Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun - 12

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Damn you, Brains Base – why must you torture us with masterful adaptations that stop in the middle?
It won’t be spoiling much suspense when I say that Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun is a lock for my 2012 Top Ten list, and the reasons are manifold.  In fact, one interesting thing about this show is that even if pressed, I would be ill-prepared to say just what it is I like best about it because it does so many things incredibly well.  Last week we had an episode that focused almost exclusively on Mitty, Haru and Yamaken – in the process ignoring the supporting characters I love – and was superb.  The eps focusing in the nuts and bolts of the romance between the leads are superb.  And this week we got an overdose of Natsume and Sasayan at last, and it was another grand slam.

It would be hard to overstate just how much I love these two “side” characters (the term doesn’t do them justice), whether as a potential couple or not.  Natsume and Sasayan are pretty much perfect as supporting players because they’re interesting and loveable enough to be mains on their own, but they slot perfectly into their places alongside the leads.  The serve many roles in Tonari, most especially Natsume – they provide a “third way” perspective on Haru and Shizuku, they drive much of the comedy, and they expand the storyline in new and interesting directions.  If you were to go to the drawing board and design the Platonic ideals, these two would be pretty close.

But of course, I can’t ignore the “potential couple” part of the equation, because I’ve rarely seen too anime characters that seem such a perfect fit for each other.  Natsume’s crush on Mi-chan is certainly genuine and heartfelt, but it’s as she says herself – “I can act normal around Sasayan.”  For a girl who struggles with self-loathing and restless anxiety every day and hates boys to boot, how special does that make Sasayan to her?  Yet she seems quite genuinely unmoved by him as a potential romantic partner.  Even Natsume seems to realize that Mi-chan is a fantasy more than a real romantic option, but given her professed hatred (overstated for self-denial purposes) for guys, that makes him safe as an object of affection – there’s no chance of things really going anywhere.

As for Sasayan, he continues to be one of the most interesting and downright mysterious characters in recent anime, especially those focused on teens.  He’s bright, normal, seemingly very centered – he has many friends he has fun with, and indulges his goofball teenaged-boy side without channeling it in destructive directions.  He is, superficially, easily the most well-adjusted of the main quartet.  Yet his feelings for Natsume are genuinely Sphinx-like.  He always seems to be hanging around at key moments, his face symbolically half-hidden, overhearing things with an impassive reaction.  He’s aware of Natsume’s crush on Mi-chan, and acts to help pave the way for his friend with her.  Yet she’s also the first person he thinks to call on New Year’s Eve, even if his “plan” was superficially not for his own benefit.  Behind his smiling, kind face I suspect he has strong feelings for Natsume, and in spite of that façade he’s as tortured by the fear of rejection as any other boy his age.

Ah, what a mess – but then, adolescence is a mess, and Tonari is able to portray the essence of that painful experience without being maudlin or depressing.  Natsume is the perfect poster girl for the way this show is gut-wrenching and uplifting at the same time – she’s so sweet, so desperate to be loved, and so awkward in everything she does.  I’ve been lonely on New Year’s myself, and it’s not fun – especially when you’re a teenager.  I see no future between her and Mi-chan and to be clear, I hope there isn’t one – he’s way, way too old for her and it’s a terrible idea.  But fortunately I think he’s both a very smart and very compassionate person, far too much of both to be swayed by her shock confession.  He tells her that “The best kind of love helps us grow up” – very wise words that could apply to the main couple in this series – and perhaps they might fit her crush on Mi-chan too. And if somehow the stars aligned for Natsume and Sasayan to get together, I think it would apply to that relationship too, as Natsume desperately needs to be involved in a relationship that can help her realize how special she is and how not all boys fit the ogre-like image she’s built up in her mind. She may have convinced herself that she’s in-love with the idea of “normal” female friendship, but her own romantic inclinations haven’t been denied – only submerged.

No question about it, this show is special, and it’s painful to see it ending when it’s absolutely in superb form. I loved so much about this episode – Mitty’s “She’s being really pushy for someone so timid” comment that captured Natsume so well. Mi-chan’s warning to Haru not to dive off the roof – and Mitty’s reaction. Natsume’s frank and honest conversation with Ooshima, so on-point and direct.  And the extremely clever sequence with the phone calls, with the audience only finding out at the end that Sasayan called Natsume at Midnight, hoping to hear her voice. It was my favorite New Year’s sequence since Cross Game, and given how often this holiday shows up in anime that’s saying a lot.

I’ve spent six paragraphs talking about the penultimate episode of a school romance and have barely mentioned the lead couple, and that’s a testament to just how deep this series is in terms of character and plot.  Tonari isn’t one for easy answers and I don’t expect that to change now.  Haru and Shizuku have problems to sort out – with each other, but with themselves first.  Her bribe to keep him off her back for the rest of cram school was more akin to a mother trying to motivate her elementary-school son to study than a girlfriend and boyfriend, but that’s in essence a good measure of the issues these two face as a couple.  Yet as surely as they have those issues, I still see no indication that either of them has felt anything remotely as strong for another person as they do for each other.  If Natsume and Sasayan is a stealth relationship, this one is full of dirty laundry – while neither Haru or Mitty has really confronted their own root cause for the baggage they’re carrying, they share a remarkably open communication – and that familiarity speaks to the connection between them.  Maybe it will work and maybe it won’t – who knows, if the manga sales see a sizable bump we might even find out on-screen someday, unlikely as it is – but contrary to what some believe I really think there’s a lot to build around in their relationship.

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16 comments:

  1. Just as a head's up the HTML tags are showing on my end and the pictures are in slightly wonky places.

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    1. Yeah, LOL - noticed that and fixed it, thx.

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  2. It really is a breath of fresh air, isn't it? I like how they can transit from emotional to comedic (vice-versa) in a blink of an eye just like that. All this while cramming in the storyline in order to keep it moving forward, not just for the lead pair, but all the other side characters as well. Brilliant stuff.

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  3. Sasayan suffers the typical "nice" guy syndrome. It's not a myth, Enzo. There are a plenty of women who cherish that a teddy bear someone they can talk comfortably and come cry whenever their "boyfriends" screw up! But at the same time they don't want any romantic relationship from that, which will complicate things. Like or not, that's the way it is and has been for a long time. Obviously not everyone is the same, you can't deny the evidence when it's staring at you. And the fact Sasayan hides his feelings (like most nice guys who has a crush on girls whom they know for years, but have no romantic interest in them) doesn't help, either. However it's understandable since he knows he will shut down immediately and risk their friendship.

    And as for your lament on this show stopping in the middle (more like at 1/3 if you consider the manga's length. It could even be 1/4 since it's still ongoing), I genuinely believe that the manga becomes really clichéd in later parts (not that elements and premises so far is absolutely above clichés, but they are really fresh stuff to work with. Not as much later unfortunately). Considering the reason I like Brains Base's adaptation so far is that the product is very unique, I am ok with ending it with all the glory. Although one more season would be good as well - as long as they don't go 3rd or 4th season (the parts I'm disappointed mightily now). It'd be much harder to maintain its superb quality run when the quality of materials aren't there to work with. But it's a personal opinion and I'm sure there are a plenty of folks who are fine with the way manga is going right now.

    I do see the issues what Helen is referring to as well. It's some minor html code issues as I am sure you know, Enzo.

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    1. I don't deny the nice-guy syndrome exists, and I've had some experience with it myself. But the interesting thing with Sasayan is that he plays his cards so tight to the vest that you can't even be sure whether he wants more with Natsume or not, though I suspect he does. It's not a character type that's new, but he's one of the most interesting examples of it in quite a while.

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    2. yeah. I think Sasayan knows that he can't confess his feeling to Natsume the way she is right now. He has almost zero chance of succeeding and all the risk to deal with as I said. He's very observant as you know -very similar to Yuu, Oshima's friend. He's a very cerebral character and won't reveal his true cards so readily when odds are not good for him. One can even say he's binding his time for the right moment as he watches Natsume to overcome some of her baggages. It's a dangerous game (being friends in hope of someday confessing) to play if this were a real life, but thankfully for him, it's a fictional world.

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    3. The Yuu character is very interesting one, I may add. If they do decide to go for 2nd season, she'll be more properly introduced -even if she remains a side-side character. So is Mitty's brother (who unfortunately has lost pretty much all of his almost non-existent manga screentime so far in this adaptation). Again one of the strength of Tonari where no character is really wasted.

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    4. Sasayan seems like the kind of guy that if it worked out with Asako he'd be happy... and if it didn't work out with Asako it wouldn't kill him, oh well. He's so comfortable about it - about everything, really - that you just don't see him as the type to ever get too broken up about losing out on a particular girl.

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    5. There is no nice guy syndrome simply because there are no "nice" guys.Nice compared to what? Murdering psychopaths? Abusive husbands? Mi-chan? Isn't Mi-chan a pretty nice dude himself? Or in Ooshima's case couldn't she qualify as the "nice girl"? So this is not a gender specific theory right? Of course not. What we have here (may have in Sasayan's case) are people pretending to not be sexually interested in some other people. In Tonari it's played in a totally innocent and (mostly) safe way but in real life it can be downright creepy. I mean the whole pretending to be friends only to take advantage of a supposed rift with the bad/evil/"not as nice as me" boyfriend/girlfriend? How in hell is someone like that nice?

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    6. "people pretending to not be sexually interested in some other people."

      And what's the problem with that? He knows she can't deal with romantic attention right now, so he plays it cool for the time being. Nothing wrong really. Besides, Asako's outlook on guys is misguided: just because a guy is attracted to you doesn't necessarily means he doesn't care about you. Of course, she can't help being scared, but at some point she will get over her issues and he will be there waiting for her.

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    7. Well giving the impression of being a friend while having hidden sexual thoughts is dishonest. Get it out there, and if he/she's not interested then they can continue being friends but without the hiding stuff part.

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    8. "Well giving the impression of being a friend while having hidden sexual thoughts is dishonest"

      He's not being dishonest. These are his feelings we're talking about. If he doesn't want to talk about it he doesn't have to. Besides, he can't tell her right now, since she would end up feeling all awkward with him afterwards. She has to get over her own issues first.

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  4. It's so heartbreaking to see how desperate she is to be needed. I get how she feels though. I just wish she had a mate who could talk her through it. That's one of the main things she needs- someone to confide in. Unfortunately for her, Mitty is not that person. I can't believe that there isn't another season. what about this possible triangle. how could they not show us the outcome! heck, i think i'd rather watch their story rather than the main couples daily drama.

    I've also heard that the manga starts to go downhill after a while. true, guys? I'm just a bit past this ep on the manga. oh, and there's one really sweet moment. when haru says she can come over whenever she's lonely. awww.

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  5. For me the funniest part was when Yamaken imagined himself acting as Haru...that was just hilarious :D

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  6. Out of curiosity Enzo, you did notice how Natsumae's fortune was basically "look right net to you already" ?

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