Not only can I see this series being pretty divisive among anime viewers, I have a hard time seeing it not be divisive. It’s not so much of a love/hate kind of thing, I don’t think, as a matter of acceptance/dismissal – that is, accepting the pretext on which it’s created (much like Isshuukan Friends). There’s not a lot of deception as to what sort of story this is (though unlike with Isshuukan I’m conjecturing here, not having read the manga), and the show obviously wears its heart on its sleeve. But that’s not typically a winning formula for anime in this day and age.
The thing is, I do think there are actually some pretty subtle things going on with the main relationship in Soredemo Sekai wa Utsukushii, and its two participants. I’ve seen “Disney” fired at this series with derision by the usual pretentious crowd, but if anything the more accurate comment I’ve seen is Ghibli – there’s a bit of that studio in this premise, and more than a bit of the Ghibli heroine in Nike. I’m also put in mind of the underrated Nishi no Yoki Majou a bit – not because the two shows are dead-ringers (that one was quite a bit darker) but because shoujo fantasy is so rare for anime adaptations these days that the thematic similarities are hard to miss.
It’s important to remember that this is in fact a shoujo, which makes it a rare bird indeed in anime. As such the roles are broadly reversed from what we typically see in fantasy series, and thus it’s the male lead who’s the MacGuffin. Livius gets the sunrise glamour shots, the good punch lines, the tragic back-story. But Nike is a good reminder of why shounen fantasy with strong, likeable male main characters get so much praise – by no means is she bland or a cipher, a passive presence bobbing helplessly in the current of the plot. She’s a forceful person with clearly defined ideals, smart and stubborn and a driver of the plot herself.
Fundamentally, it’s Livi and Nike that are going to make or break Soredemo Sekai – it’s hard to imagine feeling engaged if you’re not bought into their relationship. I like odd pairings in anime romance (surely any reader of Otoyomegatari sees faint echoes of it here, especially in the final scene this week), and I like relationships where both parties are strong-willed and proud. The age factor is impossible to ignore (apparently the true ages are 15 and 12, according to the Japanese wikia) and that’s fine, because the series doesn’t ignore it. Livi is at the beginning of puberty, Nike in the midst of adolescence – and when it comes to the romantic side of their relationship, this is exactly how they act. Livi sneaking into bed naked with Nike is probably what every normal 12 year-old boy in his not at all normal position would do – you can see he takes a sort of impish pleasure in being naughty this way, but he doesn’t actually do anything improper apart from sneak a quick and naughty kiss. He’s forced (by his own choice) to act the responsible adult all day long, but in this arena he’s still a child with a child’s instincts and understanding, and I think it’s played pretty believably.
As for Nike, I like the way she approaches this, too. She may be a full-on teenager but she’s obviously never been in any romantic relationship before. She instinctively takes a protective role with Livi – she sees his wounds quite clearly and wants to help heal them, and she takes her responsibilities as a representative of her country seriously. She struggles to see Livi as a romantic partner, for obvious reasons – the slow dismantling of that wall will presumably be a major component of the story – but not to see him as a life partner. I like her pragmatism, especially as its paired with a still innocent and naive view of the world that periodically asserts itself. And of course, the truth of the matter is that in medieval monarchic societies this sort of relationship would not be remotely unusual, from an age standpoint or for any other reason.
Bottom line for me is, I like Nike and I like Livi, and their relationship is one of the more charming I’ve seen in anime for a long time. I like the fact that what she can do for him now (as Neil able conveys) is to give him some peace – both in his stressful life and with his painful memories. I like the fact that he gathers flowers from her homeland every day but is too shy (and not so egomaniacal as) to claim credit for doing so. Livi has been apparently taking Laudanum (or some like narcotic) to sleep at night, yet another reason why Neil is justifiably worried for his health – but Nike’s arrival has caused him to stop, because in her presence he feels safe enough to sleep without it. That casts his nighttime visits in a somewhat different light and again, I think it fits with where the two of them are in their relationship at the moment.
Certainly it’s not all rainbows and flowers. We see further evidence here of the way Livi still struggles to be taken seriously because of his age, manifested somewhat innocently in this instance but at the core of the more sinister issues we saw last week. And there’s still a fundamental conflict in the perspective Livi and Nike bring to their relationship – he wants to protect her and have her obey him, and she’s not inclined to be protected or obey anyone. But two people who each want to protect the other is a pretty good basis for a life partnership, and the Ciel-Chamber vibe I get is a fascinating and entertaining one to watch intersect with what Nike brings. The way the episode ended was a wonderful summation of where we are with the relationship – Livi refusing to “wake up” unless he got a kiss from Nike, who was more keen on stroking his hair and admiring how adorable he was when sleeping. My only quibble? When talking to Nike, instead of saying “just get it over with” Neil should surely have said “just do it”…