School Days, you have betrayed me. An #anitwitwatches post

This is my second time trying to write this post. This time I’m going to start at the end and work backward.

School Days played a horrible trick on me that has made me re-evaluate the entire series.

What do I mean? The short answer is I thought I was watching a romance show about believable characters engaged in a torrid series of love affairs when I was really watching a criticism of a brand of harem shows.

Why would that be? Because I believed the lie that this was supposed to be realistic.

another school days shot

Yes, I just dumped a whole lot out in those two sentences, and it’s probably going to take me about 1,000 words to unpack. So buckle in, and get ready because we need to talk about realism, genre and postmodernism before I can really get back to explaining what I mean.

First, a little bit of context. I’m watching School Days as part of #AniTwitWatches on Twitter. It’s a group led by Jon Spencer of Jon Spencer Reviews and we talk about a set of episodes every week. As of the week of Dec. 29, we’ve just finished Episode 9. If you search for the hashtag, you can find a bunch of stuff and everyone has good points.

Now, on to talking about reality and genre.

But this is fiction, isn’t it?

Just to borrow a cliched opening. Fiction is made up of two separate yet equal forces — reality and genre. Now this rule isn’t always true, and arguably, is more complex than this, but for the sake of this post, I think it’s a useful duality.

When I say, “Reality” what I really mean is all of the elements of a story that are grounded in the real world. This is why all of the high schools in anime look the same because it’s a common experience. It’s also why they wear school uniforms. It’s also why all fantasy stories have people riding horses and space is a vacuum in all science fiction stories.

Now, reality doesn’t always need to be real. I’m sure not every high school looks the same in Japan, but we’ve all accepted that as reality, so if it looks different than there needs to be a reason.

Let’s just say reality is a default for storytelling. But, as an author once told me, fiction is not reality, so there has to some other element that guides when it is acceptable to break from reality.

In the model I’m building here that other thing is genre. Think of genre as the set of rules by which it’s acceptable to break from reality. Just to be clear, all fiction breaks with reality in some way. Even literary fiction authors like Richard Russo or Raymond Carver tell stories with unreal conflicts and unlikely complications.

Kotonha nightgown shot

The question is how much of reality do they replace. To bring this back to anime, I would say the realism end of the scale fully sits on movies like Grave of the Fireflies. The question becomes what is at the other end of that scale. Is it Dragonball Z, perhaps? Maybe it could be Casshern Sins?

What I can say for certain is shounen romance shows are by their nature more realistic than harem shows. (Just as a note. I do think it’s important to say there is a difference between shounen romance and shoujo romance when talking about this time frame. They have very different rules, but that is neither here nor there.)

Shounen romance shows tend to follow one or two main male leads while they flirted with relationships with one or two girls. The example I immediately thought of was Toradora!

Even though Ami and Midori may develop feelings for the main male lead it’s really a question of will or won’t he get with Taiga. The cast is relatively small, and the path is usually predestined.

The gray people

I’m less familiar with the harem shows of this time, so if I make some mistakes on my way forward in this I apologize. What my understanding is though is that they moved away from comedies like Love Hina or Oh My Goddess and into the realm of these dream-like meditations where the fantasy was that the main character can get with any of the women in the cast.

Generally, all of the women fit some sort of kink, for lack of a better term. There’s the bookish girl with the glasses. There’s the spunky outgoing girl. There’s the sexpot. Etc. It’s generally left as open-ended as possible, so the audience member can decide who they would want to end up with.

I like to think of harem as the more fantastical version of the straight romance story. Even when we’re talking about the main male leads. The romance show lead is generally a nice guy with some sort of generic nice guy personality. Whatever characteristics that might define him are by their nature not offensive. At the very least, the audience needs to be able to sympathize with him.

The harem lead is that only less committed. He is basically doesn’t set any boundaries, because the fantasy is that he, and by extension, the audience member, can be with any of these girls.

So how did School Days lie? Now I need to talk about another aspect of this show.

It’s like so postmodern, yo.

When it comes to postmodern commentary on genre fiction, I find myself continually drawn to Watchmen. I mean there are other examples I could pull from — Kick Ass, The Boys or, even, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

But, I often find myself coming back to Watchmen for two reasons. The first is that its fundamental premise is easy to understand. What would happen if there were superheroes in the real world? What would they be like and how would they affect the world around them?

watchmen-dc-promo

The second is that character analogs are so clear. Dr. Manhattan is Superman. Silk Spectre is a Wonder Woman-esque character. Night Owl is Batman. Rorschach is the Punisher.

At its heart, Watchmen is comic books shifted toward reality. It removes a rule of the genre. That these are supposed to be the heroes, and it says, “Well, what if the world wasn’t built for them to save it?” It does this so we can see that Superman would really be alien because he doesn’t have any grounding in reality. Batman would just be a lonesome loser bereft of a purpose or he would be a megalomaniac millionaire who knows exactly what is right. And the Punisher would be a psychopath.

The reason for it is to provide us commentary on what we enjoy. In that way, it holds up a mirror to ourselves by stripping away the artifice of fiction. Effectively, by removing pillars of the genre it makes us reevaluate what we enjoy, and by doing that, makes us reevaluate ourselves. At least that’s the idea in my opinion.

And here’s where we get to our problem. Even though I knew I was watching a postmodern take on harem shows, I don’t think I really grasped what that meant.

That was until Makoto had sexual relations with that woman. That Otome Katou.

The thin line between realism and commentary

As I was talking to Jon about episode 9, I made a comment that felt right to me at the time, but I didn’t really know what I meant. Basically, Jon was trying to convince me that what Makoto did was realistic. I replied with something like this:

“So realism is the Kotonha and Sekai love triangle. I think with Katou it moves past realism and into commentary on harem leads.”

Here’s the entire conversation for context.


Even though I knew this was supposed to always be a commentary on male harem leads, I didn’t really comprehend what that meant. What that meant is that Makoto was going to act like a male harem lead. Only there would be a pillar of the genre removed.

It is a harem show with real emotional stakes.

The problem I was having is that I was seeing this as a romance show and it was going to follow romance rules. By those rules, there are at most two girls. With Katou, it crossed a line and moved out of being a romance show and into being a harem show. I was applying too much reality to my postmodern commentary.

So you might think that’s it. The problem lies in my expectations rather than a problem in the show, and you’re right. It is exactly that. I feel like the creators betrayed my expectations, and so when the shift happened it became so different.

I mean there is a hint in the tag line, but that is neither here nor there. Because here is my real point:

 

You are supposed to hate Makoto

The point of shifting what is basically a power fantasy genre toward reality is so we can see what would really happen. Makoto isn’t supposed to have boundaries because male harem leads don’t have boundaries. Maybe they put up a shallow defense, but really they’re supposed to be willing to sleep with everyone.

Not only is that not realistic, in a world of real people, it’s just downright harmful. When you translate those same female harem leads into real world, and give them emotional stakes, they’re going to crack.

Makoto has self awareness Episode 8

The truth is Makoto is a horrible, horrible person. He is supposed to be for the same reason that Rorschach is or Night Owl or any of the characters in Watchmen are horrible people. Because that is what it would mean for a harem male lead to be in a world that is closer to reality. He would have no boundaries and would be up for anything no matter how much it hurt other people.

But he would never actively do anything that would hurt other people because that would remove the illusion of being a nice guy.

Of course, that only makes things worse.

And that is why I’m on #TeamMakotoGetsStabbed. Because justice.

What do you think? Did I make any sense, or have I really just gone off the deep end here?

As always, thanks for reading.

13 thoughts on “School Days, you have betrayed me. An #anitwitwatches post

  1. Great post 🙂 To add clarity on my “realism” comment, I mean to say that his actions are still within the realm of how a real person could reasonably respond to a scenario. We all know this is the wrong way to go about it, but as you correctly point out, this is also meta commentary on the harem genre. As we move our way to the end of the series, I think you’ll find that the show does stay realistic, so much so that there’s actually a story there (spoilers, for later), but it has that element of being slightly removed for the sake of commentary and narrative. In short, there’s no reason they can’t coincide as I stated.

    Anyway, glad you are having “fun” and getting lots of things to think about out of the watch 🙂

  2. And that is why I view harem anime as absurdist comedies. It’s suppose to be unrealistic, because if you apply even the barest level of the actual real world onto it, the entire premise falls apart. What you are seeing in School Days is almost 100% what would happen (in varying levels mind) if someone actually tried to get a harem in real life.

  3. I only saw the pilot OVA way back when, but I do know what happens in the main series and it is bizarre how this was pitched as a deconstruction piece to the harem genre. School Days was something I avoided and I know why the main character is supposed to be unlikable.

    Interesting contrasts to Watchman to say the least. I do hate to be that guy about this though. While there are certainly similarities with Rorschach and The Punisher, that character was more based on The Question taken to a harsher extreme.

      1. Yup. That’s certainly true about the Question/Rorschach connection in that regard. Out of curiosity, have you seen that HBO sequel to Watchmen?

      2. Nice. I haven’t seen it yet, but it did get my attention when they actually used Black Wall Street as a plot point in one of the episodes which is unheard of from a mainstream media standpoint. It was also weird seeing the trailer and realizing Jeremy Irons as the older Ozymandias which would mean he’s played both good and evil DC characters.

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