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Train to the End of the World
Episode 9

by Steve Jones,

How would you rate episode 9 of
Train to the End of the World ?
Community score: 4.2

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It's difficult to assert that Train to the End of the World is the smartest anime of the season without it sounding like a joke. "I was told that it's important to poop" is an actual line of dialogue uttered in this week's episode. That, however, is the series' true strength. It hides its poignancy and philosophizing beneath a coat of brain-melting paint—the kind that uses extra lead. While watching it, you're too focused on the grey matter oozing out of your ears to notice that Shuumatsu Train merely makes room for its bigger and more important ideas. Zenjiro proves that the wisdom of the universe can be found in the monotonous choo-choo of a train engine. You just have to open your mind. Or get lobotomized. Either or.

This week's most surprising development is our glimpse into Yoka's daily routine in Bizarro Ikebukuro. I thought the series would wait for Shizuru and crew to get there first to stretch out the mystery as long as possible, but now that we're here, I prefer this tack. After building up Yoka to be some kind of witch queen, Shuumatsu Train shows us a far different but no less disturbing reality. Stripped of her memories and isolated from the populace, Yoka lives in quasi-captivity under the eccentric eye of Poison Pontaro. Living through each day in a haze, she can shape the world to her will, yet Pontaro has removed and/or obfuscated that very will from her.

This situation calls to mind Ursula K. Le Guin's novel The Lathe of Heaven. Honestly, that's a connection I should have made at the show's onset, but seeing Yoka finally fired up those synapses. In the book, an overbearing psychiatrist manipulates one of his patients, a man whose dreams become reality, to reshape the world into a more utopian place. It's a short novel covering many philosophical grounds, so to summarize it, the psychiatrist's efforts always result in monkey's paw-esque side effects. Nevertheless, the psychiatrist grows richer and more powerful after each dream, while the patient grows more ragged and anxious. In the end, the psychiatrist wrests the ability to manifest his dreams from the patient, and in doing so, he almost unravels all of reality.

While it's not a 1:1 match, it's easy to see how Lathe might have inspired Train. Most prominently, the relationship between the psychiatrist and patient resembles that between Pontaro and Yoka. He might not have exacting control over her reality-bending abilities, but he's reaping as much as possible, playing up his supposed subservience while keeping her on a short leash. He's a perfect parody of the modern class of tech CEOs who understand neither their product nor the outside world; all he knows is that he stumbled into something huge and has to hold on for dear life. The always irreverent and insane Shuumatsu Train puts his horrible boorishness on display as he greedily gulps down a bowl of egg custard that used to be a person. The grotesque comedy of the scene symbolizes the real "cannibalism" practiced by the wealthy, who collectively chew up countless lives to enjoy their privileged ones.

Le Guin also asks her readers to consider how they perceive the wider universe. The book makes a clear argument against the psychiatrist's hubris, but it's also cognizant of the myriad social and political issues that prompt people to dream of a better tomorrow. It pries at similar issues between the farce and nonsense of this episode's second half. Note that the girls start their conversation by worrying about things back home—overdue library books, food left out to spoil—but the reappearance of the swan boat man snaps their attention back to the present and the future. Two main ideas emerge from their back-and-forth: the world is irrational, and the world is changing.

The first point echoes the territory covered by last week's episode. The world may not be chaotic, but it's more than complicated enough to appear so. Zenjiro mentions the Big Rip, where the universe's accelerating expansion (which is what we currently observe) continues into infinity. Particles become so dilute they can no longer affect each other. It seems like an absurd conclusion, but it's a theoretically possible one. The second point is more philosophical, yet it's in concert with the first one. If the world's natural state is constantly changing, then anything that appears to remain the same is exerting a ton of effort to realign itself over and over. It's paradoxical, and it's disquieting. Shizuru doesn't want to consider that Yoka might have become the Witch Queen. However, she can only move forward by confronting this possibility. After all, she, too, has changed since they last saw each other. What matters is whether they can find the resolve to change together and, more broadly, as a community, steer that change towards something better.

I know I've barely addressed the episode's content, but that's how I like it. This is what Shuumatsu Train is good at. Its other strengths—distinct character voices, eye-popping design, propulsive plotting, etc.—have remained remarkably consistent week-to-week, inspiring me to ramble about the juicy stuff like themes, science, and philosophy. I can't promise coherency on my part. All I know for sure is that this train is cooking.

Rating:

Train to the End of the World is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

Steve is on Twitter while it lasts. He's currently considering how even the apocalypse couldn't stop Japan from having a nicer rail system than the United States. You can also catch him chatting about trash and treasure alike on This Week in Anime.


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