by Steve Jones,
How would you rate episode 11 of
I can't believe I thought a flashback episode might explain too much about Kemurikusa. Thankfully, we do finally get some long-awaited context for this world and its characters, but I find myself leaving the First Person's memories with more questions than I had when we entered them. That's a good thing! I love a story that respects its audience enough to leave things unsaid, dangling a bunch of tantalizing threads that a viewer can unravel in their own time, after the story has finished. We don't need to know everything about Kemurikusa's setting, especially when the narrative has been more concerned with character growth than solving mysteries. I don't care about the origins of the Kemurikusa leaves as much as I care about Rin, Wakaba, and the others being able to settle down and live peaceful lives together. In the wake of that cliffhanger, I can't say I'm too optimistic about that happening now, but I'm willing (and hoping!) to be surprised.
Most of this episode takes place inside of the First Person's memories. The First Person, whose name is (of course) Riri, lives in a strange blank world. The bright white of the sky and the muted beige of the surface starkly contrast with the world we've known for ten episodes—both dark and full of color. She's joined by several cute Shiro-type robots and a scientist named Wakaba, who is indeed our Wakaba. He's a little older, but he's got the same love of Kemurikusa, the same meek eccentricities, the same dogged curiosity, and the same messy bedhead. The two of them live alone together in the sky, where it's Wakaba's job to use a giant floating crane, powered by a giant Kemurikusa tree, to lift copies of surface cities seemingly from the clouds themselves. Why is this his job? That's a great question that even he doesn't know the answer to! But it lets him continue his research on Kemurikusa, so that's all that matters to him.
Despite the expository intentions of these memories, the episode actually plays out like a glimpse into a slightly different TATSUKI show. His team's ability to inject their hard-to-define charm into whatever they do remains their most potent quality. It's a cozy, cute, and contemplative approach to science fiction. Riri and Wakaba's conversations tell us a lot about their world, but they also tell us a lot about themselves. For instance, I love seeing Wakaba rip the chunkiest cloud off his green Kemurikusa vape while Riri recoils from the stench of the smoke. It's a layered exchange (Wakaba not knowing what a cigarette is hints at his own origins), but it's also a small human moment of both annoyance and camaraderie. They're an unlikely pair who have come to depend on each other—Riri gives Wakaba something to care about that's not his research or career, and Wakaba gives Riri a second chance at having someone she can admire and learn from. There's still plenty of melancholy in their isolated existence. Riri is a “copy” of a corpse from the surface, and she shouldn't be able to exist in the first place. But nevertheless, they have each other, their Kemurikusa, and all of the bickering and laughing that comes with being a family
Unfortunately, their happiness is encroached upon by the unseen yet omnipresent pressure of the world around them. Wakaba's job takes a lot out of him, and it seems like he doesn't even know why he's making these islands. Riri recognizes the same signs of overwork that claimed her parents' lives, and this sets the events of the show into motion, but it's worth interrogating the real cause of the disaster. They're part of some civilization that has access to this amazing technology uniting both organic and synthetic life, yet they're using it to 3D print skyscrapers in the clouds. I had presumed that the ruins the sisters were traversing had been abandoned, but they were never occupied in the first place! Furthermore, Wakaba's comments indicate that the surface of the Earth doesn't really interact with the place he's from, so there's some literal stratification between people living beneath the clouds and those (presumably) living above it. It seems to me that the real villain of Kemurikusa is the gig economy, where both Riri's parents and Wakaba have worked themselves to the bone for the whims of some faceless and callous benefactors in the sky. Now, I don't know if this kind of class consciousness was the intended theme, but I do know that TATSUKI and Yaoyorozu know a thing or two about having their hard work ripped from their hands.
Only wanting to let Wakaba take a break, Riri uses her innate talent for fusing Kemurikusa to make an anti-Kemurikusa tree she calls Akairo (“red in color,” essentially), which quickly grows out of control into the twisted wooden tower of hate we've been pursuing this whole series. One by one, Wakaba exhausts the options he has to contain it, and I like that not once does he scold Riri through this process. It's not really her fault, and that wouldn't be in his character anyway. Riri points out that he's selfless to a fault, and even in this moment of crisis he knows that she was doing this for him. Even though his grown-up powers can't do anything to stop the poisonous Kemurikusa, he prioritizes protecting Riri and sends her far away, back to Island One, while he shares a sad smile and goes to confront the tree directly. It's an intentionally similar moment to Kaban's self-sacrifice in Kemono Friends. It can't have quite the same impact, because we've only been with these characters for a single episode, but the fact that the emotions still ring true goes to show how well this episode was constructed. Seeing Riri wait quietly in vain at the barrier wall just breaks my heart.
As the Akairo smoke penetrates the wall and corrupts her safe haven, Riri's story comes to the conclusion we've known was coming all along. She can't save Wakaba, so she splits herself into Kemurikusa people who can: the six sisters we've been following all along. Of course, somewhere along the way, that mission changed, and the sisters found their own reasons for living and protecting each other, but as fate would have it, their journey has taken them all the way back to where this story started. I absolutely love how the episode transitions into the ED, extending the instrumental intro of the song and tracing the visual language back to its origin in the narrative. It's a beautiful and understated way of concluding her story, and I have to give the show credit for pulling this off after also dropping the OP halfway through the runtime. TATSUKI obviously has a strong grasp on the formal components of anime, and he knows what comes across as cool. He also knows how to rip the audience's heart out with one hell of a post-credits stinger.
After weeks of moving forward, Kemurikusa's penultimate episode stops to look back at where it all started, but with the same warmth for its characters and striking aesthetic choices that have defined its journey. With the stakes of this final confrontation now all too clear, the finale is going to be anything but easygoing. But as the cliche sentiment goes, it's about the journey, not the destination. However these characters end up, they've had a trip full of excitement, love, and hope. In an appropriately strange way, Wakaba and Riri already had their big emotional reunion way back in the first episode. If Kemurikusa sticks the landing next week, that will be some delicious icing on the cake.
Kemurikusa is currently streaming on Amazon.
Steve is a friend who's good at watching anime and can be found making bad posts about anime on Twitter.
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