There are a great many adjectives one could use to describe Sawa: fierce, focused, driven, deadly, merciless, inscrutable, intimidating, and most of all, vengeful—albeit justifiably so, (right?) since she’s the protagonist. But there’s one more key descriptor I must highlight: Sawa is also self-aware. That is, she is fully aware of what she has become. And it is this awareness that determines her entire existence, much to her detriment.
In 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul writes that “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” In other words, as poet William Blake phrased it,
“We become what we behold.”
And Sawa has become her enemy, Janome. This fact, and Sawa’s admission of it, are made clear in episode two. But the full implications don’t hit until episode five, when Sawa suddenly finds herself without the version of “glory” she’s been focused on all this time, now that her lifelong quest for vengeance has been fulfilled (and only four episodes in—what a shocker!).
Having killed Janome, Sawa no longer knows how to live. Her activities as a Nue agent, working in the shadows to exterminate opponents of the Tokugawa regime, now horrify and sicken her. Killing and violence has lost its purpose, and faced by her own inhumanity, she wants to simply fade away. She avoids work and stops eating.
Without Janome and her revenge to behold, what will Sawa become?
Her plan is actually to die, in a sense by her own hand. Or more specifically, by the hand of the little girl she has taken in and instructed in the ways of assassination—or at least tried to. Sawa killed Asahi’s parents while tracking down Janome, and subsequently adopted the girl, who is about the same age as Sawa herself was when Janome slaughtered her village. She did it not out of penance, but out of unflinching self-awareness: rather than justify herself with the excuse of self-defense (which it technically was, except for the vast difference in skill level…), Sawa confronts her culpability and extends to Asahi the right to vengeance that she herself has been living by all these years. Sawa is no hypocrite.
But here’s where her self-awareness is flawed: Sawa can only see Asahi as a younger version of herself. And what’s more, she can only see her through the lens of her own desire for revenge against the one who killed her parents. She assumes that this is true for Asahi as well, when anyone with eyes and ears not fixed on Janome can see that this is not at all the case. Asahi’s flashbacks help clarify this too, revealing that the girl was orphaned long before Sawa’s blade cut her parents down: neglected, beaten and exploited by those who should have protected her. Unexpectedly, it is actually Sawa who has been her protector, though Sawa is not in a place where she is able to grasp this. Or to stop imagining the reflection of her own drive for revenge in Asahi’s eyes.
Sawa’s obsession has narrowed and restricted her view of reality to such an extent that she can only understand it through the paradigm of vengeance, an eye for an eye. She’s been beholding a destructive force, and it has rewritten her sense of self. Its corruptive influence even contorts how she is able to show affection. When Asahi clings to her, sobbing, Sawa’s expression softens momentarily before hardening again as she takes Asahi’s tiny hand, lifts it up to her (Sawa’s) carotid artery, and tells the girl to “aim for here”. The only way Sawa knows to comfort a crying child is to tell her precisely how to exact revenge. (And no wonder, since she herself was adopted and trained in this way by Yoshinobu, the head of Nue, who is exploiting her powers for his own ends.)
Sadly, Sawa can only perceive of her life, purpose, and destiny in terms of death. And the bookends of the episode reveal that Asahi does ultimately poison Sawa, although somewhat under duress as it is not what she wants.
But this will not be the end of Sawa and Asahi’s story. (Theory: Tsukishino, the supplier of the poison, has revealed herself to be nothing if not utterly capricious and contrarian in her ways, so there’s no doubt the “poison” is not at all lethal. I daresay that it is instead designed to trigger the semblance of death, with Tsukishino intending a harebrained scheme of faking Sawa’s death without her consent and forcing her to save herself from the perilous path she is on—and completely oblivious to until now—as a pawn of Yoshinobu and Nue. Time will tell!)
In the next episode, when Sawa is “reborn”—and she will be, given the overpowering symbolism of the OP, which has Sawa surrounded in lycoris flowers or spider lilies, representative of death and reincarnation—her new story will begin, and she will have the choice to behold and become something different. Certainly, the action plot will revolve around dealing with Yoshinobu and Nue, but the emotional character arc will center on this decision of what to behold and become.
The key to her discovery of new life will be her brother, Takeru. In episode four, it turned out that Janome had in fact kept him alive all these years, preserving him as a Christ-like figure suspended in cruciform above Janome’s gargantuan pipe organ (!). The villain was bent on draining and replicating Takeru’s blood in order to save Japan (somehow?). What is more, Janome’s lair is decorated with reproductions of European religious art, including a depiction of the crucifixion that is associated with Takeru through meaningful montage. It is this painting that Sawa, seemingly in shock, fixates on as the world around her succumbs to hellish flames and her brother lies dying at the beginning of episode five. In a final act of sacrifice, he tells her to live, that she is no longer alone, and pushes her toward Asahi as the ceiling collapses on him.
It is her brother/Christ whom she must behold if she is to become someone who is finally able to live, if she is going to find a purpose that is no longer the dead end of revenge, but is instead generative, full of hope and a future. The transformative power of this shift in beholding is already hinted at in this episode: the fleeting tenderness visible in Sawa during her conversation with the crying Asahi comes about as she recalls her brother’s final words, “Sawa, you’re are not alone anymore.” It is his parting truth that will set her free.
Sawa must behold her onii-chan so that she may truly become Asahi’s onee-chan. This is what it will take to rewrite her condemnatory self-awareness and transform her—in her own eyes, and in earnest—from the image of her enemy, Janome, into who she was meant to be long before vengeance got its ugly hold on her—a beloved sister.
I for one cannot wait to see her rebirth.
Joran The Princess of Snow and Blood can be streamed on Crunchyroll. It’s a pretty wild ride, but worth it!