Final episodes of really good anime can inspire a wade range of emotions in me. But I know I’ve experienced a truly special series when the dominant feeling is gratitude – only the very best shows, the ones that impact you meaningfully, can produce that. When it comes to Gin no Saji I can truly say that I’m glad this series exists – that it measurably made anime a better place, and contributed something of real value to the medium and indeed, something positive to the world at large. If you believe in Karma, Arakawa Hiromu and A-1 Pictures (and NoitaminA too, though I’ve been hard on it lately) score some major points here.
This was pretty much a textbook example of how to do an ending of an ongoing manga the right way. The three episodes leading up to the finale delivered incredible emotional power, and the last a reflective and wistful kind of benediction. Especially in a show like this that really tries to be about something, I can’t overstate the importance of such a coda – a chance for the audience to reflect right along with the characters on the meaning of what they’ve seen, and to appreciate the characters themselves one last time. So many shows rush headlong to the end, resolving the plot (and often not even that) in the final frames. Those kind of endings never feel satisfying to me even if they do manage to be conclusive.
I certainly wouldn’t have expected a conclusive ending for Gin no Saji – not just because the manga is ongoing, but because life is ongoing. Every day (except one) comes with a “Tsuzuku” at the end of it. Given the sort of series this is I’ll be very surprised if the eventual manga ending looks all that much different from this one. The sorts of issues the series has raised, especially in this arc – Mikage’s struggles to get into college, Komaba’s financial hardship and loss of his dream, Hachiken’s identity issues and conflicts with his parents – simply aren’t the kind that get neatly resolved. You don’t solve these sorts of problems – you cope with them and, hopefully, learn from them. And Gin no Saji is a rare bird indeed in seeming to truly understand that.
Hachiken’s trip to Sapporo was perhaps surprisingly low-key – it certainly felt that way after the time spent with Mikage and Komaba’s families, but that fits Hachiken’s situation. I was struck first by the reaction of his middle-school classmates after bumping into him at the station bookstore – they were surprised by how “normal” he seemed. Clearly being normal is something Hachiken has always struggled with as he’s tried to live out his father’s wishes for him. Yet his frustrations with his family could hardly be more normal – he’s going through a period where he’s trying to be an individual for the first time in his life, rather than the product of his parents’ ambition. And that, as anyone could tell you, is rarely an easy thing.
Initially, Hachiken thinks he’s lucked out by finding no one at home and that he might manage to escape with Shingo’s notebooks and never have to see his parents (and that’s a sad thing in itself). Of course we know that’s not going to happen, and their dinner together is incredibly awkward (as usual). His mother as always smiles and gamely tries to pretend nothing is wrong, and his father scowls and offers no attempts at social interaction. It’s easy to feel sorry for Hachiken’s mom – her reaction when Yuugo compliments her cooking is pretty heartbreaking – but I can’t get past the fact that she’s an enabler. By refusing to confront her husband she allows him to continue the behavior that’s driven two sons away from her, and by that measure she has to take some of the blame upon herself.
Hachi-kun really tries gamely here. He’s learned from his experiences with Aki and Komaba, and gained an appreciation for his parents’ perspective and what they’ve sacrificed for him. It’s a step forward for him to try and contain himself, and I like the analogy he uses to describe Aki’s dream – like a car with one wheel missing. Good grades, money, the dream itself – whatever it is, most adolescents (and many adults) are missing that fourth wheel, and that’s where we need to rely on others to help us find it. But when his father mocks his interest in helping Aki by asking “So – someone who failed in his studies is qualified to help someone else with theirs?” – Yuugo finally and understandably breaks. Is he like livestock, which gets sent to the slaughterhouse at the first sign of injury or illness? But then, even horses get another chance if they miss a jump – so is he even lower?
Tamako isn’t entirely wrong that there’s an element of personal redemption driving Hachi to try and help Aki, but I think the case is overstated. He’s genuinely doing this to help her – not least because he likes her romantically, of course, but also because he truly wants to help her achieve her dream. He dutifully puts his dishes in the sink and thanks his mother before storming out of the house – showing her more respect than his father shows him – but storm out he does. There’s a real lesson about empathy here, as there often is with Gin no Saji, and Hachiken has learned it. From his own failure, he’s become more tolerant of failure in others – and even grudgingly, with agonizing slowness, himself. And that’s been the hardest lesson so far for Hachiken to learn.
I certainly respect the fact that Hachi’s mother came to the school to see for herself what kind of life her son was leading – though by doing so she once again allows her husband to persist in his unbending and harsh ways unchecked. It’s important for Hachiken, though, to have at least one parent with an appreciation for the fact that he’s now his own person. “I can take anything” he tells her after she apologizes for lying about his dad praising the bacon he’d sent, “so don’t lie anymore.” He’s overstating the case, of course, but he’s trying to make a larger point. And in fact, this new life Yuugo is leading is a reward – coming to Ezonoo was the first major decision he took himself, independently of his parents’ wishes. He may not know what his dream is yet but he has friends, and interests he’s passionate about, and he’s earned the trust and respect of those around him. Sad as it is in a way, Ezonoo is a much healthier environment for him to grow up in than his own house – and that’s why Hachiken has grown so much since he arrived.
Just what the future holds for Hachiken is of course unclear – indeed “the possibilities are endless” as Yoshino (herself contemplating going to France to study cheesemaking) exclaims. That’s what being sixteen is all about – in that way, this open ending feels very much like the ending of the Hyouka anime to me. If you miss a jump, you can jump again and try to get it right – everyone fails sometimes, and it’s the response to the failure that matters far more than the failure itself. Stories like this one shouldn’t conclude with possibilities being eliminated, but rather expanded – because this is the time in a person’s life when there are a dizzying number of roads from which to choose.
What the future holds in store for Gin no Saji isn’t entirely clear either. The manga continues to be absurdly popular, though Arakawa-sensei doesn’t update it with unfailing regularity given her family situation and the fact that she’s also working on illustrating Arslan Senki. But the anime isn’t a big seller on disc, and perversely, the popularity of the manga may work against the anime here – it’s so popular in its own right that it doesn’t really need the anime to drive sales. If anything Gin no Saji seems like a perfect fit for theatrical anime movies – fans of this series are more likely to be those who’ll spend ¥1800 on a movie ticket than ¥10000 on a single Blu-ray or DVD. Manga is a medium much more commercially receptive to this sort of story than anime – as witness the fact that in the last week its two biggest prizes went to Sangetsu no Lion (the Tezuka Cultural Prize – which Silver Spoon won last year) and Otoyomegatari (the Manga Taisho Award), two strong-selling series that would likewise likely struggle to move discs.
As I’ve said before, I truly don’t think it’s overstating the case to say that Arakawa-sensei has done a public service with this series. In addition to a beautifully-written and utterly universal coming-of-age tale, she’s also told the story of a lifestyle that’s largely ignored by mass media these days, both in Japan and abroad – and it’s a story people really should know. To tell a story that’s both highly personal and universally relatable is a rare gift, and Arakawa has achieved it here. I give full credit to A-1 and to both directors – S1’s Itou Tomohiko and S2’s Deai Kotomi – for bringing to life in a way that captures the warmth, humor and pathos of the original. Thank goodness for Gin no Saji and series like it, rare as they are – and sincere thanks to the creators who bring them to us. A world with such stories in it is surely a better place.