This now infamous episode doesn’t deserve its notoriety, or at least its censorship. (I’m curious as to what was modified, actually. Anyone know?) Instead it’s a rather interesting, albeit short, meditation on whether one needs to be depressed in order to commit suicide–and what that implies about how we view death and dying.
My first, immediate reaction to Sen killing himself basically just to know what it feels like was “nihilist.” It kind of reminded me of the Leopold and Loeb murder case, where two Nietzsche-influenced friends decide to commit a crime for its own sake, to have the experience. Or like the recent mall shooter who declared in his suicide note, “now I’ll be famous.” I thought about it a little bit more, however, and I think that immediate reaction was somewhat unfair. The examples I thought of were murder, not suicide. The thing that death represents to both the viewpoint character, Kotake, and to Sen is the Great Unknown; it’s, more than anything else, curiosity that drives one of them to speculate and one to take action. (This is one instance where curiosity really did kill, I suppose.) In Sen’s case it wasn’t even a curiosity so much about death as what it’s like to jump, period. Perhaps it’s not too dissimilar to the daredevil or extreme sports impulse there. Never mind the emotional damage that his death leaves behind…
What’s really interesting is society’s reaction to the death. Here the episode seems a little bit overblown, as I can’t imagine the local news turning the suicide into a major news item prior to the hostage situation unless it is extraordinarily rare–and from what I know, Japan’s student suicide rate is appallingly high. But what everyone hungers for is a reason; they find it so hard to believe that a suicide couldn’t be motivated by some extreme condition. Some pathologies of modern Japan are named: bullying, abusive or neglectful parents. Sen’s father can’t believe it either and holds the students hostage to find out the reason. It can’t be just…because it happened. That would make his death seem frightfully meaningless. The father feels this most keenly, and understandably so. Having a standard explanation would be a kind of comfort. It would, for one, give him someone to blame, which is exactly what he is looking for by taking the students hostage.
But what stands out as the threads are unraveled in the Shigofumi is not only the hard truth that it simply just happened. It’s also striking about how emotionally detached Kotake, Kaname, and the letter itself is. Kotake says, for instance, that what the experience taught him is that he, Kaname, and Sen were not really close friends after all; they just hung out together, barely knowing anything about what was going on in Sen’s head. As a result, he can’t get terribly worked up by it. The melodramatic twist that other anime might provide at this point is to reveal Sen’s horrific inner secrets, but perhaps it’s more shocking and artistically daring to discover that he had none after all. The three acquaintances are thus deprived of any typical emotional response other than what we see: numbness. I almost detected shades of the first half of Albert Camus’ The Stranger here, especially the tone of its opening lines:
Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours. That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.
The TV talking heads even speculate that it was “Apathy Syndrome,” and perhaps that is closest to the truth–but even that’s not quite right. It’s not even ordinary apathy so much as a studied indifference, a state of not caring whether one lives or dies. The episode shows that this is still such a rare, unsettling thing that it produces both extreme reactions and lots of attention. But in an odd way, in their detached reactions, Kotake and Kaname understand Sen better than anyone else. Especially Kotake, given that the letter was addressed to him, and it was his idle speculation that indirectly set the wheels in motion in Sen’s head.
It looks like this is a one-off episode, so we probably won’t be following these characters anymore–save for the shocking possible revelation about our favorite letter carrier. Perhaps we will find out how one really gets employed by the Gospel Union after all, and whether that gun is standard issue!