The Sound of Depression: Liminal spaces, sound design, and Super Cub

By: Mercedez Clewis December 24, 20210 Comments
three girls staring at the water out beyond a stand of sakura trees

For many, myself included, what drew folks to Spring 2021’s Super Cub was the notion of a quiet, thoughtful show about girls finding freedom on the backs of their Honda Super Cubs in the Japanese countryside. There’s something tempting about that in the midst of year two of a fraught pandemic, and there’s a certain delight in witnessing feminine teenage joy by three young girls who long for a bit of adventure in their otherwise completely ordinary lives.

Now, months later, the series comes to mind as I look towards the end of the year: a year that’s been filled with strife, radical injustice, and a lot of heartbreak. Super Cub was a balm in Spring when I was dealing with personal upheaval; months later, it still often fills my thoughts. Now, I look towards the intimacy of Super Cub and its liminal spaces, and how that defines the often intense emotionality of teenage depression. 

Protagonist Koguma wakes up alone in her starkly decorated apartment.

Liminality in its most simple sense, is  “of, relating to, or situated at a sensory threshold” or better, “of, relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase, or condition”. It is, ultimately. the process of transitioning across boundaries and borders. Derived from from the Latin word “limen”, which means threshold, liminality is all about the thresholds between “here” and “now”, “then” and “there”, “betwixt” and “between”, and “what was” and “what’s next”.

We move through lots of liminal space on a daily basis. For example, say you wake up at five a.m. in the middle of Winter to head to your job that starts at seven. You have an hour commute, so you leave at six. Perhaps the sun is peeking over the horizon: or maybe, it’s nearly pitch black. That empty street you drive down, covered in frost and a bit of early morning fog? That’s a liminal space, created by the absence of other people and by the intense quiet of early morning. And even if there’s other cars on the road, they don’t know you exist—you’re shadowed by tinted windows, by the absence of interior lights and the limited nature of human eyes at night. Only your headlights let others know that you’re alive.

Larger liminal spaces can include airports (especially late at night or early in the morning). Shopping malls are huge, dynamic liminal spaces: they’re full of interstitial spaces with ever-changing shops. Abandoned buildings are also liminal spaces, either through natural occurrences or through forced closure. Imagine yourself in a terminal at midnight, stranded until the next day. The lights are dimmed, there’s the buzz of a big name news channel, and the shops—including the T.G.I. Fridays and the small newspaper kiosk with overpriced water—are shrouded in curtains and security gates that allow the barest peek inside. That’s liminality at its most hauntingly beautiful, and at its most intimate.

It’s intimacy that Super Cub endears itself to: a familiar intimacy that, in many ways, can only be experienced as a teenager. Protagonist Koguma feels as though she has nothing—no family, no connections, no real reason to live beyond floating through. Life itself is a liminal space before she impulsively buys the titular motorcycle and begins to find connection with others and joy in the simple act of living. 

Koguma sits down in front of a convenience store after not being able to start her new super cub bike.

In the show, this version of liminality is the world at large: it’s the desaturated colors of Koguma’s depression when she’s biking around Hokuto City with only the sound of the wind and her bike chain. It’s the silent roar of the wind rushing past her ears on her Super Cub as she navigates the winding paths of mental illness and isolation with an unending landscape of greens and browns. Here, Koguma’s intense loneliness—due to her circumstances and to just being a teenager—develop into the liminality of existence: a constant moving from “then” and “there” while trying to figure out the “why” of it all.

But this really isn’t the meat of Super Cub’s dialogue with liminal spaces. Most of its liminality is small and mundane. It’s the everyday kind of liminality that creeps in at the edges: it’s waking up in a silent apartment in a silent neighborhood before dawn. It’s the moment before Koguma puts on her helmet, gets on her bike, and heads out into a city devoid of people until she gets near her high school. It’s the moments when she climbs into bed and, in the penultimate episode, the moments when she’s at peace with her friends after near tragedy. It’s all in-betweens as she navigates feeling emotions and the nothingness of her depressive state. 

Ironically, the word “depression” is never used in the show. Instead, viewers infer it from the way Koguma moves and from the stark color shifts from the show’s desaturated earth tones to full-bodied colors. In moments where Koguma feels elation, things fill in, and she shifts through the liminality of depression much quicker. “Here” and “there” become minutes walking from the classroom to the bike rack to fix up her cub. “What was” and “what’s next” are just instances. Koguma’s depression lessens, and the music picks up: the world is back to right, for a moment.

Reiko and Shii steathily snap a picture of Koguma as she oogles a fresh fish case of bright red crabs. Koguma catches them in the act after hearing their camera's shutter sound.

Depression is something I’m intimately acquainted with. Since the start of the pandemic, my ongoing relationship with Depression and Borderline Personality Disorder has become tangled up in the global grieving that is the COVID-19 pandemic, an event I’d imagined being a blip that now defines the end of my twenties. At the worst of all this, my OCD—a difficult blend of rumination, fears of contamination, and ideation—makes itself known, freezing my hands above packs of toilet paper and loaves of sliced bread as I brave the outside world. 

This part of my life will be forever marked by a period of unmade beds, spontaneous tears, fight or flight reactions to too-loud coughs and sneezes, scrubbing my face raw from fear of contamination, and the haunting desire to sit next to a stranger. There’s no easy way to reckon with that. Instead, I put on my mask, step out the door, and drift through stores like a ghost, feet barely touching the ground as I move through the liminality of big box stores at 6:30 a.m., trying my best not to let anything that might have been touched by a stranger brush against my body.

In Super Cub, the pandemic doesn’t exist. The source material (a series of novels) predates the events of COVID-19 by three years, solidly shifting Koguma and her friends out of a world currently locked into the longest minute to ever exist. Hokuto City, Koguma’s home, is also removed from the pandemic in the series. It exists in a Japan that isn’t experiencing rising COVID-19 cases; a Japan that’s not stranding would-be residents in the liminality of border closures. 

Shi, Koguma, and Reiko look out at Lake Biwa and think about Summer.

Super Cub’s liminality holds space for depression through its sound design. We frequently hear the sounds of Koguma’s domestic life: the gentle huff of blankets on a bed, or the soft whisper of steam rising from fresh cooked rice. Then there’s the sounds of nature: the chuckle of a creek, the sound of wind passing over blades of grass, and the million sounds of falling rain. Then, the mechanical sounds: the click-click-click-click of a single speed bike going downhill over a well-worn small town street, the metallic ting of tools on motorcycle parts, and, of course, Koguma’s own cub, each and every time she takes off or goes for a ride.

These sounds mingle into the liminal spaces depression creates, the gaping maw left yawning in the wake of loneliness and grief. The sound and music drops out entirely, leaving only the chirp of birds and the frustrated huff of her sigh until her fever breaks, and then the world is okay again.

As a counterpoint, episode 10 features Koguma and Reiko riding across the snow to a light, lilting soundtrack that combines rhythmic claps with a marimba and upbeat strings. The sound swells in, and for a while, the world is brilliantly colorful: Koguma’s trademark red jacket is more fire engine red than rust red, and laughter permeates the music. For a moment, liminality disappears, replaced by the sound of elation versus the bittersweet note of depression. The music swells and viewers are left with snow and the lingering sense that the kids are genuinely going to be alright.

But more often than not, liminality becomes a way through depression, underscoring Koguma’s intense loneliness with quiet, hard-earned happiness. Moments like Koguma’s friend Shii weeping over a sink with only the sound of an open faucet to accent her grief, begging Koguma to bring Spring and put an end to the heartbreak of Winter. It’s all a painfully accurate look at depression, especially in 2021: a stark reminder that while the ebb and flow of depression has forward momentum, there’s a lot to move through. When combined with Super Cub’s sound design, it becomes particularly impactful, creating special, quiet moments as Koguma slowly broadens her horizons and copes with the trauma of sadness.

Reiko and Koguma collapse in the snow after riding their motorbikes around and having a snowball fight.

Super Cub’s final send-off to liminality occurs, aptly, in its finale, which is an episode centered around travel porn. Most of the scenes contain no dialogue, or at least minimal speaking. Instead, you watch the girls cruise past Lake Biwa, the Tottori Sand Dunes, and the fringes of rural Japan. For a moment, it feels like only this capsule of a world exists: a time before, where laughter was shared in intermingled breaths, where a hotel room for three didn’t come with risk.

Eventually, this sequence leads the girls to Kagoshima Prefecture and the southernmost point they can reach via their cubs. As the wind blows across the landscape, cherry blossoms, freshly bloomed, flutter around them, and the sound pulls back for one last moment of contemplation. It’s a striking moment that brings me to tears dozens of series later, drawing on something inside me that yearns to escape the confines of my pandemic-stressed depression for greener grasses.

Koguma’s depression isn’t cured by those greener grasses because… that’s just not how it works. When she returns to Hokuto City, she’ll still be a depressed young woman. Will it be better? Yes, without a doubt. But the pain lingers. We are forever marred by our pain, though the scars may fade to near nothing. Koguma’s the same girl, pandemic or not. Yet as she shifts through each space, going from there to here and here to there, betwixt and between, the landscape evolves, as does the shape of her depression, filling in with color as she rides without a care in the world.

This isn’t Koguma’s last time with depression, but also, liminality has its bounds: she’s in the “there” now, and for one moment, the chiri-chiri falling sound of pretty pink petals is enough. She is enough, and the depression is just background noise. It’s a quietly optimistic end to a series about hope, depression, and moving through. And in the pandemic, that’s kept me going, and will certainly keep me going in 2022.

Koguma, Reiko, and Shi look at the newly bloomed cherry blossoms of Cape Sata in Kagoshima Prefecture.

These days, I take a lot of pictures of the sky, which is my favorite liminal space: it’s a big empty nothing that only exists thanks to Earth having just enough atmosphere to scatter light and leave us with blue. Most days, it’s a plane of myriad blues too numerous to name. Sometimes there’s clouds; sometimes, there’s no sky to see because of the clouds. Rather, sometimes, it’s tucked between a seamless, unending grey that all too often matches the ebb and flow of my own internal struggles with BPD and Depression.

Some days, my mind is clear: I can think all the thoughts I want, let my mind wonder about the future. Other days, my mind is hazy: thoughts come at the cost of scant amounts of energy. My body exists, but it doesn’t thrive. Still, I move from “here” to “there”, all in hopes of getting back to some level of stability.

The sky has become the way I track time these days as well. In a life of work-from-home tedium paired with the silent, frenetic buzz of anxiety about the pandemic, I mark my days by my smartphone’s photo roll and daily snapshots of the sky. Sometimes, I take ten or so photos to get that perfect shot. Sometimes, I snap a single photo, embracing the slight tremor that I’ve had since I was a teen. For a moment, it’s just me and my 16GB smartphone, right hand held towards the sky, thumb on the shutter-release button, ready to capture the view.

All of my shots shape a series of timestamps that say “I’m still here and I’m still alive. Isn’t this moment beautiful?” and “I’m trying” in the same breath. They’re reminders that I’ve got forward momentum, that I’m moving through; that one day, the scars of this year will have faded into grief that I grow around, even if I will never have the privilege to forget. I’m sure when I look back on this near forty, the memories will be clear. I imagine that I won’t draw on them until then, given the sorrow surrounding them.

A picture of the sky at sunset in Texas. There's clouds low in the sky, and it fades from pale yellow to pink to blue.

Lately, when I look up, I think of Koguma and her ever-changing world: of the girl who had nothing but gained much through quiet moments on the back of her cub. It’s times like that that I want to cry, that I crave my knees on the ground and the heels of my hands against my eyes to stop the tears. Great gasping sobs that rattle my chest, heaving, choking inhales that make my lungs tingle and my stomach clench as I try to reckon with the world we’re stuck in for now.

I want to scream, some days. I want to beg people to listen and care and just make it all stop so I can touch things again and not be afraid of hurting myself and others. Maybe, if I were poetic, maybe I’d say that “20km/h”, one of Super Cub’s central themes, comes into my head and soothes me, but more often than not, it’s the quiet storm of weathering good days and bad days in a pandemic that keeps me going. 

And yet it’s in those moments that I remember one key thing: one day, Spring will come. In fact, as I write this, we’ve just passed the solstice. The darkness will dim, the amount of daylight will grow longer, and before we know it the minimal amount of light that fills the day between dawn and dusk will stretch back to over a dozen hours.

This time, this pandemic, right now, is just another liminal phase. And the good thing about that?

Liminality means “being an intermediate state, phase, or condition.” It doesn’t mean “the end.”

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