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Please Teacher Notes

Please Teacher is one of those series that I remember being popular (or at least well-known) years back, but sounded so uninteresting that I completely ignored it. Recently, a friend added it to our playlist because it was on sale and he was wondering if the hubbub was justified. Answer: I can see why it was popular and/or why it stood out from the crowd, but boy is this a mess of a fanboy romance.

The sad part is that a lot of the characters and concepts are appealing to me. The concept is an unlikely but genuine romance between a high school student with a weird disorder (Kei) who accidentally ends up married to his teacher (Mizuho, though he never calls her anything but “Sensei”). Kei’s group of friends includes a quiet girl with legitimate problems, a straightforward friend in understated romantic competition, and an awkward but substantive romance between two other friends. Even the main guy’s random problem is passably interesting—his mind and body freeze up in the face of emotional stress.

It really seems like I should like the series—unlikely romance is my favorite type. It’s even a good emotional hook to have the main character being “out of synch” on account of essentially having been in a coma for 3 years, which he hides in order to live normally as the age he appears and thinks, but technically isn’t. Interesting in part because he’s decided instead of whining (the usual anime solution) he’s going to face it head-on and vows to keep moving forward in life, no matter what. Heck, even the backstory, which it doesn’t bother to even hint at until a weird info-dump in the next-to-last episode, has some good dramatic punch—certainly reason enough for Kei to be seriously messed up. (Frankly, more messed-up than he is, which you never get to credit him for as a character, since you don’t know about it.)

I can see why people would take note of the show—it deviates widely from the norm in the anime romance department, to be sure.

Most notably, it actually goes somewhere with the romance—both the main couple and the secondary one spend time together as couples, gradually deepen their relationships, and even have actual (offscreen) sex, which you pretty much never see in these high school romantic comedies. Heck, the final montage even has Kei admiring his wife’s backside in the bath, with neither blushing nor violence—I can’t think of that ever happening in anime.

The problem is that the execution is a disaster if you care even slightly about logic and character development. The most obvious botches are that the character logic stops making any sense when it tries to up the drama in the last few episodes—it’s like the writers had a list of things that were supposed to happen, but absolutely no idea how to get them to occur. So, they just made the characters do and say things that make no internal sense, even by the already low standards of the genre.

Yes, they’re 15/16-year-olds, and teenagers are stupid, but they’re not that stupid, and even that excuse isn’t available after hammering away for almost the entire series about how Kei is mature enough to pull off a genuine marriage to an adult. Honestly, all three of us in the room when I watched it were smacking our foreheads in dismay and trying to come up with excuses to do anything but laugh at the embarrassing writing.

And then there’s the big next-to-last episode plot twist. It’s bad enough that the show didn’t bother to bring out Kei’s actual emotional hook until then—backstory dramatic enough that you might have been willing to forgive his being a simpering loser who develops some cheesy spine. And then it pulls a ridiculous, large-scale targeted amnesia twist in the last episode. I don’t know which is worse—the pathetically contrived attempt to set up a final re-committment, or that they only did anything with it for three quarters of an episode, and even then didn’t ham it up enough for it to feel like Kei was hurting inside.

Incidentally, Kei is also a terrible son—big spoiler here, but if you think about his backstory, his parents lost their daughter and their son was in a coma for 3 years, and as soon as he wakes up he abandons them to go live with an uncle and aunt because going back to school near home would be awkward. Yeah, real sensitive. We don’t even get an offhanded mention of them. Nor did he invite them to the wedding, or, so far as I can remember, even call them to tell them he got married.

The main couple in general are the series’ biggest liability.

I admit, the secondary romance is actually pretty appealing—it caught me entirely off guard for both how forthright it was and that the characters involved—the loudmouthed class clown and the meek friend—aren’t the sort who usually get any romantic drama. Even the friend who’s competing for Kei’s attention makes sense internally and acts in a relatively realistic, emotionally effective way—remarkably reserved for both the genre and this show.

The main couple, however, are paint-by-numbers fanboy fodder. Kei has interesting backstory but only slightly more personality than a simpering plushie—he’s so obviously a stand-in for the male viewer it’s pathetic. And the titular Teacher is even worse—she has absolutely no backstory or personality whatsoever, other than “alien half-breed” and “pleasant.” They do have a little chemistry, but only because they’re both paper thin and generically cute and shy. The whole “she’s an alien” thing is particularly pointless—apparently “wears glasses” and “mature” didn’t meet the quota of random fanboy fetish categories.

It’s pretty annoying when several secondary characters are far more interesting than the leads, even more so when at least one—the short, without-affect friend—gets some interesting backstory but almost no real follow-through. That added insult to injury after the incoherent stuff the screenplay forces her to do.

Don’t even get me started on the alien sub-plot: “well, she doesn’t actually have any personality, and we need a mascot, so let’s maker her an alien and give her a stupid little ship AI to make cloying noises or something.” Or that she uses the series’ catchphrase—”this is priority one” or some similar nonsense—incessantly. Or that the main couple have lived together for moths and are sleeping together, in the Biblical sense, but he still calls her “Sensei” and she addresses him like he’s a student, with -kun. Even Kyousuke in KOR wasn’t that bad. It’s obviously just to fulfill the teacher fetish, which is the point of the whole thing, but it sounds particularly absurd in some of the big romantic bits when he’s shouting “Sensei! Sensei! Sensei!”

I also liked that they show us that the aliens have the technology to precision mind-wipe an entire school to remove a single person from their memory while leaving everything else intact, yet in the first episode, when their observer is accidentally spotted while landing, the only solution she can think of is to ask him not to mention it, and then marry him when that doesn’t work. Admittedly, based on our sample, they’re all idiots and their technology is, as advertised, completely incompetent, but that’s a plot hole the show almost literally flies a spaceship through.

So far as I can tell, the whole show basically runs on Kikuko Inoue being the voice of the teacher. Combined with the attractive, cute-but-mature character design, her honey-sweet voice is so incredibly pleasant and likable that you’re almost willing to forgive the fact that the character she’s working with is essentially a tarted-up brick, and the script sounds like a badly-written dating sim.

That helped a lot, but the only thing I ended up caring about wer the secondary characters. The humor also would have been a total wash if it wasn’t for Kei’s uncle and aunt, who are offhandedly hilarious when they’re onscreen. Which isn’t nearly often enough. Heck, they’re funny enough to make you buy some of the preposterous situation comedy (or the whole marriage of convenience premise).

I did note two interesting parallels:

One is with Toradora. It’s also a series about a group of friends who develop substantive romantic relationships and have more personality than they seem to on the surface. Except everywhere Please Teacher goes bobbing for fanservice Toradora does something emotionally substantive, and where the former does ridiculously out-of-character things to force the plot along the later gets you to believe that caricatures are real people inside. The only functional similarity ends up being actual long-term romantic commitment.

The other is Strawberry Panic, which is a surprisingly similar series given how different the story is. Both have concepts and characters that sound interesting in theory, both have actual romantic plot progression and physical relationships, both save the backstory until it’s too late to make you care about the characters, both bungle the overall narrative arc, and both do completely incoherent things with the characters to get them where the writers want them. Heck, both even have the same preposterous plot twist at the same inappropriate point—they both do a random, laser-targeted amnesia drama-bomb in the last few episodes that is quickly reversed to supply a cheap-thrill romantic finale.

Bottom line is that I’ll give Please Teacher ample credit for doing unusual things with high-school romantic comedy, and having some likable and/or funny characters, but the execution is otherwise embarrassingly bad, and it feels like what it is—twelve-plus-one episodes of Hot for Teacher fanboy-fodder. (There, I finally worked in my Van Halen reference.)

Strawberry Panic Notes

I am back from an extended hiatus caused by a combination of the extended US Holiday Season, the first real vacation I’ve been able to take in quite some time, some medical stuff, and assorted other life things that happen. Also working on a new project, but not quite ready to start boasting about it yet.

There are a number of new full reviews backlogged in the pipeline, but having just finished watching the low-rent Maria Watches Over Us ripoff Strawberry Panic, I wanted to jot down some thoughts. I intend to write a full review of this one (I’m about to embark on a yuri review bender, since it’s an underrepresented genre I like), but in the mean time…

The show is, basically, not very good. It ends up a lot better than it starts, but the path there is kind of a mess, and it’s particularly frustrating because it eventually reveals that there are some good ideas in there, it just completely failed to make something of them until way late in the game.

Watching it goes kind of like this: The first couple episodes are just weird; a mix of frilly Catholic girls’ school cliches, adoring, sparkly-eyed girls staring at uber-girl Shizuma, and weird pseud-sexual things where Shizuma keeps making wildly inappropriate moves to kiss the ditzy protagonist Nagisa. Those are uncomfortable, and they’re supposed to be (sort of), but that then settles down for a while.

From there through episode 6 is boring unless you love silly girls-school stuff and unfunny light comedy. Then episode 7 finally breaks out a secondary romance and a bunch of intra-school drama involving scheming evil lesbian student council members (essentially everybody in the show is at least mildly inclined toward the same gender, but these two are the only ones depicted doing anything seriously physical). And then… nothing really happens for the next several episodes, so it’s back to boring through episode 11.

Episode 12 finally drops a drama bomb—among other things we’re shown that the intent of the romance isn’t all teary-eyed smiles and hand-holding, in no uncertain terms—and makes things interesting from a character standpoint with the main couple. 13 is slow, but adds another big dramatic twist with the secondary set of romances.

And then, in season 2, it again fails to take that momentum anywhere. Now that the drama and stakes are closer to the surface, I at least was paying attention, but in place of boredom is frustration—it drags out and obfuscates what should have been interesting all the way through episode 18; that one at least has some big stuff, but is mostly botched and still drags painfully.

Then comes episode 19, which is solid backstory, and really good. Shockingly good. It’s not spectacular—we’re still dealing with broad-stroked yuri romantic tragedy—but it flows well, is touchingly and convincingly romantic, has a beautifully tragic crescendo, and even does a good job of tying itself back to the present at the very end.

The thing that’s so disappointing about this is that that one episode showed that the series had interesting, or at least entertaining, things to do, it had just completely failed to pull them off for about 15 of the preceding 18 episodes, and in a single episode it got more emotional response than in the entire series combined to that point. (Heck, it’s backstory so you don’t need to know the characters, so you could just watch that single episode standalone and probably enjoy it as its own little tale.)  It sure grabbed my interest, though, and got under my skin in the way a good romance (or tragi-romance) should.

The remainder of the series is better, at least, but even then it drags things out so laboriously that it got pretty maddening by the end, not helped any by the fact that it had screwed up so spectacularly before that I had little faith in it pulling off a decent end. Thankfully, the very end, at least, is romantically satisfying, so at least it wasn’t a total waste. It does, however, have one of the most ridiculously contrived plot twists I have ever seen, and in the last couple episodes—it had me shaking my head that it actually went there. In the “No, even this show wouldn’t do something that stupid… wait, yes, it would.”

So you have, roughly, 11 episodes of boredom, two interesting ones, another 5 of frustration, one really good one, and a mix of decent (mostly 25, which follows up on what 13 started and it immediately screwed up), frustration, and embarrassing for the remaining 7.

Here are the three things that struck me most about the show:

One, it does a miserable job of setting things up. The entire first season utterly fails to foreshadow later events or make the actions of the characters make sense, so when the big backstory reveal comes, it doesn’t feel like “Oh, now I understand.”—the good feeling you get when secrets are revealed. It’s more like “Oh, that explains what they were trying, and failing, to do with all those previous plot points.”—just made clear how awkward all the plot progression had been up to then.

Two, the characterization is really, really weak. Characters start to make sense in the second half, but most of their actions seem either random or blatantly plot driven. Lacking any internal logic, there’s nothing to get attached to as a viewer. The contrast is made all too clear by episode 19, which does make sense—you get what’s going on, the characters do things that make sense, and you can get an emotional handle on them. After that things improve somewhat, but even then it’s awkward.

Three, following from two, chemistry. The main couple completely lack chemistry for most of the series. With enough chemistry, you can overlook almost anything, but without it a romance has nothing to stand on (and this series certainly wasn’t substituting plot). Again drawn into the starkest contrast by episode 19, which in just a few minutes establishes powerful, believable chemistry between the same character and her previous love, which makes the whole thing work (heck, it’s so effective you can almost get into her as a character after that). They’re two people who aren’t just smiling at each other, aren’t just kissing, they’re physically hungry for each other. It doesn’t need to tell you how in love they are, because you can feel both affection and passion just from the way they look at each other.

Contrast the actual protagonist, who’s lively and cheerful, but nowhere near enough so that she seems at all believable to catch the eye of Shizuma; together they have no chemistry at all that you can feel until near the end, and even then it’s relatively weak. Given how she’s supposed to be the chosen savior of the despondent lover, you need a lot more than “Generically chipper schoolgirl” to sell that.

Other notes: Production: The art swings wildly between nice and poor, the backgrounds are relatively pretty, the character animation is abysmal with occasional flashes of merely passable, the soundtrack does quite well with just a piano and violin, and all but the lame second end theme are surprisingly good generic darker J-something-pop. The setting is as narrow as it could possibly be; only two bits take place off campus, we never see a single male onscreen, and there are only four adults I could count who ever appear, none of them more than rarely (a teacher we see briefly once in a while and a scary nun who stops showing up after the first few episodes, plus a choir director and a doctor who are in maybe a couple shots and don’t even have lines). That last bit makes the school seem a little Lord of the Flies due to inattentive staff.

Symbolism: It tries to use red symbolically but mixes its metaphors, it clumsily tries to use falling water metaphorically throughout, and sexuality is treated as the villain up until the endgame, where it reverses course abruptly (and thankfully at that—until then the lesbian villains are the only two who seem to have a reasonably normal relationship for late-teens involved with each other). It goes ridiculously overboard to use a school ceremony to elect a representative and her partner as a wedding analogy, which falls apart the second time it comes up if you spend any effort thinking about it.

Content: The message (secondary to the romance) part is about healing from losing loved ones, be it to death or someone taller and better looking than you. The emotional drama is, with few exceptions, about people with a best friend who is a little too attached to you (varying degrees from vaguely romantic to blatantly so) and is sad and/or jealous when you get the hots for someone else, making your romance awkward. When it finally gets to the actual emotional drama it does passably well, it just takes way too long and keeps interspersing it with out-of-character stuff.

Position in yuri spectrum: Soft yuri that goes fairly hard without bringing up the L-word or social reality at all; largely cute, but a few times genuinely romantic, and leaves no room for misinterpretation about the physical nature of the major relationships or the long-term commitment of them.

Anyway, it has enough decent bits here and there, one good episode, and a satisfying enough end, that I don’t feel like watching it was a complete waste, but boy did it take its time getting there.  You could probably just watch episodes 1, 12-13, 18-19, and 25-26, and it’d be a decent show.