space Dandy.

  8. Z

    "Everything's better with good characters."

    Except when the story is rubbish.

  9. w

    …But Zeta Zero, which is better? An awful story with awful characters, or an awful story with good characters?

  10. J

    you forgot one option which is good story with awful characters

  11. S

    I think the best example of poorly thought-out plot with good characters in anime would be Evangelion. And lots of people love that for its characters alone. As for good story with awful characters… can't think one really. Puella Magi Madoka Magica has surely weaker characters than plot, but they don't straight-out suck. I guess the problem is that while good writers may have one stronger point than another, bad writers are just bad.

  12. w

    Puella Magi Madoka Magica isn't a bad shout, I'd probably give the nod to Shingeki no Kyojin. Not that all it's characters were bad either, but Eren was a pretty agonising lead and the show suffered whenever he was in focus. As for good characters, bad plot.. Robotics;Notes? I think I'd take a great writer with key weaknesses over an average across the board writer any day though.

  13. R

    Guilty Crown? R;N still has a good plot albeit a bit rushed in the end and the characters are decent.

  14. S

    Yeah, SnK is definitely an example of good plot (not as good as PMMM to me though) with not-very-interesting characters – though having bland leads and better side characters is a common syndrome amongst shonen manga.

  15. K

    I think it's simply amazing that the emotions of the characters can be conveyed with such honesty. Yet, even when these characters are at an emotional low, Gin no Saiji somehow finds a way to still bring a smile to your face.

    The emotional highs and lows of this series are so straightforward and free of manipulation, you can't help but be swept up in it.

    And Great-Grandma Mikage showing off her teeth to Hachiken was absolutely adorable.

  16. F

    Very, very well summarized Enzo – I think you have indeed hit the nail on the head regarding what lies near Gin no Saji's core. And it is both refreshing, thought provoking and painful to experience as it is presented.

    We do indeed need more series like this, but in a certain sense it is a teensy bit unfair, because content like this (the manga was more effective and powerful for me medium-wise) is difficult to produce as it comes out of a combination of both articulateness and a piercing honesty about oneself that is rare to find….

    It is nice to be able to find an adaptation that is able to convey the original source material, but even nicer when the source material itself is "rarer than hen's teeth". ^^

  17. Well, here's the question. Is this sort of honesty and articulateness that rare, or is there more of it than we realize but the industry simply isn't interested in bringing it to the screen?

    I don't deny that writing this good doesn't grow on trees (no pun intended). Or that it's Arakawa's name that made Silver Spoon a sales dynamo in manga form and got it an anime. But there are plenty of other manga with great writing and piercing honesty, and I don't see production committees stampeding to adapt them.

    That said, it's also a fact that to a certain extent, series like Gin no Saji are pearls before swine. The producers know the anime audience and what they seem to want. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy and that's a big part of the problem, but it's not changing anytime soon.

  18. F

    To be honest I think it is a combo of it being rare and the self – fulfilling prophecy you described above. There are other works of manga which are very moving and insightful, of course, buuuttttt….

  19. i

    Hi Enzo.

    I´ve been following your blog for a long time now, but it´s the first time I comment here.
    I suppose I´m the type thats prefers reading and not writing, but after having watched this masterpiece of episode, i simply needed to contrast my opinion of this series with the net, and for what i saw, this two last episodes of gin no saji had an impressive reception. It´s a shame, really, that compared to other series, few people follow this one.
    After that, i only wanted to congratulete your blog, because you always give a good read, which i think is really important since you have made me start watching series like HxH, although i always think you put that series too high (or maybe not, because recently i´ve started watching the chimera ants arc and after ten or so episodes i think i could cry of happines).
    I would try to write more often now. Keep the good work.

  20. Thanks for commenting ismael, hope to hear more from you.

    One thing I would add on GnS is that not enough people following it is only part of the equation. I also think a lower percentage of those that do follow it tend to engage in discussion about it than with many other series.

  21. Y

    OK… I'll engage then 😉

    I find it fascinating how well written this series is when it comes to the human psychology and yet has absolutely nothing of value to say when it comes to our relationship with other species (farm animals in this case).

    I find it fascinating because it shows how deeply engrained in our culture speciesism really is. It's really interesting to me how so many people (in these comment section) are deeply moved by the loss of a dream (Komaba) but relatively indifferent most people were to the loss of a life (Porkbowl).

    You say "the dilemma of eating meat" but… What is the dilemma exactly? And that's an honest question. I read your blog regularly and I like your insight on many subjects, so I'm genuinely interested in hearing what makes you think it's difficult choice to make.

  22. Sorry Yann, I'm not re-opening that Pandora's Box – last year was enough. It's an interesting topic but not one I want to have hijack the discussion of this series again, especially considering how nasty it got.

  23. m

    This show (and moreso the manga) gave lots of time to the whole cruelty of livestock treatment vs the farmers minimal monetary return. And even more to the notion of whether or not eating animals at all is ok. It just was handled in a very realistic "I can't seem to find my answer, but I'll keep thinking about it" way. Yeah Hachiken has never been given a strong definitive postion on the matter, but that's what makes him a realistic high school kid. He shouldn't have all the answers.

  24. Y

    It got nasty? I didn't see those comments. Weird… If you did express your views already and you remember where, let me know and I'll check it out…

  25. It got nasty mostly on the RC comments section. I discussed the issue over there, but as I said I'm not re-hashing it now.

  26. w

    I really, really love Hachiken as a main character. He's so refreshing to watch, like he was cut from a completely different mold back at the main character factory. I loved his scene with Mikage here, that "drag me in, kicking and screaming" was so powerful and genuine you can't help but cheer for him. I'm not really a HachiAki shipper, I personally think he has better romantic chemistry with other characters *cough* Cheese Girl *cough* but it still feels so good seeing his efforts with her finally paying off.

    I know this episode was sad, very sad. Tough to stomach, in fact. But one of the things I love about this series is how it can still inject the comedy in without missing a beat. And the humor is IMO really funny, especially when Yoda realises he was a total moment killer for Aki's confession. Comedy and drama is a very delicate balance, especially in a series like this and it almost always gets it perfect.

  27. e

    Well, this hurt so good – I was barely keeping my composure but I lost it at the twins crying as the last cows left -. And yet this managed to be somewhow uplifting – never mind the hilarious 'should I lock the door?' moment at the beginning… Komaba's grin (and yet those 'brows…) as Hachicci praised said cows' milk. The feels. The feels – .
    Plus tiny grandma. She just makes me happy. And Mikage and Hachi's bond shaping up to be the full package. Hachi-baby, you're growing up as a good person-in-progress and as a great friend.
    One of those mind&heart-engaging, weepily-hugging-the-screen episodes. Good job Arakawa-sensei and anime staff, good job. Also inspirational writing ftw – including the blogger's – .

  28. e

    P.S.: on the organic milk/food and farm… eh, I guess it's different from place to place. In my country you can find both giga-farm products and smaller scale farms product. We're lucky enough our city feauture one big market belonging to the one organic shop Italian chain/franchising – with full description of location and farming policy and more space given to family farms (especially for milk&dairy and eggs) – , and a few other organic items can be purchased even from the standard shops. Sure it's more expensive but hey if 'ethical eating' is available and you can afford it then I believe it's the way to go – especially for dairy and meat. Just a few days ago I stumbled on a TV report about pigs farming in Germany and it was the stuff of nightmares all around. For the animals, the crops, the consumers, the workers themselves… and that's not even an exceptional case – .
    In any case… you're gathering some good karma and love from Hokkaido's cows Enzo :,).

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