A really amazing thing happened this week during #Anitwitwatches. I got suckered by a show.
I consider myself a pretty astute viewer. If I have my critical viewing powers engaged, I consider myself pretty hard to manipulate. I mean I can be tricked by an ending, or by a second act turn, but I’m usually aware when the structure of a show is trying to make me feel a certain way about a character.
When I reached the end of episode 3 of School Days and had a visceral reaction, I didn’t even second guess it. I was upset that Makoto had taken me through all of this pain and suffering, and he just was going to blithely write it off.
I want to emphasize how strong this reaction was. I was actually upset for a good part of a day that he was going to do this to me.
I wasn’t alone. Nearly everyone else seemed to have the same kind of reaction to Makoto.
But as Jon Spencer pointed out, the things that Makoto did weren’t really that bad. I mean he had a bad date with Kotonha, but that isn’t a crime. Sure, he misread the situation in the movie theater, but he didn’t grab her and throw her to the ground.
Everything would be acceptable in any other context. We’ve seen shounen romance heroes do worse stuff, and we don’t hate them. But evidently, a lot of people reacted badly to Makoto.
The more I think about it though, the more I think my reaction is the reaction the show’s creators intended, and the more that I feel like I was suckered into disliking the hero.
I have to admit that I’ve never seen School Days, but I didn’t go into the show completely unfamiliar with it. It was a show that came out around the time I was blogging before. So I know that it turns dark somewhere, but I stayed far enough away from spoilers that I don’t know how it turns dark, other than it involves a boat.
Anyway, I did go into this show with that much baggage.
I’m also familiar with the show’s time frame. This came out at the height of what I like to think of as “sad girls in the snow” anime. Basically, there are a bunch of shows that are deliberately paced and use a lot of abstractions in a way that can be deep, and it can not be deep. (Sometimes both in the same show. Yes. I’m talking about ef: A Tale of Memories.)
So when we are hit with an abstraction at the beginning of the show, it’s not a surprise. But it’s a very interesting abstraction. We see Makoto and Kotonha standing alone among a group of faceless people.
The show is conveying an important point to the viewer: This is a love story focused on these two characters. They share a similar prominence in the picture. Not only are they supposed to be the main leads it’s obvious that everyone else is secondary to them.
While much of the episode is friendly, there is a particularly intense scene where Makoto grabs Sekai and throws her against the chain-link fence. He isn’t gentle about it. If I saw this happen, I would be asking the woman if she was OK. I probably still would call the police.
We know two things, one may not be intentional, but I’m pretty sure it was. We know that this is “supposed” to be a love story between Makoto and Kotonha and that Makoto has a temper.
But in the end, Makoto and Kotonha are going on a date, and everything is going to be fine. Well except that Sekai kisses Makoto, which is weird, but that is neither here nor there on the points.
The dates and the unreliable narrator
Here is a time when I wish I had more than words and still images. The date at the beginning of episode 2 is a brilliant piece of misdirection. We are given an unreliable narrator at the beginning of the episode.
The music is happy montage music. We, as an audience, are trained to hear that kind of music and infer that everything is going great.
But that isn’t what’s going on on-screen. We see Makoto ignore his date to play video games. We seem him looking at bikini models in a magazine. We see him with a tray full of deserts. In my notes, I wrote that any one of these transgressions in a normal anime would be the end of the date. Most of these would be the end of a normal date.
They are made so much worse though because they are being counterbalanced by the happy montage music. We know we’re being lied to, and we know that Makoto is lying to us.
But he’s allowed to redeem himself, and we go to the movie. This is where he again makes the mistake of not paying attention to Kotonha (or at least that is my interpretation.) But she seems happy enough. Things are going good.
What really is important here is that we are given dialogue. The director implies that Makoto is really trying. He learned his lesson from the last date. And when he screws it up here, it’s upsetting, but because we really want to see him win.
When his episode ends with a kiss, it feels like a catharsis.
Going into the third episode, we’ve already gone through an arc with this character. He’s gone from seemingly violent and painfully oblivious to at least somewhat empathetic. He also knows that he and Kotonha are destined to be together. Even with the addition of faces to the crowd of gray people, they still don’t have the same prominence as these two characters.
Most of episode 3 really is more of the same from episode 2. Makoto makes a bonehead move and then apologizes for it.
Even with the subtle hints about Sekai’s interest in Makoto, they aren’t reaching him. He is apparently trying to make the relationship work. Even the moment when he starts using her first name fells like a revelation.
What makes what happens next so brilliant is how expected it should be and how unexpected it is. I know I keep repeating myself, but literally everything in these first few episodes says Makoto and Kotonha are the main relationship from the opening scene to their slowly improving dates. This is the couple that we are told to root for.
When we get that at the end of episode 3, it feels like a betrayal. He’s not supposed to leave her at this point, and he’s definitely not supposed to be bored of her.
Even if the main relationship is supposed to be with Sekai, it’s just three episodes into the show. We shouldn’t get major revelations here. Those kind of changes of heart are the province of episode 6 or 7.
So he’s given up on us the audience after we put up with his violence and his lying. After I rooted for him to make up with Kotonha. This is supposed to be the relationship, and he’s walking away from it.
It’s a kick in the gut.
But Jon Spencer is completely right. The relationship between Makoto and Kotonha is strained at best. It’s perfectly reasonable for him to say, “I don’t think it’s working out.” In fact, it’s probably the best thing to do.
That’s how I got suckered by this show because as much as Jon is completely right, I think the show wants us to be angry. It wants us to blame him for subverting our expectations.
Anyways, thanks for reading.
If you want to get involved in #anitwitwatches, the full details are available on Jon’s blog. There are some really great discussions and I recommend people get involved.