All Atsushi wanted to do was to spend more time with his wife. All he seems to have done, however, is to convince Rokka that she should give Hazuki a chance. The show is full of these ironic moments. Two episodes ago, Hazuki tried to woo Rokka with a day at the amusement park, but all he managed to do was remind Rokka too much of Atsushi and effectively doom their date.
But what are we to make of Atsushi’s journey into the symbolic world? For much of the series, he is voiceless to everyone but Hazuki. He has now gained a voice, but the twist is it is not his own. More importantly, the extra dimension of the voice adds an interesting development to Atsushi’s character. Viewers have commented on the disparity between Atsushi’s portrayal in Rokka’s memories versus the portrayal of the ghost we often see. In Rokka’s memories, Atsushi repeatedly tried to push her away or end their marriage. It’s safe to assume he didn’t want the guilt of leaving Rokka a widow.
What we see in Atsushi-the-ghost, however, is almost a sort of childish over-attachment. When he floats between Hazuki and Rokka, preventing the two from having sex, you do not get the sense that Atsushi embodies the jealous lover, a figure with all of its frightening sexual possessiveness. Atsushi’s ‘cockblocking’ — for a lack of a better term — is often more comical than melodramatic. We see this in the way he initially appeared to Hazuki, i.e. in his underwear like a petulant child. Even if we grant that Atsushi was primarily responsible for the earthquake that interrupted another attempt at sex between Hazuki and Rokka, we must also make note of the way Atsushi curled up into a fetal position.
“…the figure of silent cinema. Silent figures are basically like figures in the cartoon[s]. They don’t know death, they don’t know sexuality even… there’s no finitude, no mortality here… there is no guilt proper. What we get with sound is interiority, depth, guilt, culpability — in other words, the complex… universe.” — Zizek
In Rokka’s mind, Atsushi is held up as this ideal husband. He has almost no flaws, no depth, no culpability. But we know that this isn’t true. We know that no human being is perfect. What I’m suggesting is that in gaining a voice, Atsushi leaves the realm of the child: “Do you really think you’re in the wrong? … I want you to stop using your dead husband as an excuse like this.”
We begin to see a difference in Atsushi’s portrayal. Even though Rokka is clearly responding to Hazuki’s change in demeanor, i.e. Atsushi’s demeanor, he’s nevertheless uncomfortable with the fact that she wants to dote on Hazuki’s body. He thus gives her a hard time, trying to gauge her reaction, but it’s an inherently unfair game — one that is stacked against her favor. After all, she has no idea that her dead husband’s ghost now inhabits her love interest’s body. By egging her on, Atsushi is being emotionally manipulative, as he grapples with whether or not he wants to use Hazuki’s body to get the physical intimacy that he wants. The voice has transformed Atsushi into a character with flaws, sexual desires and, more importantly, culpability. He’s not just a bystander watching in horror as another man steals his wife. He actually makes Rokka cry; he’s actually complicit in helping another body steal Rokka away sexually: “If this is going to happen sooner or later… (to himself) No matter how pitiful it is… I want it to be now.”
The fact that they didn’t literally have sex is not all that crucial a point: “Not once have you seriously refused me.” There are uncomfortable implications as we continue to trace this line of thinking. In coveting Hazuki’s voice, Atsushi desires a place in Rokka’s symbolic reality. In other words, he wants to be taken seriously; he wants to be more than just the ideal but neutered husband in her memories. Recall Atsushi’s words from the third episode: “Without a body, I can’t even cry. Why am I here? I can’t go anywhere.” He wants to go from the childish silent figure, who merely clings, to the jealous love with its frightening sexual possessiveness. There’s almost an Oedipal edge to the whole affair.
There’s a new drawing in Atsushi’s sketchbook. The picture, however, depicts Rokka as a mermaid swimming toward a Hazuki that still has his long hair. The anime seems to suggest that Atsushi, after his awkward encounter with Rokka, goes downstairs and draws in the sketchbook. I’m not so sure of that. Where did he get the color pencils? Why would he then leave the sketchbook out but not the color pencils? More importantly, let’s revisit a conversation early in the episode:
Hazuki: “This is ‘Thumbelina,’ right?”
Hazuki: “What role do I play then?”
Rokka: “What role do you want to be?”
Hazuki: “I get to decide?”
Rokka: “It’s the same thing as saying how do you want to live your life, right?”
Hazuki: “But isn’t this a world where we’re assigned parts?”
Rokka: “Well, after all, you don’t appear in this tale, strictly speaking.
Hazuki: “Well, yeah, that’s true…”
Rokka: “Then you have to think about it and decide for yourself.”
Rokka seems a little coy about how the dreamworld works, but she nevertheless hints that it is entirely possible for Hazuki to shape his destiny within it. A little later in the episode:
Rokka: “But if the prince doesn’t come back, what are you going to do?”
Hazuki: “If that happens, is it game over for me?”
Hazuki: “You would be okay with that tragic ending?”
Rokka: “Yes, since this is the prince’s world.”
Certainly, this seems to cement the idea that the dreamworld belongs to Atsushi. But nevertheless, we have to remember that while Atsushi is in the real world, i.e. Hazuki’s world, he is able to influence and control Hazuki’s actions. Why, then, wouldn’t Hazuki be able to assume authorship of Atsushi’s dreamworld? If “Thumbelina” is unfinished, why would Atsushi change the fairy tale completely to “The Little Mermaid?” I thus have the inkling that the new page is of Hazuki’s doing. He wants “the story” to finish, which would allow him to go home. If the prince will not return home for Thumbelina, then perhaps Hazuki could cast himself as the prince of “The Little Mermaid,” and wait for Rokka to rescue him. In the end, this gives Rokka the agency, i.e. she has to decide which of the two men she wants.
To contextualize, “The Little Mermaid” is about a young mermaid who falls in love with a prince after rescuing him from a storm one day. Through a witch’s help, she decides to give up her voice (and also endure a lot of pain) in order to gain a pair of legs, knowing that her true love must marry her before the day is over or she will dissolve into sea foam. The prince has fallen in love with the girl that saved him from the sea, but like Natsuyuki Rendezvous, there’s a bitter irony: because the mermaid had quickly disappeared after rescuing the prince, the prince thinks another girl was responsible for saving him. In the end, the mermaid dissolves into foam. There’s some extra bit at the end about how she can nevertheless attain a soul, but there’s some scholarly debate as to whether or not the happy ending was originally part of the story.
At the end of the episode, Rokka thinks she’s confessing to Hazuki, and professes that she’s in love with him as well. The audience knows, however, that she’s not really talking to Hazuki at all. In a brief montage just before this scene, however, Rokka seems to think of Hazuki before he made the switch with Atsushi, so perhaps she really has fallen in love with the guy. Still, what will come next? Will she get a kiss from her true love if she kisses Atsushi-as-Hazuki? What are we to make of that short scene where a naked Rokka — with legs, mind you — seems to be kneeling on a mat as it floats in a body of water? I think it’s Atsushi doing the voice-over here: “The princess, enshrined in settling memories… Potted plants, secrets, antiseptic…” What did any of this mean?