It’s finally over (apart from EX and hopefully Kud Wafter, anyway) – after 39 episodes and a veritable avalanche of emotional highs and lows, Little Busters! comes to an end that’s undeniably a happy one. And while part of me is happy about it, I can’t help wondering why I’m not happier than I am. This isn’t a simple thing to answer, and I think it’s fundamentally tied into human nature and what one’s expectations for this finale were.
I didn’t know the details of the “True End” that this turned out to be, but it seemed pretty obvious after Episode 12 that we were headed for something more or less along the lines of what happened. I don’t have any major issues with the way the anime chose to go about depicting it. It was surprisingly mundane, and I mean that in a good way – Riki and Rin pulling everyone from the wreckage, lugging them up the hill on makeshift stretchers. I might have taken a few moments to call the authorities, and I’m still not quite clear on why Riki, Rin and Kyousuke weren’t killed when they were so close to the bus (they even got the driver out, too) when it exploded. But generally speaking, it was all sensibly carried off.
The key issue here was Kyousuke, who was indeed blocking the gas from escaping with his body. Riki realized that the only choice he and Rin had was the save everyone else first, and go back for Kyousuke last – which they did – and probably the emotional highlight of the episode was when the critically wounded Kyousuke reached out and wiped away Riki’s tear before losing consciousness. Fundamentally, all shipping aside (though not at Comiket) that’s the most important relationship in the series.
There’s some stuff here that definitely falls into the Visual Arts metaphysics realm, like Riki seemingly going back to before he was born to confront the issue of his narcolepsy. I take that as metaphorical but with Key you can never be sure, and there is a sort of Buddhist quality to it. The issue here is simple: is it worth living, knowing that sooner or later you’ll lose everything that you love? As you become more ensconced in Japan’s literary culture you realize just how much of it – anime and manga included – is rooted in Mono no Aware, the realization that impermanence is our perpetual state of being. “To live is to lose” – this is essentially a re-statement of mono no aware. In deciding that life is indeed worth living and that pain worth enduring for the sake of loving others, Riki – either symbolically or literally – rejects his narcolepsy and finds himself outside the bus, with a choice to make.
This is where things get difficult, and I think that can be summed up in one question: would Refrain have been a better series if Episode 11 had been the finale? There’s no question it was the emotional climax, but that’s a separate issue. In choosing this route – where everyone walks away (eventually) healthy and happy, is LitBus diluting the power of its core message? To some extent I think the answer is yes, and that’s why – despite the affection I have for these characters and the joy I get from seeing them live on – my feelings about the ending are mixed. I won’t go so far as to call the True Route a cop-out, but I think it is fair to ask – if there are no consequences for what’s happened, what was the point of it all?
To put that another way, if you frame the series around the question naked-universe Riki asks at the beginning of this episode – “is it worth it?” – the answer is a lot easier when the reality is what we got here than if it had been what we got at the end of episode 11. My answer would still have been “Yes” – it is worth it, because life is hope, and because even if they were gone the people who loved Riki wanted he and Rin to carry on and support each other. But making the question so much easier to answer robs the premise of some of its emotional power, at least for me.
Without any doubt this is a question that can be debated and debated, and certainly one on which reasonable people can disagree. It doesn’t change the fact that LB – especially Refrain – does a remarkable job of depicting the power of love and the difference it can make in the world. This is the essential nature of Little Busters! – a simple and innocent story about loving other people, how kindness can impact the lives of others and how the urge to protect those we love can sometimes be in conflict with the desire to see them grow strong enough to face the world. This is why of all the Key works that have found their way to anime, I find LitBus to be the most unspoiled and emotionally powerful. Kanon probably remains the best series when all factors are measured in, but Little Busters! is certainly the most emotionally effective for me.
There’s not much else to say, really – this is a show where the emotions do a very good job of speaking for themselves. LitBus is a series where you need to check your cynicism at the door and embrace the innocence of its vision for what it is – highly idealized, no question, but grounded in something that’s elemental for all of us. Whatever qualms I may have about the ending it’s undeniably fitting to leave the cast as we last see them – playing innocently as children, smiling, laughing (though not the uncharacteristically thoughtful Masato, interestingly) and most importantly, all together. Kyousuke isn’t weak and on crutches but his old, smiling self, stronger and more unstoppable than ever. If one were in a metaphysical frame of mind they could almost imagine that what we were seeing wasn’t the real world at all, but in fact a sort of Heaven or dream – because surely, for these children, this is the Heaven they would wish for. I don’t think that’s how it was intended, but with Key you can never be sure. Perhaps the idea is that what we’re seeing is whatever we bring to the seeing, and that whatever answer you arrive at, the ending is a happy one either way.
ED: “Little Jumper” by Rita