(These notes refer to the 2006 Kyoto Animation version.)
“Do you know the name of this song? It’s Pachelbel’s Canon. The same melody repeats itself as the song gradually grows richer and more beautiful.”
So what is the theme that is constantly repeated here?
Basically it’s “Sleeping Beauty”. Each of the Sad Girls in the Snow is in some sense asleep and unable to get on with her life. In order to wake her Yuuichi must recover his repressed memories, acknowledge to himself how he has failed her, and make amends in some symbolic way. So it’s the standard male fantasy of saving a bunch of pretty girls, but without the usual heroics.
Variations on the theme: It’s not Yuuichi who let Shiori down. In Makoto’s case getting on with her life isn’t really the issue. Sayuri is like a female version of Yuuichi: she let down someone she loved and had to make amends for it.
Making Sense of the Story
First, I considered and rejected the idea that the whole story is a dream (either Ayu dreaming or Yuuichi feverishly hallucinating.) Even a minimally competent writer knows that you can’t make the whole story be a dream, or there’s no point. The ending at least must be real, and since the characters in the ending remember earlier events, those events must be real. Proceeding recursively we find that most of the events in the story must be real.
So we must resort to a supernatural explanation. As Mishio suggests, the town where the story takes place, and especially the area around “Scenic Hill”, is an uncanny place where the borders between the human world and the spirit world are thin and dreams may impinge on our waking reality. The people of the town are used to this. They don’t talk about it but they take it in stride. If they happen to see someone else’s dream walking down the street, they generally ignore it and mind their own business.
An old fox  wants to be reunited with Yuuichi, so she appears to him in human form. The notable thing here is that Yuuichi unconsciously supplies her human form, giving her the name and appearance of an older girl he once admired.
Yet she is not merely Yuuichi’s hallucination because other people can see her. Not only can they see her, but at least some of them know at once what she really is. Mai and Mishio certainly know, and Akiko and Nayuki probably know as well and just don’t say anything. Otherwise they would surely have more questions about a strange girl who shows up with amnesia, who for some reason has the same name and general appearance as their old neighbor.
What does it mean when she shows up again at the end of Episode 22? Is this a hallucination, or has she really come back? Either interpretation is plausible, but if we assume for the sake of argument that her spirit has really returned in this manner, a Japanese viewer would probably interpret this to mean that she has become a kami. In that case it would make sense that she has the power to summon her human counterpart to save Yuuichi’s life.
Mai is the only human character who has actual magic powers, but they have become a curse to her. She has turned against them and wants to destroy them, even though they are inseparable from her. This makes her in some ways the hardest case. She is the only one of the girls who is actively trying to destroy herself.
Even when Yuuichi realizes the truth he can’t do anything to reach her. Everything he might say to dissuade her just increases her feelings of self-loathing. Knowing that she is wrong just makes her feel worse. The rabbit ears are the key to the puzzle. They don’t mean anything to the grown-up Mai, but for Yuuichi they provide a connection to his younger self, the seven-year-old boy in whom an eight-year-old girl foolishly invested all of her hopes . This connection with his younger self allows him to reach out to the eight-year-old girl and awaken the hope that she had forgotten.
Shiori’s mysterious “birthday disease” annoys me more than anything else in the series. I doubt that it is really supposed to make sense, but I’ll take a stab at it anyway. Maybe the problem here is that these people take things too literally. Probably the doctor meant to predict that Shiori had less than a year to live when he said she would not survive her next birthday, but everyone, particularly Shiori, took it to mean that she would die on that specific date.
In any case, Shiori’s primary problem is that she’s too damned cheerful, too resigned to her fate. Yuuichi, by being her friend, by arranging a party carefully scheduled on the day before her birthday and by giving Kaori the opportunity to reconcile with her, changes her perspective.
When her birthday dawns Shiori says goodbye to him and bravely goes off to meet her death. But she’s going to fight now, delaying her death as long as possible, and that turns out to make all the difference.
Nayuki is the only one of the girls to whom Yuuichi really did behave badly, though his behavior is understandable.
Here Kyoto Animation breaks the theme by omitting a scene from the earlier versions that established that Nayuki’s sleepiness was caused by Yuuichi’s earlier rejection of her. This was probably a good idea. Such a scene would preserve thematic consistency but would probably seem trite and fail dramatically.
Instead the arc focuses on Nayuki’s depression when her mother is injured. Interestingly, Yuuichi does not rescue her from it. This is not some traumatic misunderstanding from the distant past, something that can be dealt with by a change in perspective; this is a real and immediate tragedy.
In the end Nayuki seems to pull out of her depression by her own efforts. She’s not a naturally depressive person; once the shock wore off she was bound to recover. Still it is notable that she seems to pull out of it at pretty much the exact moment when Ayu makes her wish.
Ayu doesn’t know what happened to her. She feels that she is in a continuous dream in which she waits on the bench by the station for Yuuichi to return, while the seasons change around her. She also has some vague awareness of her actual surroundings, particularly the window over her hospital bed, but she doesn’t know where she is and these just seem like elements in a fuzzier dream, less real than the dream about the bench.
Yuuichi meets Ayu, but it clearly isn’t the real Ayu. It’s an Ayu shaped by his unconscious desires, an Ayu who was never in an accident, an Ayu to whom he actually gave the red hairband. She looks unreasonably young because her appearance is based on his repressed memories of the ten-year-old Ayu.
This is the most ambiguous and controversial part of the story. Is “hairband Ayu” purely a creation of Yuuichi’s imagination, or does she also embody the spirit of the real Ayu? Since there is strong evidence at the end of the story that these two Ayus are connected and share the same experiences, I will go with the latter theory.
The reaction of the other characters to Ayu is fascinating. Akiko knows what happened to the real Ayu, and Nayuki almost certainly does as well, so they have a pretty good idea what this Ayu is, but they tactfully avoid mentioning it. Mai makes it pretty clear that she knows exactly what Ayu is, but Mai is a special case.
Ayu is dreaming that Yuuichi has returned and she is eating taiyaki with him, having fun with him, and eventually meeting his family. This is better than her dream about waiting on the bench, but it must still be frustrating and confusing to her. She doesn’t look like her image of herself (the ten-year-old Ayu with the white hair ribbon who we occasionally see on the bench.) Yuuichi doesn’t really remember her. She isn’t sure how to behave as a teenager. Her actions are constrained by Yuuichi’s unconscious desires and his constant mental censorship. When Yuuichi isn’t around, she finds herself back on the bench.
She thinks about the angel doll . She has one wish left; surely she could use that to straighten things out. But Yuuichi doesn’t want to remember the doll, so she can’t tell him exactly what she is looking for or where to look for it.
Still she keeps pushing at the boundaries of the dream, and eventually persuades Yuuichi to visit her “school”. Things begin to fall apart as they confront the reality behind their dreams. Yuuichi is paralyzed. He resolutely refuses to face the truth, but he loses control of the dream. Henceforth hairband-Ayu’s actions are the uncensored responses of the real Ayu.
Ayu is more willing to face reality and she sees the obvious implication that she is actually dead. Naturally she is terrified. Grasping at straws, she thinks of the angel doll. Maybe she could use that last wish…but as she searches for the doll, she realizes that she is being ridiculous. Obviously she is dead and the doll can’t save her. She is just distressing Yuuichi and possibly endangering him. Mournfully she says goodbye to Yuuichi and vanishes, leaving her backpack behind.
Why does she leave the backpack? Wings commonly symbolize hope or aspiration . The winged angel doll and the winged backpack both represent Ayu’s hopes for the future. Burying the angel doll in a “time capsule” symbolizes preserving those hopes. Looking in the backpack and finding it empty means that the hopes are baseless. Abandoning the backpack means abandoning hope .
When Yuuichi finds the doll and brings it back to the tree, Ayu is irresistibly drawn back to him. She has had time to get used to the idea of being dead and she wants to say goodbye properly. She thanks him for the time that they spent together, then takes the doll and wishes that he will forget her. But he refuses and his reaction convinces her that he now remembers her and truly loves her. Gratefully she wishes that “Yuuichi will aways be smiling” and vanishes, taking the doll and the backpack with her.
She returns to her supposed afterlife of waiting eternally on the bench for Yuuichi, now knowing that he will never come. It isn’t a very satisfactory afterlife, but she is comforted by the thought that Yuuichi will be happy.
The angel doll was only supposed to be able to grant the sort of wishes that Yuuichi could fulfill. But someone (the gods, the writers, whoever…) has decided that Ayu has earned the right to one genuine miraculous wish, thus setting things up for a happy ending.
This is going to be a hard wish to grant. Yuuichi can only be happy if the people he loves are happy. There are three people who are severely injured and one who is sick to the point of death. Four miraculous recoveries seem like an excessive burden for one little wish.
Though this is never spelled out, there is one obvious way that whoever is granting the wish could economize on the miracles. All that is needed is to restore Mai first. She will then use her own healing powers to restore everyone else. Mai never says that she had anything to do with the recoveries…but then, she wouldn’t.
Yuuichi finds the real Ayu lying comatose in her hospital room–and she has the angel doll, for the benefit of anyone who still doubts that all the Ayus are the same person .
Yuuichi has matured. He will no longer run away from grief and suffering; he will stay and try to help Ayu. Ayu is dimly aware that he is talking to her and that his friends are helping to take care of her, but it seems like just another dream.
Almost a full year passes. Mai is sitting by Ayu’s bed. No doubt she has tried to use her healing power, but she can’t bring Ayu back because Ayu’s problem at this point isn’t really physical.
“Go get her,” she tells Yuuichi. “The way you did for me. You’re the only one who can. The only person who can fulfill a promise is the one who made it.”
The resolution is indeed similar to the Mai arc. Only the ten-year-old Yuuichi can enter Ayu’s dream and bring her out. Yuuichi needs a physical object that will allow him to connect to his younger self. Once he goes back to the tree he finds the red hairband easily enough, right where he dropped it .
Stop Whining About the Ending!
I’ve heard a lot of complaints, invariably from male viewers, about which girl “won”. I think these are misguided. If there is going to be a happy ending, this one is optimal. Let’s consider all the girls that Yuuichi might have ended up with:
Nayuki is the cutest. She’s also sweet and strong and a good person, and she really likes Yuuichi. The only trouble is, he just isn’t attracted to her, and without that it’s never going to work out. At no point does it ever cross his mind that she might be a potential girlfriend. Maybe it’s because she’s his cousin (although that would be legal in Japan) or the fact that he knew her at such a young age that she seems like a sister to him.
Makoto isn’t even human. And she’s dead.
Sayuri will someday make a wonderful wife for somebody. Unfortunately it’s probably going to be Mai.
Mai and Yuuichi have a very close relationship, but there’s no sexual attraction between them, at least on her part.
Shiori might have worked out if Ayu wasn’t around, but she would never really be his first choice. She’s better off looking for someone else for whom she will be number 1, and she now has plenty of time to find him.
Kaori isn’t even in the running. She wants a doormat for a boyfriend and she has one in Jun.
Human Makoto is too old for him, and they barely know each other anyway.
Like it or not, Ayu is the one that he has been in love with since he was 10 years old, and it’s clear that she loves him too. It’s true that there is nothing sexual between them, but have some patience. She needs time to recover physically, and probably even more time to adjust to the fact that she’s now 18 years old. It will work out, trust me.
Also, they are good together. Watch the last scene carefully; note how awful she feels at the beginning of the scene, and how good she feels at the end. He’s actually supporting her while pretending to tease her. The two of them have the potential to be a great couple.
Thanks to Skane whose posting about the “three Ayus” on animesuki.com was very helpful in clarifying my own thinking.
 Ten years is about the maximum life expectancy for a fox, so she doesn’t really give up all that much.
 Ages are estimated as follows: Yuuichi is a second-year high school student (American 11th grade) and it is near the end of the term, so he is almost certainly 17 years old. His classmates Nayuki, Kaori and Jun are probably the same age. Mai and Sayuri are a year older; Shiori and Mishio are a year younger. Ayu says that she is the same age as Yuuichi. Ages in flashback sequences can usually be obtained by subtracting the stated number of elapsed years.
 Probably this is actually a Christmas tree ornament.
 White wings are also used to identify the spirits of the blessed dead, but in this case when the artists put white wings on Ayu they are engaging in deliberate misdirection.
 Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate. –Dante.
 I am not going to comment on the plausibility of this scene from a medical standpoint. If you can accept the birthday disease, this should be no problem.
 Wait a minute. I can accept that the angel doll could survive for seven years with minimal deterioration, buried in a tightly sealed container. But how likely is it that a plastic hairband could be left on the ground for eight years and be found in pristine condition, still in its original wrapping paper? I guess it’s a good thing that Yuuichi dropped it in a magic forest.