My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU Series Review: Does Thinly Disguised Social Commentary Count As Entertainment?

Overview:

As punishment for a scathing report written about the concept of friendship and society, Hachiman is forced to join the service club where he is introduced to Yukino. The two of them are later joined by the vibrant Yui. Can the three successfully provide services to others when they can barely communicate with each other?

Review:

There’s something truly wonderful about Hikigaya Hachiman and his view on people and the world. It is scathing, hilarious, bordering on being too true, and yet an utterly self-defeatist way to live your life. It is through his warped lens we view the school and the service club and are forced to reconsider everything we accept about making friends and getting along with people, even as we realise that Hikigaya is himself an incredibly flawed character who needs to make some changes in his approach to solving problems.

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That might be a weird way to start a review of a series but essentially this is a story about three characters who through various contrived circumstances end up working together despite their vastly different mindsets. The actual situations they are dealing with are more or less irrelevant to whether you will enjoy the show. What will make or break this show for you is how entertaining you find their various observations about their situations, their classmates, and each other.

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Hikigaya is a loner. In some ways he has made this choice and is happy with the result, but there are enough tell-tale scenes, particularly flashbacks of middle-school that would point out that his alone status has been externally imposed as much as accepted and made a badge of honour by Hikigaya. As much as he claims a dislike of hypocrisy, he himself exhibits the trait quite a lot. He is also an excellent observer of overall trends and tones, a skill he is picked up from people watching from the outside of the social groups. What he isn’t good at is understanding individuals, mostly because he seldom deals with them. This allows him to understand mob mentality, and how to figure out who is causing social unrest within a group, but makes him completely oblivious to the girl who would really like to thank him for saving her dog’s life.

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By himself he would be entertaining enough but I guess the story would have become pretty stagnant so we also have the two girls in the story who make up the rest of the service club. The cool, Yukino, and the bubbly crowd follower, Yui. These two characters couldn’t be more different as Yukino is smart, thinks and speaks deliberately, isn’t afraid to upset someone with an honest observation, and prioritizes results over social niceties. Yui on the other hand honestly admires Yukino but also realises she can’t be her. For Yui, it is too important that she doesn’t upset her friends or rock the boat.

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What this means is that all three come at every job they are given from a very different perspective. Where Hikigaya looks for a low energy, underhanded solution, Yukino comes at the problem head on and tries to deal with it efficiently and with hard-work and dedication, while Yui seldom gets to put her view forward but that’s okay because she’d probably want to talk about the problem with others and would never get around to implementing a solution anyway.

There are other characters and events in this story. Mostly we go through all the usual high school shenanigans including festivals, bullying, class trips, giving a boy cookies, geeky guy writing a novel, effeminate looking guy wanting to play tennis, the cool group with their usual petty group dynamics, and so on and so forth. There isn’t anything we haven’t seen before but when Hikigaya and Yukino get involved they manage to turn even the most normal situation into a battleground of ideologies and the result is usually entertaining.

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The unfortunate thing of course is that these three characters are connected by a ‘mystery’ revolving around the accident Hikigaya had before the series started. It isn’t much of a mystery but they keep coming back to it and dragging out the effect of it and I guess that is one way to string together the otherwise fairly disconnect series of events that befall the cast.

The other unfortunate part is that at the end of season 1, the characters have made some individual progress, though fortunately no complete 180’s – they are all very real characters in that progress is slow – but the story just kind of leaves them mid-character transformation. You would think maybe the second season would provide some closure but tragically that is not necessarily the case though it does continue the journey and I will get around to reviewing it eventually.

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Still, this show is full of wonderful inner monologues, great one-liners, some biting commentary and thought-provoking moments. The support cast all serve their needed roles, the pace moves well enough, and visually it is fun to look at. The only real issue is the overall plot but the characters more than make up for it, provided you find them entertaining. So, if you haven’t, give the first five minutes of episode 1 a go. If Hikigaya makes you smile, watch the series. If not, well, you’ll still have listened to an interesting opening monologue.

I’d love to know your thoughts on the series.


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Friday’s Feature: Problem Solver

I’ve been thinking this for awhile but this is probably the first time I’m really trying to write about it, but fiction is a fairly distorted way of experiencing reality. Not saying that’s a bad thing, by distorting certain aspects of what is real other points can be more easily framed and foregrounded. Complex emotional ideas that usually get swept under the rug in reality can take centre stage or we can just enjoy the fact that our heroes are all but indestructible due to plot armour.

However one way that fiction consistently distorts is that regardless of the medium  stories have this tendency to lead the audience into thinking the problem (whatever it is) has a solution. It isn’t that every fictional problem is always solved neatly or easily, but there is almost always a forward motion in stories and usually this is built around characters advancing towards that final solution whether they ultimately achieve it or not.

And while certainly a non-defeatist attitude or a desire to be proactive might be admirable personality traits, hopeless optimism that everything could be solved is probably not. When we think about some of the situations anime protagonists are faced with and yet mostly they still say cheesy lines like:

I mean, they are wonderfully inspiring quotes that make you feel you can get out there and accomplish anything you put your mind to. But they don’t really deal with the reality most people face everyday. Changing things is sometimes not a matter of having courage but one of opportunity and those are few and far between.

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And sometimes you could try as hard as you like but without others being on board you may not succeed. Also, sometimes you don’t have endless chances to try once more. Sometimes you’ve tried and failed and that ship has sailed off into the sunset when you were not on board (I do mean a metaphoric ocean going vessel here and not a relationship).

That isn’t to say that there aren’t characters out there expressing a more down to earth view of things.

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However, that is why Kunikida is not the main character of Bungo Stray Dogs. He can’t be a main character with that kind of attitude. He exists to be a voice of logic or reason that others (those who will be the main character of their story) fight to overcome. In truth, he is directly positioned to be seen as unhelpful and negative at times and as the person who has a defeatist attitude. Comparing him to Atsushi (who is actually the main character of Bungo Stray Dogs for some reason), Kunikida is smarter, more focussed, and infinitely more talented. And yet it is Atsushi’s never say die and charge into the den of your enemy approach that ultimately saves the day in the final fights though there is a lot of giving up at smaller challenges earlier in the season (what exactly did Kunikida do for the entirety of season 2?).

Then we have Hachiman from My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU. From a casual observation he flies in the face of every other protagonist out there. He is the star of his show and carries with him a negative and self-destructive mantle that he absolutely refuses to change.

He doesn’t want to change, he doesn’t see his personality as a problem, and has more or less given up on expecting anything from the world. Yet then we look at the plot structure of this story. Almost every episode (or arc as some go over multiple episodes) deal with Hachiman having to address a problem and solve it. He may whinge, drag his feet, and act indifferent but even though his solution is unconventional and usually leaves him burned, the fact remains that he continues to act on behalf of others to bring problems to a solution.

The one problem that he refused to address is the problem everyone else in the series is forced to address and that is his own anti-social attitude which as he points out probably isn’t that big of an issue given he’s hardly the first teenager to go through high-school without friends. It becomes an issue though when it becomes apparent that a lot of what he says is an outer facade rather than his true feelings.

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And then of course we have Kirito from SAO who faced a problem so extreme that even with a never say die attitude and you never know until you try still couldn’t win so broke the game. While there might be a touching message about the power of emotions and desire the reality of that situation wasn’t just distorted it was completely thrown out the window for narrative convenience. Of course, any other ending wouldn’t have really worked at that point so we’ll just go along with it.

Fiction is a mirror for the world but it isn’t a true reflection and this is seen clearly in this idea of solving problems. Some things once broken can’t be fixed. Others require a work around, acceptance, or sometimes a tactical withdrawal (otherwise known as running away with purpose). And while all these ideas appear in stories, the overwhelming majority of fiction has a protagonist confronting a problem (regardless of what that problem might be) and in some way dealing with that problem (even if the protagonist ultimately does not succeed).

What do you think about fiction and how it constructs reality? What are some of your favourite quotes from anime protagonists as they go to confront overwhelming danger? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.


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