I’m a big fan of stories about people who are in a bad place. Characters who distrust the world around them, or who have been hurt in some way that makes it impossible for them to see good in others. Stories about characters put against the wall, who struggle against difficult but understandable odds. Many of my favorite shows fall in this range, from fantastical stuff like Madoka and Evangelion to the more mundane struggles of Oregairu or Monogatari. The characters in these shows have been hurt by the world, and so they can’t trust that the world will ever extend a hand back.
All of those stories have something in common though, beyond the tough circumstances of their protagonists and the way those protagonists see the world as against them. All of those shows’ protagonists are also wrong. The world isn’t truly a horrific place – in fact, if you honestly engage with it, even those who have been hurt before can eventually find slivers of connection. The paranoid headspaces of Monogatari, or the way Hachiman frames everyone else’s actions as duplicitous, aren’t truly reflective of the fundamental nature of the world – that’s just how those characters imagine the world to be.
That’s the point, in those shows. The fact that we see Nadeko’s reality as impersonal and frightening, or that Shinji constantly finds himself returning to that lonely train, is true to their personal experiences, and that’s what we’re being shown. But that is not the world as the show itself sees it. It’s an intentional affectation – it reflects the writer and director’s understanding of the emotions of the characters involved. It’s an act of empathy, but the show itself is able to move beyond those viewpoints, because it understands they are limited and temporary. The show’s ability to honestly illustrate its characters’ perspectives is in fact reflective of the way it is not limited by them – it can speak to the truth of their experience because it is able to see the validity of many perspectives at one.
Shows like that are not written by Hachimans and Nadekos. Hachimans and Nadekos write shows like Denpa-teki na Kanojo.
The world of Denpa-teki na Kanojo is not ultimately a sympathetic place. In fact, everything about this world breathes menace, from its untrustworthy teenagers to its lying, murderous adults. “What a horrible world” mutters protagonist Juuzawa Jun, after learning that in this world, the police cannot be trusted. No authority figures can be trusted here, in fact – the only justice is the justice you create yourself.
Shows like this do not have much to tell us, unfortunately. When you’re trapped in a perspective that distrusts everyone, you’re not actually reflecting on the world as it exists. That distrust doesn’t just reflect a limitation in your own worldview, it reflects an inability to empathize with the perspectives of others. You don’t understand others, and so their actions seem menacing, unpredictable and likely unfriendly. Shows like this are like the songs of a band aimed at angry teenage boys, fulfilling their predictions of what girls or the world are like, but not truly offering meaningful insights into the world as it is.
Works like Denpa-teki na Kanojo demonstrate how utterly fundamental empathy is to fiction. In order to create compelling stories, full of rich characters with legitimate internal lives, you have to embrace those perspectives – you have to see who they are as valid people, and their viewpoints as understandable reflections of their beliefs and experiences. In Denpa-teki, perspectives that deviate from Juu’s don’t resolve as understandable differences of opinion – they unanimously come down to “this person is crazy” or “this person is evil” or “this person is broken.” Just like how these authors can’t see the good in the world, and thus paint everything black, their inability to engage with the multiplicity of perspective leaves all of their characters stranded in binary “good” and “bad” categories as well. Shows like this do not tell us anything about the world – but they can tell us many things about the author.
You can see Hachiman’s hand in every angry thrust of the pen, and his desires as well. People lie to Juu, except for the good people, who never lie. The good people are almost universally women, and almost universally express interest in either Juu himself or his mission. The bad people are numerous and underhanded, always ready to sabotage others for their own selfish gains. People always hide their true nature, and in fact, the first episode here is centered on a woman who wants to “reveal people’s true selves” by forcing them to confront death. This is nonsense, of course – traumatic experiences don’t lead people to greater honesty, they’re just traumatic experiences. But Hachimans have been burned by honestly engaging with the world, and so to them, their own defensive dishonesty must be reflected in the behavior of others.
Later on, in response to a series of malicious pranks, another girl tells Juu that “blaming these events on the actions of another is reading too much into it, right?” In the real world, this would likely be true – but this is Hachiman’s world, and so not only are the events they’re discussing the results of hateful people, but even that girl herself is one of the liars who must be purged. Juu himself acknowledges the malevolent nature of the reality he’s trapped in, when he admits to a serial killer that “everyone in this world is insane. It’s because they’re insane that they don’t notice how twisted this world really is.” Hachimans want the world to be this harsh, because only such a harshness can make sense of their own feelings. If the world is full of liars, if reality is composed of dishonesty interspersed with harsh moments of brutal, violent honesty, then their own unhappiness is just the way it goes.
Ultimately, it’s nearly impossible to engage with the world created by a Hachiman. It’s just too narrow of a place, too limited in the avenues of sympathy it provides. Part of this comes down to restraint, which itself is somewhat reflective of life experience. Well-adjusted adults understand that life isn’t composed of uber-tragic pasts and horrifically violent actions. In fact, when it comes to narratives, laying on the ultraviolence is one of the surest routes to undercutting any truth your story could possess – by making everything larger than life, what might be resonant trips over into the gratuitous, the grotesque and absurd.
The difficult work of life isn’t dealing with being the sexually abused accomplish of a serial killer, or getting revenge on the girl who prompted your brother’s suicide – that’s just loud, cacophonous noise, the dramatic devices of someone who has to turn up the speakers all the way because they’ve lost their ear for music altogether. The hard work of life is the moments in between, the small emotional moments and difficult everyday decisions that compose our constant struggle. Navigating discordant emotional needs with a friend, or making tough choices about your career plans. Eventually, you come to appreciate the difficulty and majesty of those moments, their significance, their worth. But when you’re stuck in the angry cell, all you want to do is make a violent racket, to somehow prove that’s how things really are.
In the end, works like Denpa-teki na Kanojo really just make me feel a little sad for their authors. I can stand watching a few deeply unhappy anime – in fact, watching things like this is one of the many times when my philosophy of trying to find the good in everything comes in handy. The actual narrative lessons of Denpa-teki are altogether misanthropic, but you know what? The background art was really great. The most well-textured character in this OVA was easily the city Juu occupies, a city full of dark, foreboding alleys and cheerful storefronts. This story was bad, but hey, some artists did some really good work here. I’ll celebrate that work by itself, and hope this writer finds their own happiness eventually.
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