Contrary to popular belief, the sakura (cherry tree) does not bloom out of anticipation of change in spring. That is a modern interpretation. According to one Japanese myth, the origin of the sakura comes out of tragedy. Long story short, the sakura weeps as soon as it blooms every spring because an old man’s loyal dog is buried beneath its roots.
At the heart of a Japanese narrative, sakura may be a beautiful spring tree, but it is also associated with life and death. Sakuras are known to wilt as quickly as they bloom at the beginning of spring, symbolizing a short existence. Thus like the sakura, our very existence is rather short when you compare it to the span of all time. This is the lesson that one might learn from the sakura, and it is also the lesson one might learn from this series.
But that’s enough about existentialist theory for now. I will be getting into some heavier stuff as we go along, but this is an anime review. So I will be focusing on the waifu — I-I mean, Sakurako! And nothing puts a smile on her face quite like finding a fresh pile of bones of a human being!
Beautiful Bones: Sakurako’s Investigation (Sakurako-san no Ashimoto ni wa Shitai ga Umatteiru, literally “A Corpse is Buried Beneath Sakurako’s Feet”) is centered around the recluse osteologist, Sakurako Kujō. Sakurako has always been fascinated with bones, so much that she prefers being around skeletons than actual people. Sakurako has a dark past that involves the death of many of her closest loved ones, including her little brother. But when she comes across a high school boy who looks just like him, she reluctantly brings him along for her field work as her personal assistant.
Together with the kid assistant Shōtarō Tatewaki, Sakurako helps to solve mysteries for the local police that involve the remains of those who have been left behind. And if you thought that was their day job, think again. For Sakurako, the joy of finding and occasionally collecting bones is all she needs. And she especially loves the skeletons of those who have been murdered!
Sakurako often comes across as condescending toward others. She prefers being honest than hospitable, and she will tell you just how stupid your ideas are without even flinching. As a scientist, Sakurako seems to be interested only in rationality, not emotional attachment. But deep down, I think there is another reason why she comes across that way.
Like me, Sakurako doesn’t like fake people; and much to my chagrin, she’s better at detecting them than me. She’s got a lot of things to take care of, from solving crimes to collecting bones. She doesn’t have time for whatever shenanigans you have that will distract her. And don’t even get her started on magic and superstitions. You can probably tell by her expressions that she is so disgusted just by mentioning them!
Sakurako may spend a lot of time among the remains of the dead, but she is actually more interested in life. Bones speak to her in ways that people may never say out loud, and they remain in tact long after the deceased had passed on. And whatever truth is revealed from these bones, she brings their story to life, and in turn teach those who have survived a lesson from the past.
Sakurako is often surrounded by death, but death is something that she would not wish on anyone. She may come across as a scientist full of indifference toward others, but she too falls into the trap of human emotions, especially around matters of the death of her loved ones. She may preach how emotional attachment to things contain no meaning, but there are times when I think that she is reexamining just what that means to her. She has plenty of sentiment toward things that others might find meaningless, such as taking in Shōtarō simply because he looks like her deceased brother, or the fact that she loves a very specific brand of pudding.
Perhaps it’s her resistance toward acknowledging her own sentiments that makes Shōtarō a good foil to her. Shōtarō may just be a casual observer as Sakurako’s personal assistant, but he is there to show that life can operate without meaning. Sakurako may have closed off her feelings in order to discover the rational truth behind bones, that she forgot about her own emotional attachments. But with Shōtarō’s help, she has opened up more to the past that haunts her, and might in turn bring a close to the greatest mystery of them all: her little brother’s murder.
A lot can be said about this show’s close ties to existentialism, particularly in matters of life and death. But one thing I can’t ignore is the feminist influence that also comes out of this narrative. The fact that Sakurako is a female lead or that the original creator Shiori Ōta is also a woman might be surface level details, but the fact remains that the narrative from this series draws a lot of attention to the girl’s perspective.
When it comes to discovering the truth, simply blaming the criminal may bring closure to the victims, but not completely. In many of the mysteries presented in this anime, girls and women are often the victims, the survivors, and the murderers. But even so, Sakurako remains neutral in judgment toward others, never forgetting their humanity. For if there is anything that any character in this series had in common, it was that they all suffered from things out of their control.
The case of Natsuko and an infant’s remains I felt illustrated this point best. In this case, Sakurako and Shōtarō find the cremated remains of Natsuko along with the bones of an infant. At first they were led to believe that the pair were mother and child, as a symbolic gesture of being reunited in death. But what Sakurako discovered was that these two weren’t even a match, and that the child’s mother was Sayuki, an old woman whom Natsuko had taken care of when she was young!
The truth was that Sayuki had an affair with one of her father’s acquaintances, even though she was to have an arranged marriage with someone else. She eventually became pregnant, which would have been a bad sign for a newlywed to have someone else’s child. While it was not expressed explicitly, Sayuki had an abortion; and with the help of her caregiver Natsuko, they led her entire family to believe that Natsuko was the one who had the child but then died as a stillborn. Making up this story was easy, given that Sayuki had been bed-ridden all her life.
Sayuki hid this truth for decades, and had a family of her own past this early part of her life. But what is expressed in the truth of this particular narrative is the suffering that Sayuki had to hide her shame by pretending that the first child she had through infidelity did not exist. After all those years, Sayuki had suffered in silence that she was in fact the infant’s mother, but still longed to grieve for the child that no one ever knew was hers.
It is through stories like this case that Sakurako reflects not just on the truth of the matter, but on the humanity of the departed as well as those who are left behind. For Sakurako, there is always a possibility for more than one kind of truth, and with each memory or idea there is more than one meaning.
At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that the sakura represents a tragedy according to one Japanese folktale. But there are multiple meanings to these stories and symbols, and those meanings are always subject to change or have different context altogether in a different culture or time. And the interpretations of those meanings cannot easily be separated from one context to another.
The same goes for the narrative of death in Beautiful Bones. On the one hand, Sakurako understands a certain level of beauty in death. But even so, she fears death of those closest to her. To some that might seem like a contradiction, unless you can appreciate that even Sakurako recognizes multiple meanings in death.
And as far as that folktale I was alluding to in comparison to this show, yes, Sakurako has a dog, too. But fortunately for us, that dog will still be around at the conclusion of this anime. So no worries there. Hector is here to stay!
So if you’re looking for a mystery anime that shows the human side of life and death, check out Beautiful Bones: Sakurako’s Investigation.