You are a self-doubting, introverted, and scary-looking high school student. Deep down you are a kind and considerate person, but because you are awkward, people think you’re strange and naturally avoid you. You long to be liked by others–anyone, really, though the most popular and attractive member of the opposite sex would be nice. But because you know it’s impossible, you sigh in resignation every time they call you names. It’s all right. You got used to it a long time ago. It’s not going to change anyway, so why get worked up about it?
Was this you in high school, in part or in whole? It was me to a large degree. (Even little kids at one point called me, quote, “creepy.”) It was also Sawako Kuronuma, in Kimi no Todoke (Reaching You)–and then, with the smile of one special boy and everything that followed, Sawako’s (along with almost every shy, lonely introvert’s) dreams started to come true.
How could this not be a joy to watch?
A lot of anime, maybe most these days, is wish-fulfillment for the socially awkward. What else is a harem show than a fantasy for the otaku who has a hard time finding any dates, let alone three or more? Kimi ni Todoke falls squarely in that camp; it’s hardly the brutally accurate emotional portrait of an Onani Master Kurosawa, Welcome to the NHK!, or Honey and Clover, at least not yet. The plotline so far is simple: homely, unpopular person gets noticed by the most popular and attractive member of the opposite sex, who happens to be preternaturally kind and understanding. He’s practically perfect in every way. Popularity, attention, and friends follow, and happiness with them. Reverse the genders and take away the sparkles, and it resembles a million other anime and manga aimed at lovelorn male otaku. It’s not the general premise that makes the show work. No, what sets Kimi ni Todoke apart is the exactness in its portrayal of both the social awkwardness and the ways the longings of such a person are fulfilled.
Sawako is no harem lead, for instance. Most harem leads show some shyness around girls, and do various common courtesies like holding the door, eating their food even when it’s not so great, etc. They’re nondescript by design, and except for the shows that have actual otakus as characters, not actual rejects or complete shut-ins. Think of Tenchi–the ur-harem leader–or Keitaro in Love Hina, both of whom helped set the archetypes. They’re not especially weird or undesirable. They’re just bland.
Sawako, though, is a real social cripple, with all of its attendant maladies. She can barely talk to anyone without grimacing in a repellent way. Her self-doubt reaches comical proportions, expressed through incessant internal monologue. She swings between an overweening desire to please everyone at any cost–volunteering for the worst errands, even reading scary books so she could fulfill her negative image–and a longing to be considered special by just one person. Her own self-understanding is completely different from how others perceive her, which is visually represented by the look of her “normal” face and her chibi face.
This is much more real, and painful, than the ditherings of a lesser anime lead. It hurts to watch Sawako sometimes, because those feelings are recognizable to me. They are quintessentially teenage emotions, to be sure, but the social outcast feels them even more acutely because he or she gets fewer opportunities to experience the antidotes to those fears and desires: acceptance, friendship, and romance. She has to struggle even to say hello in a normal way, and let me tell you–that really is the situation for some people.
Which is why it’s so thrilling for this former outcast to watch as, one by one, Sawako sees all of her dreams come true. My heart soars because those were, and are, my dreams too: to have a kind person call you by your real name. (The show rightly treats this as being a big turning point. To be called by name is very potent.) To have this kind person be a very attractive member of the opposite sex, who does not judge despite your very obvious flaws and deficiencies. To have former enemies and teasers become allies because this person lead the way; to be valued and even admired because of your academic abilities.
And the best part: to realize that this person has unearthed your true beauty and happiness and goodness, which was crying out to be revealed but was denied by the coldness and cruelty of the world. To be changed, for the better, by love.
Of course it almost never works out this smoothly or quickly in real life. In many cases it never works out, period, especially in high school. But in these first three episodes, the story is letting all of us lovelorn people, female or male, bask in the simple wonder of what it’s like to feel loved and accepted. The show gets just how thrilling and gratitude-inducing this is for those who have felt unloved for most of their lives. Sawako’s sparkly imagination is not overblown in that regard: to finally feel like someone gets you, and still likes you anyway, feels close to divine. Actually, theologically speaking, it is divine. It’s the whole goal of human existence: to be known and to be loved unconditionally.
It would thus be a misplaced critique to immediately start harping on these episodes’ lack of realism. Verisimilitude is not the only goal of fiction; sometimes it’s also there to give us a glimpse of what things might be like or ought to be like, and thus provide hope and sympathy for the character. Of course in a good story, the situation isn’t merely static. There will have to be conflict and challenges for the story to continue. In fact, it’s suspiciously early in the game to be going through such bliss, and one wonders if very heavy times are coming ahead. Still, by precisely naming the fears and insecurities of someone like Sawako, and also by naming how they are met in a kind person like Kazehaya and his friends, I built a strong bond as a viewer to Sawako and her situation. That’s why it feels so much more than just a repetition of the standard cliches.
That’s why, come hell or high water, drama or heartbreak, I’m cheering for Sawako.