The First and the Last

It is a melancholy sign of Hikari and Amane’s secondary place in the anime that this episode, in which their relationship achieves its high point, should nevertheless have as its title–"Waltz"–a reference to a decisive moment in Nagisa and Shizuma’s love story. Let us overlook the title’s slight, and look briefly at the resolution in Hikari and Amane’s romance. What happens that is significant? Hikari sings, and reminds Amane of the earlier time she had heard Hikari sing, a year ago, on a winter morning, while she was practicing her riding at the track. Amane remembers, remembers who Hikari is to her, and that is that: they kiss, they make love, and their story has its happy ending. But what does Amane remember? She remembers the song: "Where was it? Where have I heard this before? That same voice…that angelic song." The beauty of the song renews Amane’s apprehension of Hikari as an earthly angel. As she listens, she is taken back to the previous time Hikari sang for her: the animation speeds forward toward the singer, until the singer raises her head, and Amane sees the beautiful vision of an angelic Hikari singing, and recognizes her at last.

The path to this resolution proceeds with difficulty. Hikari always is an angel, and the animation presents her to Amane as such, but until the breakthrough Amane is simply unable to recognize her. In one moment, Hikari stands in a pool of moonlight, radiant with light amid the night’s darkness, looking with yearning toward Amane; but Amane does not respond, remains–as the animation portrays her–in the dark. The darkest moment comes during Hikari and Amane’s later conversation in the stables, just before Hikari sings. Amane can still not remember Hikari or her name, but only knows vaguely that the scarf is precious to her. Hikari tells Amane she is sure she and Amane are bound deeply in Amane’s heart; her eyes tear, but she still cannot break through. They are at an impasse. The scene darkens, and Hikari’s face becomes grave and loses its features. Then the animation returns to their favorite place, the spot by the railing on the track where Hikari would watch Amane practice. No one is there: the place is dark and empty. The anime has reached a void, a point zero.

Now a single large snowflake, the first of the season, drifts down in the middle distance. Hikari sings, and everything follows. The snow marks the shift of the seasons,  the transition to winter, a natural correlative for the new world Hikari and Amane have arrived at together.

What is this new world? It is the world of love. When Amane regains her memory, both Amane and Hikari arrive at  a new place they have never been before. If the narrative goes back, to remember the earlier moment, it is in order to carry the action forward, to a new experience of love fulfilled. Amane at last says Hikari’s name, and now they kiss, and fall below the frame of the scene. The animation jump-cuts to next morning, where everything outside is white, covered in snow, and Hikari and Amane are lying nude on a blanket together, covered in the sunlight flooding through the many windows, their fair skin almost impossible to see, their upper torsos in a very light shadow, as they kiss again, as the scene finally dissolves. There is a perfect unity of visual appearance: the light, their bodies, the snow all become virtually indistinguishable. Love, beauty, passion, nature, angelic being all fuse in this final image. There is no longer any division between them. Where Hikari had been in light and Amane in shadow, now Hikari and Amane share the same shadow and the same light. Where Hikari had sung and Amane listened, now they both kiss, giving and receiving at once. Where Hikari had been the angel, and Amane the one who sees the angel, now they both compose this final exalted image equally. Let us leave them here, in this final apotheosis of love and beauty.

                                        *

We take up now the episode’s central moment, Nagisa and Shizuma’s waltz together. Shizuma has been coaching Nagisa and Tamao, to prepare them for the climax of the Etoile election, the dance competition. But the training has not gone well, due apparently to the fault of Nagisa. We see her stumble during practice, and Shizuma tells her she is "trying too hard." As a last resort to help Nagisa learn to dance naturally, Shizuma attempts to teach Nagisa by dancing with her herself.

By all accounts, the dance they share is extraordinary. While watching, Miyuki tells herself, "[w]hat a graceful and exceptional dance. This is the first time I have seen such a beautiful dance in Astraea." Shizuma’s friends, Tougi and Kanou, think Nagisa is "amazing." While dancing, Shizuma tells Nagisa she is "doing well" and that she is "amazing." At the end, the onlookers and even Tamao give Nagisa and Shizuma a standing ovation. The aesthetic quality of their dance is outstanding and beyond question.

What makes this dance different? The anime answers the question on several levels. Since Shizuma instructs Nagisa in dance technique, we can answer the question in technical terms. Before, Nagisa had been trying too hard, had been "straining to keep up the beat;" now, she is able to "be [her]self more," "to dance with confidence," to "happily dance, heart to heart" with her partner, so that her "body will react on its own." The difference is between an artificial self-consciousness, Nagisa’s deliberate efforts on the one side, and an unconscious, physical, and instinctive joy in dancing on the other. Once Nagisa stops trying, and allows herself to dance in this instinctual, unconscious fashion, she becomes, as Miyuki reflects, "one with Shizuma," and achieves an extraordinary level of dance technique.

Shizuma herself explains great dance in terms of "love." After she finishes dancing with Nagisa, she turns to Nagisa and Tamao and tells them "[t]o dance is to love. It’s when you use your body to show the happiness and the joy of love." Shizuma does not necessarily mean that Nagisa and Tamao must feel love for each other in order to dance well. Rather, she understands dance in psychological terms, as an expression of the feelings of love one has within oneself. Dance exalts itself only when it becomes the vehicle for the dancer’s own feelings of love. As to the object of the love, and the role of the dance partner, Shizuma’s notably abstract formulation is silent. Since she also danced exceptionally with Nagisa, we may surmise that her dance expresses her own feelings of love, but what they are, and how they relate to Nagisa, we do not know. 

By contrast, Nagisa understands her dance to express her own immediate, concrete love for Shizuma. The anime brings us inside her thoughts while she is dancing, so that we can overhear her tell herself "I have loved her (ie Shizuma) without regret. I have tried to carve that love into myself." Nagisa dances knowing that she loves Shizuma. This moment reprises earlier moments in the anime, such as when they played the piano together, or had performed on stage together, but completes them, by letting Nagisa know what those previous moments had meant, that they were moments of love. Thus, when Shizuma tells Nagisa that "this is the first and the last time" she will teach Nagisa by dancing with her, Nagisa interprets her words to mean "this is the first and the last dance," the one essential moment which comprises all those other moments, as the aesthetic expression of her love for Shizuma. Realizing this, she experiences a consummation of her passions: the background changes, and they are no longer in the auditorium, but now she and Shizuma are in their own world, in an elevated scene they have made together. It is an extraordinary moment.

It is not only Nagisa who comes to a clarity about her feelings toward Shizuma. At this point, we can understand Miyuki’s appreciation of the dance to be an indirect acknowledgment of Nagisa and Shizuma’s special relationship. As she admits to herself, and as the marvelous dance compels her to realize, Shizuma and Nagisa together are "so charming and perfect." In their conversation, Tougi and Kanou make the point explicitly, by noting that the difference in the dance for Nagisa is that she is dancing with Shizuma. Although the anime does not elaborate, Tamao’s clapping after the dance can indicate the same recognition, that Nagisa and Shizuma simply belong together. The undeniable aesthetic power of this dance breaks down all before it, and compels a surrender to Nagisa and Shizuma’s love from all those who had opposed it.

At this point, only Shizuma is not accounted for. We do not know her feelings, other that the image of yearning and disquiet that she presents in the episode’s last scene. She is looking out the window at the night sky, while Miyuki bids her goodnight, and asks her if graduating in March is "good enough," the sufficient fulfillment of their remaining hopes and plans at Astraea. Pointedly, Shizuma gives no answer, but continues pensively looking out the window. What she feels, and the anime’s final denouement, await the final episode.

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