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Anime That Gets Under Your Skin

It’s usually pretty easy to tell whether or not you liked something you just finished watching. Since I write anime reviews, I also put some effort into figuring out why I felt the way I did. Aside from something more interesting to say than “thumbs-up,” I think it’s important because I want to be able to make a distinction, as much as I can, between things that I connected with on a narrow, personal level because I relate to the material in some way, and things that I just liked because they’re good. Or, alternately, things that grabbed me in some way but I did not necessarily like, perhaps for some personal reason despite objective quality.

Since I’ve decided to toss stuff about process into this blog, I thought I’d put together a few posts based on thoughts knocking around in my head about the different, specific ways in which anime works for me (or doesn’t).

So, to start with: You know that feeling when you finish watching something and it just won’t let you go?

Some anime quite literally keeps me up at night after I watch it, because my brain just won’t leave it alone—those are the shows that I know have something special about them, be it good or bad. That kind of gut-level reaction is interesting to me, and it’s one of the ways I separate simple entertainment from things with more to them—my subconscious doesn’t care that much about fluff.

On account of a couple of things I watched recently I’ve been thinking about those rare cases that it goes a step farther—anime where something hits me on a deeper level. Things that get under my skin in a visceral way, things that I feel for days after I’m done watching them.

They’re not always the things I enjoyed the most, and the emotional reaction is as often bad as good, but I find it intriguing to try and figure out why, exactly, those few things affect me that way. Following are some examples, from which I picked out something of a pattern in how my psyche works. These are all pretty large spoilers for the shows in question, so beware if you’re averse to those and haven’t seen one. It’s also extensive, navel-gazing self-analysis—you’ve been warned

Shadow Star Narutaru

This show has some stuff in the closing episodes that is deeply disturbing, and I found myself being… unsettled by it for quite a while after it was over. Now, in this case, the show has major objective quality issues (bargain-basement animation budget, pacing similar to watching grass grow, stops halfway through, and the author probably has bigger issues than Amano). I didn’t like it all that much, and I certainly didn’t enjoy it (not that you were supposed to). So this was a show that affected me—I expect in the way it was intended to (if you weren’t supposed to be skeeved out by it, I have no idea what the intended effect was)—but wasn’t in any way a pleasant experience.

The why is relatively obvious—you have sympathetic, fragile characters who have horrible things happen to them, and one of them, instead of pulling through, snaps and does even more horrible things to other people. It’s particularly unsettling because most of the bad things—abusive parents and extreme bullying—can and do happen in real life all too often. Even more so because the Carrie reenactment is the sort of revenge fantasy a lot of otherwise decent people harbor, but (thankfully) lack either the will or ability to carry out.

In particular, I think the thing that pushed it past just unsettling and into something disturbing to me on a deeper level was the combination of the reality of the horror and the prospect of salvation being so close, but failing to materialize.

So from an objective standpoint, my reaction means the show was quite successful at what it set out to do, but whether that’s a good thing is a matter of taste. Overall, though, this one would be disturbing to just about anyone with some humanity, so it’s not as interesting in terms of self-analysis.

Spice And Wolf

This show got to me in the good way. In particular, the second season’s first-story-arc dramatic break after Holo’s freak-out had me crawling in my skin wanting to know not just how it was going to play out, but terrified that they were going to screw up a series I so much adored. Which didn’t happen, leading to my reaction at the end of the season’s low-key final moments—what happens next?!

So in that case the melancholy that overtook me after the end of the season was related just a bit to the somewhat ambiguous end, but mostly to really loving the story and characters, both of which had plenty left to do. The question was why I liked it that much—was it a Tokyo Godfathers or Baccano! thing (meaning, I love it because it’s awesome), or was it more personal? In this case, I had to admit a lot of it was personal, because for whatever reason, I simply cannot get enough of Holo and Lawrence, and I do so love improbable romance (because that’s the story of my life). Best I can figure, their interactions remind me of an idealized version of myself and my wife (the demure-to-everybody-else, sharp and sarcastic to me part, with occasional bouts of condescension and childishness).

Therefore, in this case, while I could say with some confidence that it’s a wonderful series riding entirely on those two characters, it’s not going to connect with most people as strongly as it did with me. More a case of straight fanboyish-ness—I want more!

(It’s comforting that, even if a third season never gets greenlighted, the novels are getting translated, so I can find out one way or another. Note, also, that I was tempted to use “moar” above, but then I’d have had to cut my own pinky off in shame.)

Sundome

This one is manga, and not of the sort I usually talk about here (I do intend to write up a quick review at some point), but I thought I’d throw it in because the last couple of volumes have left me with a lingering feeling of gloom. In this case the reason is entirely obvious: Few things I’ve read have had such an overwhelming sense of impending—yet nonspecific—doom. Doom, further, of the tragic, real-world type. You don’t know what’s about to go wrong, but you know it’s going to be very, very sad, and it’s getting ever closer (vol. 8 is the final one, so presumably it’s just about here).

The reason that the foreshadowing impacted me so strongly, of course, is because I really got into the characters. Given the subject matter, I probably wouldn’t give specifics even if I did know what about them grabbed me, but (fortunately?) I don’t have any idea. I certainly don’t associate with anybody, I’m just unusually interested in what happens to them.

A factor, I’m guessing, is the confident emotional strength in the face of physical fragility and, though we don’t know what specifically, some very major past tragedy—again, the theme of overcoming things.

Persona: Trinity Soul

My reaction to this one surprised me quite a bit. The plot wasn’t the reason—that was plenty unsatisfying, but didn’t do more than disappoint me. Instead, I found myself actually feeling depressed for quite some time after Morimoto dies late in the series. Now, her death was hardly a surprise—she was utterly doomed from the start. (Though I admit she was out-doomed by Ryo—if you thought the competent older guy who keeps stepping in to thwart the villains was going to make it through the series you probably thought Dumbledore was going to survive, too.) It was, however, deeply yet understatedly tragic; rather than sacrificing herself, which is your normal heartstring-tugger, she had already made it, in terms of working out her demons—twice. She had already come out the other side, so to speak, only to have fate quietly take away the life she’d won.

Further, the way the series handles it is exquisite. Kayano’s reaction and instruction to Shin—”There’s no time to explain why, just find her and be with her.”—exchange weepy melodrama for a practical response and a touching understanding of what, in someone’s last moments, is most important. To complete the image, it adds her return to her “childhood” safe place for a twist of innocence and the long, quiet shot of the falling snow not melting on her skin next to Shin’s warm body to drive the point home with no screaming or orchestra necessary. It even knows to cut away at the moment disbelieving realization crosses Shin’s face, not after, like most things, which cut on the stock pan to the sky while the surviving character emotes loudly. Powerful stuff. But then, since the entire series was fundamentally about loss and grieving, it shouldn’t be a surprise that it knew how to present it in an affecting way.

Persona DVD 3 Cover

This looks like a sweet image until you see the episode, at which point it becomes one of the most cruelly tragic box covers ever.

All that came together to hit me on a more visceral level than I was expecting. In this case the tragic presentation itself was only part of it; I also liked the character a lot. Can’t say I’m sure why; I expect the combination of her being quiet and reserved, rather than as fragile as she looked at first, and her twice-over surmounting of significant inner demons. (Semi-literally—after the addiction episode, I commented to a friend who hadn’t seen that far yet that she had problems, which turned out to be minor compared to her actual problems.) All helped by uncommonly attractive character design. Toss in a touch of unlikely romance given her “condition” to complete the reasons it made me sad to see her die.

Now, in this case, because of the sort of series Persona is, my reaction was unpleasant but not negative, and it spoke well of the emotional effectiveness, but in analyzing the show I did need to factor in that my personal attachment to that character (and several others, but that was the one that “stuck”) wasn’t going to be anything like a universal for other people. The dramatic presentation, however, is objectively almost perfect so far as you can say anything objective about art.

Toradora

This is a series I did not think was going to have that much of an effect on me (heck, any effect on me—I’d written it off based on superficial appearance), and it’s what got me started on this introspective analysis. See, for a full week after I watched the end I could not get the damn thing out of my gut, and, even more maddeningly, I couldn’t figure out why. Heck, I’m not even sure how much of my reaction was positive or negative, which is kind of ridiculous. Normally it’d be bad enough to be bugged that severely by something you can’t put your finger on, but I can’t very well write a review and close my mental file on the  show if I can’t even figure out why or how much I liked it, much less why it drove me crazy for days.

So I kept kicking theories around in my head.

Part of my reaction was positive—the substantive romance in the final episode was far more than I was expecting from the series. Further, I liked the way it smoothly added a romantic, physical component to what had been an entirely practical relationship up to that point. I always like it when a series takes a superficially shallow character like Aisaka (or Ryuuji, or his mom, or Minori), and then lets on that there’s more to them than that, even more so when something takes relatively asexual characters (again, Aisaka and Ryuuji) and lets you know that, actually, they are real people with physical desires. In Aisaka’s case, taking her from an angry hothead to something much more functional, and then adding a (lightly) sexual component to her and Ryuuji’s “dry” relationship (not to mention doing a proper onscreen kiss, something so rare in anime) was unexpectedly satisfying for the romantic in me. (Aside: yes, I know anime fans will sexualize anything; I’m talking about their personalities and presentation, Rule 34 aside.)

But that wasn’t most of what was gnawing at my subconscious for a week.

A big factor was a significant personal connection to the situation that somehow didn’t even register until I really thought about it—I do happen to be married to a very short Japanese girl with an ornery streak and a generally sappari way of relating to people (a good Japanese word—used for food it means something like “clean finish” or “light”; with people it is the opposite of clingy). Moreover, I made similarly major life commitments at a similar age, and in a similarly logical, “this just works” manner,  so there was the angle of “Hey, for once a romantic profession that relates to my life experience!” (It even so happens that, in my case due to circumstances and immigration law, I was mostly separated from my wife-to-be for two years between the making of commitments and married life proper.)

So, although it took me a while to realize it, part of what was “bugging me” was a powerful sense of nostalgia; that would be positive, but in a very personal way that only applies to me.

The other factor seems to be a combination of the last-episode separation and where it ends. From a purely narrative perspective, the end makes complete sense, and it would have taken serious contortions to get it to fit together any other way without completely jettisoning Aisaka’s parents from the equation.

As a result, I didn’t immediately realize that it was missing something substantial.

See, we had been personally introduced to her dad at length and her mom briefly (I really liked that Aisaka had previously claimed she and her mom got along great, which was suspect but the series didn’t even hint was a lie until the very end when her mom shows up in person). Further, her abysmal parenting was the core of her entire character, and overcoming it what half the series was about. So, while I can understand the decision to show that she’s developed to the point she’s ready to take an active role in working things out, then hand-wave past the actual messy stuff offscreen in an effective epilogue, that was a bit unfair—we already knew all the players, so I feel some entitlement to details on how, exactly, they work things out. If Aisaka’s parents had been offscreen concepts, it’d have been different, but they most definitely weren’t, and we did get to see Ryuuji and his mom get their issues worked out onscreen.

I’m also not quite sure how much sense Aisaka’s running off to clean up her childhood before moving on as an adult makes within her character. Again, from a narrative standpoint, it was important to have her stand up on her own while trusting Ryuuji to wait for her, but I’m not positive it aligned with where she’d developed to as a character by that point.

I’m pretty sure that dissatisfaction is a major component of my nebulous… thing about the end, but I think the bigger part is that after all it had done to develop and advance the characters, it owed us a little more about what they were going to do with their lives. Had it been about childhood promises and whatnot, the “what they do after graduation” epilogue is unnecessary. In this case, however, it was about making lifelong commitments, so at bare minimum I think we were owed some info about what Ryuuji planned to do (college? straight to work? house husband?), not to mention what happened to Ami and Minori post-dustup. Minori, in particular, seemed a jettisoned plot thread—most of the second season was about her cracking around the edges, but then (unlike all four of the others) they never did tell us exactly what makes her tick, or what she’s going to do with life. Allowing herself to cry once is not sufficient—there was clearly way more going on than that (some of it apparently bad) and after that many episodes hinting at it leaving the details out is bad form.

I also really wanted to see at least a little of how Aisaka and Ryuuji run their lives once they’ve made their big decision. Since their relationship was already pretty domestic, it would only have taken a bit of screen time to show in what subtle ways their day-to-day life changed once they added a romantic component.

Really, the only character that did get completely addressed was, somewhat ironically, Kitamura, who did his emotional thing earlier; that gave us enough of a picture to know where he was going from the brief epilogue note about going to America (which I really appreciated). The fact that some of the video game adaptations, at minimum, offer an epilogue with the main couple having children shows that I’m not the only one who thought closure of that sort was necessary.

So I’m thinking that in addition to romantic nostalgia, my feeling was a general dissatisfaction with what was omitted from the end in order to wrap up the narrative in a tidy fashion. Since it would have been difficult to do otherwise, I can’t exactly blame the series for most of this; rather, I feel like I want a sequel OAV or TV season along the lines of New KOR—something that tells us more about where things end up. Come to think of it, given the parallels between KOR and Toradora, this isn’t entirely surprising, as that series really wasn’t complete until New KOR, even though it superficially looked like it (and it also continued into their adult lives in the novels).

I wonder if the Toradora light novels did more with Minori and Ami, and/or give some more details about life-after-school.

In Closing

There was an obvious pattern I noticed in these examples; the things that really got under my skin all featured characters I got attached to in one way or another, and all related in some way to either people confronting and overcoming major personal issues, unlikely romances, or both. The former is no surprise—apart from hard sci-fi or action, most things we watch are really about the characters. The latter presumably speaks to the kind of stories I like most on a gut-level; I’ve had an admitted fondness for unlikely romance for a long time, while my penchant for traumatized characters pulling themselves together was something I didn’t realize explicitly until more recently.

Finally, I’ll add that I have one additional reason for analyzing why the things that affect me the most deeply do: when I’m writing a story myself, if I could manage to get even one person to feel as strongly as I did in these cases (hopefully the positive examples) I’d consider it a success, so I’m interested in what works.