Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Anime Secret Santa: Ikoku Meiro no Croisée

Merry Christmas, dear readers! For those of you who don't know, Alain and Kate of Reverse Thieves coordinate an Anime Secret Santa event for anibloggers every year. This is my first time participating.

My "Secret Santa" left me three great recommendations after looking at my Anime-Planet account. It would have been a hard choice. Thankfully, only Ikoku Meiro no Croisée (Croisée in a Foreign Labyrinth) was available through my usual anime sources. I hope to watch the other two eventually, but I'm glad I was "forced" to watch Croisée this time.

Claude and Yune enjoy an unplanned walk as the rain clears up
in episode 3.
Croisée has no explosions, no sports, no action, and practically no romance. It's simply a sweet show about a little Japanese girl, Yune, who has just moved to Paris in the early nineteenth century. She lives with Claude, a young blacksmith, and his grandpa, Oscar. Most of the show is set in their home and shop, or in the Galerie (sort of a mall) that their shop/home is part of. Over the show's twelve episodes, Claude and Yune work to understand and care for one another, despite their different value systems. Normally, I'd get bored and drop it after a few episodes. But I persevered for the sake of this review.

At first, I found little things to appreciate: the lovely artwork, the way characters learn about each other's cultures, etc. Then I noticed big themes emerging, including freedom. Finally, by the sixth episode, I noticed great use of symbolism. I went into nerdy English major mode at that point. Can't get excited about an anime in the normal way? Time for some good, intellectual fun! 

Croisée seems to be a simple anime about the meeting of two cultures. But it goes deeper than that and uses those cultural differences to reveal the ideas and structures that restrict one's freedom to move about and relate to others.

This theme really picks up in the fifth episode, "Lost." Claude encourages Yune to be free and do her own thing. He doesn't understand why she prefers to work with them in their shop instead. To him, freedom is independence, the ability to explore what you personally enjoy without constantly considering others. A little later in the episode, Claude restricts her freedom in how she relates to others. He is worried that she's too naive and explains that in Paris, people are suspicious of friendliness. If you're too friendly, customers will think you're trying to take advantage of them. Or, even worse, people will take advantage of you. He is specifically concerned about her kindness to a little street brat.

Claude's closed-off approach to people, as well as the way he prioritizes Yune over customers, confuses her. She explains that in Japan, a person cares for their customers first and foremost. She puzzles over the differences in the way they relate to people, and they way they define freedom. Freedom in the Galerie seems to mean one must neither meddle nor be to friendly.

Not much later, when Yune is watching the shop, the little street boy steals a candle holder. She blames herself and runs after him. Instead of finding him, she gets lost. After Claude's talk about friendly strangers, everyone in the Galerie seems scary. No one she approaches will talk to her, and anyone who does reach out to help frightens her away. When Claude finally finds her, he explains that not everyone is scary; people are simply cautious until you become a part of their circle. Yune makes a profound statement at the end. She notes that she restricted her own freedom when she predetermined that everyone is scary.
In the seventh episode, Yune says farewell to the little street boy.
She's trying to obey Claude without abruptly cutting her ties with
the child.

The little boy has no name, but he shows up repeatedly throughout the show. Yune wants to feed him and understand him. When he steals to pay for food, she sees his need—not just for food, but for a place to belong and a person to care—the same needs she feels. Claude, on the other hand, notes the need through the boy's appearance, and he sees only a thief. He wants to protect the store from theft, and protect Yune from any betrayal or disease the child brings. This clash of values is worth reflecting on. Claude seems callous at first, but I don't think we viewers should be too quick to judge. We should consider: do we see people as threats or as hearts? Are we driven by fear or by love?

The sixth episode, "Crinoline," examines the social restrictions through metaphor. A crinoline is the frame that women used to use to make their skirts ridiculously big. When Yune tries on one of her wealthy friend's dresses, the crinoline restricts her movements, and she has to skip the corset altogether. She notes that the crinoline looks like a birdcage. Her friend's older sister, Camille Blanche, says, "It really is like a birdcage." Later, it becomes clear that fashion isn't the only birdcage Camille feels. The crinoline makes it impossible for Yune to catch a cat. And as Camille looks out the window to see Claude, we begin to suspect that her birdcage keeps her from catching a different kind of cat.

The cat metaphor is continued in later episodes. Cats are used to explore freedom and relationships, including the fear of lost relationships. If I were writing about this for a literature class, I could write a short paper on the symbolism of cats alone, so I'd better cut myself off. In fact, I'd like to spend an entire post on the way different fears and cultural restrictions keep the characters from loving one another. I think I would benefit from reflecting on parallels in my own life and in the Church—meaning the entire body of the Christian family, including my local church. The idea of being free to love is, I think, foundational to how we relate to people both inside and outside the church family. But this is meant to be a more holistic review, so I'll take a moment to examine the other elements of this anime.

The art is beautiful. The settings, especially, have a watercolor texture. Fashion and artistic ironwork are shown in intricate detail. I wasn't surprised to find out that the original mangaka, Takeda Hinata, also created the Gosick Light Novels. I only watched part of the Gosick anime, and that a long time ago, but I can see similarities in the detailed Western fashion. The gentle, beautiful animation fits the series well. My only complaint might be the character faces; everyone looks the same age. Even Oscar, the grandfather, looks like a young man with a fake beard. But this is a fairly common trait in anime, and only worth passing mention.

The music is lovely, too. The opening and ending themes seem to be sung by a young, innocent girl, and they frame each episode perfectly. If you watch, make sure you continue watching through the ED—not only is the song pretty, but there is always an extra scene at the very end. You don't want to miss out on that.

I appreciate the characters as vehicles for exploring the anime's themes. But, at most, I only feel passing care for any of them. In fact, one of Yune's friends is downright annoying. Alice Blanche is a stereotypical spoiled rich girl. I've seen versions of her throughout many anime: high pitched voice, blonde hair, lack of consideration for others. At first, especially, she treats Yune almost like an object. As the anime goes on, she learns more about Yune and loses some of her spoiled ignorance... but only some. That said, Alice does become a vital part of the plot. Her facination with Japan, and thus with Yune, come from her childhood dreams. She wants to travel, and if she can't travel, she'll start with imagining and learning about other places as a way to escape her family's stifling way of life. She doesn't explicitly say most of that, but it is implied. Her story becomes interwoven with fantastic symbolism I wrote about above.

Again, as an English major, I found plenty to delight in throughout this show. In fact, to use a key phrase from literary criticism, Croisée in a Foreign Labyrinth both "delights and instructs." But it has faults. There are inconsistencies. Yune supposedly came to Paris for an apprenticeship, but she certainly doesn't seem like an apprentice to Claude. He doesn't try to teach her anything about blacksmithing. In fact, he doesn't like it when she watches him work. I don't know if "apprentice" is a mistranslation, or if it's just an excuse to get Yune to Paris. Either way, it has very little to do with the actual plot. She helps in the shop, yes, but only by cleaning and keeping an eye on things. She's not really learning a trade.
Yune and her older sister in a memory of Japan. I'm mostly including
this screenshot because it's so beautiful. (ep 11)

In addition, Oscar at first explains that Yune's parents think it's time for her to "leave the nest" and find and apprenticeship. She's always wanted to go to Paris, so she comes back with Oscar. Later, Claude wonders how her beloved older sister let her go. Further, Yune's memories of her sister taking care of her, and of her sister's problems as an outcast, leave her parents out of the picture. Really, of the four characters with backstories, Yune's backstory is the most unsteady.

Overall, Ikoku Meiro no Croisée is a pleasant anime. I think I'd have liked it a little more if I watched just one episode a week as it aired, instead of trying to watch it all in the last week and a half before Christmas. Plenty of amusing and sweet moments are sprinkled throughout the twelve episodes, and I smiled a lot. But it wasn't exciting... or rather, the only excitement I felt was that of a literary student, as I watched the symbolism and character threads come together. I waver between giving Ikoku Meiro no Croisée 3.5 or 4 stars out of 5. Since my enjoyment was mostly intellectual, and the story failed to sweep me away, I'm landing on 3.5 stars for now. Chances are high that I'll write another post about this show, but chances are low that I'll ever re-watch it. It's good, and if this review rouses your interest, I recommend you check it out. It's available on Hulu. But if, like me, you're not exactly a big slice-of-life anime fan, you might prefer to spend your time on something else.

[Edit: Justin of Organization Anti-Social Geniuses was my Secret Santa. Thank you, Justin, for the great recommendations! I hope to watch Rainbow (I can't remember the rest of the name) and Summer Wars eventually, since I think I'll prefer those, but this was all I could get ahold of for now.]


  1. Merry Christmas!

    God bless you, your family, and other dear ones!

  2. Ikoku is definitely an anime best watch week-by-week, or even with breaks in between, lol. It's too bad that you didn't enjoy it to the fullest, though I see what you mean. What I like best about the anime is the slight clashes of Western and Japanese culture. It's a slight and subtle thing, but it's still one of the things I enjoy about the show.

    1. I did enjoy the culture clashes, especially those involving food. I can't believe the Japanese (at least in Yune's area) didn't eat cheese back then. I love cheese, so the idea of living without it... well, it's even more foreign than the idea of eating raw fish.

  3. 8eautiful article. I only wish I had as much to say a8out the anime I watch =) How do you pull it off? Do you just watch something that seems interesting and let your mind wander or do you watch a series with your eyes open to possi8le topics somehow? Once again, cool read.

    1. Thank you for your kind comment, Pyrusic!

      As for how I write.... to some extent, yes, I just watch a series with an eye out for possible topics. My mind is usually pretty active when I watch anime, since I'm in the habit of writing about it. To some extent, it's purely evaluative: Do I like animation/art? Why? Are the characters well developed? What do I like or dislike about this anime? Writing structured reviews with a rubric in mind is a great way to start thinking more actively about what you watch.

      But I like to make it personal: do I relate to any of the characters? What lessons can I learn? What truths does this anime reflect about the world around me? What ideas does it present that I disagree with?

      When it comes down to it, I have two tips for you if you want to write about anime: First, read others' reviews and blogs. Second, just start writing. I think it'll flow just fine, especially if you like to write. See, I tend to blab on and on. Once I start writing about something (an anime, a reply to a reader's comment), it's hard to stop. :)

    2. Ah, so it's not so much that asking those questions as you watch 8rings to mind topics fully-formed. Instead, they just seem to guide you towards a topic that you've got real conviction a8out and can expand on.

      I could write a8out anything that interests me for forever too, so this sounds like a method that'll work for me =) Thanks a ton!

      I really mean it. That's some amazing, insightful advice =D Now I'm all excited to get some work done!

  4. Your notes are so well-thought-out and beautifully written!

    I recommend reading the manga to fill in where the anime dropped off (the Grande Magasin chapter is so dramatic and they finally get to visit it for real! + the full resolution of Claude's issues are there too).

    Yune's parents are gone. The family who let her go is her sister. Her reason for coming to France is also stated there, as well as why Shione has "scary" (foreign) eyes.

    (There is more romantic subtext between Claude and Yune by the end, although it's nothing overt and it's all era-appropriate and chaste.)

    [SPOILERS: don't read if you want to find out on your own]

    They're of mixed ancestry and Yune knows only that what remains of her roots are "beyond the sea." Yune is here searching for her roots.

    Sadly the manga appears to have been left unfinished.


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