Note: This episode was originally accidentally labeled episode 7. It is episode 8.
This is it, the much-anticipated backstory episode(s) for the oldest (by more than a century), wisest, and most elegant and domestically capable members of Franchouchou. One and a half seasons seems like far too long without Yuugiri being the focus, but good things come to those who wait.
The clock turns all the way back to 1881 (Meiji 14), when the proud proprietor and madam are meeting with the Legendary Courtesan Yuugiri at the very height of her powers. Such is her beauty and talents of entertainment, she literally priced herself out of her market!
Her richest and most devout patron showed his gratitude for her services by setting her up with her own household in Saga. I imagine he intended to live with her, but he died of an illness, and a year later, Yuugiri arrives in Saga completely alone and knowing no one. She spends her days giving the local girls dance lessons, and her evenings staring wistfully at the gorgeous Saga sunsets.
Ay, but there’s the rub: the region she moved to was once known as Saga (and will be again in the present day), but in 1882, the Meiji government considered it a nuisance prefecture, and after losing a regional war to Meiji, Saga was split up between Mizuma and Nagasaki, effectively erasing it from the map.
Local boy Momozaki Kiichi is determined to “Bring Saga Back”, making him the spiritual (if not biological!) descendant of Tatsumi Koutarou (he’s even voiced by Miyano Mamoru) . He tries to pass out flyers urging others to join his cause to create a new beginning for Saga, but he’s stopped often by the local cop, and just as often bailed out by his more jaded friend Itou.
One day, Yuugiri’s students urge her to leave her stately roost and view the cherry blossoms. She purchases a windmill, and the wind—and possibly fate—blow it out of her hands, landing at Kiichi’s feet. Kiichi is understandably bowled over by her beauty and politeness.
They’re almost both bowled over by a rickshaw, but when he leaps to push her out of harm’s way, she deftly dodges the ride on her own, and in the opposite direction, while he lands in a muddy bog. To his continued shock and shame, she soils her yukata to dry his face. We get another gorgeous shot of Yuugiri staring at the sunset, but because the red pinwheel is there, it feels significantly less lonely than the first shot.
The woman aboard that rickshaw looks just like Tae, just like many extras in the background resemble characters from the present day. It’s an fun artistic choice that reminds me of Farscape’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and Star Trek: DS9’s “Far Beyond the Stars”—two episodes that placed the casts in totally different roles.
Kiichi learns who he met from Itou, who is more up to speed with gossip in the prefecture formerly known as Saga. It’s rumored Yuugiri was so good, it almost brought down the Meiji court. Kiichi comes calling at Yuugiri’s house to offer a humble comb as thanks for her help; it’s then he learns he’s the first person to actually visit her other than her dance students.
Itou says that Yuugiri and Kiichi are “from different worlds” and thus hopelessly incompatable, but Kiichi rejects that cynicism and begins to build a friendship with Yuugiri, which isn’t hard because she’s incredibly nice and he’s her only adult visitor.
And then, one day, Yuugiri is in the kitchen when she feels what she charitably describes “a fresh presence” that turns out to be Itou. From this point on, and really before that too, something seemed off and sinister about this guy. That he perfectly blocks Yuugiri’s chopstick strike doesn’t dispel that notion!
The aura around Itou is so menacing, in fact, that I half believed he drugged Kiichi in order to be alone with Yuugiri. Instead, he has her put down the shamisen, offers her a drink (she graciously declines), and the two talk about Kiichi. As Yuugiri learned from Kiichi while visiting him at his “gramps”, he was taken in by an old man after he was orphaned in the Saga war.
While Itou thinks Kiichi’s wild dreams and guileless optimism will lead to heartbreak and despair, Yuugiri admires the lad’s capacity for dreams. For all of Yuugiri’s comfort and luxury, in this era she remains the proverbial bird in a cage, idolized by all and avoided by all. Yet Kiichi, with his wild dreams, visits her and talks to her like they’re equals, and Kiichi-han’s Saga is a Saga where she truly can be free.
Before taking his leave for the night, Itou insists Japan is still too “twisted” and “barbaric” a nation for Kiichi’s dreams to ever come to fruition. Yet the next morning, a hot one, two strapping young lads approach Kiichi with his flyers in hand, interested in a new Saga themselves.
That glimmer of hope Kiichi has finally found some like-minded folks is all but snuffed out when Itou tosses a scrap of paper to an beggar who moves a lot faster and with far more purpose than you’d expect. This elicits a host of suspicions in me, from Itou plotting something horrible for Yuugiri (perhaps on orders from the Meiji court), to those two lads interested in Kiichi’s cause actually being hired muscle waiting for their chance to silence Kiichi, possibly for good.
And then there’s the overarching pall hanging over this look back: it is a look back. We know Yuugiri is already dead. I feel we just may have experience the happy half of the Legendary Courtesan’s saga. One way or another, the second half will end in tragedy as Itou predicted (and could well be an architect in that tragedy), and more than a century will pass before Yuugiri is revived by Koutarou and actually gets to see the New Saga Kiichi-han dreamed about.
Read Irina and Crow’s discussion of episode 8 here!