Management: Finally posting the sequel to this piece, which focuses much more closely on four commercially successful romantic comedies: Sakurasou, Toradora, Clannad, and Chuunibyou.
I can see where you’re coming from when you talk of judging a show according to its goals, as well as your reservations regarding some goals. How would you apply these metrics to Sakurasou?
Let me preface this by saying my evaluation of this show is obviously personal to me and my methods and standards of evaluating media. Additionally, I can’t really talk about this show without getting kinda brutal, since it’s about as close to the antithesis of my evaluation system you can get without being a show I know wouldn’t be worth watching. Anyway!
Sakurasou’s goals as I understood them were: succeed as a romantic comedy, articulate some specific characters in a way to make the viewer empathize with them and care for their emotional journey, tell a coming-of-age story regarding a few character’s transitions out of high school, and explore some ideas/themes regarding the harsh realities of following your dreams and the frustratingly arbitrary distribution of talent in our world.
In my opinion, Sakurasou either failed outright or at least disappointed my expectations in pretty much all of these goals. You mention you read my thoughts on this show – did you read this final post compiling my impressions throughout? Because I pretty much go over the ways I think it failed or disappointed as a comedy (generally lowbrow and repetitive), romance (plot points repeated without changing the status quo, Shiina is one of the worst and most actively offensive characters I’ve seen), character drama (status quo issue again, cliché and progression-averse arcs, Shiina never grows and Nanami ends where she begins), thematic exploration (undercooked and never meaningfully articulated, downplayed in favor of romantic drama), etc. I’m actually very interested in what it was trying to do, but I think the ideas were let down by the material.
And you could definitely say this is because I’m not a fan of moe, or because I’m averse to the kind of melodramatic storytelling Mari Okada tends to indulge in. And this is true – but I think that from the perspective of “I want to respect these characters as potential people and thus be able to invest in them” or “I want the drama in my show to be reflective of the real world in a way that makes it come across as meaningful to me,” the show just falls apart, and I don’t think that’s an unfair thing to ask of a show that wants you to be emotionally invested. To get me invested, you have to make me believe in your material, and Sakurasou very, very rarely managed that – it came across as either pandering (in the way characters like Shiina were designed) or manipulative (in the way it set up obvious beats like the Christmas or Valentines episodes and then hammered on the melodramatic music). It didn’t strike me as personal, meaningful, or true.
And it’s not like this is just a Sakurasou thing – I also gave Clannad a 3, and my personal opinion is that the very things which make Clannad fans happy (the lowbrow humor, the infantilized, archetypal characters, the melodrama) also make it fail as a story I am attempting to critically assess. So when it comes to Sakurasou, I feel that the goals I did fully respect (mainly the thematic stuff) were not explored well, the things the show was beloved for (the drama and characters) actually made it worse in my mind, and that some of its goals (be moe, have a lot of slapstick, be melodramatic, etc) are just not things my system automatically rewards. And while this might seem a bit like going into the Dog and Scissors thread and railing on the show for being obvious and lowbrow, well… I think this show wants to be taken seriously, and evaluated according to the usual standards. And by those standards (encompassing both its own goals and my general craft evaluation of narrative and thematic structure, characterization, dialogue, etc), I don’t think it fares very well.
You mentioning Clannad is interesting, as that seems to indicate this is a trend regarding a certain type of show. The things you seem to dislike about Sakurasou seem pretty fundamental to its’ nature – do you actually think there is a version of these goals that would appeal to you, or is this just a “brick wall” when it comes to your appreciation of media, and that there is no way a show could exist that both satisfies this audience and your own system? Does a show like Toradora also fall into this category?
Toradora and Chuunibyou are actually both in or basically on the edge of my top 5 favorite series of all time. I love them both, and am pretty sure I appreciate them on a bunch of the levels Hulk goes through – I empathize with the characters (which is only possible because I think they’re distinctive and well-written, ie they come across as people and not collections of writing tricks I can immediately pin down), enjoy the well-crafted nostalgic filter they create (which is only possible because I think the narrative and direction always move forward), and think they’re pretty close to bulletproof as far as romantic comedy craft is concerned. Their characters all go through sharp and coherent arcs, their personalities are meaningfully and consistently articulated, their understanding of plotting and purposeful storytelling is top notch, the themes reflect well on all the various personal journeys, the direction is excellent… love ’em. (And it’s not like I’m actively checking a tally list as I watch and adjusting my appreciation accordingly – at this point, bad writing will naturally remove me from a story, a well-directed scene will naturally draw me in and endear me to a show, a pandering character will pretty much kill any chance I had of respecting a show, etc.) Romantic comedy being pretty much my favorite natural genre is actually the only thing that got me through Sakurasou, along with basically riffing on it as I was watching it through my writeups. I’d say that Toradora is Sakurasou done right, at least in general genre craft, though obviously Sakurasou’s very different themes would require a different narrative arc. They’re both Mari Okada compositions, too, so my personal opinion is the main difference between them is that Toradora was an adaptation of a completed work by a talented writer (everything that worked was already there in the source), and Sakurasou was an adaptation of an unfinished work by a pretty bad writer (thus the character, theme, and narrative issues).
I think your point about a show that fulfills its goals and makes a certain audience happy possibly being incompatible with my own evaluation is a good one, though. Clannad is almost certainly the premier example of this – I find that style of “man saves half a dozen women from their personal problems” storytelling pretty naturally offensive (in addition to being bad for narrative flow, romantic development, character believability, etc), and the helpless moe displayed by characters like Fuko, Kotomi, or Nagisa even moreso (same as the Shiina problem). Those characters immediately draw me out of the show, since not only can they not carry a conversation with the MC like intellectual equals, they basically lack agency of their own, and my thoughts shift from the dynamic between the characters or the immediate conflict to the author’s fucked-up views on gender roles and what characters like this imply about the show’s intentions. My “fixed” version of Clannad would be a very different show. Clannad is pretty clearly one of the brick walls for me – while I do try to appreciate as many show objectives as possible, moe in general, and the helpless character moe in particular, is a goal I can’t really judge as artistically valuable, in the same way I can’t applaud Sword Art Online as an artistic success for making viewers feel powerful (except worse, since I find it directly insulting to women). That’s not to say I can’t find things adorable in shows – I thought Chuunibyou was pretty adorable, but that show was built on characters with fully articulated personalities and agency, and their lack of connection with the real world was both acknowledged and thematically relevant, with actual narrative consequences. But I doubt there’s something fundamentally different there – cute is cute, it’s always based on either a temporary or systemic infantilizing or helplessness or whatnot, and I think the main difference between Chuunibyou and Clannad/Shiina is that the character is not treated as generally helpless and their personality is more fully developed and independent. So it’s a combination of standard writing craft and an avoidance of the general helplessness associated with a kind of moe I find naturally sexist (plus bad for good dialogue, character development, compelling narrative, etc etc).