The Boys (and Girls) of Summer
November 4, 2015 § 1 Comment
I don’t have a review of an OP this week, because I just don’t have it in me. Instead, I’m just going to collect my thoughts on a recent anime I watched, Natsu no Arashi!
Natsu no Arashi! is a Shaft production from early 2009, directed by the inimitable Shinbo Akiyuki, and that puts it at an odd point in the history of him and his studio. The most immediately comment-worthy thing about this anime, moreso even than other late-2000s anime from Shaft, is how much visual style it has but how little visual identity. It seems almost like a missing link between the Showa-evoking production design of Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei in 2007 and the stylized-verging-on-structuralist direction of Bakemonogatari in late 2009. Throw some of the deadpan absurdism of Arakawa Under the Bridge into the writing and the paranormal-flavored cafe of Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru as setting — both these shows are from 2010, but clearly have antecedents in Natsu no Arashi! — to complete your pastiche of works from the height of Shinbo’s career.
In a lot of ways, a judgment like that is not fair to Natsu no Arash!, but it’s definitely what I was thinking at first, even though I am a huge fan of Shaft. It’s only once you start watching it that all the elements start to blend together into something that makes sense and even works. See, Natsu no Arashi! presents itself quite aggressively in the beginning as the fond remembrances of an old man about the summer when he was thirteen years old and got to spend his time with a big-boobed high-school girl. It’s actually funny how readily I accepted that premise, presumably because anime has trained me so well, but wrinkles quickly form and spread, validating this forbearance of mine.
- The girl’s a ghost of someone killed during the Second World War who only appears during the summer of each year.
- She needs the boy not because she likes him but because she can bond with his life force in order to travel back in time.
- She uses these time-travel powers to save people from the air raids over Yokohama in the weeks leading up to her own death.
Not what you expected, right? The thing is, the anime doggedly keeps to its trappings as a tale of summer love, from the saccharine voiceover of Yasaka Hajime as an old man that opens every episode to the constant stream of pervy slips and peeks that is meant to keep the audience titillated. It’s just that, in the midst of all these shenanigans, that same audience that’s presumably laughing at Hajime and drooling over Arashiyama Sayoko, the titular Arashi of the summer, is also reminded that these things exist in the same place as and are a direct consequence of a colossal amount of death and suffering. Really, I find it to be a remarkable choice.
The mechanics of time travel, although explored only intermittently in the anime, also reinforce this theme of the present being just a thin veneer on the past. For many of the show’s first half-cour of episodes, Hajime agonizes over the disruptions to history that Arashi’s rescues are causing. At times, he even overcomes his awe of the older woman — much older, since she died near the end of the war — to suggest that maybe they should try to adopt some policy of non-interference. Arashi doesn’t listen, of course, citing instead a deep-seated need to save the people that she knew, and it turns out she’s right when one of the recurring characters, a down-on-his-luck private eye who ends up saving the day late in the anime, turns out to be the direct descendant of someone whose death she prevented. Solving the grandfather paradox through determinism is certainly less spectacular than having reality shift this way and that as the past is changed, but it bears out the abovementioned theme: the past is the past, unchanging from the moment that it happens, and the present is entirely a result of it, no matter how we might think or act otherwise.
That’s why every episode begins with an old man talking about his formative years, even though the content of those episodes doesn’t always conform to accepted coming-of-age motifs, and that’s why Arashi’s leaps through time are transformations in the style of “magical girl” anime that quickly gives way to the nightmarish inferno of a city under siege. That’s why there’s a recurring vignette where two secondary characters, Yayoi and Kanako, tell each other stories with a gothic tinge that invariably turn out to be popular anime and manga, just a little misinterpreted. That’s even the reason why the character art, much criticized by the internet for its inconsistency, freely juxtaposes eighties- and nineties-type designs with more modern ones. All of these reinforce the total interpenetration of past and present, with the past having apparent primacy.
Indeed, the comedic height of Natsu no Arashi! also functions as an epitome of these themes. In the final episode of the show, all the characters gather in the cafe where most of them work, coyly called the Ark in a nod to its unchanging appearance throughout history, in order to debate what will happen if they use time travel to swap a fresh carton of milk from the past with its spoiled form in the present. Various theories are exchanged, each more worrisome than the last as they increasingly support a scenario where a time loop of infinitely spoiled milk is created by their actions, before finally one of the characters throws the carton away in disgust at the intellectual masturbation on display. Temporal paradox solved, the carton got thrown away! The present — rather, the daily business of people within it — is literally a defense mechanism for the past, even as it distracts from it.
That’s why it’s really not fair to write off Natsu no Arashi! as the juvenile wish-fulfillment that it seems happy to present itself as being. Yeah, it lacks a strong visual identity and maybe it reminds you a bit too much of other anime by Shinbo, at least at first glance, but it’s still very unique for how it uses Japanese consciousness of a ruinous war to show how the past is always with us and impossible to erase. The mundanity of everyday life might obscure it from our sight, just like summer feels so far away for most of the year, but it’s still there, needing just the smallest flash of memory to bring it back to life — and back into our lives.