Well, this week was certainly full of unexpected things.
Maybe unexpected is the wrong word. It isn’t that much of what happened were things I didn’t anticipate, so much as they were things that I didn’t expect to see presented in the manner they were. Not shocking, or mind blowing, but with subtly that delivered the intent of the scenes with emotional power.
Of course, I guess I really shouldn’t be surprised by that, either. Since last week, when I praised the show so highly, I’ve taken the time to do a bit of research on the director of Gakkou Garashi, and learned that, though I was not aware of it, I’ve been a fan of his for quite some time.
Masaomi Ando, by the by, is his name, and I’ve seen his work before. He has a very signature style, a way of presenting highly charged emotional scenes with minimal fuss and clutter. It’s impressive to say the least, this ability to capture the emotion of a scene without the usual overblown trappings that sometimes accompany such things. Often times, directors feel a need to drive the emotional impact home with set dressing or extravagance of some type. Not Masaomi Ando.
I became familiar with him without being aware of it during several stints he did as an episode director on an anime series that always makes my top five list, Fairy Tail. Specifically, he directed three of the best episodes of the series, ones I always point to when I want to introduce others to the emotional power of the series. Episode 15: Eternal Magic, which is a beautiful and moving tribute to motherhood, presented with his unique low key style. In Episode 35: Voice In The Darkness, the willingness of an old man to sacrifice himself for a child is shown with dignity and love. Episode 102: Iron Soul, gives us a reason to love a character who was previously a villain, by showing what changed his heart, and the resolve that change granted.
Each of those episodes has one thing in common. Passion. Not just from the characters, but from the director. While I will rave to the end of time about the genius that is Fairy Tail creator and writer Hiro Mashima, his story is at its literal best when in the hands of Masaomi Ando. Each of those episodes brought tears to my eyes, because they carried through with the emotional heart of the story being told, and knowing this now, I see why Gakkou Garashi is so well done.
The heart of the story has been captured perfectly.
This week is another triumph for this series, as we leave behind the action of the mall and tend the aftermath, with Miki finding herself back at the school with the other girls. Before I get into that too much, though, I want to address something I mentioned last week about the opening credits, and how they felt more sinister, despite nothing having changed.
First off, I was wrong. It wasn’t sinister. In fact, I dare say that nothing at all has been done to the opening credits. Instead, I realized, it was my perception of them, and that is oddly fitting for a show that revolves around perceptions. The happy, upbeat and chipper style of the opening, contrasted by horrific images of zombies and desolation, coupled with the ever darkening tone of the show has created, in my mind anyway, a sensation that the opening credits are growing more forced. A perceived happiness in the face of soul crushing desperation and sadness.
I can’t say if this perception is intended, or simply a result of my overactive imagination. I can only say that, again this week, I felt it. This pervasive sense of wrongness with the music, as if the singer was trying so hard to be happy, just to keep from falling into utter despair, that the chipper attitude felt almost sinister.
It’s weird, yet fitting.
Anyway, let’s take a look at the episode, and I hope you’ll all forgive the fact that I tend to get into an almost blow by blow mode of recapping. As I said last week, I’m never certain with this show what’s relevant and what’s not, and this week, I realized that things I didn’t touch on in previous episodes have become staggeringly relevant, something I feel bad about now, because I didn’t mention them.
The writing staff on this damn show is as capable as the director. It’s nuts to see something so well put together, but then again, I’m use to crap we get on American tv, so there is that.
Anyway, on to the episode.
We open on Miki narrating the events of the previous two episodes, as well as reminding us that this was all triggered by Yuki working on her graduation album, before settling into the episode itself, which picks up after the girls left the mall. Miki fell asleep after they got back to the school, which is understandable. She’s had a rough run of it.
As she begins to wake up, she hears Yuki coming down the hall and into the room with Taroumaru, talking to Megumi about how she hopes Miki will decide to join the School Living Club. Obviously, despite her bravery last week, Yuki has reverted back to her delusion. Miki, on the other hand, is still coming to terms with the fact she isn’t dreaming all of this.
This is a pretty crucial piece of Miki’s story, really. Even after everything, there’s a part of her that barely dares to hope that she’s not actually alone anymore. That there are others, survivors who are willing to risk their own lives for hers, and take her in. Kei’s departure broke a piece of Miki, and though it isn’t said, it is shown, very skillfully, that she is afraid to believe in hope.
Yet, here she is, not alone. Part of her fears it to be a dream, while another part of her latches on to it, desperate for it to be real. It’s depicted with such a subtle touch, not lingering, but there, real and vibrant. Sadly, for Miki, this new reality brings with it even harsher truths.
After those opening credits I talked about, we come back as Yuki attempts, in her usually scattered fashion, to welcome Miki to the School Living Club, thinking her a prospective new member, having already erased the memories of what happened at the mall, as evidenced by the return of imaginary Megumi.
As Megumi tells Yuki to get the still stunned Miki some water, Miki looks around, realizing she’s back at her former high school. Megumi tries to explain things, but naturally, Miki can’t see or hear her. What follows is both comedic, and tragic.
Because Megumi acts as Yuki’s connection to reality, she is the one who is saying things that would actually be useful for Miki to know, but Yuki keeps getting them messed up, repeated Megumi’s words in a slightly out of kilter fashion, serving to confuse Miki even further, especially when Yuki gives Megumi the half empty bottle of water. The camera focuses on Miki as we hear it hit the floor, yet Yuki and Megumi’s conversation continues on top of it.
Miki, in relief, accepts that she really is back at school. Taroumaru begs attention of Yuki, drawing Miki’s attention. She’s so overwhelmed with relief that she reaches out, but Taroumaru barks at her and runs away. Miki remembers how harsh she was with the pup before, saddened that he seems to have no interest in her attempts to rebuild their affection.
At Megumi’s urging, Yuki hauls Miki out of the room to show her around the school, calling her Mii-kun, to Miki’s dismay. Dragging Miki down the hall, Yuki takes her to the music room, and after checking to make sure there’s no class in session, barrels on in. Miki begins to suspect that she may be dreaming after all. The absurdity of this situation, being back in her old school, with a girl who talks to people that aren’t there, gives rise to doubt.
Until she sees the music room. Yuki raves about how great it is, and from her perception, it is. Just a gorgeous room, filled with just about every instrument you can imagine. Polished, clean, vibrant, it looks like the kind of place that you could really go to relax.
This is just Yuki’s perception, however. The reality is that the music room is stained in blood, the instruments broken, the windows shattered, and everything in a state of decay. The two images stand in such contrast to one another, it’s a little bit shocking.
Even as Yuki rambles about how great it is, Miki accepts that this is no dream. None of it was a dream. She is really at the school, and the apocalypse really happened. She is both relieved, saddened, and terrified by it all. As she grapples with this, Yuki goes and grabs a portable stereo and sets some music to playing, trying to get Miki into more chipper spirits, even though Miki calls the stereo a waste of electricity, to Yuki’s dismay.
Because Yuki likes everyone around her to be happy, she panics and tried to pawn the radio off on Megumi as she flounders about, scrambling for something else that will cheer Miki up. At least, until Miki refers to her as senpai, sending Yuki into a near meltdown of joy. So much so, she insists Miki repeat it, just so she can revel in being the elder to someone.
Well, not to Miki. She thinks it’s creepy.
Actually, she finds all of this confusing as hell. With Yuki insisting that she calls her Mii-kun on account of Miki being cute, then getting into a debate over it with Megumi, we begin to hear the music that’s been coming from the stereo during all of this wind down. Miki tells Yuki she’s confused, and asks, as the the music reaches a crawl, who Megumi is. Yuki reacts by starting to shut down, as we see the stereo she handed Megumi lying on the floor, broken, the music finally stopping.
I cannot even begin to describe how effective this scene is. It’s amazing. Miki’s confusion solidifying into the only logical question she can ask, Yuki’s scattered nature rejecting the harsh reality, the distortion of the music, all of it. It’s a powerful, emotional, heart wrenching scene.
Meanwhile, Yuri and Kurumi have found Taroumaru and gone to check up on Miki. Finding the room where she was sleeping empty, a water bottle lying the floor, they realize Miki must have woken up and left the room with Yuki. Because Miki doesn’t know Yuki’s condition, they both panic, fearful of what might happen if Miki unknowingly challenges Yuki’s delusion and race to find them.
That water bottle, though. Damn. That’s effective shit. Just the image of it, the bottle Yuki handed off to Megumi earlier, laying there, really drives it home, without fanfare or extravagance. It hurts to look at it, because we know exactly what it means.
Back in the music room, Yuki adjusts and starts reassuring Megumi she isn’t invisible, that it’s just her lack of presence that makes folks overlook her. Miki watches this in confusion, until Yuki turns to her, chastising her for acting like Megumi isn’t standing right there. Almost desperate, almost fearful, almost pleading, Yuki asks Miki to acknowledge Megumi’s presence.
Slowly, she realizes that Miki has no idea what she’s talking about, but before her delusion can collapse entirely, Yuri and Kurumi arrive, having made a mad dash to find them. They take Miki back to the School Living club room, sending Yuki off to class, and fill her in on what’s going on.
Megumi and Yuri came up with the School Living Club after the despair of just surviving was driving them all to the brink. In a very real way, playing pretend has allowed them all to hang on to their sanity in the face of the insane. When Miki asks about Megumi, they explain that she was their teacher, and saved their lives, but since then, they have lost her.
Back in the first episode, when Miki and Yuki were chasing Taroumaru around, they went to the roof, and for a brief moment, we saw a cross among the plant beds. I initially assumed it to be for the tomatoes they were growing, but I was mistaken. The cross is the memorial they put up for Megumi, who literally gave her life for the girls.
We aren’t given all the specifics, but we are given enough. Somehow, Megumi was bitten as she and the girls were trying to escape some zombies. Somehow, she got them on the other side of a door, and locked it, to prevent them coming back for her. I suspect she is in the faculty room, as was suggested when Yuki came up with the idea for an outing back in episode 4.
The scene is both disturbing to watch, and sad. Because of the Moe style animation, seeing Megumi, covered in blood, gripping her arm as zombies close in, and she slowly sinks down, knowing she’s done, is powerful. However, it’s Yuki on the other side of the door, screaming and begging, as she pounds on it, trying to reach Megumi, to no avail that lends it such a heavy sense of sorrow. All the girls can do is listen as the zombies tear into Megumi. All they can do is hear her final screams.
Having taken Miki to the roof to visit the memorial they erected to Megumi, they explain Yuki’s condition to her. How she still thinks Megumi is with them, how she still goes to class, how she carries on as if the zombies never appeared. Miki wishes for her to get better, but Yuri shoots that down, asking instead she play along.
Miki doesn’t understand why they would do that, as it is the opposite of helping Yuki get better. Yuri insists getting better or not is irrelevant, that this is different. While we’ve seen Yuri be kinda threatening in the past, here we see just how scary Yuri really can be. She isn’t actually asking Miki to go along with things, she’s ordering her to, and from the look in her eye, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened had Miki refused. Would Yuri have thrown her off the top of the school to protect Yuki? Would Kurumi have let her? I’m no longer sure, but as much as we may question Yuki’s sanity, I suddenly find myself worrying over Yuri’s.
Miki argues the point, with Yuri beginning to get angry. She’s use to telling people what to do, and them doing it. They have only survived by working together, and she can’t have Miki pulling against the tide. Kurumi, obviously as worried as I am about Yuri, calms the situation down. Begrudgingly, Miki agrees to play along until she understands the situation better.
Returning to the club room, they find Yuki waiting for them. She declares that they need to have a sports festival, with multiple events, and all of them need to participate, according to the School Living Club Rule #5. Kurumi and Yuri are on board, and hesitantly, Miki decides to join in.
With a montage, cause montages are awesome, we see all the girls preparing and participating in the sports festival, with Kurumi and Miki winning, to Yuki’s horror. After it’s over, Kurumi offers Miki a towel and sits with her, watching Yuki try to defeat Yuri at tug of rope.
That aside, she explains that while Yuki’s condition may be unsettling, and ultimately even detrimental, they have to keep it going, and not just for Yuki. Yuri and Kurumi both were on the brink of giving up, it seems, likely in the aftermath of Megumi’s death, from what I inferred, when Yuki had her break with reality. Despite how disconcerting it was at first, Yuri and Kurumi both quickly realized that while Yuki wasn’t interacting with reality they way they did, she was interacting with it. Despite all their plans, and every action they took to just stay alive, there were times where the despair was dragging them down, but Yuki always seemed to come up with something that would help them.
This is the harsh reality. Yuki may be delusional, and may shut down when that delusion is threatened, forcing Yuri and Kurumi to help prop it up to protect her, but they themselves have found that by playing along with the delusion, they are gaining something. Namely, the will to live. This is no small thing. Kurumi is literally telling us that the only thing that keeps them going from one day to the next is Yuki’s delusion.
All things considered, I can understand this, too. While in her delusional state, Yuki is kind of annoying, but she’s also upbeat, chipper and happy, kind of like the shows theme song. By not only allowing it, but going along with it, Yuri and Kurumi can be the same, despite the horrific reality they live in. They can allow themselves, in a small way, to buy into Yuki’s delusion as well, and survive.
Yuri’s threat on the roof wasn’t just about Yuki. It was about defending the only life line to sanity she and Kurumi had as well. How far would a person go to keep that tiny thread of hope in a world without any? What terrible things would they do to keep the inexorable slide into absolute despair at bay? Somehow, I can’t help but feel that Yuri would do anything, and sacrifice anyone, to protect Yuki, Kurumi, and herself.
Miki gets where Kurumi is coming from with all this, but still feels uncertain. As they sit down to eat, she’s floored by the flavor, with how delicious the meal is. Considering that’s she’s been eating mac & cheese for who knows how long, I’m sure it’s like having a perfectly prepared rib eye. As she marvels at the taste, she watches Yuki argue with Megumi in comical fashion.
Thinking back to Kei, she realizes what Kurumi was really driving at earlier. Kei snapped under the despair, because all they were doing was surviving, not living. Yuki, however daft she may be, allows the girls to not just survive, but live. As Kurumi teases Yuki about getting into more trouble than Taroumaru, Miki acknowledges that she’s glad to be here, even complimenting Yuki on being an amazing senpai.
Naturally, Yuki asks if she means it, and Miki assures her she probably doesn’t making everyone laugh. In the delusional girl, however, Miki has found that thread of hope she went seeking when she left the store room, and decides to hang on to it as tightly as the others.
Later, as she takes a shower, she silently makes up her mind to do as Yuri asked of her, even though it was really more of a veiled threat. Exiting the shower, she finds Yuri getting ready to brush her teeth, and formally asks to join the School Living Club, fully understanding what that means, and that playing along with Yuki’s delusion is expected of her.
Yuri, showing that too can be a better person, holds her hand out with a smile. Slowly, memories of Kei drawing away from her drifting through her mind, Miki accepts Yuri’s hand, then grasps it tightly, thankful for the warmth of another human being. Yuri welcomes her to the club.
Back at the graduation album that started this three episode flashback, Miki and Yuki are finishing up. As Yuki looks over the album, Miki looks at a picture she drew of she and Kei holding hands, both happy to be around the other girls, but still missing the one person’s warmth she wishes was there.
We get a different closing theme again this week, accompanying clips from previous episodes showing Yuki and Megumi doing stuff. As the clips play, Megumi slowly fades out of them, until Yuki is alone. Because Gakkou Garashi likes kicking you in the heart. Especially when we see Megumi slowly fade out of the cartoonish drawing Yuki made of the two together.
Obviously, the big question this episode deals with is what happened to Megumi. For the first time, we are shown her final moments, as she literally sacrifices herself to protect the girls. We know from episode 3 that she had vowed to do so, but to see it? Yeah. Everyone was wrong about Megumi. She was a hell of a teacher.
At the same time, we are given the final component to what caused Yuki’s break with reality, as Megumi was taken from them. Without a doubt, after everything we know she’d seen at that point, the creation of her delusion was the only way she could not only survive, but do so with any trace of sanity left.
The scene with Megumi’s end gives us one other thing I wasn’t expecting. Filling it under things I thought irrelevant at the time, but then realized later weren’t, was how Megumi’s death mirrored Miki’s impending death in last weeks episode. When Yuki was struggling with the collapse of her delusion at that point, past the zombies, we caught a blink and you’ll miss it flash of Megumi. I thought, at the time, that it was imaginary Megumi spurring Yuki into action, as her link to the real world.
Now, however, I see it as it was. Yuki pushed past the collapse of her delusion, because she was helpless to save Megumi, and there was no way in hell she was going to stand back and watch someone else die in the same fashion. It gives another dimension to the character, and makes we wonder again about the Yuki we saw in episode 3, during the flashbacks to Megumi’s day leading up to the zombie uprising. Who is the real Yuki? More and more, I can’t help but wonder if we’ve ever seen her.
The episode also gives us what we all knew was coming, which was how Miki came to play along with Yuki’s delusion. It doesn’t go quiet the way I expected, as Yuri’s very thinly veiled threat starts the ball rolling. Like I said, I knew Yuri could be intimidating, I just never expected the show to raise the kinds of questions it left me with.
Likewise, we see that Miki’s experiences with Kei slowly giving in to desperation play a big part in her coming to terms with Yuki’s role as the groups morale, through her delusion. Painted the way it all is, it’s not just understandable that Yuri and Kurumi would help keep the delusion going, but perhaps the only logical thing they can do under their circumstances.
What the show doesn’t answer, however, is my growing uncertainty about how long they’ve been surviving all of this. Has it been weeks? Months? Years? I’m beginning to lean in the direction of the latter most notion, as Miki seems genuinely surprised to be back at her former school, as if she hasn’t seen it in forever. This leaves me wondering again, though, if we are seeing the girls through the prism of Yuki’s delusion, with their actual ages being altered to fit her perception.
Or perhaps, the reason the Moe style of animation was chosen plays a big role in that, as it makes their actual ages indeterminate. One of the things Moe does after all is give a cutesy look to even adults, making them look almost childlike. The entire question of time has been heavily painted with a vague brush, and perhaps it ultimately doesn’t even matter, but I can’t help wondering how long these girls have been struggling to not only stay alive, but stay sane.
As a final note, I really want to compliment the way the scene with both the water bottle and the music room were handled. While humorous on the surface, there is such tragedy lying underneath, that those two scenes especially stand as a testament to what this show is about. That thin veneer of happiness in the face of inescapable despair.
I can’t help but wonder, given that, how long any of us could survive such a world, without a Yuki of our own to keep us sane?
According to a couple of anime news sites, this series is slated for 12 episodes, so we are officially half way through. I’m a bit sad about that, but looking forward to seeing what the second half holds in store for us. It’s sure to be excellent at this point.
We’ll be back next week, with episode 7: “A Letter.”