On “School Days”: What are We Supposed to be Feeling?

YOU WILL PAY FOR THAT ONE DAY MAKOTO! DIE DIE DIEEEEE

I’ve been thinking about this show a lot recently. Partly because, after defending Makoto’s flaws as being understandable in my earlier posts, I now feel like joining in the hatefest that is sweeping the anime blogosphere. I get it now. This guy is despicable. He deserves the BAD END that is surely, like a slow train, a-coming.

And yet, I also wonder: why this character in this kind of show? What is it that these creators want us to feel and understand at the end of the day? Why give us such a dislikable protagonist–don’t we want to like and root for him?

The definition of “dramatic irony.”

One possible answer, of course, is good old fashioned schadenfreude–pleasure as we watch Makoto crash and burn, twisting in the wind of his treacheries. Because maybe we have seen jerks like Makoto continue to get the ladies, over and over again, using them up after having their pleasure for a moment to move on to their next prey. Maybe you were even the “good friend” who got that call from her at 2 AM, full of sobbing and misery, and after listening for an hour or two about what a jerk he is, and after she says “I know I could count on you. You’re such a good listener,” she hangs up the phone, and you lie in bed, knowing not long afterwards that they will be having makeup sex and you will still just be the “shoulder to cry on.”*

Maybe this anime was made for you, then. Especially if Makoto gets stabbed or shot.

But maybe its more complicated than that. Oddly enough, despite the loads of fanservice, this show is actually quite moralistic. It can easily be read as an object lesson in the way lust destroys relationships that otherwise would have promise. Never have Jesus’ words been more graphically illustrated (heh)–“if you look at a woman lustfully, you have already committed adultery in your heart.” And the actual adultery usually follows not long after, which is exactly what happens in these recent episodes. Moreover, on that front, Makoto is not the only blameworthy character. Sekai, surely, did more than her part in teasing and coming on to him in incredibly unsubtle ways, because deep down she lusted after Makoto too.

It always takes two.

There’s a difference between Makoto and Sekai, though: Sekai has a conscience. She genuinely wants to do the right thing, but finds her will weaker than she perhaps thought; her conflicted desires doom her because on one level, she’s getting exactly what she wants when she makes out and sleeps with Makoto. She must share some of the blame. It’s inexcusable, but it’s understandable and forgivable even; it’s very human. We all have that experience and so long as her conscience isn’t seared, there is still hope for her. Conflicting desires are a part of being human. And the thing with lust, in real life, is that it is so frequently mixed with genuine care, love, and affection, which is undeniable in Sekai.

Not in Makoto’s case, though. He is particularly repellent because he lacks that conscience. He feels no shame whatsoever that after he becomes bored with Kotonoha, he can just move on to Sekai, without even telling Kotonoha the news. There is no trace of guilt or shame in this cad, unlike with Sekai. He has no appreciation for all the effort that poor Kotonoha is expending to try to please him. He takes her for granted almost from the start. He has no desire to do anything except satisfy his urges, which is why he continues to jack off to porn after he gets a girlfriend and looks at dirty mags on his first date. One thing that porn addiction does to people is that it makes them quickly bored and frustrated with real women, and this is exactly what we see happening to Makoto and Kotonoha.

Makoto is thus easy to hate. But why make him the main character? Are we, in fact, supposed to subconsciously envy his playa-ness while simultaneously condemning him so we can feel morally superior? We get our rocks off to Sekai’s striped panties and bra and still get to feel good because we think we’d do better than Makoto as he feels her up behind Kotonoha’s back. Too many stories trade in that kind of hypocrisy, and the heavy fan-service certainly leads one to think that it’s that sort of show. And it still might turn out that way, depending on the ending. I hope it doesn’t. That would be cheap and exploitive.

Yeah, neither do I.

I sense, however, traces of something a bit more complex. Sekai, for one, is too complex and active a character to be simply shunted aside as a victim. Kotonoha is at last beginning to develop a spine, though it is too late to save her relationship with Makoto. The women, in other words, are going to refuse to merely be victims. Sekai in particular–who I find a fascinating, tragic character–is going to discover the degree to which being unable to articulate her desires clearly has led to destruction, and how hard it is to repair the damage. She has the desire to do right; can she do it? Kotonoha has to face a choice in whether she will continue to define herself as being “Makoto’s boyfriend” or something else–and that something else may lead her down, not up, into rage, despair, and helplessness. Like in the other lurid soap anime, Kimi Ga Nozumo Eien, everyone’s actions have long-lasting consequences, and some can never be undone. The struggle to try anyway is the stuff of compelling drama. So I hope we get to see the women in the show struggle and develop as characters as much as we take pleasure in seeing Makoto take his deserved hits.

And as for Makoto himself: perhaps the whole scheme in building up the character of the female leads is to make us feel the pain that Makoto helps to cause in their lives. It would shatter whatever illusion we might have about the glories of being a playa. The consequences will be laid out with people we have grown to care for. In real life, provided the murder doesn’t happen first, this is the only way people like Makoto learn if they ever do at all.

It’s probably fitting that the show always ends with the disclaimer that it is a work of fiction, and that any resemblances to real people is purely coincidental. As soap operatic as it is, there are probably people out there for whom these conflicts and struggles hit close to home. The situations are a bit contrived, sure. But the awkwardness, the little excuses, the little lies that build on one another, the fading denials as the adulterous lovers grope one another–that’s all too realistic. Maybe the best we can hope for as audiences of this show is that it will help us recognize when we do the same with those we care about too. Sometimes, we need dark and bloody catharsis to help us see where the road leads if we go down that way. Better, after all, that fictional characters do the suffering for us than to wake up in the morning with no escape from the real messes that we make.

*No, this was not based on direct personal experience. Well, not exactly anyway. What? What? Stop looking at me with those suspicious eyes! I swear, I got over it already! Just kidding.

15 thoughts on “On “School Days”: What are We Supposed to be Feeling?”

  1. Buddy, I hope you’re not on a crusade in anyway. But I’d smash (think the Scottish hoodlum talk) Makoto’s mouth and kick him into the goal.

  2. In my eyes, I think that this anime (moreso the ero game) was to break the mold. In a lot of ero games, you can bed countless females and at the very end have your pick of the litter, so to speak. There are no repercussions for cheating or general unfaithfulness, as long as you pick the girl you truly love in the end, all is well.

    School Days took that unrealistic portrayal of romance and shattered it with the blunt force of reality. Relationships are not so simple that as long as you eventually pour your love in, they’ll succeed. In reality, cheating exists and it breaks trust that is often impossible to rebuild. Real relationships are littered with lies and while death may seem like an exaggeration in terms of consequence, it’s much more likely than starting over with a clean slate.

    The game was supposedly produced by all females, so maybe this was some sort of feminist backlash at all the typical ero games out there that served to bold the line between fantasy and reality.

  3. Shirukii–wow. I didn’t know the game was produced by an all female team (at least on the creative end). If that’s so, then it makes perfect sense why the story is headed the way it’s going. It’s like the way CLAMP had the last word on the whole pantsu obsession in the infamous pantsu Chobits episode, which was both hilarious and stinging (the last thing we hear is Chii calling Hideki “hentai!”).

  4. I haven’t seen this anime but it sounds interesting.

    Shirukii, I’d be very careful in calling any anime show as having “the blunt force of reality” when the subject is romance. From what I’ve observed, women as portrayed in anime shows do not look or behave like real women. For example most women do not have big, giant, incredibly cute eyes. Nor do they act like innocent mannequins designed for the viewer’s pleasure. Of course my comments are based entirely on hearsay as I too have no actual experience on this subject.

  5. Zhong Lu – the only thing I’m going to say is that given the context of the work, what Shirukii said is perfectly appropriate, again, being inside this context. What you said is indeed helpful but it’s out of the right domain. In short, watch more anime and understand the medium first.

  6. That the female characters in this show do not “act like innocent mannequins designed for the viewer’s pleasure” is precisely why I find this show fascinating and promising, Zhong. This show uses some anime archetypes, to be sure, but to head in a different direction than most romance stories in anime.

    Admittedly, if this were a daytime TV show or a teen soap opera like Dawson’s Creek, the plotline wouldn’t seem all that remarkable. I won’t be giving this show an Originality Award. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be an interesting and even eye-opening story for those who are tired of the usual cliches in this medium. A little emotional realism and pain can go a long way.

  7. Generally speaking, I don’t think the women in anime are realistic… but neither are the men. So, all’s fair in love and anime. As far as School Days goes, I think the characters are pretty realistic, but their delivery has been a bit wooden thus far (in my opinion). I think maybe the series could’ve used better direction.

    Although Sekai has a conscience, she didn’t have to push Makoto to go after Kotonoha. Then again… I’m probably being too harsh, what with these being dumbass high schoolers. I’ll just leave it at that.

    From what I gather, the series is meant to be a kind of anti-harem show. Although the consequences might be a little extreme, I think it’s to go against the grain and provide an alternative. In real life, if you treat girls like Makoto treats them, regardless of your reasons or excuses, there WILL be consequences. The girl will probably break up with you, punch you in the face, and maybe… you know, chop your head off. Like you said, I think the point of this series is to show the audience just why you SHOULDN’T envy his playaness.

  8. I pretty much agree, Marmot. Especially with the comment about the wooden delivery–I’ve been trying to put my finger on what seemed “off” about the interaction in this show, and I think that’s it. Some of it may be stilted subtitle translation, but the dialogue and the situations both have an air of contrivance that’s impossible to overlook. “Honey and Clover” this is not. What’s believable are the emotions and the things that trigger them.

  9. I watched the first two episodes after reading your review and I’m puzzled as to why these attractive girls fall in love with Makoto in the first place. He doesn’t have any talent, he’s not rich, nor is he handsome, and obviously he’s not a charmer. I understand love is blindness, but doesn’t this show take this cliche a little too far? If a girl caught you reading a porn magazine on the first date, would you expect her to date you a second time?

    A girl’s gotta be blind, deaf and desperate to fall in love with a person like Makoto. Either these girls are retards or Makoto has some special mind-control ability that the show doesn’t reveal. I understand the show has “emotions” but where is the “realism?” Perhaps this show is more “realistic” than other anime shows but that’s like saying a unicorn is more authentic than a dragon. Have we watched so much anime that we forget what real women are like?

  10. Zhong, what you say is most likely true about unlikely pairings. But that’s true of many, maybe even most movie and TV romantic pairings, in which an average guy/girl gets the attention, and affection, of a relatively extraordinary guy/girl. In a way unlikely pairings are a genre convention, and I’ll grant that maybe a lot of us fans who watch lots of anime are so accustomed to it that it slips by our heads invisibly. I suppose one reason why I singled out this show is that it’s one of the relatively few romantic anime stories that isn’t simple wish fulfillment or harem or slapstick comedy. (Plus, I did actually note in an earlier roundup article that I did find some of the situations pressing beyond normal believability in this context–and Kotonoha not calling out or breaking up with Makoto after he looks at porn on their first date was the prime example I gave.)

    Where I think the “realism” (and I acknowledge this isn’t the same level of realism as, say, a good 19th century novel, or even “Honey and Clover” with its superb monologues; this is more like a melodramatic juicy soap) comes in largely takes place in the smaller interactions. The way Kotonoha and Makoto negotiate their initial awkwardness, for instance. The way the relationship begins to fall apart in minor ways, even if Sekai’s actions are, quite frankly, over-the-top and impossible to miss as signals if it were a little more believable. As I said in the article, the situations ARE rather contrived. The initial setup of the love triangle is admittedly one of them. And I guess I can understand if that’s a primary stumbling block.

    Maybe I’m being too generous, and it’s possible the way I wrote my article gave the impression that this is some really “deep” and revealing show that’s going to be some future classic. It’s not, at least not so far. It’s basically a standard script teen love triangle soap derived from a hentai video game, but with somewhat better dialogue and interaction than usual, with an acknowledgment of the pain and trouble that relationships and their betrayal cause. Given that, I think it’s pretty decent.

  11. I watched the first two episodes after reading your review. I understand love is blindness but this show takes this cliche too far. A woman must be deaf, blind, and desperate to fall for a person like Makoto. He doesn’t have any special talents, he’s not handsome or rich, and he’s obviously not a charmer- he gets caught reading a porn magazine on his first date. Why would either of these women fall in love with this man? The only possible explanations are Sekai and Kotonoha are retarded or Makoto has some mind-control ability that we don’t know about. Neither explanation is satisfactory.

    Michael, perhaps this show has more emotional “realism” than the average anime show but that’s the same as saying dragons are more realistic than unicorns. Anime manipulates the wish expectations of its nerdy male viewers. Even if Sekai and Kotonoha behave differently from average anime women, they’re still similar enough to be “innocent mannequins designed for the viewer’s pleasure.”

    Ray, I understand your point: anime is anime, and real life is real life and the two are to be kept separate. I agree that within the context of anime, this show is special because it examines the harem theme from a different angle. However, that’s not good enough for me. The show doesn’t explain adequately why Sekai or Kotonoha would fall in love with Makoto in the first place. Too many manga and anime shows operate on the assumption that the main character is special. Anime would be a lot better if manga writers and anime producers would explain to its viewers why that is true.

  12. Haha.. first comment on this in 2 years. <.<
    Well.. This was the most deep anime I have yet to watch, and it struck deeply with me. At points it made me utterly depressed. Probably because I've been in both Sekai and Kotonoha's place with the same boy.. both times. =w=
    I loved my best friend's boyfriend, we got friendly.. And he started cheating on her with me. Later, I found out I was not the only one of her friend's he was cheating on her with. It seemed everyone in our group harbored their own desires for him. He avoided his girlfriend most of the time, instead of just breaking it off. But he eventually realized the error of his ways, and became faithful to only her. Him and I stopped talking until their relationship later ended due to unrelated issues.
    After that we became a lot closer, and started dating. And along came a small obnoxious new girl. I began to feel in Kotonoha's place. We broke up shortly after. He never gave me a reason, but I assume it was because he wanted both of us, because it seemed as though the second he dumped me they became much much closer. She was my rival and he refused to choose between or date either of us. I was depressed for quite awhile, even Kotonoha like, with empty eyes. Months later, he said he did not want to speak to me or be my friend anymore. While I was out of the picture he became closer to my rival, but still told her he would never date her. He contacted me only a month later and said he made a mistake and he missed me. My rival became jealous because she wanted him and effectivly ended their friendship. Now him and I are happily together, and no other girls have disturbed our relationship. :D

  13. >Maybe you were even the “good friend” who got that call from her at 2 AM, full of sobbing and misery, and after listening for an hour or two about what a jerk he is…knowing not long afterwards that they will be having makeup sex and you will still just be the “shoulder to cry on.”*

    Ahhhhhhh, so true…. But can’t hang up on her but listen…especially if I hear a girl crying, and after that feel like an idiot… Totally understand that feeling!

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