Who Watches the Watchwoman; Sasami-san@Ganbaranai, Episode 4

ep4-1

The fourth episode of Sasami-san might have been the densest in the whole series so far. And if you’ve been following along avidly like I have, you know that’s both exciting and damn scary.


You might remember that in my first post on Sasami-san, I guessed that a key theme of the story was going to be voyeurism: from Sasami watching her brother’s antics outside of her house, to the viewer watching Sasami watch her brother’s antics. Typically, it looks like I underestimated Sasami-san. If the third episode exploded the apparent limitations of the plot, trashing Sasami’s old household and forcing her to go outside in one fell swoop, then this episode added yet another dizzying layer onto the show’s post-modern edifice. Not only does Sasami watch her brother and the Yagami sisters interact, but they themselves monitor Sasami in the past as Sasami watches, horrified and embarrassed, on DVD in the present. This is all pretty complicated, so let’s take a moment to unpack this:

1. The structure of this episode is as follows: Sasami (actually her arm-sarcoma from the previous episode, whose actions set the events of the episode into motion) comes home to find a mysterious DVD in her living room. Upon putting it on, she realizes that the Yagami sisters, shown in the previous episode to be her guardians, have been monitoring her actions for the past day. Meanwhile, her brother is operating the camera.

On one level, the fact that this so-called “Sasami Watch Project” exists at all is proof that Sasami has already made progress. After all, it’s Sasami’s newfound ability to step outside the boundaries of her house that makes the convoluted operation of the Yagami sisters necessary. On the other hand, though, the Yagami Sister’s efforts prove that despite the seemingly climactic events of the previous episode, Sasami indeed has a long way to go. Despite being liberated from the barbaric traditions of the past (as demonstrated by her old family, who are revealed in this installment to be alive and kicking) she remains entangled within a tightly wound structure in which she is observed at all times. An additional level of post-modern artifice is that their rigorous observance mirrors something out of a hidden camera show, or a found footage movie like Blair Witch or Chronicle:

Congratulations Kagami, you are on TV.

Meanwhile Tama is filmed by aliens while she is supposed to be watching Sasami. Better luck next time, Tama!

Worth noting: in the above picture, Tama (who is supposed to be watching Sasami) is instead being watched by aliens, as Sasami looks on in embarrassment. Add that to the fact that you, the viewer, are watching Sasami watch Tama who is being watched by the aliens, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you felt a little dizzy all of a sudden. Honestly, this is the sort of stuff I’ve been waiting for since the first episode. The online game hijinks of the second episode were acceptable and the snippets given of Sasami’s past in the third episode spine-chilling, but this might have been the first episode of the series to significantly delve into the themes of surveillance that have haunted the show since its inception.

2. Pay attention to how Shinbou plays around with the background details during the episode. It’s a trick that Shinbou has been playing around with since his work on Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei–i.e. the messages on the blackboard in each scene, among others–if not earlier, and one almost reminiscent of master director/provocateur Kunihiko Ikuhara. The difference is that Ikuhara would likely find a way to tie every bit of background symbolism into the plot, while Shinbou uses strategically placed background gags as a kind of running joke. Take a look at the placement of the suit of armor in the following screencaps:

Surprise?

Surveillance via telescope.

Strategically placed underwear.

There may be more important questions to be asking in this situation, such as “why is there a suit of armor in Sasami’s living room?” But in this case I think the more significant question is what it signifies, and I would answer: simultaneously a hilarious non sequitur and a practical joke at Sasami’s expense on behalf of the staff. It’s pretty funny until you realize the inherent horror of an audience trained to laugh at Sasami’s discomfort. Put yourself into the same situation and the humor changes from absurdism to something that hits a lot closer to home.

3. If this episode proved anything, it was that while Sasami has made great strides, the status quo has changed very little from the past episode. Sasami broke from her family’s influence and regained her godly powers, but has run from a literally incestuous cultural system into a glass cage of internet, fringe culture and literal surveillance. The Tsukiyomi family, thought to have been destroyed in the previous episode, swiftly revealed themselves to be alive and well by assaulting Sasami in broad daylight. The parasitic hand which emerged from Sasami’s chest, thought to be a discarded plot device from the previous episode, turns out to be the villain of the piece–a being that betrayed Sasami to her old household in order to earn its freedom. The only characters who can be said to be in control of the situation are the Yagami sisters–who seemingly exist outside of the cultural system, given life by Sasami’s desire for protection–but even they are at the mercy of Sasami’s will.

It’s that unifying element that keeps Sasami-san from flying off its hinges. Somehow the conclusion brings together gods, mechanical teenagers, religious organizations formed of brainwashed sisters and their incestuous brothers, aliens and what I presume to be the JSDF without the show collapsing on its own foundations. Part of this is due to the anything-goes atmosphere of the show, but I think at least part of the credit should go to its construction. If you’d permit me a digression: if K, which came out last season, was a show that was fully aware it was built of populist anime cliches ranging from psychic powers to gang warfare and bishonen, Sasami-san is pretty much the definitive construction of haphazardly arranged late-night anime cliches filtered through the lens of Japanese culture and history. The creators take this terrifying brew, stick it right under our noses and ask us straight to our faces if we are entertained. If we are embarrassed (just as Sasami was) then that’s totally understandable! But with the proper preparation, embarrassment can be followed by thought, and thought by understanding. Once again, I’m torn between whether Sasami-san is nothing more than a coldly calibrated piece of ultimately artificial hokum, or the kind of pop culture arsenic that the viewers deserve.

All that said: I do think it’s admirable how the show has gone quite a long way in depicting Sasami as a girl obsessed with the fringes of Japanese culture. Maybe it’s that I haven’t been watching closely enough, but I haven’t seen an anime character as convincingly geeky as Sasami since the cast of Steins;Gate. The staff of Sasami-san are not at all above poking fun at Sasami and her hobby–witness the figure that you have to pay extra for to receive the version with removable armor–but overall the amount of detail the show lavishes on Sasami’s thought processes viz a viz her obsessions ring pretty genuine to me. Either the staff have been there themselves or they’re able to extend empathy to those who have. At any rate, the fact that the supreme goddess of Sasami-san is an otaku explains a lot about the way the world is set up. Could the Yagami sisters have received their identities from the pop-culture detritus of Sasami’s imagination? Only time will tell.

Until next time.

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