I finally caught up with a few current season shows today, and it probably tells you a lot when I tell you which ones they were: Kimi ni Todoke, Kobato., and Nyan Koi. These were the sort of shows I needed to watch at this point in my life. Let me explain.
Kimi ni Todoke as the Best Kind of Wish Fulfillment
As I said in my last article, the appeal of Kimi ni Todoke is in large part about precisely (the precision is important) identifying and fulfilling the longings of social wallflowers like Sawako. When the difficulties finally come, in episodes 4-6, the emotional realism extends to the pain and despair that happens in broken friendships and, for Sawako, the heartbreaking thought that she will have to return to the lonely old status quo after being given a taste of a better life. (Her internal monologue where she resolves to act like nothing ever happened hurt badly. It was an expression of real hopelessness, the kind that those of us who have been both unpopular and lonely can relate to.) This was in spite of the clunky plotting of the “rumors” arc; the way the rumors spread, the way Yano and Yoshida leapt to conclusions and don’t let Sawako finish what she’s saying, occasionally rang false. But what was real were the mix of emotions, making the redemption that much sweeter when it finally came.
The thing about wish fulfillment is that it’s a dime a dozen in anime, mostly in the harem and fan service departments. The kind in Kimi ni Todoke is, in my mind, a higher kind of wish fulfillment. Kimi ni Todoke is of course in part about the plain girl getting the handsome nice guy, though that aspect is surprisingly secondary for a typical shoujo series. But these past few episodes, and especially episode 7, is just as much about showing the possibility of overcoming misunderstanding, of reconciliation, and of friends actually standing up for each other and sharing what is explicitly, verbally, called “love.”
If Honey and Clover was, in the end, about bitter experience and the complications of adulthood coming to bear, Kimi ni Todoke is, like the opening song says, about the many “firsts” for a lonely teenager: first real friends, first love, first social life. The sheer wonder that Sawako has toward these first experiences is both hilarious and heartening, and it makes me wish I could go back to that state once more. Perhaps strangely, the gap between the fiction of this show and reality does not lead me to feel less about real life. Rather, it helps me recall my own past experiences of friendship–because that joy and camaraderie is indeed part of life–and reminds me that these things are indeed possible. That was profoundly reassuring to see. Those are the kinds of wishes that our world desperately needs to see fulfilled.
Of course, among the many firsts that may be to come for Sawako and the gang include first sexual encounters and first heartbreak. We’ve already seen that the show isn’t afraid to go through some emotional trials, and if it can handle those aspects of life with the same sensitivity, the cathartic power of the show will be complete.
Kobato: A Heart for the Downtrodden
I currently volunteer as a hospital chaplain, where I visit patients and their families and ask them how they are and if they need any kind of assistance both physical and spiritual. I don’t believe that I have any special powers that make me able to heal people emotionally and spiritually; I just listen and talk and sometimes act as a go-between for the patient with the staff and the doctors.
It seems to me that Kobato is engaged in a similar kind of work. She has no magical powers. She is charged explicitly with having to “heal the brokenhearted,” represented by little stars inside a jar, but the basic outline of the things she does in her charming naivete is not all that far from what the chaplain does. She listens and tries to find out how a person is hurting. She affirms emotions that are sometimes unsaid or buried, as with the little boy who was highly defensive about his mother, or tries to find out what’s really going as with the children’s book writer who had lost his partner. She frequently acts as an advocate on behalf of others, like when she tries hard to get the amusement park tickets for Shuichiro and Kohaku.
There is something a bit sitcommy about the whole way this show is structured, of course. Individual people who need their hearts healed are usually done in the space of one episode, which can seem hokey and cliched after a while. Problems don’t get solved that quickly! This is perhaps why the backstory is beginning to build about the yakuza-owed debt and Ioryogi’s past, with the tie-ins to CLAMP’s Wish franchise. No, it’s the purity and the innocence of this show that appeals, the idea that goodheartedness will save the day and that a supportive person can make a difference.
Of course in real life, things are much more complicated, but this is escapist entertainment and as part of a balanced anime diet (har har har) it can offer some comfort as well. I wouldn’t put it on the same level as even Kimi ni Todoke where the painful thud of recognition frequently pounds on my head, but, especially the visually poetic fifth episode of Kobato (about the fireflies and the children’s writer) struck me as being sappy in the right way: somewhat predictable and yet heartfelt and affirming.
It too is reassurance anime. Every time Kobato resolves to try her best, I want to do the same thing.
Nyan Koi: Laughter as Medicine
Nyan Koi has some of the best comic timing I’ve seen in standard anime comedy since its spiritual predecessor, Seto no Hanayome. It is the master of the drawn out pause and the comedic pile up, the sort of thing that Seinfeld did at its very best when every single character somehow comes in at the end and starts going off on the protagonist (as in the end of episode 6 when all the main girls “punish” the guy for being with the twin tail twins). I know I’m watching cliches but they’re executed so well, I’m laughing out loud several times an episode. That laughter was freeing for me, and helped me release some of the anxiety and tension that have been at my side in the past couple of months.
Naturally snobby and critical people like me tend to look down on escapist fiction. I like to sing the praises of emotionally brutal stories like Welcome to the NHK or Onani Master Kurosawa (review forthcoming. Really!) or the delicate emotional nuance of Honey and Clover. And those are all good things, in their place. In fact, I’m considering rewatching H&C, which is still the finest show about the passing of adolescence and worth revisiting in what is another transitional period for me.
But let’s say a few good words for the shows that are mainly there to entertain, to reassure, and to comfort. The primary purpose of anime, after all, is popular entertainment. There’s no shame in that inherently, though more often and not it’s done badly; once one becomes an experienced watcher it’s easy to roll the eyes at yet another panty flash or a harem. During hard times though, the kind of predictability and reassurance that TV of any kind provides can be just a little healing. I wouldn’t want it to be my main form of therapy, so to speak, or have it replace more enduring and eternal sources of strength to be sure. These are fantasies at the end of the day. Every little bit can help, though, and I was at a point in my life where I needed it. These three shows have helped fit the bill.
PS: I know what some of you are thinking: why isn’t he talking about Aria or other iyashikei anime? Well these are current season shows and it’s what I’ve watched. I’ve got Aria lined up on Netflix anyway so you may very well be hearing about it. It might prove to be a good counterpoint to my H&C rewatch.