“After School at 14”
It’s Rika’s birthday, and the girls get together to celebrate. But after a heated exchange on the topic of her anonymous father, Rika begins to wonder if the fight is really worth maintaining.
This is a fairly classic episode 7, in that it’s an interesting, character focused piece that dives deeper into one of our heroines but doesn’t necessarily move the plot, such as it is, forward in meaningful ways. I suppose you could technically describe it as filler, but there’s a pejorative nature to that word that doesn’t sit well with the substance of what’s on offer here, so lets instead think of it as a mild diversion as we wander down Wonder Egg’s road.
Of our four main girls, I think Rika has thus far been the easiest for the viewer to get a handle on. That’s not to say she isn’t a complex character in her own right, but her issues with her parents are somewhat familiar tropes to the anime viewing audience, and her desire to bring back Chiemi is couched in a reasonably easy to understand moral quandary of guilt and responsibility. It’s interesting that given the breathing space of a whole episode to focus on one non-Ai character that she would be chosen. I have to believe that this is because Momoe and Neiru will both have critical roles to play in the overall narrative a little further down the road, we’ll have to wait to see if that’s really the case.
Another interesting choice this episode makes is to focus on Rika’s relationship to her parents, ostensibly placing emphasis on her father, but really using her quest for him to frame her relationship with her mother instead. Wonder Egg has mostly kept adult figures distant and detached from its teen characters, with only the benign figure of Ai’s mother and the subdued menace of Sawaki. What the show makes fairly clear through dialogue and exposition is that Rika’s search for her father isn’t really about him, or rather, that he represents more than just a person for her. What Rika’s father is to her is a fantasy (she even explicitly describes her thinking of him as ‘fantasizing’) of an existence where she can be loved unconditionally by someone, where the very adult worries she has can be borne by somebody who actually is an adult, and where she can have a parental figure in her life who seems actively invested in her well-being.
The comparison with Ai is telling in the ways they match, but more importantly in the ways they don’t. Ai tries to show solidarity to Rika by declaring the pair of them ‘Single-Mother Girls’ and proclaiming she hates her mother too, but as their conversation goes on the gaps in their experience become more obvious. Sure, Ai is angry at her mother right now, but at the end of the day she loves her mother and Ai’s mum loves her too. She also knows who her dad is and seems to have a decent, if somewhat distant relationship with him. Really, Ai’s parents seem to be close to the platonic ideal of a ‘happily divorced’ couple. It’s interesting how each of the four main girls has a different parental situation, and how that informs their personalities and reactions. Momoe, who as far as we know comes from a ‘traditional’ family unit, pushes back hardest against Rika’s screed against her mother, while Neiru, who we learn here has never known any parents at all, offers a coldly detached analysis that may be true but fails to understand the complexity of the feelings involved. Between these condemnations, and Ai’s well-meaning but flawed attempts at commiseration, it’s no wonder Rika ends the meeting worse off than she began it.
This is of course where the cult angle comes in. Rika is a young woman at a crossroads in her life, looking for answers, and the appeal of cults is that they provide a series of ready made, easy answers, that you don’t have to think about or wrestle with for yourself.. By giving up on individuality, you gain purpose, the feeling that you’re part of something greater, and that your life can be given meaning through working towards a unified goal. It’s no coincidence that in real life cults tend to target those down on their luck, as indeed is the case here with our girl of the week. She even connects with Rika through their shared experience of self-harm, something that Rika has come very close to returning to, such is the lack of control she feels in her life.
All of this is good stuff in theory, but I have to say I don’t think that the back half of this episode really works, for me at least. As intriguing and potentially multifaceted as the cult angle is, it’s the kind of thing which works best as a long-term storyline of subtle indoctrination. Having Rika just immediately surrender to their allure gets the ideological point across, but it feels rushed and is a fairly abrupt about turn for a character who has always been defined by going her own way. I don’t think having the cult leader/monster being played by renowned VA Jouji Nakata helps here either. Make no mistake, Nakata is a voice acting legend and he delivers a typically magnificent, booming performance here, but he’s so iconic and recognisable that it actively becomes a distraction, and you keep wondering why Kirei Kotomine or Great Professor Bias have shown up in this story.
There’s also the denouement to discuss. I’m still not sure the addition of the animal buddies has added much to the show, and it’s certainly way too early to be using them with the old ‘taking the bullet’ trope when we’ve barely had any chance to gain affection for them. The narrative tries to frame this as Rika realising that she’s perhaps more like her mother than she thought, and while that’s a noble idea, again everything happens so fast that it’s tough to really appreciate the character beats. Generally Wonder Egg has been good at not letting its more shonen-y battles overshadow important character development but I think the balance was a little off here and while the battle finale is impressive from a technical standpoint I don’t think it quite hits the target as far as Rika’s epiphany goes.
I don’t want to end what was overall a good, thoughtful episode on a downer though, so I’ll say that I think that the stuff we get post battle is really good. Rika’s admission that she’s weak but she’s going to carry on regardless is a little cliched, but a lovely moment nonetheless, while her reunion with the other girls is very sweet, and Momoe’s fist bump is probably my legitimate favourite bit of the episode. The final scene between Rika and her mother is nicely bittersweet too, with her mother finally opening up a little about her own regrets and fears. Rika clearly hasn’t forgiven her, but the status quo can stand to exist a little longer. Sometimes, that’s all you can do.
- One disappointing thing about this episode is that it relegates Ai’s return to school, which should theoretically be a huge moment for her, to a minor subplot. I’m hoping we’ll at least see a bit more of this in coming weeks.
- Rika notably uses the loanword papa for her father, a rather childish term as opposed to the more formal otousan or chichi. This has been consistent throughout the show too
- In the flashback, Rika correctly has her dyed pink & blue idol hair.
- The display the mannequins use to communicate with Ai and Rika is literally a video game screen, further reinforcing the idea they’re controlling and/or toying with our protagonists. Ai apppears to be the player character.
- This week’s episode was a clip show, so we’ll be moving right on to episode 9 next time. Not coincidentally, rumours have begun swirling that the show is having production difficulties. A comprehensive report from Sakugablog’s Kevin Cirugeda goes into details, along with a worrying suggestion that there are creative tensions between writer Shinji Nojima and series director Shin Wakabayashi. Obviously we don’t know the full picture, but given Nojima’s on-the-record comments it’s fairly clear he doesn’t actually understand the meaning behind the story he’s writing. Let’s hope things can hang together long enough to finish the show at the same standard it’s been keeping up until now.