It’s a common complaint about anime. Why are so many series obsessed with high school? Why do we only get young protagonists? Why aren’t there more stories I can still relate to, now that I’ve grown beyond that setting? And it’s an extremely valid one – anime does squander its infinite potential by adhering to such similar settings, and we really are deeply lacking in protagonists covering the range of mature human experience. The reasons for this trend (the age of the fandom, the high premium placed on nostalgia and escapism, the natural tendency to continue making what sells, the adherence to safe formulas, etc) are as understandable as they are disappointing. And the complaint doesn’t even take quality into account, which is another issue – many of these shows tread the same ground, they often deal in archetypal, empty characters, they often exist as pure escapism or viewer self-insert fantasies, their humor repeats, their drama repeats worse, they exist as commercial shells and have no greater human ambitions. Sometimes it can feel like we’re well and truly fucked when it comes to imbedding some creative spark and ambition in this sea of similar, empty productions.
To this jaded and completely reasonable perspective (one which you can probably tell I largely agree with), I would have to say: OreGairu.
I didn’t have huge expectations for this show. I knew Brain’s Base was a very talented studio, but their most recent productions (Tonari, Amnesia) hadn’t really displayed that. I’m actually a huge sucker for romance, and so I pick up pretty much every romantic comedy – but that suckerdom does not extend to liking things even if they’re bad, and so I pretty swiftly put most of them back down again (or ride them out while whining endlessly, like with Sakurasou). The art style didn’t look that special, and the premise seemed kinda predictable. I figured a few episodes wouldn’t hurt.
My reaction to the first episode has been my continuous reaction since then – “Dear god Brain’s Base, you’ve finally done it,” and “Finally, after all this time, a smart romcom actually exists in our world.” It begins with a monologue by our protagonist and central loner, laying out his cynical view of high school and justification for his detachment with more acuity and wit than I’d ever seen before.
This monologue is then immediately trashed by his teacher, who ridicules his maudlin prose and chastises him for missing the point of the assignment.
And that’s pretty much the show in a nutshell. It’s a show about smart people, which is different from being a show about people who the show tells you are smart. The characters display their intelligence through their wit, through their reasoning, through the carefully constructed shells that surround them.
It’s also a show about young people. Our protagonists may be smart, but they are anything but wise – their views of the world are incomplete, their perspective fails to understand a thousand thousand things, and their philosophies are predicated on the viewpoint that the reason they’re alone can’t truly be their own fault. They need to believe that – for all their defenses and rationale and witty repartee, they are deeply insecure and deeply lonely. The show doesn’t tell you that – it doesn’t have anyone outright break down over their need for connection, though Yui sometimes come close. You just get to see the scars – the walls they’ve constructed to make sure their fundamental pain is kept as distant as humanly possible.
The show juggles the disconnect between their critical, analyzing nature and incomplete perspectives with inspiring ease. Many episodes are full of fractured gems of genuine insight from Yuki and Hikki, but their own personalities and egos are always the limiting factor in their analysis. Outside of the surface conflicts provided to illuminate their ideas and give the early episodes narrative focus, OreGairu is essentially the definition of a “character conflict,” in that virtually all of the conflicts of the show stem directly from the nature of the characters themselves. There is no injection of outside drama keeping these characters from achieving success – their conversations in the very first episode reveal every hurdle they will eventually have to overcome. This is how character writing is supposed to work – it can be difficult to empathize with characters going through conflicts that have no bearing on your own life, but when those conflicts are based on fundamental human flaws, their journey can become universal.
Which brings me back around to the school anime complaint. People have told me they feel they’ve “outgrown” the high school focus – that it has no resonance with their life any more. I feel that with most shows, this complaint is valid – most shows are attempting to provide entertainment, and if the shenanigans on-screen are no longer what entertain you, then there’s nothing more to say.
But OreGairu is not about pure entertainment – it is about understanding, illumination, resonance. Even if your school days are a distant memory, the fundamental conflicts of this show are about our universal human nature. I’m biased, obviously, as I can see a character like Hikki articulate the precise, perfectly logical reasons he chooses to disengage from his experience, and see a shadow of my much younger self. But I think most people can relate to that fundamental insecurity, that need to rationalize your world in a way that makes it less judgmental of your own choices. The desire to disengage because engaging invites disappointment or pain. The difficulty in accepting the limits of your own perspective. Many people have said they relate to Hikki’s struggle, or see too much of themselves in him – that’s definitely not something to feel bad about. The well-articulated strengths, flaws, and scars present in both Hikki and Yuki are what make them worth empathizing with – what make them uniquely human. Regardless of your own point in life, the internal struggles these characters face are something we all deal with in our own way.
That’s a lot of somber analysis for a romantic comedy, huh? Well, I hope that doesn’t make the show sound dry – because it also works better than many as a comedy, and better than almost any as a romance. The comedy generally evolves naturally from the personalities and banter of the characters, as expected. While there are occasional standout gags, the humor generally does play second fiddle to the character drama, and there are even occasional missteps where the show leans slightly too far into the genre conventions it’s normally eviscerating. The romance fairs much better – it is incredibly understated throughout, and grows at a pace with the character’s own personal development. All the romance that exists is built out of the need for understanding and trust the protagonists exhibit – their shields are pretty tough, and until they learn to trust each other, nothing else can grow. This process is depicted as naturally as possible, and is built on a tremendous understanding of how chemistry works. Even from the first episode, Yuki and Hikki trade barbs with ease, and from very early on it is clear their senses of humor bounce off each other well, and that their worldviews both complement and often mirror each other. They’re clear equals in many ways, and seeing them slowly come to respect, trust, and understand each other is honestly an incredible joy to watch.
What else is there to say? The show is. The visual aesthetic and soundtrack are generally just serviceable, though Brain’s Base often display great subtlety in using the character’s physicality to display their emotional state and relationships. The narrative craft is excellent, with the early episodes offering simpler stories to establish the core relationships, and the second half concerning itself more with truly clashing their personalities against each other, and forcing them to address their own weaknesses and shields. The voice acting is solid, and some of the side characters display a great deal more thought and nuance in their depiction than expected – Hayama in particular is a much-needed counterpoint to Hikki’s perspective.
There are certainly flaws here – not all the side characters are interesting or well-articulated, not all the story arcs are equally insightful, a good number of jokes don’t land or repeat, and there’s even a tiny dash of fanservice. But the things this show does right are so distinctive, so important, and handled so well that I really can’t force myself to spend time further articulating these weaknesses. Even after spending all these words discussing it, I really feel like I’ve failed to capture the fundamental point here – the writing is just good. That’s a much rarer thing than you’d think – very, very few people can write characters whose personalities have true weight, and whose every action reflects the sum of their person. Very rarely do I find myself watching a show and actually trusting its writer – secure in my knowledge that the characters will hold up and only show themselves as even stronger the deeper I dig. It’s easily one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, and certainly a very personal favorite. I’ll still be talking about this show for a very long time to come. Effortless 10/10.