One of my oft-stated core beliefs is “good endings are hard”, but episodes like this one make it awfully hard to make the case. The thing about great endings is that they usually look incredibly easy – they have the effect of making you say “It’s so simple! Why does everyone else keep screwing it up?” The truth of course (and this is another one of my core beliefs about art) is that making it look easy is one of the hardest things a writer and/or director can do. As a general rule, keep it simple – focus on what’s really important and what’s really good about your story – and you can’t really go wrong.
My sleeper picks for Spring ended up being a mixed bag, but I think I nailed Soredemo Sekai wa Utsukushii. There were some hiccups in the middle where the sheer weight of the volume of material the show was adapting in 12 episodes derailed things a bit (and I’d guess that wasn’t the best of the source material either) but when the series focused in on what counts, it ranked among the best of the season.
Studio Pierrot has had a mixed track record in recent years, and I’ve certainly been hard on them when I feel they’ve deserved it. There have been too many cases where the production values on their series are simply inferior, but I said early on in Soredemo Sekai wa Utsukushii’s run that this seemed like a case of “horses for courses” – this sort of European-styled fairy tail is perfectly in their sweet spot. Pierrot has had a number of really good series recently, but in terms of production this is the best – it looks the part, it’s skilfully directed and features a terrific cast. Choosing Shimazaki Nobunaga as Livi was interesting – in most cases I suspect a woman would have been cast – and it works at capturing the dichotomy between Livi’s appearance and his stature because Shimazaki manages to make him vulnerable without putting on a silly attempt to sound like a child. And Maeda Rena is a straight-out hit as Nike – she’s full of energy and wit and strength, and I hope this leads to more lead roles for her.
If good endings are hard (and trust me, they are) then good endings for ongoing source material are even harder. This is where a really good and experienced director can make a huge difference, and in Kamegaki Hajime (Fushigi Yugi, Lupin III) Soredemo Sekai has one that’s both. The last arc especially had the air of confidence and surety that you generally only get with such directors. As much as I’d love a second season (which I know has zero chance of happening) the episode worked perfectly as a capper to the series – the anime feels complete, satisfying and internally consistent. Keep it simple – focus on what’s really important and what’s really good about your story – and you can’t really go wrong.
One of the reasons that Soredemo Sekai wa Utsukushii won’t see a second season is of course that it’s a shoujo, and shoujo simply don’t sell on disc. That’s why we rarely see shoujo manga adapted at all anymore, and when we do they’re almost always one-cour abridgements of long manga. Shoujo anime in 2014 exist as commercials for their manga, plain and simple – and that generally gets you one cour (since Volume 8 isn’t released yet, we don’t know the full impact of the anime). But while Soredemo has its share of shoujo tropes, to me it tonally resides in a sort of genre-free zone – when we see something really classic like Livi riding in on his white steed in the finale, it feels tongue-in-cheek. This series isn’t a “typical” shoujo fantasy, or romance – the genre here is simply “really good”.
In point of fact, Soredemo Sekai is if anything a mix of shoujo, Studio Ghibli and Western fairy tale. The emotional color of the story is very un-Japanese – it’s full of declarations of feeling, emotional displays and surprising frankness when it comes to desire. And this was never more proudly on display than in the finale, which wore its heart on its sleeve in a way few anime – even shoujo – do. The “farewell rain” song from Tohara was a grand and theatrically emotional song, especially when coupled with Nike’s tearful reaction. But it fit, because this series is much more than its nominal demographic tags would have it boxed in as.
A key element of the success of Soredemo Sekai is that neither of the main characters fit the mold of traditional shoujo – or any other anime demographic – leads. It’s recognizably shoujo in that Nike is definitely the POV character and Livi is definitely the “giant robot”, but get past that and you see two characters that deal with each other on remarkably equal terms. It goes beyond simply Nike being “spunky” – they’re complex, strong-willed and smart people who don’t want to be taken for granted. Because of the premise – Livi being 12 years old, yet a preternaturally smart and gifted Head of State – you have the basis of the romance being two characters who each want more than to be protected by the other. As I said early on, that’s a slyly wonderful basis for a romance story where the principals operate on equal terms, and that’s exactly how it played out.
If you’re one of the people hung up on the age difference – and I still see you out there – get over it. Mori Kaoru is only the latest to prove that this can be overcome if the writing is tasteful and sensitive, and I give full credit to mangaka Shiina Dai – as with Otoyomegatari that’s the case here. Setting aside the fact that in historical context this sort of relationship is perfectly normal, what makes it work is that the writing presents us with Livi and Nike as people, not numbers, and all a viewer has to do is look at them the same way. If you can’t, the problem is you – not the writing.
And as people, Nike and Livi make up one of the most charming anime romances I’ve seen in a very long time. The arc of their affection is completely believable, and because they work so well as individual characters there’s a rock-solid basis on which to build a relationship. The age difference isn’t ignored – it’s the elephant in the room, right up until the finale which sees Bardo and the Elder trio fretting over the fact that Nike and Livi haven’t consummated their relationship. What we see and they don’t is that the issue isn’t that Livi isn’t yet interested or capable, but that it’s because these two have come to love and respect each other that they want to be sure the moment they choose is the right one. Livi’s age is relevant – for all his maturity he’s still a child (we see his emotional childishness fairly often) and paradoxically, he’s mature enough to understand he’s still immature (and so is Nike, in fact). He and Niki have grown to love each other with patience – now they’re both exercising the same as they grow into lovers.
It’s in that context that the finale works so splendidly as an exclamation point for Soredemo Sekai. We get our emotional closure with Grandma, and when the story returns to the Sun Kingdom we’re reminded of the practicalities of Livi and Nike’s situation. He’s still the Boy King, incredibly put-upon and addicted to the work which makes him feel grown-up. He and Nike have matured to the point now where they can be apart and not fret over the strength of their bond, yet the time they’ve spent together on their journey has made the pain of that separation all the more acute. And while the entire episode is a bit of a tease – stringing out the moment of romance service we know is coming – it’s a parallel to the situation the two of them are experiencing on-screen.
“The rain, the wind, the sun… You bring them all with you, every time our eyes meet. You bring the world to me.” What a wonderful expression of love that is to end on – especially coupled with the first truly mutual kiss Livi and Nike share, not sneaked or stolen to the other’s surprise or CPR or anything except a shared expression of affection. I’m hard-pressed to imagine any other way one might want to see the series have ended, so fitting was the way it actually did – proof, again, that Soredemo Sekai understands what’s important and understands what makes it work as a story.