Review: School Days–The Wages of Sin

All it’s cracked up to be. In more ways than one.

Excuse me. I need to get one thing out of my system first.

DING DONG, MAKOTO’S DEAD, MAKOTO’S DEAD, STABBY STABBY DEAD!

With that out of the way, I can talk a bit more seriously about this unsettling, landmark anime which, in my estimation, went just a bit too far to be truly satisfying. The line above represents now only a small part of my feelings, the only legitimate part in what was otherwise a rather sadistic conclusion.

The Ending

What were we looking for? The answer is a lot clearer now, and the German word is “schadenfreude”: the pleasure is in the suffering of a boy lacking in morals or even the most basic level of conscience. Makoto is unique in the annals of harem leads; he combines the spineless indecision of the traditional harem hero with a complete inattention to the suffering of anyone other than himself. Pity for such a person is possible, I suppose, if only one were God. And one wonders if even he might have some doubts.

He is incorrigible to the end: he French kisses Kotonoha right in front of Sekai, left the food she lovingly prepared in the trash in full visible view, and had the nerve to text her about an abortion. While mentioning Kotonoha. And not even speaking to her about it in person. Sekai’s murderous reaction is not only totally understandable and believable, it feels just. I don’t have a problem with his death. Retribution on this cad is merely a reaping of what he had sown. People have been murdered with far less provocation–it’s like he’s going out of his way to induce murderous rage–and I’m convinced that the universal call for Makoto’s head across the blogosphere is really a call for some kind of justice, however brutal. That’s what we were looking for: capital punishment. Of his head or, at least, his little head. And that, we received, in a manner more or less expected. With STABS!

Had it ended there, the moral lesson of the show would have been complete, too neatly perhaps. It would be one of those cautionary tales like Reefer Madness or, more sophisticated, Requiem for a Dream, but about lust rather than drugs: cheat on your girlfriends and karma will come back to STABBY STAB you.

I really thought this was enough.

But the truth in real life, and in tragedies, is that rarely is retribution proportional. “Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth,” remember, was an attempt to moderate the usual human impulse, which is to deal overwhelming violence to the smallest of offenses. And it is the victim of the most emotional violence, Kotonoha, who deals out the overwhelming physical violence here, and to the less deserving one, Sekai. She is, as we’ve seen earlier, a dead soul. It is likely she is simply psychotic at this point. But what she does is not merely grotestque and excessive. It’s sick. For me, and I seem to be almost alone in the blogosphere at this point, her subsequent actions after Makoto’s murder soured the sense of rough justice that I had felt before. It may be because I felt generally more sympathetic to Sekai overall, though a few things revealed in the ending took her down several notches, and by this point we’re fully aware of her deep emotional dishonesty. It may be because at this point, whatever Kotonoha is feeling for Makoto is certainly not love. It’s something much more twisted and perverted, the kind of possessiveness that induces this “good girlfriend” to cut off the head of his corpse, use it to kill her enemy, and caress it to her dying day. The “Nice Boat” ending is one of the most nihilistic things I’ve ever seen in anime, rivaling only the ending of Saikano. The gut feeling I had as I finished the show is not righteous satisfaction as seeing the demise of a cad. It was just the sick feeling that I’d been complicit and gone along fully, in all my prior excited entries, with an exercise in sadism.

Prelude to a horrible fate.

The Uniqueness of Makoto

Real playas can be admirable because they exude confidence and accomplishment. Even weenie harem leads can be likable because they are usually portrayed as kind and at least minimally considerate. Makoto is the opposite of both, the worst of both worlds. It should be no surprise that no single character has inspired so much genuine hatred in fans; not the secret admiration and awe that “good villains” like Darth Vader can inspire, but genuine disgust. Makoto’s narcissism knows no bounds, and no moral or ethical system would ever commend the combination of cowardice, self-pity, lustfulness, and insensitivity Makoto is guilty of. He got what he deserved; his death is the natural wages of his sin, to borrow Biblical language. And it is not grand gestures of evil, which might also inspire a sense of shocked awe. Makoto’s evils are strikingly petty–no less destructive and soul-destroying, as we see with Kotonoha, but still committed for such small stuff: for a lay in the sack, and to avoid having to make any definite decisions or commitments that make others unhappy for that moment. He lacked the balls even to “sin boldly,” which would at least have been emotionally honest; he wasn’t even an honest adulterer, consciously choosing the wrong thing. He was a weenie even as a cad. But even small men like him can do big damage, and if there is a lesson in this show, it is perhaps that.

Sure. You just WANT to be killed by your ex, don’t you?

The question I’m now starting to ask harder now that the show is over is whether, in the quest to make someone so uniquely repulsive–it is surely some kind of first in anime–the writers of the show were really simply being cheaply exploitive. I’m afraid the answer is most likely yes. The fan service, for instance didn’t stop until very late in the show, long after the tone of the show had shifted. The actions taken by nearly all the characters, Makoto in particular, strained credibility and broke it several times by the end; I could feel the writers pushing every single button, as if they were unsure whether we’d buy the murderous outcome if he didn’t act like a humongous jerk till the end. The horrific mistakes and utterly cluelessness was a means to get to the sadism of the ending. And the sadism of the ending has, to me, two possible explanations:

  1. to punish the audience, which (myself included) slavered for the slaughter of our favorite anti-hero, and possibly for the that of the weak-willed Sekai as well. To reveal that the desire for vengeance frequently leads to grotesque places. This is more or less what Higuarshi does at its best.
  2. to revel in violence and gore.

The first explanation takes much more moral sophistication than the show has exhibited up to this point. So I think the real explanation is the latter. And it was a bridge too far for me. I couldn’t enjoy it, no matter how hate-worthy Makoto was and disgusted I was with Sekai’s self-justifying excuses, or how sympathetic I was to Kotonoha’s plight. We are not, after all, these characters in the end; we are watching them, and it’s clear that the events are too outlandish for anyone to genuinely identify with any of the principals (I hope). The feeling of disgust with the show only grew as I thought more about how I had rooted so enthusiastically for the bloody end. It was as if the writers were saying: “you wanted blood? Here it is.” And it’s not that I want the execution of justice to be pretty or sanitized–I didn’t think the turning the blood into ink did it that much for me, and I even appreciated the way the eyes rolled into a death stare as a reminder that this is bloody murder. Maybe it was the violence against Sekai’s presumed pregnancy, and the thought that Kotonoha is the type to keep Makoto’s head as a trophy. I’m still not entirely sure. But I felt that my expectations as a viewer were violated in a way. That, yes, they deserved to die, but not like this.

My feelings were not too far from this, to be honest.

But, again, I know in real life and in the most sophisticated dramas and tragedies, these things happen. In the hands of writers who pay attention to realistic detail and genuine character drama, the same ending might have felt different. When I watched the most harrowing parts of Higurashi, which is physically more gruesome than what happened in this episode, I was also shocked; but I was also filled with an overwhelming sense of pity and moral outrage. It was clear that what we were watching was both evil and understandable, horrific things done by people with identifiably human foibles and motivations. Good tragedy does such things. It didn’t feel cheap, the way this ending does. I didn’t feel used and a little dirty.

A not-so-nice boat.

Those Last Lines

Kotonoha’s final lines are devilishly appropriate and actually rather brilliantly multilayered. “As I thought…there’s no one in there,” and “Now we’re finally alone together.” They really do sum up the nihilism of the violence in the show, as well as the ultimately hollow nature of the show’s characters. It really does seem that the glimmers of believability that I hung my hopes on initially were really mirages; there was no genuine characterization after all. All along, the puppet strings were being pulled so that, jerked along by the ending that was no doubt planned from the start, things would march toward a predestined conclusion. That’s why it feels so cheap. Again, the comparison with Higurashi is instructive. The curse that befalls the characters in that show is expressed in ways fully consistent with the characters’ inner natures, motives, and histories. Here in School Days, the goal seemed to have been to find as many triggers to make a very nice girl turn very bad: molest her, cheat on her, persecute her, rape her. That’s not good storytelling; that’s just manipulation. And I admit I was manipulated along with the rest.

I realize that this view is probably the minority view. I see others who found this profoundly satisfying. Perhaps I’m being a hypocrite, seeing that I joined in the schadenfreude head-first starting in episode 5-6. If I am, then I repent of my earlier joy in the impending doom of Makoto. But I can’t enjoy this. I can’t even recommend this. It led down a path that I hope other mainstream animes don’t take, though I won’t be surprised if some do; I’m sure some are watching the sheer attention that the “Nice Boat” incident has received in the past two weeks and salivating over the profit possibilities. Seeing a bad man’s comeuppance is one thing. Seeing a reveling in sadism is another.

Anime Diet Daily Recommended Allowances

Animation: 75%. There were some of the usual TV-show with low budget tricks; still shots, etc. Much unnecessary fan service in later parts of the show. The character designs were above average, and most of the time did not detract from taking the show somewhat seriously in its early parts. (I have a hard time taking certain kinds of character designs seriously when they are used in dramatic stories.)

Music: 70%. Average most of the time. I don’t particularly like the OP, and most of the ED songs were forgettable. Insert songs were used moderately well–very well in Episode 6, when Kotonoha first learns of Makoto’s infidelities. It’s actually striking how little incidental music there is in the show, especially early on. I may have been led to believe it was more serious than it was by that lack of music.

Story: 60%. There’s no way on any real critical level that this is a good story, though it had some initial promise as a standard teen soap. Characters frequently act unbelievably and even out of character. The plot consistently felt contrived to one end: to create the ending, which is hands down one of the most gratuitously (as in unnecessarily) violent I’ve seen in anime. It was the opposite of catharsis; it made you feel guilty for enjoying the luridness up to that point.

Overall: 63%. NOT recommended for the squeamish and the sensitive, the easily angered, and the easily manipulated. Will probably, however, go down in anime history nonetheless, and not really for good reasons. The pleasures of schadenfreude are hollow.

HAHAHAHAHAHA

6 thoughts on “Review: School Days–The Wages of Sin”

  1. My feelings are quite similar.

    While I too welcomed the death of Makoto, because the show did nothing to make me sincerely wish for his redemption, I also expected the ending to be perhaps a bit more poignant and moving, I guess, rather than something so nihilistic as what we ended up with.

    Sadistically enjoyable on one count, that much is undeniable, but rather unpleasant and disturbing on the other. One even begins to think that the whole “Nice Boat” fiasco was entirely understandable.

    Oh well, back to Higurashi (not the best show ever, but surely better than this, IMHO).

  2. “Seeing a reveling in sadism is another.”

    We as people should not revel in the death of others, no matter how much they may deserve it. The School Days gave that large sense of depravity. Sorry for indulging in this little escapade. Now I must atone for my sins and do some meditation.

  3. Very insightful, unique view. Nice work. I read this while listening to Kanashimi no Mukou he, the song played during Makoto’s murder. It was very good use of music espically in the first couple seconds.

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