Boogiepop and Others
by Rose Bridges,
How would you rate episode 18 of
Boogiepop and Others (TV 2019) ?
Content warning: discussion of suicide and survivor's guilt.
I was right that Shirou was suspicious, but perhaps not as suspicious as I had expected. Like everyone else, Shirou is just another lonely, confused teenager battling deep grief and self-hatred. In fact, we find out that he's much like Sakiko; he's dealing with the death of someone he cared about, but maybe not as much as he should have. The depth of his grief created the King of Distortion as an "alternate personality" when he stepped into the Moon Temple. He wasn't just trying to turn others' grief into gold; he was born from Shirou's attempt to do that with his own grief.
I'm going to take things in a more personal direction for a moment, as this episode called to mind some immediate real-life parallels. This past week, we learned that two of the survivors of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting last year took their own lives, a story that's led to the usual hand-wringing from all corners of the political spectrum. This calls to mind the phenomenon of "survivor's guilt", where being the person to survive a deadly situation instead of someone else makes you feel self-hatred and remorse. Why did you deserve to continue living instead of someone else? It's a feeling I remember from my freshman year of college, when two of my former high school classmates passed away—one in a car accident, one from suicide.
The second girl had been a friend of mine, before we'd grown more distant in our senior year due to a boy; I was jealous that she went with my crush to the prom instead of me. Her death, reportedly due to stress over bad grades, left a lot of us wondering if we could have done something earlier, to realize that her turmoil ran deeper than the academic stress everyone at our high-stakes school joked about. In reality, suicide is often a split-second decision that can hinge on trying to discourage someone in the moment, which is why preventative measures are so important. But when someone else's life is taken and you see parallels between your life and theirs, and you start thinking of the ways in which you might have failed them, however small—it's hard not to wonder if it should have been you instead of them.
Shirou feels extra-guilty because the dead person was his girlfriend Naoko, but he's not sure if he felt as strongly for her as she did for him; Niitoki Kei talks to him about how Naoko clearly loved him, but he was unsure how exactly he felt toward her. He deals with his grief by creating a "separate" part of himself to process it, which could explain why he seemed weirdly chill about Naoko's death earlier. He'd already separated out the grieving parts of him into the King of Distortion. The powers of his new creation are unstable because they're so fresh—which is why Zooragi happened—but they seem to touch a nerve in others dealing with grief or deep regret.
This explains the heavy focus on dissociative identity disorder (DID) and "alternate personalities" earlier in this arc. Boogiepop and Others is right that DID is a controversial diagnosis in the psychology world, one that many think is more the work of abusive psychiatrists than the patients' own brains. However, more generalized forms of "dissociation" are common in people who have undergone some type of trauma; they often try to create "alternate realities" in their heads to escape to when reality is too much to bear. In many ways, the cast's interactions with the King of Distortion are all forms of dissociation. And we can all perform more basic versions of dissociation to escape our guilt, like telling ourselves that something painful was all someone else's fault.
All this poses the question of whether or not the King of Distortion is really a villain. Boogiepop themselves wonders if they need to fight Shirou; he's too unsure to be fully on the path toward villainy (and therefore elimination by Boogiepop) like past adversaries. It turns out that it just takes one serious conversation with Niitoki to bring Shirou back to Earth—literally, given that he falls to the ground from floating high in the sky when he has this realization. He gives Niitoki the "Stairway to Heaven" code to unlock the Moon Tower, and she also takes a moment to play the Meistersinger prelude in Boogiepop's honor. We see as the King of Distortion's various victims wake up from their dreams, and Niitoki herself is even able to joke with her crush, Takeda, when she runs into him. She's clearly processed her feelings in a way she wasn't able to do before the King of Distortion intervened. Shirou might have been on a bad path at the time, but his actions seem to have had a more positive than negative effect on his "victims."
In a way, this is the perfect story to close out this anime adaptation. I can't help but wonder if other Boogiepop novels will be adapted, because now I'm hooked. (I will definitely check out the novels themselves to see what I missed and dig deeper.) But if you can't adapt all of Boogiepop's stories, it's good to come full circle. The "King of Distortion" arc is largely a continuation of the arc from the first three episodes. It's a reminder that the story doesn't end when the main conflict ceases and the "bad guys" die. There are always survivors left, weighed down by guilt and other conflicting emotions. The story of how they survive going forward (or not) is worth telling too.
It's Boogiepop and Others' interest in these kinds of stories that made it so rich and rewarding week after week. It would have been easy for this show to focus purely on supernatural hijinks and lore, but its real interest was always on the human characters, not the supernatural beings playing them like fiddles. It advocated for the importance of honoring our feelings, however complicated and difficult they may be at times. That kind of message can feel rare in media, especially stuff aimed at teenagers—that the rollercoaster of emotions they feel at that age are valuable, rather than a mere "distraction" for more adult concerns to eventually dampen and contain. It's the sort of show that I wish I'd had as a teenager, like Revolutionary Girl Utena or Evangelion. It's a great argument that anime is popular with teenagers because it speaks to them in a special way other media doesn't. Even watching this as an adult, it's been a richly rewarding experience that will be hard to top this year, even with so many other major titles on the horizon. Thanks for blowing my mind in such a unique way, Boogiepop and Others.
Boogiepop and Others is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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