Sing “Yesterday” for Me is one of the moodier anime of recent years, but it is also a thoughtful one, particularly when it examines the hold that longing can have on our lives. The Christmas episodes (9 and 10) advance this theme further. It’s Christmas, after all, a time when feelings are heightened, including those that may be more depressing and gloomy than the usual joyous ones that tend to mark the season. And everyone in Sing “Yesterday” for Me is feeling the blues.
The series follows the lives and loves of four interrelated characters, including old college friends Rikuo and Shinako; Haru, a young woman whose chance encounter with Rikuo changed her life; and teenager Rou, whose now-deceased brother was Shinako’s boyfriend. The opening scene of episode nine features Shinako cooking for Rou, who desperately wants her to move past the memory of his older brother and accept him as a romantic replacement. But Shinako doesn’t see him that way. She even struggles to view Rikuo as a possible lover, even though he has been pursuing her and she, in turn, is developing romantic feelings for him.
For his part, Rikuo is obsessed with Shinako. Even as he develops a new passion for photography and just generally tries to focus on things and people other than her, Rikuo’s thoughts turn toward Shinako. He revisits old photographs of her, and can’t help but fall into nostalgia while longing to be with her now.
And then there’s Haru, who is as obsessed with Rikuo as he is with Shinako, if not more. Despite his disinterest, she just can’t let him go. Haru is barely an adult and it shows, as she exhibits a lack of control over her emotions and actions while trying to learn how to better respond to Rikuo’s constant rejection.
Eventually, she succumbs to her feelings for Rikuo once again, and shows up at his doorstep. Though Rikuo invites her in after she hugs him, the evening doesn’t end well.
All four characters are longing for something they desperately want but can’t have. Their hearts are each set on the one thing that they believe will bring them happiness, the one thing that will fulfill their lives. But even as they make changes in their lives that would normally constitute character growth, they instead continue to feel a sense of lack, and it’s only getting worse even as they draw nearer to meeting their desires.
This is because what the characters are doing here is worshiping, but worshiping the wrong thing. They’re making idols of others, of memories, of the past even, and they’re trying to find meaning through pursuing these desires:
“If only I could finally be in a relationship with Shinako…”
“If only Rikuo would see me in the same light he sees senpai…”
“If only she would look at me as she did my older brother…”
“If only we could be a family again…”
But when worship is misplaced, it can’t bring lasting fulfillment. So even as they move a few steps closer to turning their longings into reality, the four just find more angst and pain. Worshiping anything less than the holy and perfect God results in a life that’s less than whole and fulfilling. You can’t find perfection in something or someone that isn’t perfect.
The Christmas story speaks directly to this same feeling of misplaced desperation. Was there ever so desperate a situation, after all, as for the people of Israel two thousand years ago, when they were living under the occupation of a brutal empire? They’d been praying for the Messiah to deliver them from foreign rule for hundreds and hundreds and years. But they, too, were longing for something imperfect. Like their ancestors before them, they wanted an earthly king to bring them political freedom, instead of the perfect heavenly king that God had in mind to grant them spiritual freedom.
But there was one Israelite who got it just right! In the Nunc dimittis, Simeon’s song upon seeing baby Jesus, we see the worship of something—someone—true, and the fulfillment that brings:
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”
“You may now dismiss your servant…” Simeon is ready to pass on after seeing the babe because the one thing promised him, the one thing he has hoped for, has come to pass. He has seen the Messiah. While Simeon’s longing is just as deep as any Israelite’s, he understands that Jesus’ coming is not about overthrowing an earthly empire. The song doesn’t mention Rome at all. Instead, Jesus will be “a light” for all nations. As the angels declared to the shepherds on Christmas, his birth would “cause great joy for all the people.” Israel wasn’t going to receive someone like King David, who would reconquer the Promised Land. They were receiving a king who would fulfill the promise to give new life and a new way of living to all who believe.
Israel had gotten it wrong. So, too, have Rikuo, Haru, and the rest.
They are desperate for the wrong things, for longings that can’t fulfill them. Haru sees a relationship with Rikuo as a fated love and one where he is her savior, and she might be his support. Rikuo wants a new start, a redo at life, and it begins with his lost love, Shinako. Rou wants to show Shinako (and maybe himself too) that he can be like his brother, a man worthy of love. And Shinako wants to preserve her memories and her adoptive family, while also finding a way forward. Each character sees an idealized version of how to fulfill these longings in their minds. And for each, the pursuit of that ideal becomes the purpose and goal. It’s what will make them whole.
Sound familiar? It does for me. When pressed by the challenges and pains of this life, I look to people and situations that I feel will meet my needs. If only I could get a better job. If only I could get into that academic program. If only that person would see me for who I am. Then, my life would be perfect.
But when I do that, I’m seeking imperfect things based on imperfect feelings and thoughts that will lead to an imperfect conclusion, just like the characters of Sing “Yesterday” For Me. Meanwhile, there is one who is perfect and holy, who knows precisely what I need. He is also love, and he will provide.
One of the most startling things about God is exactly that. Even though he is the creator of the very universe, though he holds the world and the stars and the cosmos in his hands, God is concerned about our well-being and helps us thrive despite our circumstances. He promises to fulfill us as we follow him.
And as we do, the very greatness of God is on display in our personal lives. Whatever else we seek, God is better. Whatever we love, God loves us more. Whatever we need, God provides. And no matter how dark the way becomes, God gives us light.
On Christmas, we celebrate that light. Jesus’ birth is the fulfillment of God’s promise to be with us, to save us—yes, to salvation and Heaven one day, but also in the here and now. We don’t need to look to idols to save us. We don’t need an earthly king like Israel hoped for or an idealized version of a relationship to bring us fulfillment.
Christmas helps us to remember: In toil and strife, we only need the one who came as a baby in the manger to find peace, meaning, and contentment. In whatever circumstances this life brings, he fills the longing. He provides what we need. He is God with us, Emmanuel.
This post is part of an annual series entitled, “The 12 Days of Christmas Anime.” Join us from December 14th through the 25th, as each day we examine an episode of anime (or sometimes a movie, manga, or light novel!) set at Christmastime and see what it brings to mind about the holiday as celebrate the birth of Christ, who was born to set us free.
Sing “Yesterday” for Me can be streamed on Crunchyroll.