The shit hits the fan in the most recent episode of Sasami-san@Ganbaranai. Also: Italian food, specialized clothing for rabbits and the city at night. It’s all here!
From what I’ve seen, there’s been plenty of arguing on the internet over whether Sasami-san is any good. I’ve heard some impassioned arguments against it, a few arguments for, a number of people floating in between while unsure what to make of it. I’d actually argue that the problem with Sasami-san isn’t that it’s bad, as it is that it’s just not very likable. Even compared to Akiyuki Shinbou’s other work, Sasami-san is almost self-consciously artificial, Haruhi Suzumiya as re-imagined by eroge-reading, figure-buying Japanese fringe culture. While that might work like gangbusters in a shorter work or one guided by a surer hand, there have been times–particularly in the beginning–when the show has been cold and alienating to the point of appearing to be heartless. The fifth episode of the show, with its take on a friendship between a self-sacrificial robot and a hikkomori god, went some way towards remedying that impression, but I think that this episode in particular confirmed once and for all that the center of Sasami-san’s narrative is very much human. The fact that it may have been the best episode in the series thus far didn’t hurt either. Let’s break it down:
1. The opening scene of the city, introducing Sasami’s mother, may have been one of the best of the year. A perfect storm of Shinbou’s artistic talents, ethereal music and Sasami’s heartfelt monologue. Take a look at the picture above if you need a reminder of how gorgeous it was, but I’ve dropped two more examples below just in case.
If anything, this opening scene actually reminded me most strongly of Shouma’s monologue in Mawaru Penguindrum’s first episode. I could link any number of similarities between the two, from the stylization to the music and melancholy narrator on down. But I think the most important connection for me is how both Penguindrum and Sasami-san purport to tell urban fairy-tales. Of course, Sasami-san’s brand of fantasy is very different (and inferior) to Penguindrum’s, but when firing on all cylinders (like here) it reminds me of how rare it is for anime to plunge through the old cliches and reach for something genuinely wondrous and strange. Just the pre-credits sequence of this episode would have been effective all by itself, a literal ghost story sketched in red and black and given incredible weight by Sasami’s halting words. The tragedy here is that Sasami’s rosy, idealized portrait of her mother cannot be reconciled with the truth; but that comes later. All in due time.
2. The other element that really made this episode for me was the sheer attention to detail present throughout. The supremely understated visual gag of Kagami nodding into her pillow, only to have Sasami wrest it away from her at the last moment. The moment where Sasami wonders why Kagami is spending her afternoon with a rabbit rather than with her, without realizing that the rabbit was a part of her once. Sasami’s mother complaining that her body is too frail to run any faster as Sasami pulls her along, not because she is sickly but because she is a corpse. Pretty much the entire sequence where Sasami took her mother around town is probably the closest we’ve seen the girl come to genuine normalcy, unbound by social phobias and awkwardness. Sasami obviously loves her mother, and while it seems a bit strange that she doesn’t reveal her mom is dead right away it does make sense that she would want to spend more time with her. Overall the first half of this episode might have been the most comfortable Sasami-san has ever felt revealing the heart hidden under its sleeve. Which is why, of course, the episode’s end hurt as much as it did.
3. The big twist of this episode, revealed at the half-way point, is that Sasami’s mother died long ago. Unexpectedly, Sasami’s mother was aware of this.
There are shades of the legend of Izanami and Izanagi here: the gist of it is that Izanagi journeyed to the underworld to bring his wife Izanami back to the world of the living, only to realize that having eaten the fruits of the underworld she was forever dead, rotting and mad as hell. Tsurugi herself, the former Amaterasu and child of Izanami and Izanagi, exclaims in this episode that coming back from the dead is forbidden. Sasami’s mother has become a perversion, a specter who for all intents and purposes should not exist in the world of the living because as she says, there is no reincarnation and no coming back. The major difference in this story, though, might be that Izanagi was forever trapped in the underworld, never able to return. Sasami’s mother, though, is allowed to return, through the grace of the god of the underworld for the purposes of whatever political game he is playing. It’s worth noting especially that Sasami’s mother comes back not to take revenge or to hurt or maim, but because she loves Sasami so much that she cannot believe what her daughter has become. She only intends to help Sasami, which is what prevents her from realizing that she is actually making things worse.
We’ve already seen the brutal reality of Sasami’s former station. A life spent perpetually drugged, waited on by your own brother who has been trained–and is expected–to sleep with you. A life without internet, television or video games, but most importantly a life without freedom. What I realized upon a second watch of this episode is that when Sasami runs from the shrine, her brother tagging alongside her, she is not really escaping. By holing up in her house and becoming a hikkomori she is actually exchanging one form of imprisonment for another. It isn’t until the Yagami sisters arrive that she finally begins to push beyond her limits, becoming much more comfortable in her skin and learning how to communicate with others. For all we know, Sasami’s time with the Yagami sisters might be the happiest and most stable in her life. Her mother threatens to destroy this because she loves Sasami and does not understand. She is so bound to the old ways and what she perceives as Sasami’s responsibilities that she does not realize that for her daughter they are nothing more than a prison. When Sasami resists, exclaiming that she never wants to return to the old shrine again, her mother lays down the line.
Sasami might be a modern god, the avatar of a new Japan entranced by culture and entertainment, but Sasami’s mother has no patience for these things. She’s so blinded by her own love for her child, and her need for her child to live up to her responsibilities, that she’s incapable of realizing that her choice for her daughter’s future isn’t necessarily the right one. This whole time, Sasami has seen her mother as a shining, caring figure, but it isn’t until now that we the viewers see Sasami’s mother for who she truly is: stubborn, incapable of seeing past her own preconceptions of tradition and responsibility, willing to hurt her daughter and everything she cares about in order to make her understand. In her own eyes, Sasami is a disappointment, a girl who has taken the easy way out whether than persevere. It takes a homeroom teacher, of course, to say what needs to be said: that this couldn’t be further from the truth.
It’s easy to see the Yagami sisters as the catalyst, the people who forcibly dragged Sasami out of her shell and made her into the person she is today. But as Tsurugi confirms, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Sasami isn’t perfect, but she’s also incredibly brave. Not everyone could have thrown away everything to escape into the city, embraced a foreign culture at the expense of one that had enslaved her, but Sasami did. The Yagami sisters might make things a little easier, but as powerful as they might be, they never would have existed in the physical world had Sasami not called them out of the aether. Even in an episode as entrenched in supernatural politics as this one, with the world’s mythical underbelly seemingly exposed, I’m beginning to wonder how much of what we see is true, and how much false. Whether Sasami is an unreliable narrator or not, of course, will have to wait for another day. Until then–
I’ve been waiting for the Yagami sisters to hit a roadblock, but I wasn’t expecting Sasami’s mother to destroy them so thoroughly. I’d be hoping that they would come back next week to kick Sasami’s mother’s ass, but as Kagami said this episode: sometimes you have to undertake a trial yourself. If Sasami is going to get over her mother and become a better person, dealing with this nightmare is something she has to do on her own. The Yagami sisters, hopefully, will follow suit.