Escaping time with Girls’ Last Tour: a close look at the chapter “Bath”

Nice

[This is a direct continuation of my post from last week …and maybe just an excuse to practice translating Japanese. For the purposes of this essay, I want to maintain a narrow focus on a single, critical chapter early in the series, so I’ll assume some familiarity with Girls’ Last Tour. I love it though, so I might write more later.]

Huh, I really did just need to wait a few more days for warmth. After the freezing, drizzly graduation ceremonies last week, winter and spring seem to have settled their miserable transition just in time to enjoy the vernal equinox, a public holiday in Japan. Three days ago, I had to defrost my windshield for the last time during a sub-zero morning before work. But on my way home today, the thermometer on my car hit 26 degrees Celsius while soaking up sunlight in a low-albedo asphalt parking lot …not the real outside temperature, but the automatic AC turned on! I guess winter’s finally dead then. It’s warm!

In last week’s post, I commiserated with the despairing heroine Mio from Izumi Kyoka’s short story “One Day in Spring.” Mio suffers from time consciousness. She could tolerate the misery of winter as long as she felt that she could not escape it. But when spring fluttered along and invited her to take a hopeful glimpse at a warm paradise, she could no longer bear her suffering. She treats hope like a sickness which steals away her ability to enjoy the present pleasures of the spring day while she ruminates on an uncertain future. Will she reach her paradise, and if so, when? For those last few days of winter, I felt much the same way: spring had tempted me with a little warmth, but it was still too cold now. I just had to wait, but hope made me impatient…

But now that my mood’s improved with the weather this week, I thought that I should look at a more positive portrayal of a warm paradise from the “Bath” chapter in Girls’ Last Tour (Shoujo Shuumatsu Ryokou; anime episode 2; manga volume 1, chapter 3). It’s a perfect encapsulation of the whole series’ style. As the manga’s author (pen name: Tsukumizu) describes it in this interview, “[Bath] condenses the appeal of Girls’ Last Tour into one story.” The sisters Chii and Yuu travel across a frozen, post-apocalyptic wasteland, find an abandoned power station still producing hot water, and enjoy a break from their aimless journey with a nice bath.

But beyond calming effect of the simple slice-of-life adventure, Girls’ Last Tour asks light philosophical questions about how to best enjoy life. It comes to a counter-intuitive answer: abandon hope. Like Mio, Girls’ Last Tour perhaps sees hope as something more harmful than good. Hope looks to a better future, but an excessive focus on that future can limit enjoyment of the present and the ability to cope with suffering. Mio cannot suppress her anxious fretting over time and dies for it. But Girls’ Last Tour has a much more positive solution: try to stop thinking and embrace “hopelessness” (in Yuu’s words), if only for a little while. It’s an appeal to escape time consciousness and focus on the present. As Tsukumizu puts in an address to her fans: “whilst going about your day, I would like you to notice the virtues in everyday life.”

[Some quick housekeeping notes: I’ll refer to the manga for quotes as a matter of convenience, since I have the book in front of me right now. Because the anime script lifts lines almost word-for-word from the manga for the “Bath” chapter, they should have identical interpretations anyway. With that said though, I sometimes don’t like manga’s official English translation from Yen Press (I think the anime subtitles have much more subtle translations of the same lines), so I’ve produced my own as some just-for-fun language practice. It resembles both the manga and anime official translations — with some of my own colloquialisms — so I hope it will suffice.]

The chapter opens to the girls traveling across a blank, snowy wasteland:

Looks pretty hopeless

Chii    Hey, Yuu…
Yuu    What?
Chii    Where are we..?
Yuu    I dunno, it’s pure white, as far as the eye can see, as if we were the only two people in the whole world.
Chii    Yeah, it sure is nice to be a poet. Meanwhile here I am frantically looking for a place to survive the cold so we don’t freeze to death.
Yuu    Or maybe… we’ve actually died already, and we’re in the pure-white world of the afterlife …something like that.
Chii    Don’t jinx us …and stop making snowballs.
Yuu    Ehhh? I was having fun.

Yuu and Chii have distinct relationships with time. Throughout the series, Yuu focuses on the present while Chii frets about the future (and to a lesser extent, the past via her diary). In most chapters, this means that Yuu tries to encourage Chii to enjoy simple “everyday” pleasures like the beauty of the blue sky or the sound of rain. Though Yuu herself often asks philosophical questions, she never approaches the same sort of reasoned, systematic solutions as Chii. Her answers always reject worries about the past and future. For example, in chapter 4, she declares that memories “get in the way of living.” And in chapter 6, Yuu stops Chii from slipping into neurotic speculation about the future and the meaning of living by smacking Chii on the head with the butt of her rifle. If Chii thinks through a fixation on time, Yuu lives unconscious of the future.

With that in mind then, this little moment in “Bath” establishes the girls’ characteristic approaches to time. Yuu enjoys the snow for the poetic view and the fun of making snowballs, as if oblivious to the imminent problem that the girls will soon freeze to death. Meanwhile, Chii interrupts Yuu’s idle play so that she can focus on securing their survival. Yuu’s mention of the afterlife brings thoughts of death to mind, but Chii pushes them back into the future by trying to dispel the forward-looking jinx (in the anime subtitles, “bad luck”).

However, as the danger from the cold builds, the dynamic flips in the next few lines:

Chii    My head’s heavy… And it’s so cold…
Yuu    Hey, did you know? The afterlife’s supposed to be warm.
Chii    So if that’s true… it looks like we’re not dead yet, huh?
Yuu    Yeah, it’s cold… For real though, if we don’t find somewhere to rest soon…
Chii    …yeah.
Yuu    ……
Chii    …… I’m sleepy…

Some quick praise because I love the aesthetic here: this is one of my favorite moments in Girls’ Last Tour for its subtle, solemn brevity (I adore everything Tsukumizu produces). It shifts from a joke about Chii’s head literally feeling heavy because Yuu had built a snowman on her helmet into some of the series’ most pessimistic themes regarding futility and death. After all, sleep is as close to death as any healthy person can come…

Whereas Yuu’s previous comments on the afterlife fit with her usual playful philosophical speculation, in a rare moment, she seems a little concerned for the future as the situation begins to seem desperate. Her ominous “if” hangs over the scene with a tacit acknowledgement of the girls’ imminent deaths. To distract herself from her suffering in the cold, she begins some wishful thinking about finding warmth. But then she stops playing and goes quiet.

In a similar unusual moment, Chii brings their thinking back to the present, observing that they can’t have died because they don’t feel warm now. Chii is no-nonsense; she doesn’t need Yuu’s hopeful afterlife to endure the immediate crisis. She takes an attitude similar to Mio’s from “One Day in Spring:” she would rather not think about paradise while trying not to freeze to death. The temptation to hope would only distract her from her present efforts to survive. Chii goes quiet too, to keep focused on driving through her sleepiness. She tries to make some more conversation, and when she gets no response, she assumes that Yuu has gone to sleep.

Ah, but wake up! It’s only chapter 3, we can’t end now! The girls come up to an abandoned building. Chii tries to wake Yuu up, except she wasn’t asleep after all. They look for an entrance to escape the cold, but Chii finds something better: a dripping pipe that has not accumulated any snow on top. She guesses that it has warm water inside melting the snow. Yuu shoots the pipe with her rifle and oh! hot water! Chii uses the kettenkrad to drag another old pipe under the water spout, creating a makeshift bath. Their endurance of temporary hardship paid off; they found a warm heaven:

Chii    So good… So warm ~
Yuu    heaven… heaven… Hey, what’s heaven mean anyway?
Chii    Oh… it’s like the afterlife I guess.
Yuu    “Don’t jinx us,” huh?
Chii    heh heh, yeah that’s right…

In a concluding sketch on the next page, Chii says “nobosete kita~.” It’s a double meaning: either “I’m getting dizzy” from the hot water or “I’ve been lifted” as if her little wispy soul is rising up to heaven.

But it’s not quite an optimistic conclusion: while enjoying their bath, the girls stare out onto that cold, hellish wasteland. Like Mio worries in “One Day in Spring,” the vista serves as a reminder that even paradise is temporary. Soon the girls will need to endure the cold again (and at great cost: in the next chapter Chii will need to trade her precious knowledge for warmth when Yuu burns her books!).

“That’s morbid” is the “jinx” in my translation and the “bad luck” in the anime subtitles. I think “morbid” removes the subtly from the scene though. The landscape says enough: the girls will need to face the cold — and death — again soon.

But hmmm, at least now is nice. The simple themes in “Bath” could summarize the whole series. For Yuu, enjoyment of the present helps her avoid anxiety about the future and for Chii, the focus on the future helps her endure suffering in the present. But neither need hope; it only distracts Chii from her endurance and then becomes a moot point for Yuu anyway when the girls enter the heavenly bath. In more generic terms, “Bath” shows how to enjoy what pleasures you have now because they won’t last forever. But when the girls almost froze to death in the cold, it had another message: endure what suffering you feel now, because it won’t last forever either. Everything ends, but rather than depressing us, that thought should help liberate us from cold, unreliable time.

I endured the winter. And now, I should enjoy the spring …because, well, winter’ll be coming around again soon! Maybe it’s impossible to escape time forever, but at least I can stop thinking about it now.

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