Finales are hard – this is a subject upon which I’ve mused many a time already. I think if you set aside everything else, though, a series can’t go too far wrong if it sticks to a very simple rule for final episodes – be true to yourself. If you make a finale that’s consistent with the spirit of the series as a whole, audiences will generally forgive you for not making specific things happen exactly as they wanted them to happen. And for me, this was a finale that was completely in-synch with the spirit of Isshuukan Friends.
Finales for adaptations of ongoing manga are, of course, even harder – you have the dilemma of manufacturing an original ending, skipping material to find a logical ending point, or punting on having a real ending at all – all the while bearing in-mind the theoretical possibility of a sequel. By this time tomorrow we’ll know how the first volume of One Week Friends did sales-wise – if it performs to Stalker predictions it’ll be somewhere in-between 4-5000 units. That’s pretty good, but solidly in the grey area where you can do no better than guess whether another season might be produced. I certainly hope there is – this series certainly has lots of story to tell – and this final episode did nothing to close the door on that possibility.
Here’s what I had to say on the subject of Yuuki’s sudden pullback from Kaori last week:
I think Yuuki is simply feeling worn-down and unrewarded, and having second-thoughts about whether he has the patience and stamina to do what seemingly needs to be done to have a real relationship with Kaori. And I think he’ll realize that he’s making a mistake – that he does have what it takes and that Kaori is worth it – and the story will pick up from (and leave off, as an anime) there.
So how did I do? On balance I’d have to say pretty well. If there was an air to the first half of this episode, I would say it was “melancholic”. For me at least, I could almost palpably feel Yuuki’s exhaustion and the hesitation it was causing in him. At this point in the story Yuuki has been dealing with the challenges of this relationship for seven months, and the events of last week really brought home to him just what he was letting himself in for if he fully committed. That’s a big ask of a 16 year-old in his first romantic relationship, and I hardly think it surprising – or shameful – that there was a certain amount of recoil on his part. This was always going to happen sooner or later, and the revelation of the root cause of Kaori’s condition was as likely a trigger as any.
Isshuukan Friends is a curious mix of emotional colors, quite suited to the watercolor palette it uses. It’s very cute and heartwarming, yet there’s an undercurrent of sadness that’s never quite absent. While it deals with pretty serious issues it never descends into tragedy, and while there was some emotional venting here, it was more in-line with normal adolescent heartache. The change between Kaori and Yuuki has been noticed by all their friends (and Kujoe) and commented on by some – but life goes on, including for the two of them. Yuuki seems to want just that – a lowering of the intensity, a relief of some of the pressure. But Kaori for once takes the initiative, and actually approaches Shougo for advice on the situation. That’s a positive thing for her in and of itself, though it did put him in rather an awkward position – and I thought his response was somewhat awkward, by his standard.
Shougo is, of course, dealing with his own issue – Saki is avoiding him (my response would be “Hooray!” but that’s neither here nor there). They’re both bummed about Yuuki and Kaori but it’s clear each is very aware of the awkwardness between the two of them – and certainly, it’s just as clear that Shougo does have a crush on Saki and likely has for a long time. Saki is definitely showing signs that she’s a lot more self-aware than her airhead act would have you believe, but the best part of the scene for me is Shougo’s explanation for why Saki has never heard him apologize: “When I’m wrong I apologize. It’s just that I’m hardly ever wrong, so I hardly ever have anything to apologize for.” Classic Shougo (best character!) all the way, though I fear he may be too far gone with this Saki thing to be saved.
As that most important of Japanese holidays, New Year’s, approaches you know it’s going to be a watershed for the main couple. Each has lied about taking a family trip over the holiday to avoid having to be involved in activity planning by their mutual friends, and each winds up at their usual spot by the river on New Year’s Eve, hoping but not expecting to run into each other. In lesser hands this could be sappy and preposterous, but Isshuukan Friends low-keys things enough so that it’s romantic and feels fated. What’s really happening here is that Yuuki is realizing that what he really wants, and has all along, is to see Kaori and to be with her. In short, that it’s worth it – which he always knew it was. He just needed some time and distance to rest, recuperate and realize. And by the time he hears her call his name on that bridge, there’s no mixed emotions in it – he’s simply glad she was there after all.
This was the kind of “date” I’d expect the anime to end on, and the kind of closure to their relationship. They finally manage to overcome their curse and eat at the crepe shop together, they visit the Shrine where she used to pray on the way to elementary school. And Kaori finally lets it all out of her system – the pain she’s going through, and what she wants from her friendship with Yuuki. It may not be the kind of consummation you’d see at the end of a conventional romance series but the meaning when she says “I want to be closer friends” is clear enough.
There’s no fairy tale ending here – we see yet another Monday where Yuuki tells Kaori “I’d like us to be friends!”, and the meaning is obvious. But this time she says it too, and there’s no doubt as to the strength of their commitment. I like the fact that the series closes with a shot of Yuuki writing in his diary, because I think that too is a way for him to get closer to Kaori, and a reminder that she really isn’t all that different from everyone else. All of us are a mystery, not least to ourselves and not least in adolescence. And it’s never easy to expose yourself to potential hurt by opening your heart to another person, but learning how to do that is a big part of finding ourselves and finding happiness.
I think it’s safe to say Isshuukan Friends was very much the series I expected it to be after reading the early part of the manga. If ever a series was a perfect fit for a studio, it’s this one and Brains Base – the look, the tone, the content. It really is a lovely series in so many ways – beautiful to look at in that signature Brains Base way, completely earnest and heartfelt and emotionally genuine. It’s a strange premise but young mangaka Hazuki Maccha has a deft touch with the material. She strikes just the right balance between sweet and bitter, and between comedy and drama – I think her youth (she’s 23 and was 21 when the manga began) is a key element in this, as the perspective if the series is very much that of an “old soul” that’s still imbued with idealism and youthful optimism. I love the way the series ambles through its story at a very natural pace, the way it doesn’t overwhelm it with heavy background music and theatrics. I can see a good many ways in which this material might not have worked – but it definitely works, and that’s a credit to Hazuki and director Iwasaki Tarou, as well as outstanding series writer Suga Shoutarou. If indeed Omori Takahiro has decided to leave Brains Base someone is going to have to step up as their frontline director, and perhaps Iwasaki-sensei can be that someone.
I hope Isshuukan Friends does indeed do well on Blu-ray and DVD, partly because of course I would love a second season but also because any time a good show succeeds it’s incentive to make more of them. Shows which feature real, complex relationships where teenagers talk to other in meaningful ways are rare – shows in which boys and girls are treated as equally complex and emotionally vulnerable even more so. I think series like Isshuukan Friends make the world a better place by respecting their audience and showing us genuinely good but flawed characters who care for each other and want to find someone to share their lives with. Shows like that will always be a rarity in the modern anime economic reality, but they do have an audience – and it’s reassuring to know that there are still those in the industry willing to reach out to that audience.