Buried Treasure
The Door Into Summer

by Justin Sevakis, Jul 16th 2009

Natsu e no Tobira (The Door into Summer)

Angst-ridden Teenagers and anime go together like gin and tonic, both in terms of audience and subject matter. In fact, I would venture a guess that probably less than 10% of all anime feature main characters that aren't between the ages of 10 and 18. But what passes as emo isn't necessarily realism; anime is, after all, an idealized art form, and a lot of that angst suffered by so many absurdly pretty characters has little to do with what real teens go through. Few kids I've known live their lives in anticipation of avenging a murdered loved one, or feeling isolated because they're secretly already dead.

Indeed, much of the suffering inherent in those years has more to do with two things that happen at the same time: hormones and youthful arrogance. Having accumulated just enough life experience and knowledge to be able to assemble something like a world view, it's all too easy for most kids to glom onto sometimes absurd assumptions about life and the nature of things. Inevitably, life starts beating them into the ground, and eventually something like maturity accumulates from the scar tissue. And so goes the life cycle of the human being.

But those first few beatings, those initial occasions where the realization that maybe we don't have a firm understanding of the world... those are the hardest, the most humiliating. The scars from those moments are the ones that define us, that we carry with us for the rest of our lives. They're the moments we remember, like falling in love for the first time, or having something truly life-threatening happen around us. What adults forget is the sheer impact of these moments; the violent, searing pain that comes with them. To those who don't remember, from the outside it looks like simple melodrama and hysterics, annoying and unbecoming of a person.

Keiko Takamiya's classic 1976 manga Natsu e no Tobira (The Door into Summer) taps right into this cycle of arrogance, followed by devastation and maturity. It knows what it's like to be that age, and compliments it with shoujo manga operatic sensibilities and influence from experimental theater. It's wise about its characters, and doesn't sidestep some of the biggest challenges a person can face at that age. Of course, in spite of its sometimes sexually charged atmosphere, it's decidedly a worst-case scenario, an ode to the violent decimation of childhood comforts.

At a boarding school in late 19th Century France, there's a group of boys who dedicate themselves to a philosophy of rationalism. It's a structured, reasoned way to live life, and put through the filter of logic, every action has governing rules. Conflicts can be avoided. Emotional lashing out can be eliminated. Their leader is a boy named Marion: a natural charmer and a constant voice of calm reason. As summer break nears, the gang is out on the town celebrating when two upperclassmen start a fight at a café. The two are fighting for the heart of Ledania, the beautiful daughter of the mayor, whom pretty much the whole town pines after. Marion throws water over the two upperclassmen and informs them of the amount of damage they've caused the café. When one of the upperclassmen is incensed at being talked to that way by a younger boy, they decide to have a duel.

The "duel" is more like a dare: a game of chicken played by standing on railroad tracks as a train comes speeding toward them. Marion wins the duel, rolling out of the way just before the train hits, and catching the eye of an older woman. The woman's name is Sarah, and she gets off the (now stopped) train, she lingers by the boy, admiring his beauty and sensing his loneliness. She kisses him and walks away.

Ledania has feelings for Marion, and asks him to the park on a rainy day so that she might confess to him. Marion, however, is not ready to hear it. As he runs off, we see that he's still very much a kid, and all the talk of rationalism is to cover for his resentment toward his promiscuous mother. Soaked and feverish, he passes out, and soon finds himself naked and in the mansion of Sarah, being given a sponge bath. He reacts violently at first, but the woman seduces him and he relents.

Nothing is the same after that. The gang finds itself fractured: Marion, deeply in love, quickly eschews his rationalist way of life ("Love isn't logical," he muses), and two of his friends are happy to have him out of the way so that they might compete for Lednaia themselves. One other friend is secretly tormented by his unrequited homosexual love for Marion. And as for the woman that caused all of this, who knows her real intentions. The ensuing tensions tear the once close group apart, and nothing will ever put them back together again.

A collaboration between Toei Animation and a then-very new Madhouse Studios, this 1981 film version features an all-star crew list of pre-anime boom creative talent. The evocative, theatrical musical score is courtesy of the late, great Kentaroh Haneda (Macross, Space Adventure Cobra, Barefoot Gen), while prominent TV anime screenwriter Masaki Tsuji (Tiger Mask, Urusei Yatsura, Kimba) contributes a delicate, sensitive script that practically drips with drama. The film is co-directed by two other Tezuka-era veterans, Mori Masaki and Toshio Hirata.

The stylized, surreal look of the film is somewhat experimental; it's clearly influenced by the early erotic anime Belladonna of Sadness (but does it one better by actually being animated). Despite a slightly stagey feeling, the film is awash in gorgeous watercolor and wispy backgrounds. The film is as much a love letter to the beauty of young lives, and a chronicle of the despair of those glory days ending. Post-awakening, the arrogance of youth shattered, one must rebuild from scratch, for there's no point in lingering in a glorious past that will no longer contain you. Yaoi fans may find similarities with Takemiya's other non-sci-fi work of drama, Sanctus: Song of the Wind and Trees; but frankly I find this film to be the better of the two.

If there's any real problem to be had with the piece, it's that the story is so over-the-top that one might get the impression that puberty is a giant black hole of death and despair from which there is no exit. More or less everything that could possibly go wrong happens all at once, making the film something of a hormonal Requiem for a Dream.

But to criticize that about the film is to ignore its point entirely: that emotions ARE that raw, that the drama of adolescence, comically mundane in retrospect, does take on a life-and-death feeling when experienced for the first time. In the end, puberty is a giant black hole of death and despair from which there is no exit. After all, what is adulthood but simply building up a callous to such horrors?


Obscure-O-Meter™
A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only. Fansubs commonly available.
R5 Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.
R6 Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.

Where to get it:
Given the current state of the anime market, it'll be a cold day in hell before a title this mature and sensitive sees the light of day on American DVD. (As for streaming, hey, it IS Toei Animation, so you never know.) In the mean time, there are fansubs out there, and a handsome (but English-free) Japanese import DVD.


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