Monday, 2 March 2009

Separate but not equal: Kemono no Souja Erin

The town of Ake, where much of the action in fantasy anime Kemono no Souja Erin takes place, is established early on as being isolated. It is described as being far from the battlefront where the touda lizards they raise are used to defend the kingdom; the marriage of one of the town's daughters to a man from another town requires that she leave home, with the prospect of future contact with her family unlikely; the appearance of a soldier from another clan with an injured touda meets with reluctant acceptance only once the Grand Duke's seal is shown; finally, the "mist people" of whom Erin's mother Soyon is one, are shown to be distrusted by the townspeople.

Soyon, having married the son of the town's chief and continued to work diligently as a doctor looking after the touda after her husband's death, is treated in a friendly way by most people, although in her first appearance in episode 1 she is pegged as being different by a passer-by in a short snippet of hastily-shushed backchat. This proves to be a theme underlying her relationship with the town. She and her daughter are liked but not accepted.

The primary antagonist in the early stages of the story is Wadan, another doctor in the town, although one of considerably less talent and considerably more self-regard, and it is he that provides the main voice for the prejudice and discrimination against Soyon and Erin. That despite Wadan's obvious asshattery and Soyon's clearly professional and gentle manner, her status in the village is constantly seen to be under threat while Wadan's appears unassailable, speaks of the high regard in which the townspeople hold the concepts of continuity, community cohesion and equilibrium.

No good deed goes unpunished

Soyon's attitude to her position as an outsider is to take a supplicatory stance at all times. In episode 5, when Erin protests at the townspeople stealing the touda eggs from their mother, Soyon goes down onto her knees to begs Wadan for forgiveness for her daughter's transgression. In the same scene, she shows no hint of pride or anger when Wadan lays the blame for Erin's behaviour on her mother's foreign blood. In the end, Soyon suffers for Erin's outburst and Erin suffers through guilt at having caused trouble for her mother. Within the context of the narrative it is Erin who is the villain for upsetting the equilibrium and Soyon who is the heroine for reasserting it. Even though the equilibrium itself is one that allows the bigoted Wadan to mistreat the two outsiders, the implication is that the greater good outweighs individual justice. Wadan must be pacified; the outsiders must take their knocks and feel thankful that they are allowed to stay at all.

In episode 6, when the senior townspeople gather to decide who should take responsibility for the deaths, by an unknown cause, of some of the town's toudas, Wadan uses this as an excuse to further press his vendetta against Soyon, and again Soyon's attitude is submissive. The audience is invited to hate Wadan for his arrogance, pettiness and vindictiveness, and on the flipside, we are asked to respect Soyon for the humble way she accepts her fate.

The sound that makes no sound

One of Kemono no Souja Erin's most striking features is the way each episode takes specific images and intercuts them with the main story in the form of visual punctuation, with each image providing a metaphor or a reflection on the main events of that episode. Central to this is the idea of the mute whistle. The mute whistle is inaudible to humans but has the ability to exert control over the touda, and it's tempting to suggest that this is a conscious metaphor for Kemono no Souja Erin's approach to storytelling, where what is unspoken is often of the greatest significance.

As Soyon is talking to Erin after throwing her mute whistle into the furnace, the camera cuts to the bath house, full of the town's citizens. The symbolism here is twofold. The whistle is the symbol of Soyon's position as the town doctor, and as it burns, it heats the water that enables the town's citizens to bathe communally together in peace. Soyon's sacrifice of her position therefore serves the greater good of the town's equilibrium. This image also serves to underline the isolation of Soyon and Erin, first sitting alone outside the bath house, and then bathing alone together afterwards. No one says any unkind words to them as they enter; the understanding that as outsiders they were never truly part of the community is merely accepted.

The way the evening is presented is ripe with hints and messages that are unspoken yet increasingly clear. Soyon's punishment is not described and yet everyone except Erin seems to understand what it is. After the meeting with the senior townspeople, Soyon is left free to continue her day as usual, and yet hints of what is to come abound. Soyon gives Erin a bracelet that she received from her own mother, which Erin instinctively understands as having been a parting gift for when Soyon left her home (although perhaps not seeing its significance in relation to herself now). While cooking the evening dinner, Soyon gently explains, step by step, how the dish is prepared. Finally, at night Soyon and Erin are shown sleeping together in the same futon; however, in a payoff to earlier scenes in the series where Erin is shown crawling under Soyon's covers, here Soyon is under Erin's cover. They symbolism here is the most significant moment of the whole episode: Soyon is positioning herself as the outsider in her own home, and passing ownership and responsibility for that home onto her daughter.

Armed men take Soyon away at dawn. Erin (for now) remains in the town, treated with the same kindness by the citizens that she always has. Equilibrium has been restored.