Yesterday wo Utatte, Episode 4 – Mage in a Barrel

Ah, teenagers.

After three engrossing episodes focused on individual characters, the fourth episode of Yesterday wo Utatte splitting its focus between Shinako and Rou felt like a bit of a letdown. It’s not that Yesterday isn’t capable of dealing with more than one characters’ headspace at the same time—episode 3 gave us of some of that with Rikuo, after all. Rather, it’s that Rou’s issues, compared to the more “adult” concerns of the other three, feel more mundane. Rikuo has his relatable self-sabotaging attitudes and habits, adrift in the world without a plan or purpose. Shinako’s spinning her wheels, still grieving a loss that’s trapped her for years. Even Haru, despite being closer to Rou in age, seems more mature given her family situation and divergence from the expectations of society about what a girl her age ought to be doing.

In comparison, Rou’s all adolescence. He’s going to cram school for art, driven by a long-standing desire not to be overshadowed by his brother. He’s got a crush on Shinako, one that somehow feels even more doomed than Haru’s affections for Rikuo despite the similarities in their situations. Although they certainly mean something to him, to me they seem trivial.

Maybe it’s just a reflection of my age and the way I’m responding to the circumstances of the others in the show in which Rou exists. Although some part of me finds bemused sympathy for this try-hard, awkward teenage, another part of me couldn’t help but be annoyed by him. I suppose that makes Shinako a more mature person, or at least better at dealing with the cruelties and naiveté of teens (she is a teacher). Or maybe she just doesn’t have the energy to get angry. Rou bursts into youthful fury as they wash dishes, but Shinako’s response is just tired.

And, to some degree, that may be the point that Yesterday wo Utatte is aiming to illustrate. Rou doesn’t really understand anything about the world of (young) adults, of people who feel crushed by their pasts, drained by their presents, and uninspired by their futures. He lives in the moment as those without the perspective of experience do.

Therein, though, is the problem. It was so aggravating to watch Rou speculate and explain Shinako’s feelings about his lost brother. In contrast to the mature, caring way his father speaks to Shinako of their shared grief, Rou is tells us what Shinako is thinking. It’s invasive and presumptuous, as might be expected of an angry teenager, but I’m not sure the show itself knows this. The intercutting of scenes of Rou telling us what Shinako wants with the delicate, moving scenes of Shinako wandering her way through grief back in the room where the boy she loved died makes me think the show intended Rou’s explanation to be taken at face value. And I’m just not cool with that! As Shinako implies, he really knows nothing. When it comes to others’ experience of grief, none of us do.

This returns us to the main issue of the episode: the double character focus. In elevating Rou’s importance by giving him so much focus, his thoughts and impressions seem to be likewise validated. But if you ask me, the scenes of Shinako this episode—particularly the heartbreaking sequence of shots depicting the slow passage of the day as she sits and contemplates—deserved its own focus, divorced entirely from Rou’s story and thoughts.

Anyways, enough about Rou. I trust Yesterday wo Utatte enough to give it some time to convince me to like Rou as an element of this story. But let it be known that I’m not a fan of the way he’s been introduced into the thick of the narrative.

The other part of the episode, then, belong once again to Shinako, and was an appropriately graceful, pretty follow-up to her full introduction back in episode 2. Beautifully composed shots and effective lighting once again returned as she looked over Yuu’s belongings. I also particularly liked the way the episode depicted Rou and Yuu’s father in relation to Shinako. Although he has only a few lines, it’s clear that Shinako’s not the only one who’s having trouble accepting the loss. Everyone has their own timeline for grief, and Yesterday allowing another character to share Shinako’s struggles helps to avoid any sense that her pain is being judged or diminished.

I can only hope that Shinako’s tears at the end of the episode mark a moment of healing for her. I get the sense that it may very well have been the first time she’s allowed herself to cry over this loss.

Bonus Points

—I really found myself appreciating Haru this episode. Her cheerful, lighthearted persona was a welcome relief from the oft-irritating self-seriousness of Rou and the heaviness of Shinako’s grief. Double salutes are very much welcome!

—The times I was most engaged with Rou’s story were the scenes at his art cram school. The insecurity of being around other artists, the struggle to “get good” while also not destroying your own passion for what you’re doing… that’s all good stuff. Frankly, I might have liked him more if he were more defined by his relationship to art than with Shinako and his brother.

—Rou’s arms in the his outburst at the sink was the character acting highlight of the episode for me, but some of less flashy, more incidental work was far more important in making the episode as a whole come to life.

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