Our eyes tell us a very obvious tale. But here’s the real question…
Before we dive into this week’s (as usual) deep, dense and emotional episode of Orange, let’s address the elephant in the room. Yes, the budget for this series has obviously cratered. The animation and (especially) background detail and character modeling has been gradually slipping, and this week it pretty much fell of a cliff. But does it really matter? I think that’s kind of an interesting question, actually, and one whose answer may not be as obvious as the idealist in us would like to believe.
My short answer: yes – it does matter (to me). My slightly longer answer: it depends on the viewer. My full answer is that it’s complicated. Without any question a character-driven series like this relies mostly on its writing and character development, and without any question I would take a smart and powerfully-written show with dodgy production values over an empty designer suit any day of the week. I love Orange, just like I loved Baby Steps. But it does make a difference, seeing the stick-figure background characters with grotesquely odd facial features. This is an age-old issue for anime fans, a function of the limited budgets most anime are produced under. I wish it wasn’t, but it is, and likely always will be since it’s the big disc-sellers that usually don’t have it, and they’re rarely the best series (or even the good ones).
In the end, a show as compelling as Orange can overcome that sort of thing, and while it provides intermittent distraction this week, the episode is still a thought-provoking and engaging one. If I were to try and encapsulate it, I think it would be this way – tug-of-war. It’s an apt metaphor for this sports festival-themed ep, because Orange has always been about the tug-of-war between possibility and regret. But what’s happening in this episode is that the two and finally starting their inevitable collision, one that’s been foreshadowed for the entire series. This was the week when the unstoppable force finally met the immovable object, and there are certain to be casualties.
“Pray for rain” is not a theme we see a lot in anime (I don’t know if there’s a reverse-teru teru bouzu or not) but that’s exactly what Azusa is doing this week. She’s the in-focus supporting character this time, because it’s her birthday. And to her credit, Azusa is mostly concerned with how that plays into Naho and Kakeru’s relationship. Azusa, it seems, was a skeptic – she encouraged Kakeru to date Ueda because she thought the letters were a hoax. But now she believes, and the umbrella Saku gifted her (seriously – those two really need to just set the date already) is a crucial part of what Azusa sees as a missed opportunity for couple-building. Sharing the umbrella is a teenage romance cliche, it’s true, but in Japan I think there’s really something to it.
No question about it, everyone wants to help. The problem is, that’s not enough. Hiroto slips as little as he’s trying to push Kakeru to formally ask Naho out, asking “So you wouldn’t care if I dated her?” That question hits a little too close to the mark, and Kakeru’s answer – “I actually think that would be a good idea” – even closer. Kakeru is already (and still) thinking about his exit strategy, and terrified that if he gets too close to Naho she’ll be terribly hurt in the end. That makes all their interactions – the hand-holding, the non-dating – terribly awkward. They both want to be together very badly, and they’re both afraid to let it happen. And Naho’s inveterate shyness complicates things immeasurably.
This is the episode when the hard and difficult truth begins to dawn on Orange. No amount of wanting to help – even aided by insight from the future – is in itself enough to change a person’s fate. Superficially the notion of asking Kakeru’s grandmother to the sports meet seems like a great idea, but I fear it may have made things worse by reminding him of just how much he misses his mother. What this ep did so beautifully – and heartbreakingly – was let us inside Kakeru’s world. This is the painful reality: when one is facing depression, they feel utterly alone. And when surrounded by adoring and caring friends or family, they may feel even more alone. And this is the Kakeru we see this week – alone while in the embrace of his friends.
It’s a very helpless feeling watching this, seeing how all the efforts of Kakeru’s friends aren’t enough on their own to bring him back from the dark place he’s in. And I suspect it’s going to be an even more helpless feeling for them as that realization dawns, as it’s just beginning to with this episode. Kakeru is so aware of what’s happening here, of the way the others are being solicitous of his feelings and trying to help him, and my fear is that’s making him feel worse. Did Naho-san and the others study up on depression before they started all this with the letters? It doesn’t seem as if they did – but the really painful thing is, even if they had it still might not have mattered. That’s what depression is – it’s as if Kakeru is at the bottom of a deep and dark well, and there may be no rope long enough to reach him…