Of Hydrangeas And Ashes: Socrates in Love

by eternal on April 15, 2009


It’s funny how often the greatest stories are about the simplest of things. Love, after all, is nothing new to the human race. It’s been around since the beginning the time, for as long as we’ve been able to think and feel; whether eating freshly roasted meat in a cave in some unknown corner of the planet, or drinking aged wine and dining atop the CN Tower, there are some aspects of the human mind that have never changed, and never will.

So, why is it that stories like this continue to crop up? Could it be, perhaps, that even after thousands of years, there are some things about ourselves that we don’t know? Some things that still challenge us to look into our lives, into our hearts – things that elude us even to this day?

Socrates in Love is a simple story, but I believe – in my humble, oh-so-subjective opinion – that that is what makes it beautiful. Without the use of symbolism or allegory, rich vocabulary or vivid imagery, it captures the hearts of its readers – because it takes a simple, unoriginal concept, and portrays it in a blindingly blunt light that leaves the reader both dazzled and broken.

In a nutshell, the novel is about two things: love and death. Two sides of the same coin, perhaps? No, probably not. However, they do have one thing in common: they are both occurrences that drive people to do illogical things, both unexplained phenomena of our world that often invoke the strongest emotions. Therefore, it doesn’t surprise me that countless stories use these two scenarios in tandem. After all, what could be more painful than losing someone you love?

However, this is where Socrates in Love is different. It’s the same as the rest of its genre, and the basic premise should be painfully familiar to fans of a certain visual novel, but the story packs a certain punch that I have never quite felt before. Even after Key, after Shinkai, after Saikano – after just about anything you can throw at me – there was something about Socrates that felt different. This isn’t because the story was different, I don’t think, nor was it about the themes – if anything, it was about the firm jab to the gut that was delivered by the direct, insightful narrative.

Now, I could keep writing, but for the time being, I’ll take the easy way out and let the book do the talking. Let’s take a closer look…

“In spite of all the progress we seem to have made, human emotions stay the same. Deep inside our hearts, we don’t change very much. This poem was written two thousand years ago or more. It’s from a time long before the quatrains and other formal styles you’ve learned in school were established. And yet, even today, we can understand the feelings of people from that time. You don’t need education or scholarship for that. These feelings can be understood by anybody, I think.” (pg 43)

Words spoken by Sakutaro’s grandfather, in reference to an old poem about love. It’s self-explanatory, really, and I think that it conveys the same message I was reaching for at the beginning of the post. I’d hesitate to write a corny line like “love is eternal,” but in a sense, it’s the truth – like all other human emotions, love is something that has lasted through the ages, and that would be as heartfelt and as true in a thousand years as it is today.

It goes without saying, but I think love was the most prevalent theme in the story. The words spoken by the old man were powerful, showing that even after decades of married life, he still knew a thing or two about love; not to mention that he was able to relate to his grandson’s predicament perfectly despite their age gap. However, we also see the two main characters ponder the true nature of love…

“I wonder which would be better.”
“Which what?”
“Living with the person you love, or staying in love with the person you love while living with someone else.”
“That’s easy. Living together.”
“But if you live together, you start seeing the bad stuff about that person too. Or you get into fights over stupid little things. And when that happens every day, after twenty or thirty years, you’d probably feel nothing for that person anymore. No matter how much in love you were at first.”

And a few lines later, rebuked by Saku…

“Let’s say you’re crazy about the other person now. Ten years later, you love them even more. You even love the things about them that bugged you at first. A hundred years later, you’ve come to love every single hair on their head.” (pg 64-65)

The questions posed by these two teenagers are not at all foreign to me, as my personal questions about love would be much the same. Which of them was right? I doubt if any of us know. Perhaps a few of you have a decade or two of marriage under your belt, but for the most part, we’d have to ask our parents or grandparents like Saku did. The problem of marriage has been posed countless times before, albeit not too often in anime, and it’s nearly impossible to write a story about love without mentioning the social institution of marriage.

As the story continues, Saku also points out something unexpected…

How dumb, I thought. Make a pass at her? Guys who went around bragging about “my woman” or “my girlfriend” made me sick. If this Tachibana moron liked Aki so much, why didn’t he just go ahead and tell her? Not making a pass at Aki because I’d “done it” with her – what kind of reasoning was that? Aki didn’t belong to anyone but herself. (pg 71)

“Well said” is about all I can think of adding to that. Once again, Saku thinks like a teenager, but thankfully he doesn’t fit the image of a stereotypical teenager. While not relevant to the main theme, per se, it certainly says something about the guy’s devotion, reminding us – as if we needed reminding – that he isn’t just some idiot playboy.

However, this is where the story concludes its original theme and moves on to its second: death.

Every day seemed cut off from the day before it. Time had stopped flowing for me. The sense that something was lasting, or could grow grow and change, was lost to me. To live meant to exist from moment to moment. I could find no view of the future, and the past was littered with memories that cut me if I touched them. Bleeding, I would pick them up and look at them. I told myself the blood would eventually clot and form a hard scab. And I wondered if, when that happened, I would be able to touch my memories of Aki and feel nothing. (pg 143-144)

Death was the inevitable conclusion that the couple faced, and when Saku was left behind, his heart was empty. I felt much the same as I did at the end of 5 Centimeters Per Second – hesitant, and terrified of the notion that pain might last forever. As the final chapter teaches us, of course, Sakutaro’s scars eventually heal; but that doesn’t make his experience any less painful, nor any less real.

The concept of death was driven home to me when Aki began talking about Aboriginal spirituality. In the past, they had brushed over the topic of religion: is Heaven real, does God exist, or were they both creations of the human mind that exist for the sake of making life more liveable? When faced with the gravity of her situation, however, Aki turned to something that, given her situation, felt far more plausible: she believed in the truth of the present, that anything that had once existed will continue to exist. One can understand how she came to believe this; forced into facing death, what was she to believe about the afterlife? She would be separated from Saku, after all, and it must have felt foolish to believe in a paradise waiting at the end of such a painful road. And yet, she knew that her feelings were true, that they couldn’t die with something as meager as the decay of the body.

Saku wrestled with this concept as well, albeit in a darker manner. He denied the existence of God and Heaven – and really, who could blame him? Faced with such pain, he put two and two together and came to a conclusion about the afterlife.

However, when his grandfather talked to him, he had something very different in mind. Something that, while still dealing with death, veered away from the logical example of God and wound up back at the word that is at the core of the novel…

“There are things that come true in life and things that don’t. The things that actually happen, people forget about right away. But the things that never come true stay in our hearts forever. I’m talking about the things called dreams and longings. I think it’s our feelings for these that sustain the beauty of life. All the things that didn’t happen have come true, as beauty.” (pg 148)

After devouring every bit of food for thought, and after feeling every fraction of emotion that I could pull from the story, this was the one quote that truly caught me off guard. Why? Because it was the one thing that I hadn’t thought about before, and yet, it sounds perfectly true.

Dreams. Longing. Ideals. The things that we want, and that we can’t have. We see it all the time in anime, right? It’s out of context, but it’s the same idea: a fool’s daydream that can never come true. Surely, a love as perfect as the one portrayed in the novel must have a downside. In reality, perhaps such perfection could never exist – and within fiction, a story so flawless would have to contain an element of tragedy for the readers to buy into it.

More importantly, however, I think Gramps hit the nail on the head once more – the importance of feelings, the influence they have over our lives, and the cruel beauty that they hold. Keeping with the “pure love” theme, the novel is not about relationships or marriage to begin with. It’s about a pure, innocent love that was tested by the one enemy that humanity can never surpass; and it’s about the trials undergone by those suffering from the bittersweet affliction.

And that, cheesy as it may sound, brings me to my conclusion.

socrates-in-love-review-1Old Man Socrates might sound irrelevant, but the Afterword has a thing or two to say about him.

It is redundant (and not very insightful) to state that Socrates in Love is about love – but the truth of the matter is that “love” consists of many, many things. Some stories are about relationships; others are about getting there; and we even have some that are about the whole deal, or maybe even life itself! The point is, marking a story as “romance” is about as vague as tagging Gundam 00 as “action” – and the more you subdivide, the closer you get to the unique meaning at the nucleus of each story.

Therefore, I don’t feel in the least bit cheated when I say that the novel is about something as “unoriginal” as love, and I think that it did a better job of pinpointing the emotion than countless stories before it. Socrates in Love captures the essence of love – not marriage, not a relationship, not what society defines as “love” – but simply, the emotion that drives its victims into a state of blind bliss. Unhindered by the words and definitions imposed by society, free from the social pressures of racism and standards of living and rival families that want to kill each other for one reason or another: in separating itself from the devices so often implemented to add a secondary (or even primary!) theme to the story, the novel portrays love at its most innocent, most pure, and most true.

And when that continent-moving emotion is tested by the almighty shadow of death, an internal battle occurs with enough strength to pierce the heavens. And pierce the heavens it did, because the human heart is something that we will always have to live with, in a jungle or a concrete jungle or a colony in outer space – and for successfully appraising one of our most poignant yet perplexing emotions, I give Socrates in Love my utmost respect.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

OGT April 15, 2009 at 11:58 pm

You have made me want to dig my (hardcover!) copy of Socrates in Love and read it again next rainy day.

It took about, oh, five pages, maybe, before I first started choking up with tears at this. I think it’s best read all at once, in one sitting (which I was unable to accomplish when I read it), just to let the whole thing wash over you without interruption or avoidable delay. And I think it’s best that way simply because it is a portrait, as you say, of pure love, or perhaps even pure life. Life is soaring heights and treacherous depths and everything in between, and it’s called “flatlining” for more than the obvious reason.

OGTs last blog post..Victory Gundam: Standing Up To The Victory


moritheil April 16, 2009 at 4:17 am

“Even after decades of married life, he still knew a thing or two about love . . . ”

The unstated assumption, of course, is that marriage is inherently loveless. Could there be a more telling condemnation of our societal views towards marriage?


ETERNAL April 19, 2009 at 8:58 pm

@ OGT: Sadly, I couldn’t get through it in one sitting (which might have been for the better since my attention span tends to waver if I read for too long). Still, I finished the book within a couple days, and the experience really is like nothing else. Plausible or otherwise, I’ve got a thing for these romanticized love stories.

@ moritheil: Impressive! You caught an allusion in a blog post that even the writer didn’t notice! Remember what you were saying about the writer’s personal opinion seeping into their analysis? Well, I agreed with you then, and it looks like you just proved yourself right.

My intention, of course, was to bring to light the fact that Saku’s grandfather understood the feelings of his teenage grandson, despite the man’s countless years of experience. His marriage wound up failing to fulfill his needs, so from his perspective, it was something that theoretically could have destroyed his childhood image of love. Of course, that “unstated assumption” was made because I did indeed make an assumption – a slip of the tongue, if you will – but for the purpose of the post, I was trying to get at the different views of the characters, rather than myself. At least I know you were paying attention :P


haemin December 27, 2012 at 12:57 pm

Hi! I’m Haemin. I have read Socrates in love and I really like it, especially the last chapter. I have been learning English and I want to read English version of the last chapter. Can you share it with me? Thank you!


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