Life in Spite of Mortality: Picking up the Pieces in From the Bottom of the Heart
The Pyrrhic victory is a theme that seems to enjoy great prominence in works of Japanese popular culture. In cinematic classics from Gojira to Seven Samurai, anime mainstays like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Ghost in the Shell, and works of literature such as Yasunari Kawabata's Snow Country and Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood, the tale of a small victory or understanding won out of incredible — and almost disproportionate — loss permeates mainstream media with a density unknown to Western pop culture. It could be paraphrased as a predisposition towards 'realistic' versus 'happy' endings. The American summer blockbuster is an excellent example of this: we come to expect the closing scene of heroes with triumphant grins reveling in the victory they have earned through defying near-impossible odds. Contrast this with the final lines of Akira Kurosawa's epic Seven Samurai, in which the eponymous samurai succeed in defending a small farming village from the predations of a group of bandits at the cost of four of their own. The leader of the samurai, played by Takeshi Shimura, states, "Again we are defeated. The farmers have won. Not us."1
These endings, however, provide a different sense of finality to their stories. While the American blockbuster has wrapped its narrative up in a neat and tidy manner, erasing all possibility for further conflict, the samurai epic — the 'realistic' ending — provides almost as much of a beginning in its finale as it does in the opening minutes. While the samurai lament the cost of their victory, the farmers and townsfolk set about planting crops while singing joyfully, as this is the first time they've been free of the threat of the bandits. The samurai, their work finished and their presence no longer wanted, move on to further adventures, and the possibility of one day, a victory.
Persian Blue's From the Bottom of the Heart is a tale of further adventures, borne out of a Pyrrhic victory against death itself. Shirou, the protagonist, suffers from an incurable disease but escapes permanent hospitalization thanks to an extremely effective, unnamed medication. This is no triumph, however — the disease still poses a daily threat and he may still die from it one day. What's more, shortly after he is discharged from the hospital his beloved, Ayumi, passes away from the same disease, and Shirou acknowledges that he couldn't bring himself to see her one last time, out of fear.
The story jumps ahead a few years and Shirou is managing to carry on a normal life: he's found employment in a company, and has the leisure time to visit bookstores and make eyes at an attractive girl on the street. The girl however, takes him for quite a ride, dragging him off to an amusement park before revealing her ultimate connection with Shirou's past — and that of Ayumi. But despite Shirou willingly accompanying this girl, he's not entirely free of the past, and muses at several points that he wishes he could share scenes from the day with that girl he abandoned years ago. He's not free from considerations of his own mortality, either, musing after a particularly beautiful trip up the Ferris wheel that he might very well never behold a sight like that again. He's living, yes, but the life is not a carefree one, as the ghost of his past and his incurable condition are unforgiving scars of the life he won when he was discharged from the hospital.
The climax of the story is the revelation of this mysterious girl as Shizuka, the younger sister of Ayumi, and Shirou's confrontation of his guilt at abandoning her. In the end he chooses to pursue a relationship with Shizuka, both as a way to finally apologize to his beloved — and to forgive himself. He moves out from under the shadow of the past and begins to pursue the life that was won through medication so many years ago, and which he took entirely for granted. Here is our happy ending, but not without reservation, for the disease is still with Shirou. The ending is also a new beginning to the life of Shirou and Shizuka together, and the final epilogue to the story of Shirou and Ayumi, which has its end before From the Bottom of the Heart even begins. Even at the story's end the narrative is not firmly wrapped up; we as readers have simply reached the edge of a snapshot of lives that, much like our own, refuse to be contained in a 3,000 word limit or a 2 hour runtime. It's these 'realistic' and not necessarily 'happy' stories that hit with a greater poignancy than something packaged around a clean and inevitable conclusion, no matter the length. Both may be fiction, but one is arguably more the fake.
27 November 2008
© 2006 Persian Blue; © 2008 Chris St. Louis
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