The Anthem of My Heart

To me, it all started when Dad took only my brother to his apartment, leaving me scared and alone at Mom’s house.

My parents were in the middle of a separation, but were still married. That basically meant that every so often my brother and I would come visit Dad on certain weeknights and every other weekend at his apartment. If there was legal obligations at this time, then my parents hid that fact well. Thus, I didn’t really think about the reason why they did that. I wasn’t old enough to connect the dots. But I was made very aware that they were no longer on good terms with each other. They managed a neutral atmosphere when we were around, but the kinds of conversations I would overhear from time to time were nothing short of appalling, as I would realize in later years.

One night, midway from leaving the house and getting into his car, he notices that I had not taken a shower that day. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I, as impressionable and young as I was back then, interpreted his words to mean “You are not coming with us because you didn’t shower.” He actually meant that he’d drop off my brother and come back once I took a shower, but the meaning did not translate into actual words. I sincerely thought I was being left home alone because of a measly shower. It wasn’t the first time I had experienced this kind of childish injustice, but it was the first time I got it from either of my parents.

Panicked, confused, and in tears by what seemed at the time to be a case of child abandonment, I did the next best thing and called my Mom back home. Which meant that Mom got the wrong idea about my situation and Dad came back to the house with a very, very angry wife who got riled up by a miscommunication.

The way they talked to each other that night would stay with me for the rest of my life. I had never heard either of them speak that way to anyone before, much less to each other. The initial disagreement was about the ethics of leaving a young child home alone in any context, but quickly ballooned to non-related issues, circular arguments, and worst of all personal attacks. It was the first time I heard Dad call anyone a bitch with that tone. I remember wincing at the volume and rage of Mom’s response. I remember all kinds of things about that night, being mere inches away from the argument. Next to me were a box of tissues and a half-eaten mac-n-cheese dinner since I was hungry and thoroughly convinced that dad denied me dinner. Everything about that experience was horrible. Even the mac-n-cheese.

But what would stick with me the most was the way Dad looked at me the entire time: a volatile mixture of disappointment, betrayal, and anger. If only you had just waited about twenty minutes for me to finish making dinner with your brother and drive back to the house to pick you up. If only you didn’t tell Mom all the horrible things that I didn’t actually do but you were too panicked to avoid embellishing the story. We wouldn’t be in this situation if you hadn’t been so fucking stupid and ran to her about it. Whether or not he actually thought those things, I honestly don’t want to know.

What I did know, however, was that shortly after this incident my parents informed us that they were going through with the divorce.

I was ashamed about handling the situation as poorly as I did and for not listening carefully enough to my dad. Most of all I was ashamed of crying over it. My mom’s house is in a neighborhood where the most heinous crime was cheap vandalism in the form of spraying “FUCK THE POLICE” in black, illegible letters on walls of the neighborhood entranceway. Generally speaking, I had no reason to fear that I would be home alone in that kind of environment. Disregarding that it was my first time actually being home alone at night, and that a divorce was a long time coming before any of this happened, I felt that if only I could have done things differently, Mom and Dad would still be together.

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The Anthem of the Heart opens with a similar story.

Naruse Jun is introduced to us as a blabbermouth with a wild imagination. She is obsessed with fairy tales and the castle at the top of the hill. Unbeknownst to her, seeing her dad exit that castle with another woman was not a prince and his princess galloping down the hill: the castle is a love hotel and she had inadvertently witnessed an affair. Not knowing the implications, she runs home and tells her mom all about it.

The consequences for Jun are threefold. One, her dad is “banished from the kingdom” thus tearing the family apart. Two, Jun’s mom is implied to blame her daughter for giving her such catastrophic news. Three, as he begins to leave the house for good, the dad tells her daughter outright that everything is her fault.

Soon afterwards, in her solitude and tears, she meets an egg. The egg tells her that words hurt people, and reinforces her fear that her’s family’s undoing was in fact her doing. And so, to help her never hurt people with her words again, the egg zips Jun’s mouth shut.

Since then, Jun has been unable to speak. To be more accurate, she suffers from a psychosomatic illness: whenever she tries to speak, it hurts her in the stomach. Jun believes that this is a curse, bestowed in all fairy tale glory by a talking egg, for singlehandedly destroying her family.

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As the story goes on we learn more about Jun, as well as her counterpart and classmate Sakagami Takumi. They, along with two others, are roped into the planning committee of a community outreach event where they have to organize a theatrical performance for anyone who decides to attend the outreach. I won’t go into many specifics because that reaches very close to spoiler territory, but Takumi is for the most part understanding of Jun’s situation, even though the only good way for them to communicate is through text messages, and suffers very similar problems in terms of being able to effectively communicate with others. The other two in the committee, a baseball player who squandered his Koshien dreams by breaking his elbow and a cheerleader who seems to have everything sorted out for herself, contribute to the narrative with their own struggles.

The narrative I of course speak of, and the central theme of this movie, is the power of words, their consequences, and our resultant inability to express our feelings. The words we choose and the decisions we make have an effect on our surroundings and that can mean good or bad things depending on how you use them. If there’s nothing but good experiences everytime you said something, you are encouraged to do it more. Yet, if bad things pile up to the point of drastically changing your way of life, the way you choose your words and the way you act around others suddenly means everything. And so many people just choose not to make decisions at all. It’s understandable. Expressing yourself after years of not doing so can be the most awkward and embarrassing thing you’ve ever done.

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Fittingly, this movie was very embarrassing and awkward to watch. The group decides to put on a musical as their contribution to the outreach event, and so the whole class is involved in its completion. As if plainly speaking uncomfortable things was not enough, singing puts an additional layer of commitment into whatever you’re trying to say. The movie knows this, and spares no expense exposing us to every single instance where the characters embarrass themselves in one form or another. While it’s uncomfortable to watch them do these things, the movie’s point is that it’s nevertheless important that they are able to express their feelings regardless of what happens afterward. Their work on the musical turns into a way to sort out their personal troubles, as well as each other’s, no matter how much they do not want to talk about it.

This may all seem rote to you, much like how I felt when I first read the premise of this movie. The Anthem of the Heart isn’t anything new or special in terms of Mari Okada’s writing. Many characters in her original works struggle between hurting themselves and hurting others. Especially in the case with love polygons, many of her characters choose to hurt themselves and bottle their feelings rather than express their love and being done with it. It’s a common theme throughout all of her works, and The Anthem of the Heart merely places a magic realism spin on it.

I mean, look at the English official site for this movie and you’ll find, in large white letters, “I’ve wanted to tell you for a long, long time.” That’s so incredibly typical of Okada, don’t you think? From the same creative team that brought us Anohana, you say? I didn’t even think that was a great anime! Is this truly how far she’s gotten with her writing after Wandering Son and Hanasaku Iroha? Is there nothing left out there for her to innovate? Are we going to be stuck with the Wixosses, Sakurasous, Nagi no Asukaras, and god forbid the M3s for the rest of her writing career? What could this movie possibly do to turn around my four years worth of misgivings?

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I spent a long time blaming myself for my parents’ ugly relationship without much reason to think otherwise. As a result, I think made it a point to suppress tears ever since. That’s not to say that it was an extreme case. There have been plenty of times in my teenage years where I’ve cried, and with much force I might add. But I think it started there, in that room with that enormous box of tissues, where I decided that crying at anything was considered a weakness, and that if I wanted to become a stronger person like Mom and Dad wanted me to I needed to change that as soon as possible. I have stated before that I don’t outwardly react to dramatic news or experiences because it’s in my nature not to, and I still believe it to be true to this day, but perhaps that feeling solidified and truly became a part of who I am because of that incident.

Anime certainly wasn’t the exception to that rule. During the time of year when Key adaptations, True Tears, and sola were jerking the tears of many an anime fan, I seemed to be the odd one out. It’s in my nature to think analytically about the media I consume, which made crying not only an obstacle to such analysis but also an impossibility. Other tearjerker moments this year kind of came close, to be honest: Garo ep. 17, Shirobako ep.23, Kimiuso ep. 22, and Death Parade ep. 12 come to mind (man, Winter season was stacked with those). However, I did not shed a single tear. I don’t want this to come off as a brag, as if failing to cry at an emotional anime is some sort of achievement to hang on my office wall. It’s just that I am equally as unwilling as I am unable. Seeing other people cry at the things I did not, I had no choice but to accept my behavior as a part of my character. I was ready to accept that crying at anime was just something I didn’t do.

But I cried anyways. I cried when watching The Anthem of the Heart.

Because everything this movie did, and what it stood for, were things I desperately needed to hear.

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About two years ago I dropped out of university. For those who know me well enough, this may come as a surprise. And it should. At the time, no one knew that I dropped out, not even my own family and friends. I believed then, as I still believe now, that this is a cruel thing to admit to anyone. So I just didn’t. I managed to stay silent about it for a whole year and a half.

I don’t think I necessarily set out to lie at first. However, it was too hard for me to tell the truth. When the questions rolled in from family, acquaintances, and friends about what I was doing with my life, it became easier to lie about it with each successive inquiry. Soon I had manufactured a future that was both false and more sophisticated than anything I had ever planned in my life, and was certainly more enjoyable to talk about than the truth. I had every intention to tell that truth to my parents, since if anyone was going to find out it should be them, but I could not work up the courage. Soon a confession planned for winter break turned into a confession for spring break, which then got blown off into the recesses of the next year’s spring break. After realizing that I could not keep up with this farce in a year that I was supposed to graduate, I came clean to my mom. The night after, I came clean with my dad as well. While they weren’t happy with how I ended up, they told me they understood and were willing to give me advice on what to do next and what I wanted to do with my future. I believed them.

To be honest, I was incredibly lucky that I got into a university in the first place. I’ve never been a great student and have always struggled to care about schoolwork, from elementary school all the way up to college. I was sometimes in danger of outright failing classes not because I couldn’t understand the material but instead because I couldn’t be assed to do the homework. I’d get Fs sometimes during the school year out of sheer negligence, and parent-teacher conferences were a common occurrence for me, much to my mom’s eternal shame. I think she would have been okay with these conferences if the bad grades were justified, but the problem was that I just didn’t do the work. It was so amazing how often I’d drop homework that it almost seemed pathological. No one could comprehend what would drive me to do such things, and to be honest I don’t really know either. It just happens, it happens a lot, and I’ve consistently been unable to kick the habit.

My ungraceful performance in academics was one of many things my parents fought over when it came to properly raising me and my brother, and is perhaps the cornerstone of why they despise each other. Dad fled from Vietnam to this country as one of the boat people. When he arrived, emaciated and without proper securities, he had to grab his future with his own two hands. His success at getting a masters in electrical engineering and a steady job at Raytheon led him to believe that the same could be applied to us two, raised in the middle class without as much of an idea what “rock bottom” meant, and would often make us figure out the right decisions in life on our own. Mom, on the other hand, succeeded in landing a sponsorship to Canada with her entire family and escaped Vietnam without much trouble. Her approach to raising us was just a couple steps short of pampering, making sure we focused on academics and didn’t have to worry about real life until it was absolutely necessary. In short, Dad was as much “hands off” towards us as Mom was “hands on”, and they disagreed with each other constantly even after divorce. Yet, aside from some tense conversations, they seemed to be fine with me failing school as long as I tried again at the community college.

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I would not know how bad their relationship had actually gotten until last weekend, when I met with my brother during a visit with extended family.

After graduating, my brother went back home to live with my mom. I, on the other hand, was still in the university at the time and lived in Dad’s house to avoid residence costs. Unlike my dad who keeps to himself most of the time, anything my mom knows will eventually be something my brother knows. Which is the only reason I know about a very nasty letter that dad sent to mom about various things. Neither my brother nor my mom are willing to let me read it, and tell me the contents are too disgusting to share with anyone. My brother didn’t even know why mom shared the letter with him, since it riled him up so much that he had to leave the house for a while, which is how we met up.

He told me that this feud between my parents has actually been going on for several months now, which is in line with when I told the both of them that I dropped out. As if that wasn’t already enough information, He also let it slip that I’m responsible for starting this whole mess.

I know he doesn’t mean it. He’s just frustrated that mom felt the need to involve him in her problems with an ex-husband. He’s too old to be concerned with that shit, as am I. This is an issue that mom and dad placed upon themselves and I’m fully aware that I shouldn’t blame myself for their relationship deteriorating again. But I blamed myself anyways. Just like I did all those years ago when dad left me home alone. It was because of my weakness and unwillingness to better myself that made this mess in the first place. If only I wasn’t such a fuckup in school, in life, and perhaps if I had never told them the truth, this wouldn’t be happening. I felt like shit that I had hurt my parents.

This is, of course, wrong to assume. But with no one to actually reassure me that everything is still okay, I didn’t feel any better trying to rationalize myself. This was the day before I watched The Anthem of the Heart, and I spent that night sleepless, tortured even, thinking about how much of a failure I’ve become at the tender age of 22.

The next day, I watched this movie and found that, after many years of not crying at anime, I just couldn’t hold back my tears anymore.

Now, writing about this, I don’t really know if The Anthem of the Heart really saved me from all of that or if my vulnerability simply allowed me to enjoy my Chinese Pornographic Cartoons a bit more than usual. However, what’s so undeniably true about that night is that this movie struck a chord that I didn’t even know I had in me, more so than any other anime I had ever watched. The way this movie talked about the effects of divorce, strained relationships between parent and child, the troubles of correctly expressing yourself, and the double-edged sword called truth were so much in line with what I was thinking at that moment that I had absolutely no trouble investing in everything the movie wanted to do. Adding to it a heavy emphasis on music, a tight cast of four that was more thoroughly explored than what Anohana could do with six, and some rock solid production values, I never felt more at home with an anime than I did that Sunday night.

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After exiting the theater I wanted to tell everyone that this was the greatest anime to come out this year, that nothing could possibly top what I had just witnessed on that screen two hours ago. That because this beautiful collision between my needs and what this movie’s provided for them resulted in such a huge reaction out of me, there could not possibly be any way that this movie could be considered bad.

And I realize, this is the exact problem people have when faced with a piece of media they identify too closely with.

I’m reminded of Frog-kun’s post on why Anohana no longer makes him cry and wonder if I, too, will someday look back on this movie with solemn nostalgia rather than impassioned tears. And thinking more about it, and seeing the Anohana movie and what it meant for the series as a whole, I think this is precisely the right way to look at it. My experience with this movie is an episode in my life that I will never be able to record, and would hold no meaning to other people even if I were able to reproduce it. Indeed, what I felt in that movie theater is too personal for most people to understand, but that’s not something I’d feel superior about. It’s, instead, a reflection of my mental state at that point in time, and how I, having grown from this experience, will use that experience to better myself in the future.

One day I am going to come back to this movie and give it the proper criticism it deserves, and I know that there’s a lot of things about this movie that I can easily take apart now that I’m thinking a bit more clearly than I did that night. You may call it a forced drama at times. You may not understand the motivations and actions of people at times. Hell, you are even permitted to call this film a bad film. But it looked at me, this product of a divorced couple, this blubbering mess of a person, and in all of its earnestness it could muster said to me “everything will be all right.”

The movie ends on a hopeful note, noting that despite many problems still existing with each character, every one of these people are resolved to approach their own problems one step at a time. Likewise, my parents are still on bad terms, I’m still struggling with school, and I haven’t sat down with my dad to talk to him about that letter yet. Still, I’m hopeful that things will turn out for the best.

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And having that hope is what’s most important.

Addendum

  • Now that I’ve barfed out what was essentially a life story I’m just going to crawl under my bed and die now
  • dont look for my body
  • its okay i can still tweet while dead
  • its a superpower
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4 comments

  1. Wonderfully written post. I mean that. I’m a massive reader and for what it’s worth, this was really well written.
    I’m sorry about your parents, and about what your brother said. I’m sure he didn’t mean that. My advice is that you avoid that letter.

    I’ve been really looking forward to this movie and sort of stumbled on this review, so I’m glad it’s looking good.

    Im 25 years old and I’m not a cryer. But 3 years ago I was sitting in a relatives bedroom just balling my eyes out. It scared me how out of control my tears were. But what really scared me was the reason. I had never met my father and had always been alright with that. He died when I was too young to mourn him.
    My cousin one night told a story about a single act of kindness he did for her over 15 years ago. And….when she finished I went upstairs and just……

    So yeah I understand….

    1. 3 years ago I was sitting in a relatives bedroom just balling my eyes out

      like with a melon baller or…

      Thanks for your kindness, stranger, and my condolences for your loss.

  2. […] what I do know now, I get the feeling that it should be true. I said something to that effect the last time I wrote about The Anthem of the Heart, and how watching it ended up helping me cope with where life has taken me at the time. Past me […]

  3. Sualeha Shahid · · Reply

    Awesome review…although I didn’t face any issue in the movie but it’s still close to my heart.

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