What uniform can I wear to hide my heavy heart? It is too heavy. It will always show.
Jacques felt himself growing gloomy again. He was well aware that to live on earth a man must follow its fashions, and hearts were no longer worn.
We have been subjected in the past few years to a spate of misleading, light novel adapted, anime titles. This is a happy thing, because the titles rarely promise anything other than the cheesiest, fan-serviceyist sort of outing: The Pet Girl of Sakurasou. Is it Wrong to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? The Hentai Prince and the Stony Cat. Each one of these shows has proven to be better written and characterized than their titles suggest, and perhaps can be chalked up to the collision of marketing necessity and rigid anime convention with an author’s desire to tell a different sort of story altogether. Sometimes you have to play the game in order to break the rules.
Such is the case with perhaps the greatest example of them all, My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU (lit: Just as I Thought, My Youth Romantic Comedy Was a Mistake)—though on further thought, the title may be more appropriate than it appears. It is, after all, quite a failure as a romantic comedy—its best moments are wistful and serious, not comedic. It begins with a standard quasi-harem set up but moves far beyond it, to tell the story of how teenage misfits try to navigate the emotional turmoil and confusion of adolescence in all too real ways. Real in how flawed, idealistic, and self-delusional they are; real in that they make mistakes when they think they are doing their best. The audience expects a cheesy harem comedy, but gets something much closer to Catcher in the Rye instead, a perhaps painful reminder of how one fumbles toward maturity with one’s friends in tow.
The Holden Caulfield at the center of it is Hachiman—Hikki to his friends. He is a recognizable figure to any smartass, self-exiled teenage male who fancied himself less “phony,” less conforming, and more intelligent than his peers. If the mark of childhood is to take everything at face value, the mark of adolescence is to see past the surface and to realize there is more to life than just appearances—and to congratulate oneself for the insight, as if it were the greatest revelation in the world. This is why he cannot, in the first season, accept Yui’s kindness as genuine. She must be nice like this to everyone, he reasons, or is just pretending, either out of politeness or a desire to be thought well of. She must, in short, be a phony. As Holden put it:
That’s the whole trouble. You can’t even find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any. You may think there is, but once you get there, when you’re not looking, somebody’ll sneak up and write “Fuck you” right under your nose. —JD Salinger, Catcher in the Rye
This is the thought that runs through every adolescent’s head when he or she discovers how unfair and cruel the world can be. Even in minor ways, consequential only when you’re an adolescent: we discover later that Hachiman was brutally rejected by certain middle school girls who return in the second season, there to taunt him all over again and remind him of his past, embarrassing sincerity. The lesson he learned was that it would not do to wear his heart on his sleeve any more. He would protect himself with a shield of cynicism, even as he continues to flatter himself by “helping” others in his own way through the Service Club.
The Service Club is a concoction of his teacher, who, like Mr Antonini in Catcher, is trying to widen Holden/Hachiman’s perspective by forcing him to interact with others. At first there is only Yukino, the kindred-yet-different spirit who shares Hachiman’s reticence masking even less concealed vulnerability. In a lazier show they would be an easy pairing, but SNAFU novelist Wataru Watari does not make it nearly as easy. Their attitudes militate against connection, because it would require them to discard their constructed identities as smart, superior loners who see through the shallow social high school scene. This is why Yui at first seems an interloper, a “popular” person trying to penetrate the outcast group, but—as Hachiman, in a searing moment late in the 2nd season, acknowledges, they are longing for nothing less than “the real thing.” Yui brings that in her heart-wearing, kind, and purposeful effort to be friends with these stuck up loners.
That’s the rub, isn’t it—“the real thing.” One could call it authenticity, or emotional honesty, or speaking plainly, something the characters don’t seem quite to manage even at the very end of the second season: they avoid the subject of who-loves-whom to continue their balanced friendship, even as they know very well it cannot last forever. SNAFU is smart enough to realize that dramatic transformations do not happen instantly, not even when there are epiphanies and eloquent speeches—which the show is full of, especially in the second season where Hachiman’s self-protective worldview gets taken apart brick by brick as he realizes his “help” simply preserves a sick status quo at best, that his desire to not hurt others is hurting others more, that his unwillingness to be open is driving even his closest friends away. Realizing these things, which were some of the most emotionally satisfying parts of the series, was not enough to change everything overnight. They still can’t quite be entirely honest with themselves at the end—and we understand that, well, they are still kids. The show may be over (for now), but they still have time to figure it out. After all, it took some of us even longer to do that than many people who do as they finish up adolescence.
Once, not long after graduating from college, I found myself a counselor at a urban summer camp for a bunch of Chinese kids in Brooklyn. The kids were the children of garment factory workers, whose mothers (many of them were in single-parent homes) toiled in the Garment District for most of the day and had little time to care for them. Many of them were rambunctious and unused to following instructions. Being an only child, I don’t think I’ve ever yelled at children as much as I have as I did during that week.
There was one girl whose name I have forgotten. I remember her well because she, after seeing ungainly me, unused to being around children and the kind that likes to stand around aloof and awkward, had the gall to call me “creepy” to my face. I was more hurt than offended—I knew very well that I was not the most friendly or welcoming person, because I had barely even figured out who I was in my early 20s: I’d been too busy to think about it much in my intense high school and intense college majors. I wasn’t good at hiding my awkwardness from others, and children being as forthright as they are, she called it out.
It has been over ten years since then and I really only remember two things: one was yelling at a particular boy who kept running around and disrupting the play time. The other was occasionally asking the girl how she was doing, and eventually discovering that she was interested in writing stories. She tended to play alone, the way I usually did when I was her age. When it was time to do some writing exercises, I asked her how she came up with ideas and gave her a few tips from my own efforts to write stories: I had just graduated from the creative writing program, and while I was burned out at the time from putting anything out, I still remembered all the advice I had gotten over the years from workshops, books, and brutal peer feedback.
I did not spend that much more time with her than I did with the other kids. I only remember her so well because, for a brief moment, there was a kindred spirit, a small reminder of where I once was, but in a less privileged place; a chance to share, albeit briefly, a bit of what I had learned up to that point about writing. I was lost and confused then, much more than I actually realized at the time, and all I could do was offer a few shards of the life I had pieced together then.
I’m not sure anything is that different now, really, as I write this and I look back at this real life incident and the fictional echo that I saw in certain scenes of SNAFU, especially the ones with Rumi in S1. We don’t ever stop being broken in one aspect or another; is anyone’s life ever really whole and seamless, ready to offer as God’s gift to humanity as some paragon of righteousness? Maybe the only gift we can really give as human beings is the gift of honesty: to offer our own selves, take it or leave it, and hope that when it is offered, it will be appreciated as “the real thing.” It’s a dangerous thing, though.
Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody. —JD Salinger, Catcher in the Rye
Hi again, everyone. It’s good to be back. I missed you all.