It’s straight-up criminal how few people seem to realize just how great Shounen Maid is (most of them because they refuse to watch it, of course). There’s so much depth of emotion here that puts the vast majority of anime to shame. I have no idea about the background behind this series – anything about mangaka Otochibana’s life or experiences. But there are certain series (Watamote was very much another one) where you strongly sense that the author gets what they’re writing about on a molecular level. This one clearly understands family – the difficulties attached to trying to navigate one, and what happens when we’re wedged apart from those closest to us. This stuff just can’t be faked – not to this degree of believability.
One of the many skills Shounen Maid has repeatedly displayed is the ability to effortlessly shift from lighter material to stuff that’s extremely serious without any juddering at all. Part of that, no doubt, is due to the light touch it displays with that heavy material. We’re allowed to take it in and process it rather than having it crammed down our throats, and sometimes we don’t even notice when the gear-shift has taken place. But it most assuredly has, and when Shounen Maid is in sixth (as it certainly was in the latter stages of this episode) you absolutely feel the impact.
The rolling start this week once again revisits the matter of Madoka’s frustrated obsession with all things feline. As an unrepentant cat person myself I can definitely feel Madoka’s pain here – to love cats so much and not be able to share your house with one (or many) is a cruel fate indeed. I did wonder if Miyako’s brilliant idea might be to get Madoka a hypoallergenic cat – they certainly exist, and they’re quite tolerable for most people who suffer from cat allergies. Nevertheless this was a rather light and silly romp, with stuff like Madoka’s ridiculous gas mask scheme and Miyako’s giant box of stuffed cat plushies (not a real substitute – sorry, Nyanko-sensei who’s staring at me right now). I also made note of how much fun Chihiro and Miyako were having hanging the laundry out in the sun. Though Madoka does have a dryer (a luxury of the wealthy few in Japan) there’s a deep-seated belief in this country that it’s healthier and happier-making to hang your clothes out to dry.
Effortless as usual, Shounen Maid uses the cat motif to segue into the main event of the episode. It’s time for Higan, along with Oban the most important Buddhist holidays for honoring lost ancestors and loved ones. Naturally this Higan is especially significant for Chihiro, and when Hino’s mother reminds him of it on a shopping trip, Chihiro thinks it would be nice to make Botamochi (sweet rice packed in sweet bean paste) rather than store-bought. On the way home he meets the old lady in the park again, this time trying to entice a stray cat into being petted (might she too be allergic?) and Chihiro once again stops for a chat. The subject of Botamochi comes up (Chi naturally assumes a proper Japanese lady would know how to make them) and she tells him it doesn’t matter how well they’re made – any mother would love to have Botamochi made by her child brought to her graveside.
There’s so much double and triple-meaning in so much of what happens here. Of course the old lady would have had no reason to know who the botamochi were for – Chihiro figures this out eventually. When push comes to shove he asks Madoka for help in making them, despite the fact that he has no experience doing so either – and that of course is highly significant. When have we ever seen Chi encourage Madoka to help in the kitchen? But this, of course, is different – these two are adrift on the same boat and despite being a small boy still, Chihiro is perceptive enough to understand that. I also think it’s notable that he hasn’t visited the grave in so long that it’s become disheveled – when have we ever seen such behavior from the ultra-responsible Chihiro? It’s a reminder of just how hard this has been for him, despite the support of Madoka and his friends.
The scene at the cemetery… Honestly, it’s hard to watch even before Chihiro’s grandmother (and by now, of course, we know that’s who she is) arrives (and may I add, the whole sequence is gorgeously drawn and animated). Chihiro and Madoka are such good souls, both of them, and they need each other so badly that it’s painful to think what might have happened if Chiyo hadn’t nudged them together. Madoka is obviously plagued by a lot of self-doubt and guilt here, as witness his reaction to seeing “Komiya Family” on Chiyo’s gravestone. As for Chihiro, he’s troubled by the fact that he can’t remember his father (and yes, we now have our answer as to where his father is). Madoka tells him it was enough simply to have been there and given his father the family he’d never had – “Isn’t that what being a family is like?” – and that’s somehow an incredibly heartbreaking exchange between them.
We know what’s coming is coming, of course. We finally have a name to attach to the face – Takatori Kazusa (Sakakibara Yoshiko). In our (and thus Chihiro’s) meetings with her, we have no reason to think she’s anything except a kind and lonely old woman. But the deep pain that broke her family apart still lingers, as we see in Madoka’s reaction to seeing her. He blames her for driving Chiyo away – Kazusa-san likely blames herself for it. Chihiro is devastated when she admits the truth about who she is – not just because she lied to him, but because he knows the back-story here. He knows what happened between Chiyo and her parents. What he – and we – don’t know is what role his grandfather (who’s still alive) played in all that.
Once again, this is all extraordinarily deep and very subtle. Chihiro’s thoughts at this moment might be of a thousand things – he might even be feeling guilty because he met his grandmother and liked her. Is that a betrayal of his mother? No, of course not – but how is an 11 year-old boy supposed to understand that? And for all the growth Madoka has displayed since Chihiro came into his life, this is taking him into territory he’s just not equipped to navigate. He says something that strikes me as very significant and a bit ominous at this point – after muttering that his mother was sneakily “trying to get on his good side after all this time”, he notes “But I guess I’m the same huh?”. Make no mistake about it, there are wounds all around here that are not yet healed – and in truth, maybe never will be.