A review of Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions

On a moonlit night, just before returning to school, newly minted high school student Yuta Togashi steps out onto the balcony of his family’s apartment to put out boxes of trash, a bunch of “magical” trinkets he collected as a kid that he’s grown out of. While he’s outside, a rope suddenly drops from the balcony above, and a girl Yuta doesn’t recognize climbs down it — a girl wearing a frilly dress and a patch over one eye.

The next morning, Yuta goes to school, putting this strange occurrence behind him, only to run into the same girl in his homeroom class. The girl, Rikka Takanashi, is now wearing the standard school uniform but still has that eyepatch on. She addresses Yuta dramatically, proclaiming that her covered eye is pounding and falling to the floor. In shock, Yuta realizes that this girl is suffering from the condition known as chunibyo.

If you’ve played Fire Emblem: Awakening, Rikka is basically doing Owain’s “my cursed sword hand” routine here

So begins Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions, the first season of a comedy/drama/slice-of-life/romance anime produced by Kyoto Animation. KyoAni as it’s commonly known is very well-regarded, famous for its high-quality work. And Chunibyo is one of its more popular properties — the series has had at least two cours aired on TV along with several OVAs and a film. This series has almost as confusing a watch order as fucking Monogatari from what I’ve seen, but this post only covers the 12 episodes of the first season from 2012, so hopefully that will keep things simple.

But just what is a chunibyo? This is something I wondered for a while after seeing the title of the anime come up again and again in discussions online. Chunibyo (or more properly chuunibyou, with those long vowels written out, but for consistency I’ll stick to the series’ English transliteration) translates as “second year of middle school disease.” In a broad sense, it refers to the “cringy” behavior of eighth-grade-aged students who are just gaining a sense of self as adults and are desperate to distinguish themselves — for example, by insisting on drinking “adult” beverages like black coffee or writing fancy-sounding poetry.

Cool jacket!

Chunibyo focuses on a more dramatic version of this “disease”, in which the student believes they are different from others and have special powers. Yuta immediately recognizes Rikka’s advanced case of chunibyo because he had it bad for a while himself, dressing up in a black jacket with a high collar, wielding a wooden sword, and calling himself Dark Flame Master.

Of course, Yuta is past all that now. After being a prime chunibyo kid at his old middle school and then snapping out of his delusions, he purposely chose to attend a high school across town to ensure none of his classmates would know him. But this fresh start that Yuta wanted is pretty much ruined when Rikka (who witnessed Yuta performing his dramatic chunibyo routine in a self-mocking way when he thought he was alone) identifies him as Dark Flame Master and tells him that he has to join forces with her, the avatar of the “Wicked Lord Shingan.”

Yuta tells Rikka to cut that shit out — he’s done with all that delusional behavior, and he advises her to drop the act as well. But Rikka firmly insists that she has real powers, revealing her covered magical right eye to Yuta (the magical look provided by a gold-colored contact lens.) She also insists on having Yuta’s help in “finding the invisible boundary lines”, whatever those are, and to that end she starts a school club called the Far Eastern Magic Society.

It changes its name after absorbing the one-member Napping Club. I don’t know why this club only has one member, because it sounds pretty good to me.

Despite his annoyance, Yuta is dragged along by events in just the way you’d expect from a high school comedy/drama/SOL/romance anime protagonist. So he joins Rikka’s club along with their senior Kumin and the extra-chunibyo middle schooler Sanae Dekomori, who joins her “master” Rikka and wields her long twintail hairstyle like whips to beat her enemies with.

Initially, Yuta is pretty down about all this, but he gets more enthusiastic when his crush, the popular sporty cheerleader Shinka Nibutani, asks if she can join as well. Shinka is just about the last person Yuta would have expected to have any interest in a club like this, but Yuta certainly has an interest in Shinka, so he brings her along to the club in the hopes that she’s joining because he’s a member.

Will Yuta be able to finally get away from all this chunibyo business, despite seemingly not doing very much to get away from it by joining Rikka’s club? And will he find love with his crush Shinka? Spoilers regarding that and related plot matters follow, because it’s not possible to talk about Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions without getting into the love part of the story further down — it’s just as much a part as the chunibyo and the other delusions are.

Pictured: Shinka, confessing her love to Yuta… in his dreams.

But first, some points about the presentation, because that was the first aspect of Chunibyo that really struck me. As expected of KyoAni, this show looks beautiful, with nice, smooth animation and a lot of detail. I would never claim to be an expert in animation, but I know what looks good to me, and Chunibyo does. The same goes for the characters themselves — they’re all distinctive-looking without standing out too much, except in the ways they should when they’re acting out their fantasy magic-using selves.

Speaking of that, I also liked how Chunibyo uses its action sequences. When Rikka and Dekomori (the two serious-business chunibyo types throughout most of the series) get into their fantasy fights and start casting spells, this actually plays out on the screen in magical battle sequences complete with giant weapons and explosions.

Rikka doing battle with her older sister Toka, who also wants her to cut this chunibyo shit out.

Of course, none of this is actually happening, and the show uses this fact for comedic effect when it switches away from the magic battle between Rikka and her older sister to show them sparring with a metal spoon and a wooden stick.

This approach fits well with the general feel of the series. Chunibyo is not magical realism or anything like it — there’s never any doubt that these magical powers are completely made up, just imagined by the students pretending to use them. But the difference between fantasy and reality is still a major theme of the series.

At first, this difference is played for comedy, with Yuta having to deal with Rikka’s dramatics and Dekomori’s even more dramatic dramatics. Plenty of typical anime high school hijinks occur, including the usual beach trip and school festival, and there’s some slice-of-life messing around with Dekomori and Shinka constantly locking horns and Yuta’s goofy best friend Makoto trying and failing to confess his love to their equally goofy senior Kumin. Nothing too unusual in that sense.

Are girls you don’t know crawling through your bedroom window and waking you up in the morning? That’s how you know you’re a high school anime protagonist.

However, the core of Chunibyo is that love story and the emotional attachments that form between our two leads. And it’s pretty damn obvious that Shinka isn’t the female lead opposite Yuta in this tale. Yuta’s interest in her fizzles out pretty quickly when he realizes that she has no interest in him and that her outwardly sweet personality is something of a put-on — though she does turn out to be a solid friend to both him and his true love interest later on.

And of course, Yuta’s true love interest is Rikka, the embarrassingly dramatic girl who dragged him out of his short “normal” high school life and back into chunibyo land. At first, one might wonder why the hell Yuta goes along with any of Rikka’s nonsense, but the show does a good job at creating a convincing emotional bond between these two, and one that leads to a believable romance between them.

What Rikka calls exchanging contact info

Considering all this, I think there are two ways Chunibyo could have easily gone astray and ruined itself, at least for me. One would have been building a story where Rikka’s chunibyo delusions are depicted completely as a positive, especially with regard to their effect on Yuta. I can easily see a path where Yuta’s rejection of his old childlike wonder about the world is shown as a more or less bad thing, and where he’s saved by Rikka and her magical eye and invisible boundary line hunt and all that.

Thankfully, Chunibyo avoids this kind of simplistic approach. It also avoids the opposite approach where Yuta has to save Rikka and make her into a “normal” person, though near the end the story it looks like they’re headed that way. But in getting close to Rikka, Yuta realizes that her delusions are not just a game to her but rather her way of coping with a massive loss she suffered early in her life. In dealing with the situation, Yuta has to consider both her feelings and what he knows to be true, and the ending plays this out in a pretty mature and realistic way.

The other wrong turn that Chunibyo might have taken was to get really melodramatic with a long stretch of misunderstandings between Yuta and Rikka. I feel it’s too easy for series like this one to indulge in a lot of drama that ends up feeling manufactured just to stretch the story out, with characters failing to communicate well beyond the point of reason or acting in uncharacteristically stupid ways. Like someone pretending not to see something right in front of them, this is never very convincing.

But Chunibyo again avoids this pitfall. There are some misunderstandings near the end between the leads, but thankfully they’re resolved in a pretty natural-feeling way once Yuta realizes how to properly express himself to and connect with Rikka. It also helps that this first season is 12 episodes long — just long enough to fit all those slice-of-life and comedy shenanigans in along with the more serious dramatic material, and without any need for filler. With the arguable exception of one episode in the middle that focuses on Makoto and doesn’t really connect to the main storyline, but at least it doesn’t involve any especially stupid plot turns. And one such episode out of 12 isn’t bad.

The slice-of-life stuff is a nice break from the dramatic parts anyway.

On the whole, I liked Chunibyo. I wasn’t quite sure what I’d get going in, especially with the hyper, headache-inducing OP. But KyoAni has a strong reputation for a reason. They clearly don’t just take any old crap to adapt into an anime and put serious effort into their work, and that’s all reflected in this first season of Chunibyo. Its mix of light comedy and serious romance/drama works well and its characters are pretty fun and charming. Though the hyperactive Dekomori came close to getting on my nerves at times, but that also felt intentional, and in the end I liked her as well.

Once again, my past self is amazed that I’m recommending my third school-setting anime in a row, since I used to be part of that crowd that groaned about how common this setting is in anime (or at least was — now I guess the trend is isekai fantasy.) But hell, if the story is good, what does the setting matter? High school is the most fitting setting for a coming-of-age story like this anyway. A time in your life when you can still afford to indulge in some fantasies, but when you’re also learning about who you are and what’s important to you.

I haven’t watched any of the rest of Chunibyo, so I can’t say how well it carries on, but this first season does have an actual ending and stands on its own well for that reason. The next season, subtitled Heart Throb, seems to pick up with and continue the story of Yuta and Rikka’s relationship. I have a lot of other series I have to get through, but maybe I’ll return for more Chunibyo some day I feel like feeling that nice secondhand embarrassment remembering my own cringy middle/high school self.

What I can say is that this first season of Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions is worth checking out as long as a romantic comedy/drama with a dash of slice-of-life sounds like your thing. Not a dish I thought I’d like, but apparently I’m into it, or at least when it’s done right.

 

* And thankfully it seems to be coming back strong from the murderous attack on its headquarters two years ago, with a new run of Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid airing this summer — all the more significant because the original director of that series, Yasuhiro Takemoto, was one of the victims of the attack. Maybe I’ll try to pick that one up again.

Anime short double feature: Are You Lost? / Magical Sempai

It’s more anime, though not what I actually had on my list next to watch. A couple of series I’ve been watching have been emotionally taxing (but good so far, but still — even I’m not completely cold and dead inside) and I felt I could use a break. So I decided to pull out two other series I’d heard a bit about from a year or two ago, before the year+ of quarantine started. Both consist of 12 half-length episodes each, about 12½ minutes per episode, though really more like 10 to 11 if you cut out the openings and endings.

Neither of these were acclaimed as great masterpieces or anything, but being shorts, they also wouldn’t be much of a time commitment if they turned out to be disappointing. But were they disappointing or not?

I’ll do my best to maintain the suspense here and not give the answer away early. On to the first entry:

Are You Lost?

Okay, so the first thing that caught my eye about this series was the poster. I admit it. It’s eye-catching, isn’t it? I guess that’s the point of a promotional poster.

But it does express the basic idea behind the show. Are You Lost?* is about four girls who are somehow thrown from their plane (or boat/other method of transportation; I don’t know if that’s specified) during a school trip and wash up on a desert island. Luckily for the lot, one of them, Homare, is an experienced survivalist, having traveled the world with her grizzled explorer father as a child.

Thanks to Homare’s training, the four are able to not just survive on this island while awaiting rescue but to do pretty well for themselves, building an effective shelter, rigging up ways to collect potable water, and gathering edible plants and catching animals for food. The show also goes into some depth about survival methods, using Homare’s knowledge taken from her father to teach both the other girls and the viewer about making it out in the wilderness.

This fire-making method seems pretty basic, I think I could pull this off at least

I don’t know the first thing about surviving in the wild. If I were left to my own wits, I’d definitely die within a few days, probably as a result of eating something poisonous. So I can’t say the tips in Are You Lost? aren’t legitimate (though I still doubt that fresh urine is sterile enough to drink safely — and I hope in all my life I never have to find out the answer.)

However, for me the appeal of Are You Lost? is more in the interaction between these four very different characters, and especially between the three much more “normal” girls (smart nerdy girl Mutsu, sporty but lazy Asuka, and sheltered princess Shion) and Homare, who straightforwardly tells the others what they need to do to survive, even if it means doing normally disgusting things like eating insects or embarrassing things like stripping to their underwear.

Yeah there are good reasons for the characters being half-naked half the time, but I still see what they’re doing here

And speaking of underwear, Are You Lost? is big on the fanservice — in fact, that seems to be just as much the point of the show as the survivalist stuff. It’s easy enough to judge from the poster, but for a story about four girls stuck on a desert island, a lot of what happens in the show doesn’t feel like too much of a stretch. Well, maybe aside from what happens in the final episode. I won’t spoil it, but it felt like an avoidable problem solved in a bit of a weird way. Then again, as I said I’m no survivalist, not even a camper, so who am I to judge?

But if you know my taste, you know I have a very high fanservice tolerance, especially when the anime or whatever it is I’m taking in doesn’t make any bones about it (so to speak I guess.) And this one doesn’t. I liked Are You Lost? — it made comedy work in the context of a harsh situation, and it had a cast completely composed of girls who were often just in their underwear, and really what more can I ask for than that.

Magical Sempai

Now to a more typical high school setting, but with just as much if not more comedy/fanservice. Magical Sempai (yeah, the “sempai” spelling does poke at my obsessive-compulsive side, but that’s how they officially transliterate it so whatever, I’ll go with it) is about a do-nothing new guy at school who’s required to join a school club. He’s not excited about the prospect and just wants a quiet place to play his 3DS lookalike.

Unfortunately for him, he drops in on the Magic Club, headed up by its sole member, known only throughout the show as Sempai. Dude finds Sempai to be cute but extremely irritating, especially since she 1) is awful at doing magic tricks and gets terrible stage fright and 2) insists he join the club, going so far as to immediately call him “Assistant”. She’s also constantly turned up to 11 in terms of both volume and personality, fitting nicely with Assistant’s usually deadpan demeanor.

Assistant has no respect for his annoying senior but still sticks around to help her with her failed attempts at magic.

A few other colorful characters show up, but these two are the core of the show. Each episode of Magical Sempai consists of a series of two to three-minute comedy skits, many of which I think are supposed follow that old Japanese comedy tradition with one boke or idiot character and one tsukkomi or straight man. I say I think because I’m no expert, but there is definitely an idiot/straight man dynamic between these two, though it’s nicely mixed up with those new additions (chemistry girl is best girl by the way, no argument.)

Magical Sempai also mixes things up by throwing in a big dash of… what else but fanservice! Sempai is extremely confident without any reason whatsoever in her magic skills, and she somehow ends up screwing up her tricks in ways that put her in compromising positions.

Like this failed rope escape trick. I left out the pantyshot in this screenshot, but it is there.

As with Are You Lost?, Magical Sempai makes no secret of what it’s aiming for. But also like Are You Lost?, it isn’t content with just giving you some anime girl boobs and underwear and calling it a day: the comedy in this show is snappy and fast-paced and most of it lands well enough. I don’t actually have much else to say about Magical Sempai, except that if you want a laugh and are not averse to some anime tiddies you should check it out. And I look forward to seeing what kind of traffic the SEO in this paragraph brings me.

I might also take this new post format up as an occasional feature to break up the longer reviews. There are some other short-format anime series I’d like to have a look at. And just as with games, I need a break from the massive epics sometimes (not that a one-cour anime series is actually much to get through, but hell, I am lazy after all. How the fuck did I manage to watch all of Legend of the Galactic Heroes anyway?)

 

* You might have noticed the title on the poster is Sounan desu ka?, which doesn’t mean “Are you lost?” but rather “Is that so?” Though it may seem like a strange title, it fits pretty well — it’s what the girls say to each other, normally when Homare is telling them that squeezing fish blood into their mouths using their shirts can help preserve their energy — with an added flavor of “seriously, you want us to do that?” But I can see why they changed the English title instead of just translating it directly, because I don’t know whether the English phrase “is that so?” carries the same connotation.

A review of Asobi Asobase

I’m back! More or less, anyway. The hiatus I planned was much shorter than expected for various reasons. These mainly have to do with changes to my life that I can’t really ignore anymore, though thankfully they won’t prevent me from writing here or anything like that. Just the opposite, in fact, but it’s a bit complicated. I might get into it later. And I will be posting an extra-long month-end post for July to make up for skipping the last month’s, I promise.

For now, though, I have anime to write about. Because I spent the time in between work and dealing with other unpleasant business this last week and weekend binging the fuck out of anime series, one of which was Asobi Asobase.

Back in the mid-2000s, there was a spate of anime series released that fell into a newly created genre titled “Cute Girls Doing Cute Things.” Sometimes just shortened to CGDCT, this is a widely recognized genre among anime fans, and one that I don’t think really exists outside of anime and manga. And it’s just what it sounds like: a CGDCT series involves a cast of cute girls, and they’re doing cute things. Like playing games, for one example.

From looking at its poster and synopsis, I thought Asobi Asobase fell into this category, so I passed it by. Cute is fine and all, but these shows tend to be a bit boring to me. But something about this show in particular drew me back. Not sure what exactly did it; maybe I was curious about it because it came out in 2018, long after that CGDCT craze died down, or maybe it was a few of the strange-looking thumbnails in the episode list. In any case, I decided to watch the first episode.

And then I realized I’d been tricked. At first, I wasn’t sure whether what I got was better or worse than what I’d expected, but then I ended up watching the rest of the 12-episode series over the course of two days, so there’s the answer to that question I suppose.

Wait, this wasn’t what I expected at all! Help!

The creators did a great job of hiding the show’s true nature, at least until a few minutes into episode 1. The OP is charming and cute with a slight yuri vibe, giving the impression of just the kind of CGDCT show I was expecting. Right away, however, we’re introduced to our main cast, and it’s obvious that something is off here. We open on Kasumi Nomura (right w/ glasses), a student at an all-girls middle school, explaining why she hates playing games with a flashback involving her shitty older sister forcing her to buy ice cream when she loses at a board game.

Much to her irritation, this flashback is interrupted by two of her classmates, Hanako Honda and the blonde transfer student Olivia. The pair are playing a game that involves slapping your opponent (at least according to Olivia it does) if they look in the direction you’re pointing.

Kasumi is dragged into their game by Hanako out of a desire to avoid further beatings, and Olivia gives Kasumi a good slap when she loses (or doesn’t lose? Because I think Olivia is slapping all her opponents no matter what they do.) However, Olivia screws her aim up, slapping Kasumi slightly lower than intended in a more sensitive area, and pissing her off to the maximum. So when Kasumi wins the next round, she decides to teach this new girl how to play this game properly.

Not the smoothest introduction. However, Kasumi approaches Olivia soon after to try to get her help with English, which she’s terrible at. Olivia’s parents are from overseas, and her Japanese so far has been pretty slow and broken, so everyone assumes at this point that she’s fluent in English.

This puts Olivia in a tight spot, because the opposite is true: she’s actually fluent in Japanese, having been born and raised in Japan, and she can barely speak English. She’s just been fucking with Hanako and the rest of the class because she thought it was funny. Now that she’s actually being asked to help with English, she’s afraid to drop the act she started, so she agrees to help Kasumi — as long as Kasumi teaches her about more games and pastimes. Olivia’s picked up on the fact that Kasumi hates games, so she thinks her demand will be refused, but to her shock, Kasumi accepts the deal. And before the end of the episode, the three decide to start a school club dedicated to playing games (and/or studying English?) called the Pastimers’ Club.

A few minutes past the OP of the first episode, then, it’s already obvious that Asobi Asobase isn’t quite what it claims to be at first. On the cover, it pretends to be one of those old CGDCT shows, but it’s actually a surreal comedy with a dirty streak. What follows is a 12-episode run full of mind games, revenge, blackmail, power struggles with the student council and rival clubs, competitions ending in humiliation and severe injury, and a man who shoots laser beams out of his ass. The series adds an entire cast of bizarre supporting characters to help play these bits out (including ass laser man; you’ll see how he fits into the equation if you watch.) But the focus is always on the main three Kasumi, Hanako, and Olivia and their games, which too often turn into larger, usually idiotic, schemes.

School clubs are serious business

This kind of bizarre stuff doesn’t always work for me, but as I’ve already more or less given away, Asobi Asobase did very much work for me, and I think a lot of that had to do with this central cast. Kasumi, Hanako, and Olivia quickly become friends, but they also have to deal with each other’s strange quirks. That’s where most of the comedy here comes from for me. Kasumi is studious, neurotic, and usually shy and quiet except when she gets pissed off (see above), and Olivia is carefree and generally out of it except when her public image might be at risk, in which case she panics.

But the most out-there character is Hanako. So out there that she might be the one who either pulls you into or shuts you out of Asobi Asobase. At first, I found her to be a bit much, but she quickly grew on me even if I’m still not sure why. Hanako is subdued (relatively at least) in the very beginning of the show, but we soon see how much of a weirdo she is — so much so that despite making high grades and being from a rich family with such a privileged upbringing that she has a butler, she’s shunned by the popular girls.

Stuff like this is probably part of the reason for her outcast status

This is a serious problem for Hanako, who desperately wants a boyfriend and both envies and hates the popular girls at her school for getting to go to mixers while she’s shut out of the fun. She’s also a bit of a complete and utter nutbar, though judging from my own middle school experience and my blessedly brief time as a sort-of-teacher she’s not actually that unusual for a kid her age.

Unfortunately for Hanako, both she and her clubmates are sort of weirdo misfits — the difference between them and Hanako is that Kasumi doesn’t really care and Olivia is seemingly too oblivious to even notice. So Hanako lets herself go around them, resulting in some of the strangest (and loudest) sequences in the show. I’ll admit she screams a little bit too much for me, but I enjoyed some of her freakouts, and especially her friends’ reactions to them.

The other two also have plenty of moments.

There isn’t much of a plot to Asobi Asobase. There are a few running storylines that come up now and then, but each episode is broken into four segments that are usually not connected to each other, which I think fits the type of fast-paced weirdo surreal comedy it’s going for well. The show as a whole is crazy, but there’s enough sense left in it to prevent things from going off the rails completely, which is where it would probably lose me, and I think this quick four-part format has something to do with that. These segments often end with a punchline and occasionally with a character breaking the fourth wall, but thankfully the fourth-wall-breaking doesn’t happen so often that it gets irritating.

The show is just as weird as it needs to be while remaining funny

There isn’t a type of humor that works for everyone, and that’s just as true of comedy anime series as it is of western TV comedies. Asobi Asobase is sometimes loud and often insane, but it fits really well with some of the sort of comedy I like. It feels stupid but at the same time clever and thoughtfully put together if that makes any sense. Something like Beavis and Butthead or South Park. The presentation is similar in the sense that it can be a bit shocking at times (and serious credit to the voice actors as well, because they contribute a lot to that) and the tone is pretty similar.

Or maybe I’m going way too far out on a limb with these comparisons, but this is just the vibe I got watching this. I think if you’re into the above shows, you’ll probably enjoy this series as well. And if you can’t stand Cute Girls Doing Cute Things, don’t worry, because that’s not really what Asobi Asobase is — at most it’s a surrealist take on that genre. So maybe people who are into CGDCT can appreciate Asobi Asobase even more than I can in that sense.

And as a look into the pure chaos and terror that is middle school, Asobi Asobase might be the most realistic anime ever created.

So I guess that’s a recommendation too. This currently one-season show didn’t have a proper finale really, simply ending on yet another weird joke, but the manga it’s based on is still running, and there’s talk about a second season possibly, maybe, who knows. I’m hoping for a second season myself, because I can use more of this strange brew, but anime watchers know how these things can go. I’m not holding my breath, but I’ll keep an eye out.

A review of Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro

No, I haven’t gotten so lazy now that I’m just reposting old posts — this is different from my other Nagatoro review, which was of the first four officially released English volumes of the manga (as of this writing now up to seven and soon to be eight, so I may have to revisit that at some point.) For now, though, we’re having a look at the recently completed anime adaptation, more or less covering the first six manga volumes.

Since I’ve already written about most of the source material this season of Nagatoro was based on, I might not have as much to say about it as I would otherwise. A lot of what I wrote about before pretty much applies to the anime, since it’s extremely faithful to the manga, only making a few changes to the pacing and the order of a few key events. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to say about the adaptation, though — in fact, watching the anime brought up a few connections I hadn’t quite made before in my mind, but here they are now, and even if they’re the product of a poorly socially adjusted mind like mine I’ll still go over them, because that’s part of why I write here (and then, maybe a poorly socially adjusted mind is the best kind to address these matters.)

If you don’t feel like going back to that older post, a short synopsis of the series: protagonist, known only as Senpai, is a second-year high school student, a nerdy and painfully reserved guy who only really likes art. He has a run-in with popular sporty girl Nagatoro, a first-year who loves teasing and tormenting him. But hey, of course it’s a romantic comedy and they’re really into each other but they can’t bring themselves to admit it (yet) and Nagatoro’s teasing works to help Senpai find some self-confidence and to socialize somewhat.

Speaking generally, this is a premise that’s been used before — the misfit pair who fall in love is a very old love story setup. But it’s effective when done right, and Nagatoro is doing it right (and for details on how it’s doing it right, you can check out the manga review, because all of what I wrote about it there also applies to the anime — the story wasn’t fundamentally changed in the adaptation.)

This was my first time watching an anime adaptation of a manga I was already reading, as strange as it might sound. I’m really not much of a manga reader. So all this is probably very old well-worn ground to many manga readers/anime watchers. But I was impressed by how well writer/artist Nanashi’s work translated into animation. Nagatoro especially is known for her extreme expressions that often turn cartoonish (for lack of a better term?) These work in the anime just as well as in the manga as far as I can tell, in some cases even adding to the Senpai/Nagatoro dynamic, since those expressions are always directed at or related to Senpai and his own awkward reactions.

The voice acting is great as well — the VAs they got for Nagatoro and Senpai fit their characters exactly, to the point that reading the manga again, I can “hear” the dialogue in those voices now. Sort of, anyway, since the voice acting is naturally all in Japanese. For those who prefer dubs over subtitles, since the series has just finished airing, the dub option isn’t available yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if an English dub is released soon on Crunchyroll. Not a personal concern since I’m firmly on the subs side of that dubs/subs divide with a few big exceptions, but it’s nice to see strong effort being put into English dubbing of anime, and there’s undoubtedly a lot of talent that goes into that as well.

There is an interesting aspect of Nagatoro that I haven’t addressed yet, and that’s the fantastic element to it. As I wrote a while back, one of the reasons I felt I took to Nagatoro so much was because of how relatable I felt the Senpai character was. Like him, I was a loner in high school who stuck to and got very deep into my own interests, shutting everything and everyone else out. When other students were a bit sad at my high school graduation, I found it to be the best day of my life — a sort of “fuck this place that I’ve had to put up with all this time” mentality (I know, for a JRPG/anime fan to have this kind of background is shocking. College was better, at least.)

The point here is that I never had my own Nagatoro to force me out of my shell. It wouldn’t have been reasonable for me to expect one, either. Nagatoro herself is a sort of godsend in disguise for Senpai, but that’s one of the things about godsends — they don’t show up all that often. I can’t say that it’s impossible that such a thing could happen in real life, or even that it’s all that unrealistic, but it seems rare enough that it might not be a stretch to file it under “wish fulfillment” (hell, just go into any thread or comment section about this series and see how many times you read something like “I wish a Nagatoro would bully me/had bullied me when I was in school.”)1

However, I still don’t think this particular kind of wish fulfillment, if that’s what Nagatoro is, is a problem. Firstly, because Nagatoro herself gets something out of her relationship with Senpai and has her own growth. I got into this a bit in my manga review, but that personal growth progresses in the fifth and sixth volumes that make up the later part of the anime run. Though we never get into her mind like we do Senpai’s, it’s implied that dealing with her senpai is making her more empathetic towards him, unlocking some new feelings within her.

A lot of that ties in with the budding romance going on, and yes, there is a ton of sexual tension between them that both the manga and anime largely play up for comedy, especially given that Nagatoro tries to tease him in that sense but can’t really do it that well since she’s just as inexperienced as he is. But there’s also a strong element of friendship there. It’s worth noting that Senpai even breaks through to Nagatoro’s tight group of friends, which consists of a few especially rowdy girls he’d never have thought of associating with before. And he eventually succeeds, because while they’re initially pretty cruel to him, they end up backing him up when they see how well he and Nagatoro connect.

Nagatoro both insulting and motivating Senpai to make him finish a 5k run.

And secondly, this isn’t any fairytale rainbows and unicorns bullshit.2 Senpai has to make serious efforts that are difficult for him to even meet Nagatoro halfway. As a result, it feels rewarding to see him gradually break out of that shell with her help. As much as I’ve come to hate the expression, he really is constantly stepping outside of his comfort zone — if that expression was made for any situation at all, it was made for this kind. And if “wish fulfillment” like this is created even in part to encourage such healthy behavior, then I have no problem with it.

All that said, none of the sex jokes have been toned down from the manga, so that aspect of the series can still be freely enjoyed or complained about depending upon your preference. I still think it’s strange that Uzaki-chan was the series that received all the fire from the usual sources, while Nagatoro from what I could tell mostly escaped it, considering that the latter is a fair bit more provocative. Maybe those usual sources simply wrote Nagatoro off immediately without any further scrutiny. Anyway, I can’t pretend to get why the hell people get pissed off about fictional works on social media to the extent that they start holy wars over them. If you’re a sociology or psychology major, there’s a good subject for you to think about.

Nagatoro’s thesis statement

But if you don’t care about any of that nonsense, my final take on the Nagatoro anime is that it lives up to the source material. Ten years ago, if you’d told me I’d be actually enjoying romantic comedies and/or school-setting anime series, I’d have laughed at you — but look at me now. I guess I’ve changed too. I’m even hoping for a second season, but whether we get it or not, I’ll continue following the manga.

 

1 To be fair, I don’t know how many of these comments are just from masochists, or more likely from people who think they’re masochists. If so, approaching Nagatoro from that perspective feels like it’s missing the point, especially since Senpai clearly isn’t a masochist — what’s going on between him and Nagatoro is more interesting than that.

2 Not that fairytales were even like this either. Go read an original from the 1,001 Nights or the Brothers Grimm and see how pleasant it is. A happy ending more often than not costs some blood to get there, which at least isn’t something you can say about Nagatoro. No blood, but there are plenty of sweat and tears to be found here.

A review of Blend S

Have you ever felt misinterpreted by others around you? We’re all taken in ways we don’t intend sometimes, but does it happen to you constantly?

If so, you might relate to this girl. This is Maika Sakuranomiya, the central character in the 2017 comedy anime series Blend S. In the first episode of the show, Maika is desperately hunting for a job. Even though she has the full support of her family, she wants to earn money for herself so she can fund a study-abroad trip and explore other lands.

Unfortunately, Maika has a serious problem: she has an inadvertently frightening expression at times, especially when she’s startled, stressed, or nervous. She’s actually very polite and genuinely nice, but despite all her intentions, she comes off as ice cold and scares the shit out of the new people she meets, including all her interviewers. And the only kind of job she can get as a student is service-related and customer-facing, which makes her prospects even worse.

This is a good out-of-context screenshot to use in any situation

On her way home from another failed interview, Maika is passing by a café when she wonders whether she can work on her expression, so she uses their window as a mirror to test that out. The staff inside just see a girl making weird faces at them, but when the manager sees her he’s instantly struck by her and asks her to come inside. In a very lucky break, it turns out this place, Café Stile, is a coffee shop with a twist: every waitress plays a different character type. So far they have a tsundere and a little sister, but the manager Dino is looking for a totally new and daring sort of character to add to the team: a sadist. And with her stony expression, Maika is perfect for this new position.

Maika isn’t sure she can pull this “sadist waitress” role off, but since she’s at the end of her rope she gratefully accepts the job offer and gets to work.

It turns out that she’s a natural at it. A true natural, because she acts this way without even trying — in fact, while she’s actually trying to be nice and polite to the café patrons. When Maika realizes she’s accidentally said something offensive to her guests or has given them her usual cold glare, she’s mortified, but the manager tells her not to worry: this is exactly what they’re looking for. And the manager is right, because to her surprise, Maika quickly gets a sort of fanbase of masochistic customers who love being verbally abused by girls (not my thing, but sure, I get it.)

This wouldn’t be much of a premise for a 12-episode series, but Blend S does extend beyond this one idea, getting into situations involving all the characters, including two more new employees with their own roles (a constant innuendo-making “big sister/onee-san” type and a self-absorbed aspiring pop idol) in episodes 4 and 8. It’s the kind of show that wouldn’t be too unfamiliar to American TV audiences, at least once you get past all the anime trappings: a comedy about a bunch of misfits working together and getting into and dealing with awkward social situations.

Plenty of sweatdrops in this one, and for good reason

But then, there are all those anime trappings. Or it would be more accurate maybe to say “otaku trappings”, since this is a series that knows it has a pretty niche audience and aims directly at it. Blend S is an adaptation of a long-running four-panel comic series of the same name, and like a lot of anime adaptations of four-panel comics, it contains a lot of quick jokes and short segments worked into the context of longer episodes. I can imagine how that kind of setup could feel clunky, but each episode of Blend S flows along pretty nicely, mostly taking place at Café Stile but also giving us short looks into some of the characters’ personal and home lives.

The possible trouble some people might face with this show is that it really is deep in that otaku territory. A lot of the jokes in Blend S are either directly about or play off of common manga/anime/Japanese game themes and character types. It’s not exactly referential humor, but it does rely on the viewer generally knowing about and probably being into these hobbies.

Like this old visual novel-looking screen between scenes. I like the 90s look Maika has here.

There are a lot of examples of these kinds of jokes, but one of the most obvious turns up in the third episode, when Maika finds one of Stile’s patrons accidentally left a bag behind at their table. When she looks inside the bag, she’s shocked to find a pornographic doujin book (a type of self-published work that’s often, but not always, rated 18+.) And when the patron returns to get the book back, it’s revealed that she’s not just the owner but the author of the work. A beautiful woman no less, who in the next episode joins the café as that ara ara-type big sister character who dotes on her customers and uses the situations she sees between them and her fellow staff to collect “material” for her constantly published new doujinshi. It’s the kind of joke any watcher might sort of get, but might be puzzled by if they don’t know just how popular some of these independent artists are and the crazy schedules they can hold themselves to. And just how weird some of these 18+ doujin works can get.

Doujinshi are really serious business, not even kidding now

Some of the jokes in Blend S rely on a pretty universal “character mismatch” concept, like the polite Maika acting as an accidental sadist or the young-looking “little sister” character Mafuyu actually being a college student and the most mature and grounded in the group. However, many of the show’s bits lean fairly heavily on otaku subculture stuff, to the extent that I’d put Blend S squarely in that niche category.

And since I’m in the anime/game nerd weirdo class that Blend S is targeting, it’s probably not a big surprise that I liked it. There’s always a risk with series like this that it will all come off as cheap pandering, but I think Blend S manages to avoid that, since the main focus is always on these strange misfit characters with all the otaku reference stuff as secondary. All the dirty jokes are so over the top that they also work pretty well, fitting in with the absurd feel. If I’d ever felt pandered to, I would have quit watching, and the fact that I didn’t speaks in the show’s favor. (Though admittedly I did find the whole Dino being in love with Maika thing a bit weird. Seems kind of inappropriate under the circumstances to say the least. As far as the romantic comedy aspect of the show went, I liked the tsundere sort-of-romance between Akizuki and Kaho better anyway.)

Then there’s Hideri, who provides some of the strangest jokes in the show. That idol scene really is something. More good out-of-context screenshots too.

Even so, if you’re not part of that same audience this series is targeting, a lot of these bits will probably pass you by, and they might not do anything for you at all. All this is a really roundabout way of saying that I liked Blend S but that, unlike the last few anime series I’ve written about, I can’t recommend it unconditionally.

But that’s also not really a judgment against the show, even if it might sound like one. It’s just not for everyone. But then, not everything has to be. Wouldn’t it be boring if that were the case? On the whole, I found Blend S a nice light comedy to pick me up when I was feeling shitty, and that’s always appreciated. Even if it had one of those irritating non-endings, but since the comic is still being published, that’s to be expected.

A review of Perfect Blue

I think Perfect Blue is a first here on the site. I’ve never had a look at an anime film before; they’ve all been series so far. But I’d always heard about how great a director Satoshi Kon was, and how impactful his movies were, and his 1997 debut film Perfect Blue makes a lot of must-watch anime film lists, so it seemed like a natural first choice.

And I’m happy I took the leap here after so many years, because after seeing it I’d say Perfect Blue deserves its classic status. I won’t give away the ending here, but I will be getting into the general plot and character points — I recommend going in raw as usual for stuff I like, but it’s understandable if you don’t want to. Anyway, the very strange screenshot above is probably the most famous image from the film, so it’s not like the extremely dark turn it takes is a big secret. It’s the way the story gets there that’s interesting. (Also, the film is very 18+ and deals with violent and sexual situations, so take the usual precautions if you care to.)

Mima Kirigoe is part of an idol vocal trio with the interesting name CHAM! (a reference to Wham!? But they don’t look or sound anything like Wham!, so maybe not.) At the opening of the film, we get to see these three putting on a performance in a small but crowded city park-looking venue. While their success is still pretty modest, CHAM! and Mima in particular have dedicated fans to cheer them on. Which makes it all the sadder when Mima announces at the end of the concert that this will be her last performance with the group, because she’s decided to leave behind singing and pursue a new career as an actress.

Only it’s not clear how much of that is her decision. Mima is employed and managed by a talent agency, which is in the process of reshaping her from pop idol to actress out of a fear that the pop idol concept is on the way out and that her talents would be wasted in that role. This is happening with Mima’s seemingly reluctant consent and against the advice of one of her agents, Rumi, who had her own shot at the pop idol role years before but didn’t quite make it.

But Mima says she’ll give it her best effort in any case. After getting cast in a small role on a TV drama, she starts to shift into her actress role, but with some pretty obvious difficulties. Some of these take place on the set, with Mima struggling a bit in her new acting work, but many more arise when people around her start getting assaulted and even killed in mysterious ways. This naturally takes a toll on Mima, who also fears that she may be the target of a deranged fan unhappy with her move from singing to acting.

Her fears are understandable. On top of some of the public controversy surrounding her career shift, she also has evidence in the fan site “Mima’s Room”, where an anonymous blogger (back before “blogger” was really much of a thing as far as I know) writes a public diary in her own voice. At first, Mima is amused by this site — slightly weird, maybe, but still harmless, just the work of a dedicated fan. However, as Mima tries to settle into her actress role, the site author writes more personal details about her life, the kind that only she should know about. And though Mima doesn’t realize it at first, throughout the film we see she does in fact have at least one probable stalker, a man who works as a security guard at her idol events and obsesses over her.

The prospect of having an obsessive and possibly murderous stalker, together with the stress of her new job and the continuing assaults and murders of people involved in her professional life, put Mima in a state of near-perpetual fear and even seem to cause her to go through long stretches of memory loss. Will she be able to get through this ordeal with her life and livelihood intact?

I’m not going to spoil that here, because you should really see Perfect Blue for yourself. This is one of those movies with an ending that’s best not revealed beforehand, which I guess is usually the case (though I do think a good story should always be enjoyable even if you already know the ending, but still better to go in without knowing it.) This is the only Satoshi Kon film I’ve seen so far, but even though it’s his first, I can see why he had such a great reputation. It’s not easy to tell any kind of story well, but I think it can be even more difficult to pull off the psychological thriller in a way that doesn’t descend into dumb schlocky nonsense. You need compelling and well-developed characters and an interesting plot, and Perfect Blue has both; it kept me hooked from the first few minutes to the end.

Part of this for me had to do with how sympathetic the protagonist is combined with how much crap she’s put through. Aside from the obvious stalker issue and the possibly related assaults and murders taking place around her, Mima is made to do some things to cement her position as an actress in the public eye that she assents to but clearly isn’t happy about, both having sexual elements to them. The first is a scene written into the drama she’s acting in in which she’s portrayed as a stripper who is raped by club patrons, leading to her character’s psychological breakdown in the drama, and to her own brief breakdown when she returns to her apartment after the filming. Shortly following this scene, Mima is scheduled for a magazine photoshoot that starts fairly tame but takes a racy turn, with the photographer getting her to strip completely.

These sexual aspects of Mima’s new role play a large part in her shift from singer to actress. As a pop idol, Mima had a “pure” image that seems to be typical for performers of that kind. While the idolized singers and performers promoted by agencies can gain a lot of popularity, they’re also expected to be clean in their daily lives and in some cases even to be chaste, with discoveries of secret boyfriends for example leading to public shamings and “graduations”/firings from idol groups. The idol phenomenon is a massive part of pop culture, starting in the 60s and spreading from Japan to Korea and beyond, and while it seems to have declined a bit from its heights, it’s still big business. And that virginal image still seems to be an aspect of it — certainly an unrealistic standard in most cases, but one that idols are still held to as far as I’ve heard.

This is the pure image that Mima ends up losing in the course of her work and promotion as an actress, one that she can never get back. As a result, her former pop idol life is closed off to her forever, a fact that she expresses serious regrets about throughout most of the film. While her former colleagues continue on as a duo and gain more popularity than before, Mima’s regrets don’t seem to be attached to any professional jealousy, but really to her second thoughts about her own path in life. What we do for a living does a lot to define us, and being an idol was clearly a big part of Mima’s self-image, and probably even moreso considering how much dedication that profession demands.

At the same time, Perfect Blue doesn’t just paint the entire entertainment industry as a black-and-white villain full of lustful bastards who only want to take advantage of Mima. Those people do absolutely and unfortunately exist in the real world, and more than a few of them — the “Me Too” movement is only a few years old, but the idea of the casting couch has been around for decades, and for a reason. Mima isn’t put through anything like that, however: she’s a capable adult, the ordeals she has to get through are entirely legal, and they’re arguably all a part of the art (though the motive of the screenwriter in putting in the rape scene specifically might be questioned, and what being in a nude photoshoot has to do with one’s acting ability I can’t say.) The fact that one of the actors in that scene whispers an apology to her between takes also makes a lot of sense; for any kind of decent guy, it probably wouldn’t be that easy to take part in such a scene either, even though it’s all staged.

None of that takes away from her feelings about doing these things, of course, especially since it seems she wouldn’t have done them if she’d really had the choice. There’s no question that they contribute to the breakdown of her old self-image, which is replaced with a new one she doesn’t recognize or even necessarily like. And that brings me to the most central point about Perfect Blue: the persona of the idol/actress as separate from the person herself. Throughout most of the film, we’re seeing things from Mima’s perspective as she deals with the hard transition from singing to acting and with the horrors taking place around her. She’s a professional and does her best to take on these challenges, with a stoic sort of “I just have to get through this” attitude. But that public face is pretty different from her private one, which we see in her thoughts and when she’s alone or to some extent with her agents.

Most of us have to put on a sort of persona when we leave our homes, since we can’t totally be ourselves in a professional setting or while out in public, but this difference is naturally a lot more dramatic when you’re constantly in the public eye as a popular singer or actress is. Of course, people have recognized this difference for a long time, especially since actors and other performers have been nationally and internationally famous, so Perfect Blue is very far from the first work to make a comment on the issue. But it addresses that issue in an interesting way. Throughout the film, other people treat Mima the pop idol and Mima the actress like images that belong to them. Though she’s nominally in control, Mima doesn’t seem to have much actual power over her image, leaving it to her agency to change it as they see fit. The fans also play a part in this, with some wanting Mima to maintain that pure pop idol image.

Both of these public faces seem a lot bigger and more important to most of these people than Mima herself does. The problem for Mima is that she’s the one playing one role and then the other — even though her personal and professional lives are separate in some way, she’s still the one who has to put up with all the shit that comes along with these professional expectations and with the more obsessive and dangerous aspects of being in the business. In that sense, the public image and the private person can’t actually be separated, and that’s what puts Mima in danger.

Though I’m not familiar with idol fan circles, I am a bit with the VTuber ones. This is a very new phenomenon I wrote about a while back, a few months after it really hit the West. Though I still see a lot of positives in the whole thing, I can also recognize the potential of weirder, more obsessive elements to come out of fanbases. One of the interesting differences between VTubers and “real-life” idols is that VTubers use a literal avatar to interact with their audiences, creating a much more obvious layer between the public image and the person behind it. I don’t think it’s all that different in terms of the concept, though, and some people do end up “idolizing” these figures somewhat, even knowing that the avatars are just animated models rigged up to follow the user’s movements. And the negatives are there as well: a few of these figures have been sadly targeted in doxxing and harassment campaigns.

In the end, I don’t think there’s anything at all wrong with being a fan of these entertainers. That’s kind of the point, after all. Hell, I’m a fan of a few VTubers myself, so I can’t talk shit about that. If they’re good at their jobs and are promoted well enough, it’s only natural that they’ll get a lot of fans, and there’s plenty of good that can come out of that. But that’s true only as long as the difference between the public avatar and the private person behind it is recognized and respected — whether that avatar is a figurative one in the form of a real-life pop idol figure or a literal one in the form of a VTuber model. Otherwise, you can end up with a situation like the kind presented in Perfect Blue, which is not something you’d ever want.

That said, you would certainly want to watch this movie, because it’s good. It does the bizarre psychological drama right, and you can probably draw some comparisons with the works of guys like David Lynch or Jim Jarmusch — stuff that’s weird but to a purpose, not just for the hell of it (or for that matter Darren Aronofsky, whose film Black Swan is supposed to have taken a lot of inspiration from Perfect Blue.) That “weird not just for the sake of weird” style just happens to be my thing too, so given this promising start, I’ll be looking out for more of Kon’s work in the future.

A review of Teasing Master Takagi-san

Since I’ve had a look at the anime adaptation of Uzaki-chan Wants to Hang Out! and the original Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro manga, it’s only right that I should give some attention to the last member of the triumvirate of (mostly) good-natured bullying/teasing. Like those, Teasing Master Takagi-san (original title Karakai Jouzu no Takagi-san) is a still-running manga series; the anime adaptation currently has two seasons released in 2016 and 2019. This series features yet another boy and girl pair with a somewhat similar relationship to those in Uzaki and Nagatoro — the girl makes fun of the boy, the boy gets flustered in response and tries to get back at her, and that’s the source of the comedy.

However, Takagi-san is pretty different from those series aside from that common theme, which I think has to do with the somewhat different dynamic between the two leads and the setting they’re in. And of course, I’ll get into all that right now.

Takagi and Nishikata, the leads of the series

The first segment of the show’s first episode, “Eraser”, lays out everything we need to know about these two middle school students and their combative, complicated relationship. Nishikata, the boy, is our protagonist — we know this because we can hear his inner monologue, and also because he sits in the protagonist seat, all the way in the back of the class by the window. Sitting next to him is the girl, Takagi. Nishikata is busy not studying but rather trying to rig up a springy snake toy made of paper in a box meant specifically to scare Takagi. But before he can pull his plan off, Takagi asks for his help opening her pencil case, which she claims is jammed shut. When he takes the case and easily opens it, Takagi’s own springy paper toy jumps out and scares Nishikata, and Takagi breaks down laughing at his extreme reaction.

How most of Nishikata’s attempts at getting revenge on Takagi end up

After Nishikata collapses in defeat, Takagi changes the subject, asking to use his eraser. When he hands it over, Takagi mentions a rumor she heard that if you write your crush’s name on your eraser hidden under the paper holder part of it and said crush uses the eraser up, they’ll fall in love with you. Nishikata dismisses it as a silly superstition, but when Takagi takes his eraser and slides it up to see under that part and pretends to read a name, he starts sweating, wondering whether he wrote a name and forgot about it — even worse, could it have been her name?

Of course, Takagi is bluffing; there’s nothing written there, but she got another reaction out of Nishikata, which was enough for her to get another win over him. She then leaves class to go to the bathroom, and Nishikata takes the chance to take Takagi’s eraser and steal a look at what she might have written under it. When he pushes her eraser up and sees the kana ろ (ro), not the first letter in his name, he feels disappointed, though he’s not sure exactly why. Working up his nerve, he then reads the rest, which translates to “look into the hallway”. And looking to his right, he sees Takagi, peeking around the corner and laughing her ass off at him once again before composing herself and coming back in to get her eraser back and declare still another victory over him.

If only he’d read the other side.

Right away, we get the gist of their relationship. Takagi teases Nishikata endlessly, and while Nishikata tries to get back at her, his attempts fall short because Takagi has already thought a few steps ahead of him. He never gives up, however — his determination to get even with Takagi is a constant throughout the series.

There are two other important points to this first segment, one obvious and the other only hinted at. The obvious one is that Nishikata has a massive crush on Takagi but that he doesn’t realize it yet. As the show continues, Nishikata inches closer to realizing his feelings for her, but it is a slow process. The less obvious point here is that Takagi might have the same feelings for Nishikata — in the early stages this is still only hinted at with bits like the end of the “Eraser” segment, but more of these suggestions show up later on.

Takagi has the upper hand here too, though, because assuming from the beginning that they’re genuine, she understands her feelings for Nishikata better than he does his feelings for her. Moreover, she seems to know that Nishikata is crushing on her, since she uses this fact throughout the series both to tease him and to get closer to him. Every time one of them comes up with a game, it’s probably no coincidence that when Nishikata inevitably loses, the penalty Takagi chooses involves him spending more time with her. Naturally, Nishikata brushes this off as just more of her teasing when he finally notices what’s going on, but we get more hints down the line that Takagi might be serious about what she’s doing behind all the pranks.

There’s lots of looking away and blushing, but it’s almost always Nishikata doing it.

While this developing potential romance (as much as you can call it that in middle school at least) is a big part of the story of Takagi-san, the battle of wits between Nishikata and Takagi is pretty entertaining in itself even apart from that. Takagi clearly has an advantage over Nishikata in the wits department, but instead of using those assets to go after him aggressively, she usually allows him to work himself up into a frenzy, letting him second-guess himself and fall into the traps she’s set for him. Her goal also pretty clearly isn’t to humiliate or demoralize him, even if she does like to see him get embarrassed — she never teases Nishikata in front of other people, but only when they’re either alone or out of earshot of everyone else, and on the few occasions he ends up getting himself hurt she shows genuine concern for his health (though she still somehow finds ways to tease him while caring for him.)

I think Takagi’s relative kindness towards Nishikata contributes to how wholesome this anime is in general. Maybe it’s only natural, since all the characters in the show are still just in middle school, but if you’re the type who doesn’t go for some of the dirty jokes featured in high school or university-based comedies (Nagatoro and Uzaki-chan respectively for example) you might prefer Takagi-san. Nishikata, Takagi, and their friends are all just figuring things out, after all, and all the talk about love and relationships in the show reflects that while still feeling natural (in other words, while the show is “clean” in that sense, it also doesn’t feel like it’s avoiding or papering over anything out of embarrassment.) It’s all very sweet, and though I admittedly like that dirty stuff I mentioned, Takagi-san was a nice change of pace for me.

Holding Takagi’s hand is one of the big hurdles Nishikata has to overcome if that gives you an idea

The only semi-annoyances I kept running into in Takagi-san were the segments featuring three other girls at their school named Yukari, Mina, and Sanae. I think these three show up in every episode and almost always get at least one short segment to themselves, and it’s typically a comedy bit that’s just kind of okay at best. Some of their bits feel like ones that might have been scrapped from Azumanga Daioh or another school slice-of-life like that. They’re not awful and are short enough to tolerate, and I guess these segments are meant to break up all the Takagi/Nishikata stuff. Then again, the reason I watched this show was to see all that Takagi/Nishikata stuff, so I never felt like it needed breaking up anyway.

To be fair, though, this trio and a few of Nishikata’s male friends do comment on their relationship sometimes, usually speculating that they’re dating much to Nishikata’s embarrassment when he finds out (and therefore to Takagi’s amusement) so they’re not totally disconnected from the main story. And that plays into another aspect of their relationship that I really liked: the fact that they’re happy to move at their own pace without feeling pressured by anyone else. Takagi is the one usually setting that pace for both of them, but Nishikata does grow and mature a bit to match her, and he may even end up surprising her a couple of times.

Find those parts for yourself, though; I won’t spoil them here.

I’ll just say right out, since I’ve heard a lot of disagreements on this point and the comparisons are only natural: I liked this series a lot more than I did Uzaki-chan, and I’d put it about on the same level as Nagatoro in terms of the enjoyment I’ve gotten from it. All three series are pretty different, each with their own quirks and particular character relationships, so I’m not accusing one of ripping off the others or anything like that. In fact, I’d say they’re all worth checking out if you’re into this sort of comedy at all. And I didn’t even dislike Uzaki-chan; I just much prefer Takagi-san because I like the characters more and find their back-and-forths a lot more entertaining.

But as usual, your mileage may vary. Maybe you think that even under all the teasing and power struggles between Takagi and Nishikata, this stuff sounds too sweet for you, and I can understand that — but then, you might also take into consideration that I’m unromantic/unsentimental as hell and even I really liked it. So I’d still suggest giving at least the first episode a chance even if you think you might not be into it. Teasing Master Takagi-san is another big recommendation from me, again without any reservations.

Even if it is admittedly annoying to watch since the first season is only aired on Crunchyroll and the second only on Netflix. I don’t know who the fuck is responsible for these kinds of stupid licensing decisions, but I really hate them.

A review of Shirobako

I’m not the biggest expert on anime out there — there are plenty of other writers here on the platform who have watched much more of it than I have. And there are some personalities on YouTube that are very knowledgeable as well worth watching if you can look past all the weird drama those types sometimes find themselves in. I’ve watched a decent amount of it since growing up as a kid in the 90s, back when watching anime wasn’t as socially acceptable as it is now (and I am thankful those days seem to be at least sort of over.) But one aspect of it I never knew much about was how it’s actually made.

The high school anime club that doesn’t just sit around watching anime but actually makes it

This is partly why I’m happy I finally got around to watching Shirobako (lit. “white box”, referring to the copy of an anime episode distributed internally in a studio before release.) This 2014-15 24-episode original series centers on Aoi Miyamori (center with the light hair) and her four high school friends who make up their school’s anime club. Anime club at my school just involved watching it (or that’s what I heard — as weird as this might sound, I never joined it) but this club creates anime, doing everything: the drawing, coloring, animation, sounds and voices. At first, Shirobako looks like it might stick around in high school following these girls’ antics for a while before they graduate. But three minutes after the opening, they all swear a pact on a bunch of doughnuts (???) that they’ll work in the industry as professionals and make anime together, and then there’s a jump forward a few years to Miyamori sitting in her car with a binder full of work and an exhausted expression.

Shirobako is an adult show, but not in the lewd sense — rather in the sense that it’s about a bunch of adults trying to make it in the world, and in this case, the world of anime production. The narrative doesn’t always stick to Miyamori, but she is the most central character among the show’s large cast. Her job as a production assistant at Musashino Animation requires her to coordinate with many other staff members and contractors, including animators, character designers, 3D modellers, sound engineers, and episode directors. And perhaps most critically with the series director himself, who’s talented but also lazy, requiring Aoi and her colleagues to constantly prod him to keep working. While she shares her duties at the production desk with a few other assistants working under the chief producer, there’s more than enough work to go around that she often feels stressed and has to work out how to cope with her schedule.

You might think of that scene from Office Space, but it’s really not like that.

Of course, Miyamori can’t only think about herself: her responsibilities as a production assistant force her to consider the schedules and workloads of many of the studio’s other employees. The way in which she and her colleagues at the production desk have to stay on top of their other colleagues makes their jobs very delicate, but also extremely important — they have to be understanding of the other creators’ workloads while also keeping them motivated and moving along at a regular pace.

On the surface, Shirobako is about an anime studio turning out two series, one in its first 12 episodes and another in the last 12. But it’s really more about all the personalities working on the shows, personalities that sometimes clash violently. Both within Musashino Animation and outside of it, conflicts flare up around the production of these two shows that Aoi and her production desk coworkers have to sort out. One such conflict involves a fight early on in the production of an action magical girl-looking show called Exodus! between a 2D and a 3D animator. The two fight over the use of 3D instead of 2D for a particular key action scene, with the 2D artist essentially storming out in protest. Eventually the two manage to find common ground and get back together on the team, but it takes some skillful diplomacy by Aoi and a couple of her colleagues to make this happen.

A completely different fight over which voice actresses to hire; this is one of my favorite scenes

There are several other character clashes like this throughout this series, and all of them feel very genuine, as if they could have easily been pulled out of real life. The same is true for the bonds of friendship we see develop, thanks largely to these employees all being thrown into the apparent meat grinder of anime production. Even when clashes occur, they manage to keep their professionalism and smooth things over. This is for the sake of the anime they’re putting out, but I also got the sense that the writer meant to express a sense of common respect among them. Anyone who’s ever been lucky enough to work in an office with a good, productive culture can probably relate. Deadlines are tight and demands can be difficult to meet, but when everyone pulls together things usually work out (by contrast, in a dysfunctional office with a toxic, backstabby culture, it’s usually just the opposite — you instead wonder how the hell the company is still operating.)*

For that reason more than any other, Shirobako feels like a very real-life show. This is true even when it shifts into its frequent fantasy sequences. Most of these involve two of Aoi’s keychain characters, a bear and a gothic lolita pirate captain-looking girl, coming to life and commenting on whatever problem she’s dealing with at the time — sort of like seeing two sides of her mind trying to work that problem out. It looks goofy, but it’s actually a great way to depict Aoi’s thought processes without just constantly going into internal monologue mode (not that that’s always bad, but I appreciated the different approach here.)

Plus some shared hallucinations, why not

Of course, it’s not possible to sustain a constant pace of work without burning out. To its great credit, that’s another aspect of working life that Shirobako addresses. Deadlines in anime production are apparently very tight, with one small delay in one piece of work potentially causing a massive ripple effect down the line. It’s very easy to see how this could result in extremely high levels of stress and burnout in those employed in the industry, especially at companies with reputations for high-quality work to uphold (the stories I’ve read of just how stressful working at Studio Ghibli can be, for example, make even more sense now, and not just because of Hayao Miyazaki’s apparently really complicated character.)

All these pressures often foster doubts in Aoi and her young colleagues just getting their starts in the industry. Even the veterans aren’t immune from the stress, but the natural doubts many younger people carry around about their talent and their goals in life can be hard to bear in these high-stress situations.

Aoi trying to comfort one of her high school friends Ema Yasuhara, an animator at the same studio.

Instead of just pushing through and eventually suffering from a stress-induced attack, Aoi and her colleagues find ways to cope with the stress while still maintaining their professionalism and work ethics. Part of this involves what some people now call “self-care”, stuff like exercise and walking around outside, along with Ema’s dance routine on the roof that makes for one of my other favorite scenes. Of course, there’s also plenty of drinking together to wipe that stress away, though I don’t think anyone in the show ever drinks to excess (aside from one freelance animator later on, whose drunkenness comes in handy when the team needs someone to agree to help with their series on short notice. Agreements made when you’re drunk aren’t enforceable where I live, but it all works out for Aoi and friends.)

It’s also admirable to see Aoi’s old friends from school sticking together, even when some of them aren’t quite making it yet. This sort of thing can sometimes inspire bitterness, but not here. While the five friends are mostly doing their own separate things throughout the show, they all eventually come together in the end in a way that’s satisfying, though I won’t spoil exactly how that goes.

Sometimes you just have to eat your losses and move on (edit: this isn’t how it ends though, just want to make that clear)

I wouldn’t call Shirobako a “feel-good” story exactly, since it does acknowledge all the awful bullshit that can occur when you’re working. However, it also has a positive message. Hard work isn’t quite enough to make it, but if you have the support of your friends and colleagues and manage to keep your ego in check, you can create great things. It’s a mature and realistic series. But it’s not deadly serious or overblown either; there are some pretty nice and relaxed stretches as well, and even in the high-pressure chaos stretches of the show, there’s some comedy.

So I highly recommend Shirobako. It’s a fascinating series to watch if you have an interest in anime; I learned something about the technical aspects of anime and some of the inner workings of the industry by watching it. However, even if you’re not interested at all in that, or even in anime in general (in which case thanks for reading my post about an anime series this far!) I’d say it’s still worth watching, since a lot of that message can be applied just as easily to most any industry. I think Shirobako has a really wide appeal, even if it might seem to be about a bit of a niche subject. And of course, the most important reason to watch: it’s entertaining. I don’t have a clever (read: stupid) way to end this review, so that’s it. I liked Shirobako and I think you should watch it.

* One of the reasons I think I connected so much with Shirobako is that I’ve had the good fortune to have worked in both kinds of offices. Thankfully, I’m at the good sort of company now, but I learned a lot from my time at the bad one, lessons that I might not have learned otherwise about the extreme importance of reading character and building professional relationships of trust. Shirobako really gets into the psychology of work in that sense.

A review of Youjo Senki: The Saga of Tanya the Evil

In the hierarchy of many anime and anime-styled game series, the young girl somehow outranks almost every other sort of being in terms of power. A ton of magical girl shows have been created on that basis, and game series like Touhou Project almost exclusively feature girls firing lasers and magical bullets at each other. So maybe it’s no big surprise that we have Youjo Senki: The Saga of Tanya the Evil, a 12-episode run from 2017 based on a long-running light novel series. Youjo Senki, which roughly translates as “Young Girl’s War Chronicle”, is the story of Tanya Degurechaff, an orphan brought up in a powerful country preparing to go to war against its neighbors.

Except she’s not just some kid. Tanya’s body houses the soul of a nameless modern-day Tokyo salaryman whose cold business sense and ruthless firing of underlings gets him pushed in front of a speeding train. Just before his death, however, time freezes, and God himself descends from Heaven to talk to him a bit. Mr. Salaryman doesn’t believe in God and refuses even to acknowledge him despite the fact that there’s an apparent miracle going on, referring to this entity as “Being X” and even criticizing it for doing a lousy job as a deity. God/Being X then decides to give this guy one last chance at reincarnation before sending him to Hell, and so Tanya is born.

History fans will recognize the situation Tanya finds herself in right away: the Empire she’s a citizen of is the old imperial Germany of 1871-1918, and the tensions it’s experiencing with its neighbors the Republic (France) and the Allied Kingdom (Britain) are leading it straight into World War I. Since this is an alternate Earth, the rules are a bit different, however. In this world, magic is real, and magic-users called mages are employed by militaries as mobile airborne units to for scouting and rescue missions and precision strikes. Tanya turns out to be one of the lucky few with magical ability, so she’s educated and trained for an eventual military career to aid the Empire in its fight against the Republic and her allies.

youjo-senki-2

Sure, you look about ready for military service.

This young girl still has all the memories of her former salaryman life, and with that experience she plans to enter the military early, get on an officer track, and maneuver into a cushy job in the capital, far away from the front lines. God isn’t having it, however. His aim seems to be to get Tanya to acknowledge and bow down to him. To that end, he somehow sets events in motion that get Tanya sent back to the front lines following her attendance at a military academy, but with the benefit of some divine intervention whenever she needs it: when she prays to God, Tanya gets superpowered and can fly far higher and faster and shoot more powerful lasers than other mages, making her into a legend on the front lines and even among the high command.

While Tanya desperately wants to get out of harm’s way and live the easy life, though, she’s not a coward by any means. Using the extra abilities granted to her by this supernatural power, she leads her company and later her battalion of mages into battle when ordered. At first, some of the enlisted soldiers under her command during training laugh at her for her age and tiny stature, but she quickly beats that smugness out of them, literally in a few cases. Tanya is completely ruthless: she demands that everyone under her carry their weight, and if they can’t, she’s only too happy to kick them out of her unit or recommend them for a posting elsewhere.

And if their incompetence happens to get them killed, then too bad — they weren’t fit for this kind of work anyway. In the very first episode, Tanya shows how few fucks she gives by shipping off two of her recklessly insubordinate men to a posting in the rear lines, one that’s seemingly safe but that she knows is going to get shelled by enemy artillery at some point. When she gets word of their deaths in an enemy shelling a while later, she simply remarks that it was a fitting place for men who wanted to die.

Tanya is a bit crazy.

It’s not a big surprise that Tanya is so damn cold. The series is subtitled The Saga of Tanya the Evil after all, so you’d expect her to be at least this cold. However, after seeing the 12 episodes in this series, I’d find it hard to call her completely evil. She’s certainly coldhearted and commits a few acts that you could argue are morally objectionable, even in the context of a war. But her ruthlessness seems to come not from cruelty but rather from a pure sense of pragmatism. When Tanya is sent to an Imperial border city filled with citizens who declare allegiance to the Republic and fight as partisans, she justifies killing them and later having retreating civilians shelled because not doing so would weaken the Empire and allow chaos to continue. Some of her soldiers object, but they fall into line anyway, not able to really argue with her. Partly because she’ll have them court-martialed if they disobey, but her logic does make sense in that extremely cold way even if her actions feel wrong. I wouldn’t agree with her myself, but she can’t be accused of hypocrisy, at least, since she seems to expect the same treatment from the enemy if their positions were reversed.

Tanya also constantly does her best to cover her ass, both in combat and in legal terms. One of the most interesting aspects of Tanya’s character for the lawyer side of me is how closely she sticks to the letter of both military and treaty law while on missions, but how she bends them at the same time. Tanya is insistent on following the law when necessary — she can even rattle off code sections and provisions without consulting a book. She also insists that everyone does the same, even her enemies. At one point during a battle, she’s genuinely shocked to see an enemy using a banned form of ammunition.

However, if the law prevents Tanya from doing something she wants to do, she will do her best to find a way around it while still technically complying with it. My favorite instance of this occurs when Tanya, now promoted to Major Degurechaff, heads a strike into Dakia (Romania) and is about to hit a munitions factory in the capital with magic attacks. She knows that according to treaty law, she can’t make a sneak attack on this occasion — she has send a warning first. When she picks up the radio to transmit this warning into the factory’s speakers, though, Tanya puts on her best “little girl” voice and gives that announcement sounding much more like a typical anime character her age. The enemy personnel on the ground laugh it out as a joke played by some kid and keep their guard down, but Tanya doesn’t care — she’s followed the letter of the law, so now it’s time to attack, and her unit gains a huge advantage as a result.

Despite all this, Tanya does seem to have some of the nicer human feelings in her, at least sometimes. Though she can be harsh with her soldiers, she does care for them, making sure that they’re up to the tasks they’re given as long as they’re putting the work in. One of the most prominent secondary characters in the show, Tanya’s lieutenant Viktoriya Serebryakov, is initially shocked by her harshness, particularly when an avalanche during a brutal crosscountry training session buries a few of her men under snow. Tanya complains about their incompetence, pulls the men out of the snow and starts beating one who stopped breathing to the shock of her troops, only to have him cough up snow and regain consciousness. She also pretty clearly cares about her subordinates during battle, doing her best to use them without putting them in unnecessary danger.

So Tanya’s characterization is done pretty well in this short series. It would be easy to write a pure sadist for a story like this, and from the title Tanya the Evil that’s who I was expecting to get going in. Tanya is brutal and ruthless, but she’s not about unnecessary cruelty; she’s really just all business. At least, that’s how she would see it.

She looks mean, and she is, but Tanya is really all about getting things done efficiently. Even so, people will still end up getting killed.

My only real complaint with Youjo Senki, aside from the OP and ED themes that I didn’t care for, is the isekai aspect of it, with Tanya’s soul being transported into an alternate universe/timeline. Not that I’m totally against isekai or anything, even if it is a pretty played out genre by now — any kind of story can be good if it’s interesting and told well. I just feel the isekai aspect didn’t pay off. Maybe it pays off in the movie or in the light novels, but all that really happens in this 12-episode series with regard to that is Tanya getting pissed off at and cursing God/Being X a lot, even when she’s invoking his name to gain power.

The fact that she was a ruthless businessman in her past life does kind of explain why she’s so ruthless as Tanya and why she rises through the ranks of the military at an unbelievably young age, but then I don’t think you really need the isekai part for that. I think the story would have had just as much or even more impact if Tanya had simply been an orphan girl with amazing magic ability and strategic genius who decides to use that to make a name for herself. We could have gotten a few more scenes early on of her hard life, establishing the basis for her cold, ruthless view of society and the world. I think that’s really all we’d need to get why she’s who she is, and more than that, to believe it.

By contrast, none of the Being X stuff does anything for me. Part of this might be the show’s different understanding of what God or a god-like being would be. During the time-freeze scene in front of the train, for example, God responds to the salaryman/soon-to-be Tanya that he can’t be expected to keep watch over seven billion people all the time, flying in the face of the whole “omniscient” and “omnipotent” parts of what God’s supposed to be. Or maybe this is a different sort of God than the one from Abrahamic tradition I grew up with. Since Youjo Senki is a Japanese series, though, there might just be some cultural differences here that I don’t know enough about to comment on. I haven’t checked out the film yet that follows this 12-episode run, but judging from the final episode, it looks like the whole God/Being X thing might pay off in it.

That said, I don’t have a problem with God talking through a nutcracker. I liked that part.

Even with these minor negatives, I think Youjo Senki is very worth watching. If you’re looking for an alternate timeline World War I story where the main character is a girl who shoots divinely-powered lasers, this is the only series I know of that offers that. And it does quite a good job telling that story.

A review of Nekomonogatari Black

Finally we come to the end of this “first season” of Monogatari. This series is certainly broken up in a weird way, and it progresses in a weird way too, because Nekomonogatari Black is another prequel. This one tells the story of what happened during the short holiday of Golden Week: the “Black Hanekawa” incident that kept getting brought up through the first and second series of the show. It’s only four episodes long, but there’s plenty here to examine as usual.

Before I move on, here’s the usual spoiler warning: there are spoilers in this review. Again, they probably won’t make a lot of sense if you haven’t seen any of the series, but even so, fair warning and all. This one is especially violent in parts too, though not on the same level as Kizumonogatari. I guess that’s true of the other sets of episodes I’ve reviewed, actually. Lots of blood and limbs being removed and that sort of thing, but those parts are all concentrated in a few very intense action scenes.

Don’t let the screenshot fool you: this catgirl will fuck you up.

The broad outlines of what happened during the Golden Week break from school are already known by the time the series starts, shortly after the events of Kizumonogatari: we know star student and high achiever Tsubasa Hanekawa was possessed by a violent supernatural cat spirit, causing her to go on a rampage until she was stopped and turned more or less back to normal by her new friend/series protagonist Koyomi Araragi, mainly thanks to Shinobu’s intervention. Nekomonogatari Black gives us the whole story, albeit only from Koyomi’s perspective. There’s still a lot going on in Tsubasa’s life that only she can tell us.

At the start of the series, our semi-vampire slacker protagonist Koyomi is trying to work out his feelings. He can’t get his mind off of Tsubasa and is wondering whether he’s in love with her. So he asks his younger sister Tsukihi for her advice, because by his own admission, he’s never been in love before. After a lot of the usual dialogue and wordplay joke stuff, Tsukihi tells Koyomi he’s not in love but just sexually frustrated, so he decides to head off to the local bookstore to get a dirty magazine (just like in Kizumonogatari; maybe he doesn’t have his own computer, or maybe he’s old-fashioned and prefers print media.) And of course, leaving the bookstore at the same time is Tsubasa herself.

We don’t get much of the lighthearted banter from now on, though. Koyomi notices that Tsubasa has gauze taped to her cheek. After dragging a promise out of him that he won’t tell anyone, Tsubasa tells him that her stepfather hit her that morning.

This naturally pisses Koyomi off, but Tsubasa reminds him of his promise. She also tells him that it was only natural this happened. If you had a daughter who talked back to you early in the morning, and wasn’t even related to you by blood, and you were under stress at work, wouldn’t you feel like slapping her too?

Of course, the answer is “no, that’s completely fucked,” and so Koyomi says. But he agrees to keep silent about it.

At this point, Tsubasa finds the body of a cat lying in the middle of the road. She’s not the type to just ignore that and asks Koyomi to help her bury it, which they do together. Of course, we already know this isn’t an ordinary cat. As we learned all the way back in the last arc of Bakemonogatari, Tsubasa Cat, this was a “meddlecat” (translated from sawarineko, which looks like it has some relation or connection to the supernatural cat spirit bakeneko, or maybe to the nekomata.) This spirit has the ability to possess humans and causes them to act out violently, requiring an exorcism.

We’ve also seen the effect this possession has on Tsubasa. Later that day Koyomi visits his benefactor the spirit/demon expert Oshino, who senses that something’s off and asks what’s going on with “Miss Class President” as he calls her. From the hints Koyomi is able to drop without breaking his promise to her, Oshino figures the situation out, warning him that Tsubasa is in danger of possession by a violent spirit and that he should go to her house to check up on her.

But it’s too late. On his way to Tsubasa’s house, Koyomi spots a white-haired girl stalking around the streets in her underwear, with a pair of cat ears sticking out the top of her head, and he realizes that Oshino’s worst fears were realized. This catgirl has the form of Tsubasa but seems completely different in personality, almost like a wild animal. Speaking with a different voice and referring to Tsubasa as her “master”, the girl dumps two unconscious bodies in front of Koyomi — the bodies of Tsubasa’s parents. And when Koyomi tries to stop her from leaving, this possessed Tsubasa attacks Koyomi, ripping his arm off.

His regenerative ability lets him reattach the arm and heal with Shinobu’s help, but after retreating back to the cram school, Koyomi is faced with a dilemma. Oshino tells him based on his own research and experience that this meddlecat has not only possessed Tsubasa but is merging with her somehow, allowing it to combine its own physical skills with Tsubasa’s considerable intelligence to essentially create a broken, unfairly powerful character that Oshino refers to as “Black Hanekawa.” So broken that even Oshino, the guy who seasoned vampire hunters run away from, hasn’t yet been able to defeat her in the many fights he’s had with her during Koyomi’s recuperation.

I like this traditional-looking art over Oshino’s explanation.

Thankfully, Oshino confirms that Tsubasa’s parents aren’t dead; they’ve only been made victims of Black Hanekawa’s energy drain ability, which she’s since been using to attack and drain people all over town. But he warns Koyomi that if they don’t manage to exorcise the meddlecat, it will merge with Tsubasa completely, making it impossible to save her.

That’s the setup of Nekomonogatari Black, though it takes us through the first two episodes out of four. The last two deal with how Koyomi actually goes about both rescuing Tsubasa and defeating the cat possessing her. To do this, however, he also has to defeat Tsubasa herself — because by the last episode, Koyomi discovers that Tsubasa is actually conscious and is in control of her actions at least to some extent. As usual in this series, nothing is how it seems at first.

It’s easy to see why Tsubasa would fall under the influence of this kind of wild spirit. Being the top student in her class, famous for her high achiever status among the other students, would normally be stressful enough with the support of a caring family, but she doesn’t even have that. Neither of her parents are related to her by blood; a series of deaths, divorces, and remarriages placed her with two relative strangers at a young age.

You’d hope that her stepparents would care for her as though she were their own, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Tsubasa says to Koyomi that blood relation is important in a family, but the fact that there are plenty of loving non-blood-related families around suggest there’s more going on. No, she gives the impression that her parents, who we never see except as unconscious figures in episode 2, act as though they were stuck with her, like the secondary consequence of getting remarried. “Oh, you have a kid too; I guess that’s fine” — that sort of thing. Considering that, it makes sense that Tsubasa felt free to go out and wander the streets on nights and holidays as we see her doing when she runs into Koyomi in Kizumonogatari and Bakemonogatari. She lives at the same address as her adoptive parents, but those parents don’t seem to care about what she does.

Tsubasa’s situation can be contrasted with Koyomi’s. He doesn’t have an ideal home life; he’s emotionally broken off from his parents, as far as we know because of his failures as a student. He’s still part of his own family, though, and he does have close relationships with his younger sisters Karen and Tsukihi, relationships we saw develop in Nisemonogatari. When they face a threat, we see the siblings close ranks and support each other no matter what other disagreements they have.

This might be a little too close actually.

Then again, Koyomi himself might also be a source of stress for Tsubasa. We already know that she has feelings for him that she hasn’t expressed, feelings that started back during the events of Kizumonogatari when Koyomi went through his vampiric ordeal. That’s not actually revealed until later on, well after Koyomi gets together with Hitagi during the events of Bakemonogatari, but even at this point there’s plenty left unsaid between the two. Throughout this first season of Monogatari, including the prequel movies when they first meet, the nature of their relationship is sort of unclear — they’re certainly friends, but beyond that they’re both carrying around more intense feelings that may or may not count as love.

Again, there’s a strong contrast to be made here with the relationship between Koyomi and Hitagi. Hitagi even says she hates “unclear relationships” or something similar when they officially become a couple, asking Koyomi to express his feelings for her unambiguously. Maybe some of Tsubasa’s stress comes from an inability to act in such a straightforward way. That’s certainly the case later on, in the last part of Bakemonogatari.

All that makes it all the more depressing that Tsubasa is never actually freed from her demon. Before they have their final fight, Koyomi and “Black Hanekawa” have a perfectly civil talk during which she tells him that she plans to relieve Tsubasa’s stress by attacking and energy-draining as many people as possible. Koyomi argues that even if that were justified, it wouldn’t relieve Tsubasa’s stress but simply put it off for a while, but the cat refuses to listen. When Koyomi finally draws her out to the cram school for their final fight, it takes Shinobu’s help to resolve the matter by using her own energy drain technique on Tsubasa, leaving her exhausted and powerless but physically unharmed. It also seems like getting possessed with a cat demon causes memory loss. In the end, at least, it’s for the better that Tsubasa ended up not remembering any of the ordeal she went through here, considering the burden of guilt that would cause her.

However, although Shinobu’s energy drain subdued that cat spirit, it’s still in there. Tsubasa’s stress still isn’t relieved, and when it builds back up near the end of Bakemonogatari, the wild cat reemerges to possess her again. I don’t know if Nisio Isin meant that to be a comment on the difficulty of truly relieving stress, but it read that way to me. Much of Monogatari throughout this “first season” deals with demonic and spiritual possession, but those possessions are always caused by or related to the affected character’s internal struggles, the kinds of anxieties and insecurities that a lot of us deal with. And those issues aren’t so easily dealt with. As Oshino says so often, though the victim can be helped, in the end they have to save themselves. Despite how perfect she might seem on the outside, Tsubasa can’t manage that. Not yet, anyway.

Things are going to keep being tense for a while, aren’t they?

So I guess this isn’t quite a satisfying end to the first season of Monogatari, at least not for our characters. But all these series have left problems and ambiguities lying around, seemingly all on purpose. This ending feels pretty fitting for that reason. The next series up, in fact, is Nekomonogatari White, which starts off the “second season” of Monogatari. As the title suggests, this story also centers on Tsubasa, but this time it’s told from her perspective. I like Koyomi a lot as a protagonist, but it will be nice to get out of his head for a while. Especially to get into Tsubasa’s, because she’s my favorite character in the series at this point. I was never the top student in my class (I was really more of a Koyomi in high school if I had to compare myself to one of them) but a lot of Tsubasa’s anxieties make her pretty sympathetic to me, even if I can’t say I relate to them.

But that’s it for this first season of Monogatari. This closing mini-series maintains all the technical and style standards set by the earlier series, with excellent art, voice acting, and backing music (and another nice set of themes in Perfect Slumbers and Kieru Daydream. I always appreciate those great OP and ED themes.) I’ve liked the series as a whole a lot so far, enough that I feel bad for mostly writing reviews of these series full of spoilers. For that reason, I was thinking of writing a general first season review without spoilers, if I can even manage that. If so, after that’s done I’ll probably be moving over to other anime series for a while. But I know for a fact I’ll be back for more Monogatari at some point.