This week, Kageki Shojo!! surprised me more than the two exclamation marks in its title convey: it went far deeper than I ever expected of a series about an all-girls theatre training school. In fact, it may just have set itself up as a spiritual heir to Wonder Egg Priority, only engaging with its troubling subject matter in a less fantastical way, and with what looks to be the hope for a happier ending for Ai “Naracchi” Narata than for the egg girls. Kageki Shojo!! may just prove to be an even more meaningful continuation of the conversation started back in the winter season about those things we don’t talk about, in the tale of that other blue-haired, reserved, friendless girl named Ai.
This week’s episode of Kageki Shojo!! revealed that there was a great deal more behind Ai’s fear of men than what was shown in the premiere. It turns out that her time as Naracchi of idol group JPX48 was born of Ai’s first attempt to escape to the perceived safety of an all-girl environment; she simply didn’t think things through fully and make the connection that the intended audience for such a group was of course middle-aged men—the precise demographic she was fleeing. Because, you see, Ai’s home had become unsafe.
Her mother, an actress who was often away filming on location, welcomed a man into their house who sexually abused Ai in her mother’s absence. Her mother normalized his behavior when her daughter tried to tell her of his inappropriate actions, though to be fair, Ai didn’t manage to articulate the full extent of the abuse. Ai’s uncle Taichi did make an attempt (one that I would deem rather weak) to safeguard Ai by installing a lock on her bedroom door, which seems to have kept her relatively safe, physically—though not at all from the psychological and emotional damage that living with a predator entails. In other words, Ai lived with a stalker in her own home for several years—a trauma that her encounters with creepy male fans only exacerbated. Her enrollment at the Kouka school is her second, better thought-out escape plan, considering that Kouka fans are mostly women.
The way that the episode handles little Ai’s response to what happens to her is absolutely heart-rending. And then as she grows up, the fact that she is never able to tell anyone what has happened to her, and the toll this takes on her—the increasing isolation, the violence of her thoughts toward men—all this is depicted with such palpable rawness, yet without sensationalizing anything. Ai’s whole world collapses in on her and is quietly smothering her.
Ai’s backstory took things to a much more serious place than I anticipated from this otherwise cheery theatre-girl anime. From the moment the yellow plaid clad stalker was introduced in the closing shot of the first episode, I expected this sub-plot to play out quite differently, with a frisson of tension, but ultimately verging on the humorous. I thought that the stalker would appear one day when Sarasa was handy, and she would play the knight in shining seifuku (sailor uniform) and scare the guy off with her towering height and gangly limbs, maybe with an intimidating kabuki stance thrown into the mix. In so doing, she would break down Ai’s walls and a fast friendship would be born, solving Ai’s problems in an episode. In other words, I thought that Pine Jam would use Ai’s trauma as a plot device; as a tidy little arc of crisis and resolution to drive the story forward and bring the two MCs together in a facile demonstration of the power of a positive attitude and an energetic gesture to overcome a tsundere’s hard outer shell. I thought it would play out like in any other anime.
When the stalker reappears at the Kouka campus and Ai flees to the safety of her uncle Taichi, an instructor at the school, he lends her a sympathetic ear just as he did when she was small, but he does not really take the situation very seriously. Instead of trying to help her, he is quite happy to palm her off on Sarasa Watanabe. The whole moment is set up like a typical “plot device” scene: Taichi had just been asking Sarasa to befriend his niece, whom he’d teased earlier in the episode about her distinct lack of friends and particular dislike for her roommate, the lanky, loud Sarasa.
When Ai arrives in a state of abject terror, she brings with her the solution to Taichi’s plotting: now is the moment for Sarasa to step into the role of heroic friend. Both Taichi and Sarasa are eager to use Ai’s crisis as an opportunity to force friendship on her, and presumably lead her along the path toward becoming an acceptably socialized, cheerful teenager.
Ai is not as enthusiastic about Taichi and Sarasa’s solution as they are…
All does not go according to plan. The stalker appears again as the two girls are walking to the dorm, and is so nervous that his exact intent is unclear. Is he seeking revenge on Ai, as she believes? Is he still obsessed with her and intent on kidnapping her? Or is he there to apologize, having realized that Ai was fired from the idol group over his inappropriate behavior toward her? He cannot get his words out, so we don’t know for certain. We do know how Ai reads the encounter though, and she is terrified. Amid the confusion, Sarasa’s attempt to play the hero, the Oscar-sama she so aspires to be, falls flat as the man stands there dumbfounded and Ai runs away in panic.
In the closing moments of the episode, Sarasa’s bewilderment and her growing uncertainty as to whether perhaps she too should be afraid of this man, show plainly on her face and in her indecision as to whether to accept Ai’s schoolbag from him (which Ai dropped when fleeing the first time), or turn and run after Ai. In this episode, Sarasa is no hero and friendship does not save the day.
How real is that, right? When confronted with a friend’s trauma like this, the confusion, the uncertainty about what to do or say to help—it’s real.
Trauma is never just a plot device or a character trait in real life, in the story that God crafts for our lives and this world. It’s not a label or identity, dooming us to be confined to a narrowed experience of life. That may be what the enemy intends, but it’s not God’s purpose. No, trauma isn’t something that God instigates in order to use it for his own plan, making us suffer to teach us a lesson or give us a testimony. While he absolutely does turn what the enemy intends for evil into something that ultimately brings blessing—redeeming our victimhood as much as he redeems our sins—he first sits with us in the hurt and the fear, dwelling and abiding with us there, catching our tears and shedding his own with us too.
My favorite description of Jesus is in Isaiah 61:1-4. It tells us that Jesus came expressly to give hope and a new life to the abused and traumatized. To overturn the kind of narrowed existence, confinement, and oppression that we see playing out in Ai’s young life in this episode. To be the Oscar-sama who not only stands to defend us against triggers and repeated trauma, but who, in the spirit, can go back with us to that place of deep wounding and tend those hurts too, even if they happened long ago. This is part of what it means to invite Jesus into our lives: he is able to come into our pasts too and bring healing to the old scars, redeem the years lost to fear and pain, and open up a life for us so full in the here and now that it overflows. He did it for Job, for the Samaritan woman at the well, for the prostitutes and tax collectors whom he named as his friends. He does it for you and me.
God does not use traumatic experiences to manipulate us into becoming the people he wants us to be, which is a bit like what Taichi and Sarasa try to do when Ai comes to them for help. This is what Ai’s uncle and prospective friend need to learn if they truly want to help Ai: how to be people who will abide with Ai in the pain and fear instead of trying to just magically fix it. And I hope that Pine Jam will let them. I think that it just might.
It seems to me that Kageki Shojo!! is set to take Ai, along with uncle Taichi and Sarasa, on a journey that will properly walk out her fears, their origins, and finding freedom and healing in the midst of them, rather than sweeping it all away in a single heroic gesture.
I have a lot of hope for Ai and for the healing potential of Pine Jam’s treatment of the issue of childhood abuse and trauma in this series.
I have hope for Ai because of the shot near the end of the OP, where she is pictured some time in the future, smiling. She has grown her hair out again—a testament to her healing, since cutting her hair short was the marker of when abuse introduced fear into her life and heart so horrifically, and when, in an attempt to cope, she began to redesign herself around the goal of putting men off, reinforced by her stony expression and fearsome reserve.
I have hope for what Pine Jam is doing here because the studio hasn’t resolved Ai’s issues in the same episode where it laid them out in full. The writers did not give us a happy ending this episode. I am hopeful because the episode instead just stumbles to a stop. It isn’t a cliffhanger—no one is imperiled—but everything is left unresolved. And to me, that lack of resolution speaks of the most thoughtful, sensitive kind of treatment of trauma in storytelling, be it anime or live-action film or television: a patient willingness to sit in discomfort and uncertainty with a character, and hold off from rushing into tidy solutions.
Unlike for the egg girls in Wonder Egg Priority, this Ai’s monster is not going to be slain in a single dream-like confrontation, the deed of a lone rescuer. Instead, it is going to take time, community, and the permission for Ai herself to become the hero in her own story. (Wait a second…this is starting to sound familiar! And all the better for it.)
In short, I like where this is going. But what about you? Have you been watching Kageki Shojo!!, and if so, what did you think of this episode?
Kageki Shojo!! can be streamed on Funimation.