Sweetness and Lightning follows Kōhei, a high school math teacher and single father, struggling to raise his precocious kindergartener, Tsumugi, after the death of her mother. In an attempt to improve Tsumugi’s life in a real and concrete way, Kōhei begins learning how to cook with Kotori, a student of his who is also being raised by a single parent.
Or, to put it another way, it is an anime about two things: food and the soul-crushing weight of being both a widower and a single father.
While the first few episodes centered around Kōhei and his emotional state more than anyone else, the last few episodes have been pulling out the metaphorical big guns: Tsumugi, in bits and pieces, is starting to understand the concept of death and the implications it has toward her situation specifically.
In the early episodes, Tsumugi shows through offhanded comments that she doesn’t truly understand that her mother is never coming back. The change begins in episode eight, where Kōhei goes to Parents’ Day at Tsumugi’s kindergarten. From a group of chatting mothers, he learns that each of them sew a new school bag for their children for every year of preschool and kindergarten–something he didn’t have any idea was the norm. When looking at Tsumugi’s bag, Kōhei realizes that it is beat up and stained–pointing out to him another way he has failed in caring for his daughter.
While not capable of sewing a new one himself, he offers to buy Tsumugi a new bag. She quickly rejects the idea. Unsure of her feelings, Tsumugi hides her head in the bag. All she knows is she wants to keep this bag because her mother made it–and a part of her realizes that no new bag from her mother’s hand will ever come.
The following episode centers around Tsumugi’s longing for her mother’s special homemade curry. In a stroke of luck, Kōhei stumbles across the recipe–one of only three ever written down by his wife before her death. The majority of the episode follows the main trio preparing the meal. But when eating it, both Kōhei and Tsumugi remember Tsumugi’s mother cooking the dish for the family, crying from the onions and wearing Kōhei’s glasses. Later, walking home, the two revel in the joy of the memory, sharing it with each other.
But it is here for the first time that Tsumugi truly understands death. She’ll never make a memory like that again. Her mother will never make anything for her again. All the things her mother used to do for her are now being done by her father instead–even cooking her mother’s signature meal. She will never be able to see her mother again, and her father is all she will ever have.
What other possible response is there than to cry.
Death is a horrible, albeit natural, thing. But seeing a child lose his or her innocence bit by bit, coming to understand that mommy is never coming home again is devastating–even in animated form. Inevitable though it may have been, Tsumugi’s comprehension of this simple fact is the series’ most heartbreaking moment so far.
Yet, at the same time, it is one of the most hopeful. Motherless Tsumugi may be, but she is far from alone; she has a devoted father, many friends, and a sister in all but name who has felt a similar pain herself. It’s heartbreaking, but underneath it all is the certain knowledge that Tsugumi is going to be okay.
Sweetness and Lightning can be viewed for free and with English subtitles in the US on Crunchyroll.