The Childhood Friendzone

My hair was not that shaggy back then.

I: A True Story

I was in the 4th grade, and she was a bony-armed, skinny girl with a bob in her hair and big teeth. Even when we were hiding under the cafeteria table for an earthquake drill—believe it or not, Memphis, Tennessee does actually lie along a fault line—and wondering out loud whether we were going to die, we were smiling and laughing. Of course we weren’t, we knew; no one could remember, kids or adults, when Memphis last had an earthquake that damaged any property, let alone killed anyone. Killer earthquakes were for California.

We huddled together because we had always hung out with each other since the second grade. There was a dim awareness that others might notice this. However, we were most assuredly not boyfriend and girlfriend. No, no. “You’re ugly,” she told me casually when the thought crossed our minds. “You’re ugly too,” I replied. We exchanged this repartee for a few more minutes, but we couldn’t help ourselves; we knew how silly and childish it was even though we were children.

Not long after that, I had to move away because my father found new work in a different city. When it came time for us to part, I said, “I’ll miss you.” She said, “I’ll miss you too.” I held her hand. We didn’t hug or kiss. Boyfriends and girlfriends did that, and that was what we were not.

My last memory of her was in that lunchroom, saying those words, on my next-to-last day of class or thereabouts. We never met again, and for some reason, I only remember her first name. But if I wanted to, I could go back home 3000 miles away and find my 22 year old yearbook, still sitting high on a bookshelf in my parents’ basement. I would be able to turn the pages to the third grade class, and I would still be able find her because I still remember her face. Faces aren’t as easy to forget as names.

 

This never happened to me either.

II: The Loneliness of the Long-Suffering Friend

I was first introduced to the idea of the “childhood friend” character in the anime version of Love Hina. The very first scene of the series showed a little boy and girl playing together, and the little girl kisses Keitaro on the cheek. It is immediately followed by a scene where, because the girl has to move, they are sadly parted. “I’ll see you at Todai!” they promise each other.

That scene engraved itself onto my consciousness right away, in the first year of my anime fandom. Immediately, I thought of my friend in elementary school, and how we parted, never to see each other again. Maybe there are many otaku with memories like mine, and I wonder whether this is why the childhood friend trope keeps coming up again and again. But in anime, unlike real life sometimes, there is always a reunion. The reunion either begins or catalyzes the plot.

Of course, for those who know anime, the childhood friend trope usually comes attached with another feature: she is destined not to be with the boy at the end of the story. This is not universally true, but it’s true in the majority of cases. The boy usually goes for the girl who is new and different: the alien (Onegai Teacher, Ano Natsu, To LOVE-Ru, Shuffle), the quirky (Haruhi Suzumiya), the highborn or even divine (Ah My Goddess, Brighter Than the Dawning Blue).

The childhood friend is, by contrast, is a reminder of the past. She is ordinary. She is kind, constant, and longsuffering. She usually can’t admit her feelings too honestly at first. She must smile through her tears and, putting the happiness of her beloved first, cheer on the new relationship from the sidelines.

She is, in short, everyone who’s been left behind in the race of love. The emotional power of so much romance anime is fueled by her exquisite pain.

....

III: The Pain is the Point; or, why Ano Natsu is sometimes better than Onegai Teacher

I’ve noticed something: my favorite romance/relationship-drama anime series and movies tend to be the ones that express that exquisite pain the most eloquently and convincingly. What I remember is often less the main couple but the angst-ridden moments of the girl—it is almost always a girl—who has been jilted.

This struck me hard as I rewatched Onegai Teacher in the light of my current anime favorite, Ano Natsu de Matteru. The moments I remembered most from Oneti (as it’s been abbreviated) were not so much of Kei and Mizuho, but of Herikawa, Kanna’s analogue and Kei’s destined-not-to-be. I remember she sat on a hill with Kei once, talking about their feelings. I remember her crying more than the crybaby Mizuho.

The scene I remembered most from Onegai Teacher.

But as I rewatched the first half of the series, looking for parallels to Ano Natsu, I discovered that whatever similarities they might have in character types and scenes, they are fundamentally different stories. Oneti is much more focused on Kei and Mizuho as a couple, trying to work out how their mismatched marriage of convenience can survive and turn into love. Their friends are second-string characters who only occasionally get great moments, and we see far less from their perspectives than we do in Ano Natsu. It feels much less organic than the natural ensemble interaction of Ano Natsu, and Kuroda relies more heavily on fanservice in order to keep the sexual tension flowing between Kei and Mizuho. It was, in short, a more conventional series, and I had forgotten just how conventional it was. Only in the second half did the tone begin to resemble what I had associated with screenwriter/creator “Yousuke Kuroda” and why I still had such fond memories of the show. But it was still a show with a limited perspective by comparison.

Ano Natsu, frankly, is the better series. I credit director Tatsuyuki Nagai, whose skill at handling large casts—from Honey and Clover II to Toradora and last year’s Ano Hana—was the key ingredient missing from Kuroda’s earlier works. All of the friends in the group get emotional coverage, and often without words: a gaze, a look of longing, a gentle tug on the sleeve, can show much more than long interior monologues.

When the words do come, they are simple, heartfelt, and believable, like in the deeply affecting scene between Kanna and Tetsuro at the bus shelter in the fifth episode. There was no scene in Oneti that matched its atmosphere of quiet, simultaneous despair and dignity. The timing and pacing were much smoother, the music subtler. The pain—the pain, overtly in Kanna’s words, and subtly in Tetsuro’s gaze: two people in unrequited love who feel they can only soldier on and wish the luckier ones the best.  It’s a familiar feeling, no doubt, to many.

“Why can’t you just be honest with your feelings?” many people ask, the characters included. Beneath her mischief, Remon is clearly trying to induce emotional honesty in all the characters, as she tells Ichika straightforwardly in episode 6. Tetsuro advises Kanna to do the same. Her reply, of course, is the reply of every shy boy and girl who’s been in the place of a jilted childhood friend: if I do that, it will ruin the friendship, and I can’t be with him anymore. In many cases, it’s a longstanding friendship. Those who have had long-term friendships, with either sex, will know just how precious those are. We have few of them. Time and distance easily break them. From Kanna’s perspective, and from the perspective of so many people left holding the bag, the price of rejection is too high if that is what’s at stake.

There would be no stories if it were that easy.

And yet, there is something sweet about that “not really lovers but very close friends” zone. It is full of sehnsucht, a big word for the primal, elemental longing that is satisfied with nothing less than the eternal. Or, to use the Brazilian word for sweet melancholy so beloved by our M. LaMoe, it is a state full of saudade. There is longing, and light, in the liminal.

So the childhood friend, at least until the end of the series, holds back. She wants to say what is on her mind, but is always waiting for a better moment to do it. It never seems to come. There are films to be filmed, beaches to visit and play in, fireworks to watch and aimless moments sitting together to enjoy. The moment of emotional suppression is always the most poignant of all for me. That kind, determined smile Kanna gives at the end of the scene was the one that nearly induced a tear.

*SOB*

At the risk of stereotyping my own race, I wonder if there is something East Asian about that, in both why scenes of emotional repression like this happen in anime all the time (5 Centimeters Per Second, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, just to name a few) and even in Japanese cinema. I’m reminded of a scene near the end of Yasujiro Ozu’s movie Tokyo Story, where polite, pleasant family members finally begin to speak what is on their minds after being nice to each other for 3/4 of the film. At the end of the sharp, emotional exchanges, one character finally turns to another and says, “Isn’t life disappointing?”

“Yes,” the main female protagonist says, smiling, nodding slowly. “Yes, it is.”

She has a (loli) analogue in Onegai Teacher too! Bonus points if you can cite where.

IV: Reunion—Another True Story

I did have a reunion, once. There was another girl I grew up with in Memphis, though we weren’t very close. We played with a group of other kids at the houses of our parents’ friends. My main memory of her was that she once lambasted me, in a rather shrill, frustrated voice, “You are such a goody two-shoes and you’re so annoying! Why don’t you have any fun?” I wonder if the same charge could be laid against me today.

Almost ten years later, after my family and I had moved away from Memphis and when I was 16, my parents told me that we were going to meet her again in downtown Washington DC. She was coming to DC to pick up, yes, a Presidential honor for being such an excellent student in high school. (The sort of thing that makes Asian Tiger Parents proud.) I remember waiting for her with my folks in a swank hotel lobby. By then, I barely remembered her, so I had no idea what she would look like.

Lo and behold, when she came out with her mother, she had become very pretty: long straight hair, unblemished face, a kind smile. She was very happy to see me, from that smile and how eagerly she spoke to me. For the two hours we were together, at the restaurant and walking down the streets of DC, trailing our parents, it was like 9 years had melted away. There was little awkwardness. She even exclaimed, and giggled, that she remembered how cute I was when I was little (hard to square with my one memory of her then, but bygones are bygones when she has become that lovely). I pointed to the copy of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead she happened to carry, which I also happened to be reading at the time, and we talked about its ideas. I tried hard to look at her in the eyes when I spoke, something I had trouble doing back then. She almost never stopped smiling.

We parted not long after that with a hug. But I forgot to get her email or her number, and I still don’t remember her last name either. Last I heard, she had become a doctor.

One does not care to acknowledge the mistakes of youth —Char Aznable

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.

JUST AS KEIKAKU

11 thoughts on “The Childhood Friendzone”

    1. Thank you very much! Glad to have you around. I love 8thSin’s detailed observations too and that comment was indeed the seed of this article. Hope to see you there again and here.

  1. Ah, sweet memory of childhood, osana-najimi!

    I don’t know if it’s a East Asian thing, but in Japan, we do have
    Honne and tatemae. Well, sharing Confucian values, so probably it is. But even without honne and tatemae, it’s too risky to confess love and ruin everything you have built. But, unexpected reunion of osana-najimi in Okinawa (so typical!) corners them to reveal their honne! Lemon Senpai is so sakushi! She makes story so divine! Yeah, otherwise, no stories. So far the best romance/relationship-drama anime series this year. I think we share a similar taste in anime!

    Yes, when girls grow up, they increase woman power (joshi-ryoku). High school debut! And some of them become intellectuals. Presidential honor, wow! Did she actually get to meet President? And suddenly sexually attractive and dateable, pretty confusing to guys. Dousoukai (school reunion) is pretty much prevalent in Japan, and that’s when some of them start dating. Unlike anime, I don’t think they still keep the feeling from childhood, very rare, unheard of, but that can be a catalyst for dating. Ahh, but you missed the chance!

    Yes, I actually find AnoNatsu more exciting than Oneti too. I didn’t realize the drawing style was that different though. It’s amazing to see how anime style has changed over the course of years.

    1. Confucian values place a very strong emphasis on reciprocal relationships and on duty. I get the feeling that a lot of what we might call emotional suppression is often motivated by a sense of duty to one’s friends (not so much as to one’s superiors per se, as it would be in traditional ethics). And it’s not exclusively Asian, either, now that I think about it. The famous British “stiff upper lip” is actually kind of similar. There’s some evidence that people who have been raised with such values may actually handle trauma and emotionally wrenching situations better in the long run than those who can’t stop emoting over it. Kanna’s smile is heartbreaking. But it may be making her stronger.

      I think my friend actually did meet President Clinton—she went to the White House. I lived in DC for years and I never went inside the White House, even when they were still offering tours. One thing that I think is different about America compared to most countries is the frequency that people move: that’s probably why such reunions are rarer here than they might be in Japan. I still wish I kept in touch with her. But it’s been 15 years now and long since time to move on.

      As for character design: I like modern character design better, personally. If you want to see some really messed up character design…Onegai Twins was kinda awful, in my opinion. A lot of misshapen faces and bad proportions in the animation. Perhaps we are spoiled in our computer-assisted age…

      1. Yes, that’s exactly jingi (仁義), “duty to one’s friend (brothers in a sake cup),” the core yakuza value. Ahh, Japanese culture is too Confucian…

        Stiff upper lip. Interesting! Yes, that’s what made Mishima Yukio totally a diehard royalist, his blind devotion to the Emperor. When debating Tokyo University leftist students, he told them that during his high school commencement, the Emperor made a visit and sat through 3 hours without even moving an inch and how he was impressed by that. Japan used to be so hierarchical as UK before Gen. MacArthur came in, so it wasn’t surprising that a lot of people like Mishima existed back then. Now, who cares about the Emperor? I think America is very different, President needs to be personable and likable. Favorability is a huge factor to win the election. Like you know this person for a long time, a person you like to invite in to your family barbeque party and drink beer together, someone who fits in Southern hospitality the most.

        That’s really cool about her! Meeting Clinton! How honorable! Yes, Japanese people also like to move a lot, but like you said, Japan is really narrow, even smaller than California, so one bullet train would make reunion possible.

        Me too, I love today’s style better! I got to check OneTwin then. That anime wasn’t as memorable as OneTi.

  2. Just another reminder to watch Ano Natsu and soon… personally I never really placed that much on unrequited love aspects. It is either a confess or die aspect.. and if not then you move on.. this scenario happens frequently in fiction, but it does rarely happen in real life.. or at least it happened to some of my childhood friends who did marry their childhood sweethearts.. so I think it is dependent on individuals.

    1. That’s certainly true. There was an article by Inu Shinde who wrote a post about why he simply can’t relate to shows like Ano Natsu because he never had the same sort of feelings or experiences at that age. In my case…I happen to have a few experiences that may not be exact but are analogous, at least emotionally. The thing about childhood sweethearts being relatively rare is because, in large part, of the well-known Westermarck Effect, though the age at which one is introduced will make a big difference.

      But I do think there’s a reason why the tropes keep showing up constantly, and not just because anime/manga/visual novel writers are lazy. :) For many shy male otaku, I suspect young childhood was the last time they could easily talk to girls and be friends with them. Puberty can do a nasty number, that.

  3. Mike, I’m so glad you wrote this – a wonderful, wonderful piece. You’re such a gifted writer.

    My original plan for Valentine’s Day was to write something with a similar topic (though with a very different direction) – it was a satirical post about the best friend, with the point being that he or she is really probably the best pick, in anime as well as in real life. I trashed my post after realizing that my shortcomings (and laziness) as a writer prevented it from reading as nicely as I hoped.

    On another note, I feel a real connection to some of your writer – not only because of our shared faith, but culturally as well. For instance, it may be a stereotype about East Asians holding in their emotions (though outbursts do happen), but I think it rings true…in almost every such household. As a Korean-American NOT living on the coasts, I’m part of the second generation here – I wonder how much of this style will rub itself on people of this generation.

    1. Thanks Charles! I’m also a second generation immigrant—parents came over from Taiwan—and while I have lived on both east and west coasts, I spent the first ten years of my life in the South. (Notice these stories are set in Memphis.) The analytical part of the post (basically part 3) actually came first, borne from tweeted observations about Ano Natsu and a comment I left on 8thSin’s commentary on episode 5. Episode 5 is one of the single best episodes of anime this season, the sort of mood and writing that made Toradora and Honey and Clover great.

      When I came out here to the West Coast, it was the first time I’d met so many Asian Americans who were third, fourth generation. They seem much more “American” to me than the almost exclusively first and second generation Asians on the East Coast. To the degree that the kind of emotional rectitude is cultural, I suspect it will fade. But it’s also probably introversion too, for many people (like me). There are more introverted characters in anime I think than in most popular media, which is perhaps partly a reflection of its creators as much as its culture.

      Or I could be just talking out of my posterior. :) I just called it as I experienced it. I hope I’m not too wrong!

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