Super Cub: Of Grief, Freedom, and Motorcycles

The most endearing anime of the season might be the one that’s trying to sell me a motorbike. Super Cub is the story of Koguma, an orphaned, painfully lonely girl whose world opens up when she buys a discounted Honda Super Cub—initially looking for a way to get to school more efficiently, but soon discovering a newfound sense of agency and freedom. Slowly, slowly, Koguma begins to disrupt her tight-knit, almost claustrophobic routine and step into the sunshine, making this a tale about the scary but rewarding process of overcoming grief and loneliness.

Like the titular motorcycle, this series is slow-paced, and maybe not as eye-catching as some of the others on the road that is the Spring 2021 season. In truth, I might have missed it if my pal Mercedez had not been championing it on as many websites as will let her. It’s a gorgeous, detail-orientated series that makes excellent use of its medium for visual storytelling. Owing to Koguma’s quiet nature, there are stretches of time where there’s simply no dialogue, and the animation, sound design, and storyboarding are left to tell the tale; and oh they tell it well.

Wide shots of empty intersections and powerlines criss-crossing a grey sky. The buzzing glow of a petrol station’s LED sign. Sunlight struggling through closed curtains. The liquid clunk of a drink being poured into a glass, deafeningly loud in an otherwise silent room. Laboured breaths and the tick-tick-tick of spokes as a bike and its rider struggle uphill. Snippets of other people’s conversations, caught in passing. Chalk on a board. Footbeats on a paved path. A huff of steam as a rice cooker opens. The main character’s quietness is thrown into sharp relief by the organic noisiness of the world around her, and she’s rendered absolutely tiny in the wide shots that showcase her rural environment. The artistic direction immediately creates a world that feels very real and very lived-in, and highlights just how lonesome Koguma is as she moves through it all like a ghost.

It’s not clear how Koguma’s parents died, or what legal arrangement is in play that she’s living on her own. It’s not really important, though—we can infer that there was no one else to take her in, and the circumstances of her orphaning aren’t really relevant so long as the audience understands that she’s alone now. Her own guardian, thrust into the role of self-sufficient adult while still in high school.

There’s a meticulous, almost robotic quality to her domestic routines that shows she’s gotten used to a certain way of living. That is to say, doing the bare minimum to take care of herself, sticking to what’s strictly necessary and sticking to her comfort zone. Shower, get dressed, cook rice, pack lunch, drink tea, ride to school, get education, return home, eat dinner, wash plate (singular), sleep. She follows the same path each day because clearly sometime in her abandonment she figured out that this works, and there’s no sense shaking up a routine that’s successfully keeping her alive and well. Until, of course, along comes that bike.

The second-hand Super Cub is also tinged with death, on discount sale due to its involvement in a fatal accident. There’s the implication that it’s been sitting in the shop for a while, since no one wants to buy the bike with that dubious past hanging over it, even if the vehicle itself is back in good condition and not technically dangerous. I get the sense that not only does Koguma see an all-important bargain here, but a sort of kindred spirit. After all, she’s also covered with a cloud of grief, sitting alone at the back of the world. No one wants her, either. She can relate to this little scooter in a way she can’t to most of her classmates.

Koguma’s bike is a conversation-starter that does net her some human contact, and I get the sense that the rest of the show is going to unfold into the story of her bonding with her fellow riders/motor enthusiasts and coming out of her shell. In a way, though, the Super Cub itself is the first new friend she makes. It presents problems, of course: she has to learn to ride and get her license, and her isolation is thrown into the spotlight when she faces mechanical problems that she has to figure out all on her own. But it also brings her a newfound joy. It gives her a vehicle (literally and metaphorically) with which to take the first tentative steps outside of her comfort zone. Turn right instead of driving straight ahead, and instead of arriving at home to close yourself away as usual, you find yourself at a new supermarket that stocks discount curry. It might not sound like a very exciting adventure nor reward, but it’s a massive step for Koguma, and the story makes sure you understand that.

Folks living in cities with efficient public transport systems (god I wish that were me) can sometimes forget how entangled driving is with the ideas of agency and freedom. I have a friend who grew up in a town with one bus, primarily used for taking children from rural properties to school and elderly and disabled folks to the doctor. If you wanted to get anywhere otherwise, you needed a car or a bike, meaning that many young people’s first real taste of control over where they were in the world came when they got their first license.

That sort of teen freedom isn’t quite what Super Cub is about, but it resonates: the motorcycle represents a new ability to make choices, to act according to your own schedule and your own desires, and to literally expand your view of the world. The motorcycle is the vehicle for Koguma’s coming-of-age story, and also the story about her slowly pulling herself out of her depression.

At the beginning of the series, Koguma’s world is tiny, clustered around her like a bubble of sadness. Her trying a different road and buying dinner from a different shop in the second episode is a massive milestone. Now, she knows it’s there. Now, she has two supermarkets she can buy from. She has new choices before her, and instead of being terrified by the prospect, she’s kind of excited. It’s a lovely small moment, in a show full of lovely small moments. The art direction goes to great lengths to show us Koguma’s grey, lonely world, so we really notice when the colours get warmer and a smile slips onto her face.

If you like these kinds of character studies that rest in the beauty and potential of visual storytelling—and if you want to see the delightful and moving tale of a teenaged girl growing out of her grief and isolation—definitely give this sweet little show a shot. Don’t let the Honda product placement make you cynical. Just because a show begins its life with the intention of selling stuff, doesn’t mean it can’t also be a good story. Super Cub is only a few episodes in, but it’s thoroughly charmed me, and I love checking back every week to see how Koguma is doing. Watching this is like watching a garden slowly turn green again after a rough winter: slow and steady, calming and rewarding.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Super Cub: Of Grief, Freedom, and Motorcycles

  1. Pingback: Scootin’ Along: May ’21 Roundup | The Afictionado

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