There are certain ideas I harp on about a lot
because I have a limited pool of things to actually write about. One of these is the world that is centered around a certain theme, whether that’s puzzles (Phi Brain), Gunpla Battles (Gundam Build Fighters), or teenagers dying in shitty, hilarious ways (Another). The main reason I enjoy this is that it gives creators an opportunity to consider traditional ideas in different ways. Like, we have schools … but if we had schools dedicated solely to producing people who were really good at puzzles or battling with toy robots? That kind of thing — pushing a weird idea to its logical conclusion and seeing how it turns out. It can be funny, and maybe it can reflect back on us in unexpected ways.
One of my favorite series of the year, Sekai Seifuku, does something like this.
There are several odd themes and tics to this world, but what this particular world revolves around is a conflict between two groups: Zvezda (which wishes to conquer the world) and White Light (which wishes to prevent this). The timeline for their battle is fuzzy; however, it is set up like one of those conflicts that has been raging since time immemorial. It certainly seems as if it has been going on longer than Zvezda’s young leader, Kate Hoshimiya, has been alive. By episode 9, a lot of shit has gone down — so much, in fact, that both groups independently decide it’s time for a break. That means it’s time for a hot springs episode! Both groups hit the springs without knowing the other is there. Eventually, they clue onto this and, of course, start fighting, because that’s what these groups do.
But the best part …
The proprietors of this establishment are an old married couple. The husband is secretly a member of Zvezda; the wife is secretly a member of White Light. Have they been this way their entire lives? I’m not sure. When the big battle breaks out, it’s inevitable that these two also discover their hidden identities and throw down.
“I was hoping to take this secret to the grave …” the old woman says before she and her husband attack each other.
On the face of it, it’s just a silly joke, a ridiculous scenario that nobody would expect to occur unless you’re like me and actively searching for weird scenarios to potentially happen once you lock onto a key idea in a show. But it’s the type of joke that leaves just enough room for you to dig into it if you want. It adheres perfectly to another of Sekai Seifuku‘s themes: masks and layers of identity. What most people in Zvezda have in common is that they’re running away from something in their past and taking on a new life. In White Light, the power dynamics are powered by Dramatic Irony.
With all these masks, secrets, and identity issues, it makes sense that eventually we’d get a couple on opposite sides of the conflict. Even the most loving couples have their little secrets, yeah? It’s the perfect demonstration of how beautifully absurd this overarching conflict is. These two presumably get along great, but they fight because They’re On Opposite Sides And They Have To. There’s even the slightest hint that they actually knew of their hidden identities in the woman’s hope that her secret would die with her. Why would the old man have an issue with her being in White Light if he weren’t in Zvezda? We all have a dumb things that we nonetheless have some attachment to and take way too seriously even if deep down we know how silly they are.
But even more than that, this moment strikes me because it does so much with so little. The couple is introduced as a pair that have run this hot spring for a long time. We get the reveal of their Zvezda and White Light memberships — first to us, then to each other. Then they fight. It’s so basic, but this premise has the weight of an entire life holding it up. Has the old man been hiding something his whole life like those Zvezda folks? Does the old woman have the unwavering adherence to her idea of justice that White Light has? How did they meet? How did they grow old together? For me, one of the most powerful things about fiction is not what it lays out, but rather, what it suggests between the crevices of words and images. We’re shown one thing and left to ponder the rest at our leisure.
The only hint about how the fight turned out is a pair of masks on a bed. If you’re a pessimist, they killed each other; if you’re an optimist, they realized how dumb this is and decided to kick it in the hot springs because DAMN is that comfortable. These two are such a blatant analogue of Asuta (in Zvezda) and Renge (in White Light) that I assume the latter. In fact, my head canon now is that this old couple is Asuta and Renge FROM THE FUTURE SOMEHOW and they’ve grown so old together that their memories aren’t quite what they used to be, and they’ve forgotten all about their significant others’ affiliation with their group of choice.
The cycle will continue forever! It could happen!