No.6 Ep. 6: Uncoupling binaries

Shion and Nezumi face off not in a battle of strength but ideology. Why must everything be black and white for Nezumi, Shion wonders. Why must Nezumi blindly hate No.6 and its inhabitants? For Nezumi, there exists a binary opposition: the insiders of No.6 versus the outsiders. Shion quickly comes to the conclusion that this separation between the insiders and outsiders is mostly artificial. In Shion’s eyes, it’s the wall that separates them.

Nezumi, however, quickly dismisses Shion’s theory:

“On the off-chance that you did destroy the wall, the results wouldn’t be heaven. It’d be hell on Earth. Chaos, disorder, conflict, plunder… We’re not dealing with paint. You can’t mix them together. One must destroy the other.”

You can take Nezumi’s argument and substitute in any binary you wish. Just look at his words: “One must destroy the other.” Western structuralism was defined by binary oppositions and power relations — the stronger ruled the weaker, where the weaker was often seen as the “devalued other.” Imagine if Nezumi was talking about the male-female binary opposition. What did the social conservatives used to say?

You can’t tear down “the wall” between the sexes. People would be confused! There’d be chaos and disorder! They wouldn’t know what to do — feminine men and masculine women — we’d never get anything done. You just can’t mix them together. We have to fulfill our roles in life or we’ll destroy ourselves!

Most of us now know that this is ridiculous, however. Yes, nobody denies that the sexes are physically different — from physical strength to chemical make-up –, but there is no difference in the actualization of one’s will. In general, women have been better nurturers, but this doesn’t mean that a man couldn’t nevertheless measure up as a nurturer if he so wills it. Regardless of sex, a person of any gender can realize his or her own potential. We simply have different starting places in life. To tie things back to the anime, although the inhabitants of No.6 have only lived a life of luxury, there is no inherent difference between them and the outsiders. They simply have different starting places.

After all, Nezumi is a living contradiction of his own beliefs. Has he not survived in the harsh world outside No.6 as both male (his Nezumi persona) and female (his Eve persona)? Would he even be where he is right now without uncoupling the male-female binary opposition within his own character? Furthermore, he and Shion started out in different places, but they have nevertheless come together as friends. Nezumi merely thinks he has found an anomaly within the city of No.6 — an anomaly he figuratively and literally excised. Shion, however, is proof that the binary opposition between the insiders and outsiders of No.6 is unnecessary.

Interestingly, Dogkeeper comments that everything — dog or human — stinks in death. We thus have three distinct viewpoints. Both Nezumi and No.6 share the same idea: the world is divided into two factions and one must necessarily rule over the other; Nezumi and No.6 are merely at opposite ends of the spectrum. Nezumi, of course, would just rather see one of the factions die. Shion, on the other hand, wants to remove the division between the two factions. Dogkeeper might represent anarchy, then, in which true equality can never be achieved in life, but in death, i.e. the extent of entropy and chaos, we finally become equals along with the animals.

The survival instinct
The story continues to relay this theme of survival at all costs for the outsiders. In their brutal environment, many outsiders dispense with the formalities of humanity, seeing society as a weakness. Folks like Rikiga exist by directly flaunting society’s morality. When man is reduced down to his base element, he returns to animalism where might makes right. Dogs don’t follow the most moral or wisest leader; dogs follow the alpha. Look at Dogkeeper’s own words:

“You can’t bury me! I’m gonna survive!”

Then when Nezumi receives Karan’s letter to Shion about Safu’s plight, he not only discards the letter, but he crushes it with a fist.

“He’ll run straight to No.6. Even if it costs him his own life…”

Here, we see Nezumi’s symbol of strength and power. In his eyes, he rescued Shion so he’s not just going to let Shion throw his life away to rescue Safu. I’m not saying that Nezumi literally thinks he owns Shion, but his patronization toward Shion represents, again, another form of the binary opposition concept we’ve been discussing. To Nezumi, Shion’s the idealistic, caring Other that Nezumi must protect. When we often desire to protect someone, we necessarily devalue him or her — we must believe that they are incapable of protecting themselves to a certain extent.

Safu’s growth
We spent the first half of this episode tracking Safu’s growth. Even random bystanders can notice that there’s something different about her:

How to put it… you have an air about you. The wind, I suppose. … Yes, it feels like a wind follows you.”

Karan, Shion’s mother, remarks that Safu has become so beautiful since they last met, but has it really been that long? Or did the trip abroad really change Safu that much? When Safu later walks through a park, she feels somehow disconnected from the other inhabitants of No.6. Although the world around her seems blissful and benign, Safu’s expression is nevertheless one of detachment; it’s as if she’s seeing No.6 in a completely different light. Literally, a wind then picks up and swirls around Safu.

The wind has been a key motif throughout the series. In the very first episode, Shion imagined himself disintegrating into a pile of leaves and being carried away by the wind. Last week, we watched as Shion and Nezumi danced as a wind swept dead leaves across the land. Likewise, a wind follows Safu.

There’s a chilling scene at the Twilight House when Safu notices that the windmills have stopped spinning. The place where old people go to die has no wind. Safu’s breath condenses in the cold, still air and this is significant. Literally, the place where old people go to die is cold. Safu’s breath, however, also juxtaposes her now living existence to the austere world around her. I wanted to screenshot her breath, but it’s difficult to see in a still image. If you haven’t seen the episode, take my word for it when I say it’s there.

When Safu sees her grandmother for the last time, there’s a stark contrast between the cold, featureless room and her grandmother’s coffin, which is covered in flowers. The flowers, then, represent a facade. They are shallow decorations that can barely cover up the emptiness of No.6. Safu questions whether or not her grandmother died happy, echoing her grandmother’s loaded statement from episode one. No amount of flowers can hide the fact that the old woman was lonely in her final years. Then when Safu sits amongst the fields of flowers at Twilight House, it must’ve hit her: her grandmother not only had nothing to do, she existed amongst nothingness — a nothingness flimsily covered up by vast fields and fields of meaningless flowers. Recall the “Macbeth” reading from the third episode: there is no fragrance out there that can cover up the stink of death.

Interestingly, her grandmother’s personal effects are nothing more than a blanket and a pair of glasses. The blanket no longer smells of anything as if the old woman had never existed as a symbolic grandmother. Don’t we sometimes cherish the old grandmother smell? I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s a common human experience. The fact that Safu can no longer identify her grandmother’s smell in the blanket represents how the grandmother lived an inhuman life that consisted of nothing but sitting amongst flowers until it was her time to go. On the other hand, the pair of glasses represents the window to the grandmother’s soul. If there was any last vestige of it, it is now one of the few personal remembrance that Safu has of her grandmother (the other being the knitting needle).

“This is everything?”

In Safu’s desperate search for Shion, including a visit to Shion’s mother, Safu finally realizes that she loves her childhood friend. No, she doesn’t wish to participate in an activity with Shion that is conducive to reproduction. She actually loves him now. Her trips abroad have changed her and this change coincides with an incoming storm. Much like how a storm heralded Shion’s encounter with Nezumi, a light rainstorm accompanies Safu’s realization. You can hear the thunder rolling in the distance just before Safu confesses her love; like Shion’s storm, the weather is an externalization of Safu’s feelings. Of course, it also foreshadows Safu’s eventual detainment by the Bureau of Public Security….

The contradictions of No.6
Just before Safu could enter No.6, she had to put on her identification bracelet again. She also had to hand over her art book of Picasso. This clearly demonstrates that the other cities are nothing like No.6, but it does raise a lot of questions. Do the other cities know how No.6 is treating its own people? If No.6 is so stringent on what is acceptable art and literature, why does it even allow its people to leave in the first place? Why would anyone return?

The implied threat of oppression

It seems awfully easy to escape this dystopian city, but to be fair, we must ask whether or not we’ve really seen No.6 do anything truly evil. We know that faceless men will quickly arrive at any sign of trouble, but what does this mean? We see the authorities banish Shion and his mother to “Lost Town,” but their new home still seemed pretty safe and cushy. We’ve seen the authorities attempt to haul Shion away to the correctional facility, which they’ve managed to do successfully with Safu, but what goes on there? We have no evidence whatsoever that No.6 is doing anything particularly nefarious.

No.6’s empty airport. I wish the San Francisco International Airport was this empty around the holidays.

This goes to show, then, that our paranoia of “big brother” and “1984” scenarios are so prevalent, we quickly assume the worst when faceless men drag Safu away kicking and screaming. Still, it seems anyone can come and go at any time and yet the airport is empty. We can understand why visitors might not come to No.6, but why aren’t people leaving either? Have the inhabitants honestly been brainwashed to such an extent that they don’t even want to go on vacations, much less escape?


10 Replies to “No.6 Ep. 6: Uncoupling binaries”

  1. Its a parasitic city with what appears to be a bee hive structure in its centre, which leads me to believe that the city is behind the parasitic bee epidemic (maybe). The opening song also has this hexagon pattern throughout, which again links to the hive in the city and the bees. That is about all I can get from this symbolism stuff, im not quite the astute observer as yourself, a hats off to you good sir!

    1. Well, the thing is that bees aren’t parasitic insects. So why is the bee so parasitic in this particular story?

      About the city being behind it all, they seem rather taken aback when that young woman died last week in the middle of the streets. It’s possible that the city is nevertheless responsible for the disease, but I’m not sure about this particular plot point yet.

  2. You hit it out of the park covering this episode’s content to the point I don’t have anything to add on that front. What I do have are just some stray comments on some of the nuances, so here goes:

    Directorial Technique: manipulating the setting and situation to include symbolic elements without it seeming forced. Used at least twice in this episode: (1) the “Safu’s gotten so pretty comment” (Karan really hasn’t seen Safu in ages, so it’s the natural thing to say *and* it has that subtext) and (2) the scrolling messages in the airport about the extra care for the elderly, expectant mothers, and those traveling with young children. Which takes us to:

    Safu’s / No. 6: when Safu’s walking around at first the imagery is specifically made up of (a) happy parents and their children and (b) happy old people; this imagery is announced in advance by the signs in the airport. This imagery makes Safu’s questions to Karan — “it’s all a lie, isn’t it?” — a bit more pointed than they seem on the surface. Which brings us to:

    Safu/Reproduction: what’s a nice touch here is that Safu just saw that No. 6 does an excellent job at enabling the performance of the reproductive function; just look at the happy parents with their happy children. She now discovers that it’s all a lie — something’s wrong with the city — and that’s also when she realizes she loves Shion (and doesn’t just want his sperm for purpose of reproduction). It’s a nice way to show she’s moved past her earlier “mechanical” outlook without actually saying as much, and it brings us to:

    Safu, Cont’d: What I particularly liked was the way that Safu remained recognizably Safu even after undergoing her character growth; she’s still the same one-of-a-kind headstrong oddball.

    Dogkeeper: she’s remaining a remarkably nuanced character despite how brief her appearances are. In particular in this episode when Shion states that the dead dog is her uncle the Dogkeeper is *surprised*; she’s not surprised that Shion’s taking her family seriously, she’s surprised because she seemingly hadn’t actually thought through her own family tree enough to realize that. It’s an interesting detail, and confirms the sense that the Dogkeeper’s not quite the simplistic character she could’ve been.

    Situational Blurriness: I still don’t quite get the study abroad aspect for the same reasons as you. Similarly I find the status quo vis-a-vis Shion/Nezumi/Dogkeeper/Rikiga a bit blurry, too. I suspect these semi plot-holes are likely due to having compressed the novels into such a short runtime.

    1. Re: how long it has been since Karan last saw Safu, this screenshot is the only reason I’m a little dubious. I figure Karan’s comment is something reserved for people who haven’t met in at least a year and I just didn’t get the impression that Safu had been away that long. Of course, this could also just be another limitation of the medium (i.e. difficulty showing subtle aging).

      this imagery is announced in advance by the signs in the airport

      Ah, that’s very clever. I didn’t even bother to look at the airport sign! I think your comments on Safu are on point so I don’t have anything to add there.


      Well, why do you think she hasn’t thought about her family tree that way? I figure that she does at least acknowledge that she isn’t a dog so while she’s close enough to her “mother” to call her a mother, she’s not about to call a relative an uncle.

      Similarly I find the status quo vis-a-vis Shion/Nezumi/Dogkeeper/Rikiga a bit blurry, too

      I would make the assumption that there hasn’t been that much of a time lapse — a few months at best — so that might explain why these guys seem rather static. But you’re right, this could simply be the anime being rushed.

      1. Karan/Safu: I didn’t want to get into it but I think that some of those screenshots (and the related imagery) are either scenes from a few years back or of Shion’s imagination of the future (with Safu) he’s leaving behind when he runs away from No. 6. It’s ambiguous visually b/c Safu is kinda ageless, but that does look like “young Shion” more than “old Shion”. The other evidence is that IIRC the interactions in that episode between Shion and Safu come across as if that was the first time they’d seen *each other* in a few years, and I just figured Safu hadn’t visited Karan that day either. Same topic came up in that episode’s comments so best to leave it at that I think.

        Dogkeeper: I’d like to think she somewhat-deliberately uses her “dog family” as a rhetorical club to give her an excuse to attack people; essentially she knows people will mock her for it, which gives her an excuse to attack them, which keeps things simple for her, because she doesn’t really have “friends”, just customers and enemies. I might be reading too much into her; she does have rapid-fire mood switches that seem like there’s a reason for them but it could also be sloppy writing. Oh well. Another week and still No. 6 mostly holds up really well.

        1. Karan/Safu

          Yeah, I remember our discussion on that now.


          Well, Rikiga did insinuate that Dogkeeper would go to great lengths to get supplies. Even if she does turn around and sell them to her customers, I’m not sure she’s using her dogs as a way to pick fights.

          1. Last comment until next week.

            Thinking the Dogkeeper over a bit more I think I’m probably reading more into her than is really there. The deal with her is that she has maybe three distinct modes of speaking: (1) a “theatrical” mode, where she’s typically being rude but with a benevolent, bemused tone; (2) a “dangerous” mode, where she’s threatening and/or picking fights; and (3) a “serious” mode, where she’s quiet and reflective.

            She flits between those modes pretty quickly, sometimes sentence-to-sentence. I’ve been seeing this as character complexity — particularly the rapid-fire tone shifts — of the form “she’s comfortable in (1) and uncomfortable in (3) so uses (2) as a way to get back to (1)”, but I’m starting to think it’s more an artifact of the show’s quick narrative pace.

  3. I follow your blog since quite a while with great interest. Regarding your post on this episode of No. 6, I would like to comment on the problems you had to reconcile the studying abroad with the system of No. 6. Baring a few inconsistencies, No.6 is not really so different from the real life “dictatures” of today such as China. Safu’s studies abroad actually remindeded me of what an acquaintance of mine has told me about Chinese students abroad. Sure, they are allowed to study, but in the end, they are not expected to question the realities or the official line of thinking in their homeland or to refuse a return, mostly because their families at home could suffer the consequences. I guess that No. 6 is partially modelled on modern China, in addition to the classics of dystopian literature.

    “Have the inhabitants honestly been brainwashed to such an extent that they don’t even want to go on vacations, much less escape?”

    It also seems that travelling between the different “Numbers” can only be done by flying, and that means access to travelling can be limited to either people who might have family in the other “Numbers” or to preselected people like Safu who are not expected to defect, because of their previous record. The waiting elder woman actually reminded me of my own experiences with a dictature, because in the former East Germany only the elderly were allowed to travel out of the country in larger numbers. (Yes, I’m already that old ,)). So, while the lack of travelling could be a result of brainwashing, it could also be a consequence of screening processes.

    1. I’m hesitant to make any extensive comparisons to China. There’s a potential pitfall here of mischaracterizing a culture few of us have seen from the inside out. Of course, if you do have personal experiences of China from the inside, then by all means, enlighten the rest of us. I do understand the point you’re getting at, though, in attempting to compare No.6 to China.

      So, while the lack of travelling could be a result of brainwashing, it could also be a consequence of screening processes.

      Well, if that’s the case, they really dropped the ball on Safu then. Plus, it never struck me that she necessarily bought into the No.6 system and message. To me, she simply didn’t have competing viewpoints to suggest that No.6 is nefarious. Once she saw the world outside No.6, I think it was just a matter of time before she changed. I simply think the fainting spell merely acted as a catalyst.

      1. “I’m hesitant to make any extensive comparisons to China. ”

        yes, that’s probably going too far, I just wanted to point out that a government can on one side try to limit their citizen’s access to information, but also allow them to visit other places.

        “Plus, it never struck me that she necessarily bought into the No.6 system and message.”

        But maybe, she appeared that way, because she was always very diligent as a student. However, it’s true that we don’t have as much information, so it’s appealing to fill the blank spaces with our own experiences and our knowledge.

        I do agree with you that the world as presented in the anime lacks a bit of meat, but nonetheless, many things seem plausible to me.

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