Momoe rescues the trans boy Kaoru, and in doing so thinks she’s saved enough people to resurrect Haruka. But something terrible is lying in wait instead…
If there were any doubts that we’re moving into the final, climactic phase of Wonder Egg Priority‘s story, then this episode put them firmly to rest. It’s the biggest shakeup to the show’s status quo since it began arguably, and is stuffed full of meaningful talking points and avenues for speculation. I’m both excited and worried by the things I saw here, almost in equal measure. If nothing else the series is continuing to challenge our expectations of what it is, although that can be a double edged sword.
Let’s start with the good though, and the portrayal of Kaoru Kurita definitely falls into that camp. Anime & manga, even more so than most worldwide media, have a complex relationship with transgenderism, alternately depicting it more openly and sympathetically than many other forms of art, but also commodifying and fetishising it in often uncomfortable or exploitative ways. This tension has been a core part of the character of Momoe since she was first introduced, as although she’s not trans herself, the struggle she faces between her masculine looks and tendencies, and her desire to also be seen as traditionally feminine very much tie into those themes. Her awkward place in-between the gender lines is reinforced by the opening dating vignette – even when she finally lands a date with a boy, and goes to the effort of presenting herself as ‘girly’ as possible, it turns out what her date actually wanted was her masculine side.
Kaoru presents almost a mirror image of this dilemma. Whereas Momoe is a girl whose trouble is presenting too masculine, Kaoru is a boy who presents too feminine. The big difference here is of course that Kaoru was assigned female at birth, something which has left him vulnerable to the attention of his wicked Kendo advisor. Wonder Egg has of course made corrupt teachers something of a running theme, but this is a particularly striking and evil example. The rape (which is notably shown more explicitly than many of the other incidents alluded to in the show, though not to the point of being distasteful) is not ‘merely’ a physical assault, but an attack on Kaoru’s very identity, the forced impregnation a reminder of how he’s trapped in a body that doesn’t match his mind and soul. It’s no coincidence that the Kendo monster embodies the worst traits of toxic masculinity and violent rejection of any attempts to disrupt established gender norms. Be it his petty fury at Momoe being ‘on top’ of him, or his condescending assurances to Kaoru that his dysphoria just results from a lack of confidence, this is a blatant personification of the entrenched patriarchy that women and transgender folks spend their lives struggling against.
It’s certainly not the most subtle Wonder Egg has ever been, and some might argue that it’s even a little overbearing and in your face about the whole thing. I wouldn’t be one of them though, since I think that we see so little sympathetic and meaningful trans representation in media that shoving the message front and centre is excusable. The post battle scene is a lovely little cap on the story as well, as Momoe gently points out Kaoru is himself falling into a cliched male stereotype, and the two of them validate their identities to each other. Notably, although her introduction episode established that the girls she saves confess their love to her all the time, this is the first time we see Momoe get genuinely flustered about it, probably because it was done by a man acknowledging her as a woman. It’s heartening that the show can still find time for delicate character stuff like this amid the gathering clouds of the finale.
Speaking of those gathering clouds, it feels like we’re approaching the endgame to the mystery surrounding Sawaki the senior and I’m not sure how to feel about it. This episode definitely presents him in the most sympathetic light yet, although it also holds us at a distance that’s still curious and slightly disconcerting. On the surface, his scene with Ai in the gallery appears to pull him closer to his most benevolent self, as he talks about how much he loves Ai’s mother, and how she should take faith from being the daughter of such a strong and beautiful woman.
And yet…this isn’t a painting of Ai’s mother. It’s still very definitely Ai, as evidenced by the heterochromia, and it’s still surrounded by troubling signs. ‘Latent Heat’ is not a title you’d typically use to describe a grown woman, and the imagery conjured up shouts of Lolita-esque budding teenage sexuality. Furthermore, as Emily Rand points out in her excellent series of posts on flower language in the show, Ai is depicted surrounded by white and red camelias, which represent respectively innocence and purity, and romantic love and desire. It’s no coincidence that Ai in this scene is portrayed as the most feminine we’ve ever seen her, with the show using a shot to highlight the contrast between her childish trainers and ‘grown-up’ high heels. The fact that with her hair tied back and parted she looks increasingly like her mother probably isn’t by chance either. Even at this late stage it’s still unclear where the narrative plans to land on Sawaki, and I respect the commitment to complexity on the writers’ part, while at the same time being a little nervous of how they plan to conclude his role in the story.
I’ve deliberately saved the most memorable and contentious part of this episode for last, and that’s basically everything to do with the sudden plot developments that pop up throughout this 22 minutes. There’s certainly a fair amount of shocking, memorable imagery on display here, and it’s an electric change of pace that’s certainly taken me by surprise, but there are also concerns I have about how this may impact Wonder Egg‘s storytelling going forward.
I think my biggest fear is how, for want of a better word, anime things have suddenly become. Wonder Egg has been a great show partially because it’s largely eschewed some of the typical cliches of the medium, by embracing emotionally-lead, character centred stories over complex plot construction or worldbuilding exposition. Now though we’re definitely beginning to see the hallmarks of a classic conspiracy plot, especially regarding everything to do with the two Accas, what with the reveal of their former human identities and their founding role in Japan Plati who, lest we forget, were responsible for the creation of Neiru. Likewise, the introduction of the mysterious ‘reaper’ is certainly shocking and memorable, but also reflects a movement towards a more traditional protagonist/antagonist narrative structure.
At the core of my concern lies a fundamental tenet of the show up to this point. Wonder Egg Priority has been a story based around a question, and that question is: Why did these girls choose to take their own lives? And the answer of course is…there is no answer. It’s a fundamentally unanswerable question, because every suicide is a unique tragedy shaped by countless factors, too complex to articulate in a single cause. One of the strengths of the show up until now has been its keen understanding of this and its ability to explore some of those traumas through the lens of fiction without judging or condemning those it presents. And thus my great fear is that the introduction of these more traditional narrative elements is leading up to the big reveal that actually these girls died not because of these complicated, emotionally resonant reasons, but because MAGIC PLOT DEVICE made them do it. Certainly Acca and Ur-Acca abandoning their bodies and uploading their brains is a familiar strand of goofy sci-fi, while the reaper’s appearance ploughs an effective but well-worn furrow of surreal body horror.
That’s not to say that these developments can’t be effective, or indeed that they aren’t already – the scene with the reaper works well precisely because its explicit grossness is so out of tune with the subdued menace and sadness the show has dealt in more up to now. But it’s hard not to see the sprouting of anime cliches (the invoking of the Greek gods is a particularly groan-worthy one) and more familiarly defined plot points as a worrying sign for the climax of the story. The counterpoint though is that the creative team have proved multiple times that they’re good at outfoxing the audience’s expectations and delivering something powerful and unexpected. For better or worse this ending will define Wonder Egg Priority as a whole, either as a stone-cold classic, or a beautiful but flawed attempt. The questions have all been raised. It’s time to get some answers.
- There’s a simple but effective contrast between Ai and Rika’s gushing over Neiru’s basic hairstyle change, and their lack of reaction to Momoe’s attempt at femininity. It emphasises how even with maximum effort Momoe can’t look as stereotypically ‘pretty’ as Neiru, who is probably the most traditionally feminine of the four leads.
- To those who are familiar with such things, it’s fairly obvious that the pink and blue colour scheme of Kaoru’s jacket matches the trans pride flag. Less obvious is the fact that, when he’s introduced, the advertising billboards are displaying an image of Rubin’s Vase, a famous optical illusion in which different people perceive different things when they look at it.
- The presence of Kaoru in a dreamworld supposedly only for girls raises some interesting questions. I guess we do know the Accas aren’t exactly progressive on gender issues.
- It’s…interesting that Sawaki specifically invites Ai to his exhibition, while her mother, who he’s ostensibly dating, appears to have no idea about it.
- Thanatos is the Ancient Greek God of Death (not of the dead, which is Hades, but specifically of the process). Eros is of course the Ancient Greek God of Love and Sexuality.