It was only a matter of time before Kemurikusa‘s proverbial shoe dropped, and now it lands with a sickeningly inevitable thud. This episode opens with Rin and the others locked in battle again, but projecting an exhaustion and desperation we haven’t yet seen. Even Ritsu enters the fray directly, with a badass example of Midori’s offensive power skewering an entire colony of bugs at once. But they’re deep in enemy territory and running out of resources, all while the bugs and poison grow stronger with their proximity to their source. Everyone continues to project a strong face—they still save time to laugh and take in the sights around them—but an inescapable melancholy suffuses their interactions. And it soon becomes obvious why.
I have to keep praising Kemurikusa‘s mastery of atmosphere, because the aesthetics of this episode instill a sense of both awe and doom, signalling the beginning of the end of their journey. In video game terms, Island Ten feels like a final dungeon. The red glow of the poison fog, while always a ominous presence, now feels suffocating, drowning out nearly all other colors and crafting imposing vistas of black and crimson. Island Ten itself was once a large city, and now its skyscrapers loom menacingly over their small trolley car. The foundation has been hollowed out by the same alien blue structure propping up the mountain from last episode, and the ground eventually gives way to an impenetrable abyss swirling with the red smoke. It’s the end of the world, save for a single blue light suspended in the air. It’s a beacon signalling that they can still carry out their mission, but it also portends a point of no return. Beyond it, the red tree twists up into the sky like a bloody thorn piercing the heavens. It just looks like bad news, and it’s sure to get even uglier as they get closer.
I’ve been remiss in talking about Kemurikusa‘s sound design, so I want to correct that by taking a moment to appreciate all of the good work done in this episode. The acidic hiss of the fog pairs perfectly with its appearance and corrosive properties, and Island Ten amplifies it into a low droning that never really goes away. Similarly, the soundtrack sticks to a mostly ambient mode that sustains tension, but I like when it briefly breaks into a soft yet wistful piano piece as Ritsu and the others share the last of their water. Kemurikusa manages to balance its post-apocalyptic horror and familial coziness in almost every aspect of its production, and that’s impressive. Probably my favorite musical cue this episode is the delicate and warbly synth of the piece that plays while Ritsu and Rin have their conversation on the roof of the trolley. The scene is dripping with warmth and sadness as they each vocalize how much they’ve meant to each other, and the music just makes the scene that much more emotional.
The next morning, Ritsu and the Rinas (and Shiro) choose to stay behind as Rin and Wakaba climb up the root. It’s a tough scene to watch, especially as Rin sees her sisters begin to fade away. Their journey has taken everything out of them, but what gets me the most is how they confront this moment with a strong face, not wanting to make Rin worry any harder. It’s a futile effort, but the fact that they put in that effort proves how much they care about each other’s feelings. They even dangle some last minute hope, quick to chime in that once they destroy the red tree, they should be able to find water and all trek back safely. Wakaba and Rin have to believe that, and it shields them from the truth that Ritsu and the Rinas will actually be putting up one last stand against an impending onslaught of red bugs. They’ve accepted their fate and, instead of falling into despair, they’ve chosen to put all of their hope into the rest of their family.
Rin and Wakaba’s time alone together is predictably awkward, and it only gets worse once Wakaba finally accesses her memory leaf. I mean, it’s good that he’s only doing it now with Rin’s explicit permission, and for the entirely reasonable cause that they might find some necessary information on defeating the red tree. But it’s also infused with all of the fumbling and exasperation of two teenagers trying to make out for the first time, which is a super weird mood to indulge after the heaviness of the previous scenes! Still, it wouldn’t be Kemurikusa without some awkwardness in execution, and the result is a brief yet tantalizing glimpse into the past. I would’ve been content with the story letting its audience imagine for themselves how the world ended up this way, but I’m intrigued to see how it handles this backstory. And it’s certainly interesting that the First Person seems to have the same taste in clothes as Wakaba.
I’m not going to lie, this episode had me tearing up more than once. It’s impossible not to draw parallels to the penultimate episode of Kemono Friends, which caught a lot of people (including me!) off guard. However, I think the emotional wallop in this episode comes not from shock, but from how much it inevitably fits with the rest of the story. The harshness of their world, the spectre of death, and the act of sacrificing oneself for others are all themes that have been with us since the very first episode. These don’t necessarily preclude a happy ending for everyone, but I think the more important point is how much I’ve come to care for these strange characters over the past few months. What Kemurikusa lacks in animation fidelity, it more than makes up for with its aesthetic choices, its familiar but effective storytelling, and a whole lot of heart. May this flexing roomba give us all strength in these trying times.
Kemurikusa is currently streaming on Amazon.
Steve is a friend who’s good at watching anime and can be found making bad posts about anime on Twitter.