I’m resigned to the fact that this series will never be recognized as the classic it was, but that doesn’t diminish its greatness one bit.
Everything that’s magical about “Mysterious Girlfriend X” is summed up in that last scene in the cemetery where Akira and Mikoto visit his Mother’s grave. It’s a miracle, a paradox, a seeming impossibility – how can a scene where two teenagers suck on each other’s drool possibly be so moving and emotionally pure? MGX is the proof that you can’t judge an anime on first impressions alone. The series is so nuanced, so full of subtext and hidden meaning – and the drool metaphor itself turns out to be one of the cleverest literary devices I’ve seen in anime for a long time. A load of credit to the mangaka Ueshiba-sensei, but also to director Watanabe Ayumu for making some incredibly good decisions about how to go about adapting the manga.
The entire finale was a great example of how MGX confounds expectations at every turn, always going just a little bit deeper and more thoughtful than you expect. It was sober, reflective and emotional – full of nostalgia and memory and ultimately joy. Much of the first half is spent in the company of Youko-san (Fukuen Misato is fast becoming one of my favorites), who we haven’t spent much time with. Tsubaki arrives home to find her asleep and drooling, and the question this prompts for him – “do you have a boyfriend?” – sets her off down memory lane. In fact, she’d been dreaming of her time in high school with her sweetheart Arima (Eguchi Takuya) and she has her own romantic association with drool, connected to him.
The chance meeting between Youko and Urabe in town felt very natural. Urabe was shy and hesitant, aching to tell Youko about her relationship with Akira even before Youko asked directly about her brother’s social life. For Youko seeing Mikoto in her school uniform is just another reminder of the past that’s been much on her mind. We learn a bit more about her, and the sacrifices she’s made since her mother’s passing. Her father (Kawashima Tokuyoshi) and her brother encourage her to think of her own future, telling her that they’ll be fine on their own – but Youko has promised their late mother that she’ll act as Akira’s mother until he’s out of college and settled in a good job. The sibling relationship in this episode is wonderfully realistic, with Youko determinedly trying to learn more of her brother’s life – asking him for examples of what he’d told their mother while praying at the grave (which he isn’t about to provide). I wish we’d gotten a little more background on their father, but he remains a background figure, absent for the entire series until this point.
It was a fascinating choice to close the series with an episode whose focus seems so different from the rest of the series, but in reality it makes perfect sense. For Urabe this chance meeting has a huge impact, for several reasons. For starters, hearing about how Youko and Arima drifted apart after graduating makes her much more aware of the fragility of her relationship with Tsubaki. But this is also an opportunity for her to get closer to him, in her unusual way. Urabe is, as Tsubaki says, “a girl who often makes no sense” (sums up the theme of the series pretty well, actually) but though her methods are always odd, she’s actually quite normal in terms of her true feelings and her emotional needs.
I think the key moment of the episode was when Tsubaki told Urabe that he had no memory of his mother’s death, not even of being sad. With Urabe everything is about confronting your true emotions, and this clearly strikes her as both sad and fundamentally wrong. She asks him to visit the grave with her in part to grow closer to her, yes, but also to help Tsubaki come to understand his own feelings and embrace the memory of his mother, even if it makes him sad. That’s the show in microcosm right there – the problem in our lives isn’t too much communication, it’s too little. The small miracle she engineers by sharing drool with Tsubaki while he touches his mother’s grave is unique and quite unlike anything I’ve seen before, and a very powerful moment for all the emotional weight it carries. Mikoto and Akira share all the sadness and joy of the memory he’d suppressed – the tears he shed at losing his mother, and the joy he felt in knowing that his father and sister loved him so much and would always take care of him. With that shared moment and the emotional growth it brings to Tsubaki and their relationship, they can go forward – to “even bolder things”, as she promises – and the new Sakura blossoms bloom as they do every Spring. The future is always right in front of us, urging us forward no matter what happens in our lives.
If Jormungand is a perfect example of how to succeed by doing a note-faithful adaptation of a manga, Nazo no Kanojo X is a perfect example of how to make an anime that’s even better than the source material by means of wise and judicious changes. Watanabe-sensei adapted chapters from all over the manga (still ongoing) – adapting chapters completely out of sequence, and combining those from different volumes into single episodes. But this isn’t just a “best of” collection – it’s clear now, in hindsight, that the ordering of the chapters was carefully planned out to produce a narrative that flowed seamlessly. It’s almost hard to believe Ueshiba didn’t write the stories in this order, because the series a whole feels entirely cohesive and the progression of the relationship totally natural.
It’s amazing that Watanabe-san can direct two such radically different shows like MGX and Uchuu Kyoudai in the same season. But it’s also amazing that his entire career in anime prior to now was in the Doraemon franchise. This is clearly a director of real talent, and while I love both his shows this season this is the one that really allows him to show his stylistic chops off to the audience. Above and beyond matters of content Watanabe has shown an impressive sense of style in bringing Ueshiba’s strange universe to life on screen. I love the dream sequences he’s crafted, and I love the way he’s turned the show’s retro, 80’s look almost into a character in its own right. No show this season has been as much pure fun to look at, with characters whose faces speak a thousand words, and to listen to – both the soundtrack and the lead performances are among the best of the year. Irino Miyu is at his polished best, as always extracting every drop of genuine emotion from his likably good-hearted but normal character, and Yoshitani Ayako has been a revelation. With her completely natural and relaxed verbal style she’s a great contrast with Irino-san, and the two of them work spectacularly well as a couple. In a series full of contrasts, their disparate styles fit right in.
Ueshiba described MGX as a “giant robot series where the girl is the robot”, and he’s created something quite deep and profound through the use of bizarre imagery. This may very well be the best anime about relationships since Bokura ga Ita, or even Kare Kano – I consider it the spiritual heir of FLCL, which explored the complexities of adolescence through the use of symbolism. The relationship is more interesting than the build-up, but so many series waste so much time in getting there. MGX is all about the “there” – the sometimes bumpy co-existence of sexual and romantic feelings, the struggle to remain faithful, and of getting past misunderstandings. Relationships are never easy and they aren’t here either, but through the use of a magical device Ueshiba is able to muse on what would happen if boys and girls actually understood each other.
For me, that’s what the whole “alien” thing Ueshiba continually hints at (posters, phone straps, etc.) is really about. No, Urabe isn’t really an alien – but to a teenaged boy, his girlfriend may as well be. Urabe is sexy and scary and mysterious, and in the real world most couples never get past the wall that separates the male experience from the female. I think he’s telling us that if we just work at it, we can actually communicate with each other – and our relationships would be the better for it. It’s not as if we shouldn’t act on our physical attraction – but how much better will the physical intimacy be if we do the heavy lifting to achieve emotional intimacy first? It’s an astonishingly smart and penetrating series of questions he’s asking – and Watanabe-san does a superb job of bringing that vision to this adaptation. I have no reservations in calling Nazo no Kanojo X a great series – it’s funny, smart, and genuinely deep. Even more, it’s universal – the topics dealt with could hardly be more elemental to the human experience. If you haven’t seen it, set your preconceptions aside and prepare to be astonished. If you have, I’ll see you when the OVA comes out.