SSSS.Gridman – 09 – Don’t Wake Up! , Or: The Intolerable Dilemma of Shinjou Akane

This week things start out different…and weird. Well, weird-er by SSSS standards. A new kaiju appears in the city, from the POV of a random passerby on the phone. We know there’s something fishy going on when Yuuta wakes up in Rikka’s apartment and Akane is there instead, even calling Rikka’s mother her’s.

There’s too much fog; too little activity; and in the glare of many a shiny object, Gridman can be seen for an instant, but goes unnoticed by a confused, amnesiac Yuuta, who at first takes it on face value that he and Akane is dating.

Meanwhile, at school, Rikka goes to the nurse’s office to find Akane already there. The two are friendly together, as friends are (and much like the end credits unfold), then Akane takes her to her house, as friends do. There are no parents, just Alexis, whose odd appearance Akane explains away as elaborate cosplay.

Then, in a repeat of an older scene, Akane strikes up a conversation with Shou in the bookstore about mecha and kaiju and the two hit it off, much to Shou’s delight. While walking home to or from school, we see Akane happily walking with Yuuta, her watch on his wrist. She leans in to hold his hand…and everything pauses.

These three scenarios involving Akane and the three members of the Gridman Alliance are all occurring in dreams. In “real life” (whatever that is) the three are unconscious on the couch in the junk store. The kaiju stands menacingly outside, striding about, but isn’t destroying anything.

As Anti learns when he tries to attacking it (being told by Neon Genesis that its keeping Gridman from appearing), it is a kaiju out of phase: unable to affect anything; unable to be affected. Akane is atop a construction crane with Alexis, watching the dreams…and hoping.

Not hoping to defeat Gridman, or kill someone she doesn’t like…but hoping these three can be re-made to be her friends, as they were originally programmed by her to be.

But the longer the three dwell in the dream, the more they feel like something’s not right. In a graveyard, in the glint of the gravestone of the family of one of the classmates Akane killed, Gridman appears again. In a flash, Yuuta’s memory has returned; at least the bit where he can be confident he’s currently in a dream.

After showering him with attention and rare swag, and about to be invited to Akane’s place to spend the night, Shou also snaps out of it; this is all just too good to be true; too ideal. On the bus, Rikka also quietly comes to the realization she’s not on a real bus and this isn’t her real life…and Akane just might not be a real friend.

She pleads for all three not to wake up; not to go. But they go. Three times she must watch someone get up and three times she must hear the sound of receding footsteps. Three times she’s left alone. Three times her hopes are shattered. The friends she made for herself have abandoned her and allied with each other. No matter what she tells them, or what she gives them, they’ll leave her for each other.

As the kaiju materializes and begins its march of destruction in the real world, the three friends run toward one another, and towards Gridman, in his time of need. Neon Genesis mobilizes on their own, de-scaling and combining into a kind of “substitute hero mecha” to bring down the kaiju.

What’s left is a cloud of dust, and Akane, in her created world, still profoundly, intolerably alone. She asks no one in particular what she should do before jumping from the tower and plummeting hundreds of feet. She lands on her feet, physically unharmed but clearly mentally spent.

At first, Akane was a one-dimensional villain: create kaiju to defeat Gridman every week. But after who-knows how many iterations of that scenario, Akane seems tired, worn out, and above all, lonely and miserable. If it was Alexis who gave her the powers she possesses, perhaps she was excited about having them….at first.

But now those powers have created a cycle without end with no friends to comfort her. A dream from which she cannot wake. A prison from which there is no escape—not even suicide.

As Yuuta, Rikka, and Shou wake up in the shop, and thank Gridman for bringing them out of their dreams, Gridman informs them there’s still a fourth human who must wake from their dream. Then Rikka tells everyone there’s something she wants them all to hear. I for one can’t wait to hear what that is.

So ends the best Gridman episode to date; one that harkens to the weirdest headspaces and corners of Evangelion (the background sound of clanging we hear at one point is straight from Rei’s ‘hood); and even one that seems to take some steps in its own directions after drawing from Gridman lore for so long.

Even if this is more of that borrowed and reimagined mythos, you couldn’t ask for a more gorgeous, cerebral, unnerving, and ultimately  heartbreaking execution. I’ve never felt more for Akane’s plight than I do now, which is quite a feat considering the wrongs she’s committed. And I hope that Rikka, Yuuta and Shou can help her escape her prison and wake from her dream.

3-gatsu no Lion – 28

Hina is the focus again this week, and the show is all the better for it; it’s good to see that while he still has plenty of doubts, in this situation Rei is the one who isn’t emotionally at sea, and even has a concrete path he’s following for the sake of the girl who saved her. Hina has been all but a co-protagonist this season, giving Hanazawa Kana some really good material to work with and simply letting her do her thing.

In case her middle school life can never return to its former normalcy (and even that was a bit of a charade), Rei continues to familiarize Hina with shogi, which served Rei well in the past as an escape from unfavorable conditions, and is now the game that pays his bills. Rather hilariously, Rei proves as bad at going easy on Hina (even though he’s trying) as he is good at competing professionally.

Sitting alone with Hina in her room (for the first time), Rei feels it’s a suitable time to ask Hina to tell him, in small bits, in her own time, what’s going on at school. Hina describes, among other things, an oppressively awkward and hostile atmosphere and “an invisible hierarchy” in which “your ranking decides how loud you can laugh or how much freedom you’re allowed.” In other words, every damn middle school classroom, ever.

Of course, not all classrooms are like that, but by no means an uncommon atmosphere, and both Hina and Chiho are partly victims of bad luck, and partly victims of their own selfless personalities. While changing that atmosphere may be nigh impossible, it’s much easier to bypass it.

Takahashi asks for Hina by name and invites her to play catch with him during lunch. He tells her Rei came by his house to play shogi with his dad and granddad—a granddad usually bedridden, but a spring chicken before Rei and a shogi board.

In any case, Takahashi understands the situation, and tells Hina if the classroom is ever too much, they can simply play catch. Hina is overjoyed.

The joy—and the prudence of Rei involving Takahashi—is short-lived, and the bullies escalate by scrawling slurs on Hina’s desk (albeit in chalk; these girls aren’t yet to the point where they’re gouging the wood).

Their leader also calls Hina a bitch under her breath, but Takahashi seems to hear it, or at least can read the room, then invites the three hellions to join him and Hina in their game of catch.

Before I could ponder whether Takahashi was trying to quell the conflict through inclusion, he unleashes some game-level heat at the fawning bullies, sending them running off.

Then Takahashi tells Hina why he did what he did: Chiho once gave him half of her lunch when his bento box fell in the dirt. He knew then, as he knows now, that anyone who shares their food with you is a good person, and he doesn’t think Hina should be afraid to show she has allies in this war.

It’s sweet, sweet revenge and a wonderful sentiment, but I knew its effects would be temporary, and perhaps even cause further escalation. That night, while playing shogi with Hina, Rei apologizes for introducing another element into her problem so recklessly.

But Hina is grateful for everything Rei has done, and is happy he is always asking her what she wants. She’s just frustrated that she doesn’t know…or that she does know, but knows there’ll be no turning back if she does that, because two wrongs don’t make a right and such, right?

Rei has always felt that Hina is stronger than him, and he’ll never surpass her in that regard. The bullies may be having their fun drawing awful stuff on the chalkboard, but they’re not just causing Hina pain…they’re making her madand toughening her. Rei realizes that his pacifist nature may not apply to Hina, and that simply becoming invisible, shuffling off to stare at bushes or play shogi may not be the best options for her.

So when the teacher asks Hina for an explanation, she stands tall, proud, and tearless, and tells the truth: she doesn’t know; she didn’t write that; it was written there before she came to class. The teacher seems to remember the Chiho situation she handled so badly (Chiho is now in psychological rehab, unable to even respond to Hina’s letters). One can hope she’ll handle things a little better this time.

3-gatsu no Lion – 27

As part of repaying his debt he feels he owes her, Rei wants to help Hina in anyway he can, and that means getting a new perspective on the matter of bullying. Hayashida-sensei misunderstands at first. Rei isn’t the one being bullied. Indeed, he proudly proclaims his hard-won and long-standing invisibility at school.

When he brings up Hina, then describes her personality in such great detail and then presents his passion and motivation on the matter (“my duty as a human being” and such) Hayashida starts thinking that there is someone Rei likes. Of course, Rei isn’t thinking that way at all; Hina is not just a dear friend, but close to family, and his lifesaver to boot.

Hayashida gives Rei some good advice, including to tread carefully and not make a big fuss at school, lest it just make things worse for the victim, but to instead listen very intently to her feelings on the matter; how she’d like the matter resolved.

You know Rei is super-serious about this endeavor because he has a back-up plan: if Hina has to change schools or get a private tutor, he means to support her, not just emotionally, but financially. To that end, Hayashida spots a stack of shogi tournaments into which Rei has entered, calculating all of the winnings he’ll amass, which makes him a bit worried.

Despite saying he (literally!) can’t afford to lose again, he does inevitably lose, and is so angry he wrangles an all-to-willing Nikaidou to strenuously train with him. Nikaidou thinks Rei finally has fire in his belly and is utilizing his Best Friend; Rei just wants money to repay Hina!

The next day, Rei helps Akari lug home a whole mess of groceries she got a big sale. When Rei tells Akari his weight, she hurries home to start cooking, and won’t hear of Rei leaving.

There’s something about Rei, perhaps in part his personality; and the experiences he’s had (the loss of loved ones being something they share), that has Kawamotos pour their hearts out at him. Akari feels she can talk to him, and criticizes herself for the job she’s done as surrogate mom to Hina, lamenting she’s “no good.”

Only nineteen herself when their mother died, Akari had barely lived any life before suddenly becoming a mother of two. She did her best, but in hindsight worries she instilled “ham-fisted” ideals into Hina, which led to her predicament with her friend and the bullies.

Akari admired Gramps simply praising Hina’s courage, but she hates the part of herself for wanting Hina to simply run away rather than do something that would cause her to be unhappy or alone. This is, of course, silly; Gramps has lived a long-ass life, of course he’s going to have more wisdom on these kinds of things. Akari is too hard on herself here.

Rei reassures Akari that just as Hina did nothing wrong in fighting the good fight, neither did Akari. After all, Akari raised the girl who saved Rei’s life; that makes Akari his savior too. Had Hina been raised not to be as kind as she is, or to think of herself before others, Rei might not even be there talking to her.

His honest words cheer Akari up, and she fixes a big ‘ol pot of curry for dinner. When Gramps returns from the theme park with Hina and Momo, he complains that Rei is there “again”, but he’s only joking around, and orders him to sit, eat, and stop making him feel like the bad guy.

While stepping back into the house, Hina hands him a cartoon cat phone strap that somewhat resembles him, as thanks for everything he’s done. Hina expects Rei to think it childish, but he tells her he’s moved, and thanks her. It’s such a nice, quiet, warm moment shared between two people who will hopefully be thanking each other for being there for one another for a good long time to come.

3-gatsu no Lion – 26

As Hina cries in her big sister’s lap, Rei catches us up on the reason for her tears, as well as her missing shoe. It’s a harrowing, all-too familiar and common story: some girls in her class with nothing better to do started bullying her longtime friend Chiho. While everyone ignored it or pretended nothing was happening (even the teacher), Hina, like a Fire Sister, kept talking and eating with Chiho.

Eventually, the bullying got so bad Chiho stopped coming to school, and her mother decided they’d move to where her father works, pulling her out of school. When the girls who started all this make light of that in gym class, Hina pounces on their queen bee in vicious rage, to no avail.

Now Hina is the target of their bullying, and she’s terrified of going back to school and being alone, just as she’s distressed that she couldn’t do anything for Chiho. After scaring Momo with her crying, Hina runs out into the night, and Rei very slowly chases her (what can you say; kid’s not an athlete).

Rei makes no bones about it: Hina is the reason he’s above water; she is his lifesaver; and after gently taking her hand, he promises he’ll always stay with her, no matter what. After all, for all the distress and pain it’s caused her, Hina is quite correct that she did absolutely nothing wrong in trying to defend Chiho. That it was beyond her ability to stop the bullying, or that she’s the new target, does not change that simple fact that she’s a good person.

Fully appreciative of her fragile state and need to not be alone, Rei spends the day with her at the libarary where they look at books, something he’s been doing a long time and the reason he’s so good at shogi at his age.

While she’s looking at Japanese sweets books, Rei is looking for the name of the “ladybug bush” of his dark earlier years: “Silverthorn.” He also finds the scientific name of the Asian Ladybug that populated those bushes, and Hina notices the kanji for that name also means “heavenly path.”

Rei takes her to the bush and places a ladybug on her hand, and it climbs as high as it can before flying off toward the sun, demonstrating why, long ago, people gave the bug that name.

As the beetle flies heavenward, Rei would wish nothing more than to unleash hell upon those who have done this to Hina; but just as she walks the heavenly (i.e. just and rightous) path, he knows so must he. Tearing those bullies limb from limb won’t solve anything, and probably onlu make things worse for Hina.

Evening arrives, and Rei escorts Hina home, where Akari and Momo are waiting for them and invite Rei to join them for a sumptuous dinner consisting of all of Hina’s favorite foods. Their Gramps is there too, and gravely asks Hina to sit down and listen.

Akari told him everything that happened…and he praises her heartily for what she did. He knows from the papers how serious bullying can be, so he has nothing but joy and pride in knowing Hina would go to bat for her friend despite the dangers involved; something most adults wouldn’t do. He echos her own earlier words that she did nothing wrong, and should be proud of herself.

Now, I watched his monologue in a very dusty room, so you can imagine I needed a lot of Kleenex nearby, just as the Kawamoto sisters did. Both Gramps’ words of encouragement and Akari’s meal were things they knew they could do for Hina. Rei wracks his brain over what he can do, but simply being there for her, by her side, and assuring her he’ll never leave it, is already enough.

3-gatsu no Lion – 25

After Matsumoto and Smith mess around with the towering Kumakura’s huge shoes, we see a shogi den settled down for lunch in June…when I guess it’s to hot to eat outside? As he munches on his healthy yet high-class meal, Nikaidou rants about how Rei must get to the finals of the Newcomer Tournament so they can face one another, then proceeds to analyze Rei in a manner that’s far too accurate for Rei’s taste.

When Nikaidou tells him it stands to reason he’d know his deepest depths like no one else, because they’re not just rivals but best friends, Rei, a paragon of stoicism to that point, freaks out and books it out of the room. “Leave him be,” an older player says, “it’s funnier that way.” And to a geezer like him who was one, teenagers are funny, with their needless emotional outbursts and poor organization of priorities.

But what I took out of the first half of “June” is that Hey, Rei is his Nikaidou and Nikaidou is Rei’s. Rei has a friend. Not the only one, either! That fact might embarrass him, but that’s progress, and it took a lot for him to get to that point.

In the second half of “June” we get a welcome cut to the Kawamoto residence, where Grampa makes his first appearance this season (his love of and fawning over Momo will never get old, because let’s face it, Momo deserves all the love). He’s holding a brainstorming session for new sweets after the success of the last one.

When Momo is asked what goes in the water, she first says “duck”, but a duck on top of an agar sweet could easily fall off, while a duck encased in that agar would look like a dead one. Then Momo suggests a sandal, recalling a time she lost one while Akari was walking with her near the water. Gramps instantly declares her a genius and a prodigy.

But there’s something off about this scene: Hinata. She doesn’t say a word, and has her head down as she scribbles into a notebook. At bathtime, Akari finds her sitting alone on the stoop, and when asks what’s wrong, Hina says “nothing” and shows her sister a smile that’s probably forced, because it’s gone again when she’s alone in the bath, looking up at the moon.

So what’s up with Hina? I can guess, considering she’s entering adolescence, but little did I know the next segment would serve as a dark preface to that question’s answer. In the present day Rei notices a plant with the same leaves as a “ladybug bush” he noticed when he was a little kid being teased, bullied, and ostracized at school.

As we know, Rei chose shogi to please his stepfather, willing to endure the hate from the man’s biological children because he had no choice. Now we know to the extent Rei, Shogi Prodigy is not the product of a nature or nurture, but pure, elemental survival.

Rei had no safe haven from the hatred of classmates or stepsiblings. He made himself more invisible and indifferent to prevent escalation at school, but trying to ingratiate himself with his stepparents and not feel like a burden only intensified his siblings’ resentment towards him.

As much as Kyouko’s been humanized in the present, the villainous version reappears in these flashbacks, as someone who couldn’t give a shit Rei’s problems, either the loss of his family or the continued abuse he faces at school. He’s a creepy eyesore to her. No wonder it’s still hard for him to talk to her today!

Shogi wasn’t a dream or aspiration, it was a life raft. Instead of reacting to the horrible things in his life, he buried his nose in shogi books, studied feverishly, and played like his life depended on it, because he thought it did. A perfect and devastating visual is of him desperately treading water in a dark sea, with nothing to cling to but a floating shogi board.

Things are much better for Rei now; he has friends, a surrogate family that loves him unconditionally, and even a place to hang out at school—but though he still carries wounds and scars that may never heal. More importantly to the closing act, a product of his ordeal is that he can spot the warning signs of others enduring the same from a mile away, as he instantly does when Hina enters the room.

She’s missing her left shoe (in a weird, prophetic echo of the shoe Momo suggested for the dessert), the sock is filthy, and her face is a raw mess of tears. For the show to so quickly and concisely reassert all the crap Rei had to go through, only to visit it upon one of the kindlest, gentlest souls in the show in Hina, is almost too much to bear, especially when the episode ends before we’re able to learn the details or see her be comforted.

I guess the details don’t matter; it would seem she’s now going through the same thing Rei did. I can only hope that if she cannot find a solution at school, at least going home won’t just add to her shit sandwich. Unlike Rei, who only had shogi, she has Rei, Akari, Momo, and Gramps. Being a teenager is usually terrible for everyone, but it’s still worse for some than others.