This is a post about the endings of anime, in particular Real Girl and Higehiro. While I don’t think anything I’m going to spoil should ruin your enjoyment, I am talking about the ending of shows, which means I am spoiling stuff.
You have been warned.
The first time I watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, I did it in a college class on the First Amendment. If you’re unaware of what Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is, it’s a 1939 movie directed by Frank Capra. It tells the tale of Mr. Smith, a newly elected senator, who finds himself in a cynical version of Washington, D.C.
At the story’s climax, Mr. Smith is fighting to keep a bill full of graft from going to a vote. He starts to filibuster. Not the way that they do it today, but the good old-fashioned way — by refusing to give up the floor. His speech drags on for 25 hours. Now the powers that be to everything to try and crush Smith.
But Smith refuses to give up until, eventually, he collapses on the floor.
Then the miraculous happens, the senator confesses. Everyone ends up happy, and virtue defeats corruption.
But my professor posited a different ending. She said, at the time, that it was the intended ending of the movie, but I don’t have any proof of that. What if Jimmy Stewart collapses and dies? What if Mr. Smith is simply too good or too naive for the real world? Doesn’t that turn this into a noir story?
Now I don’t think Mr. Smith suffers from having a happy ending. Much like Frank Capra’s other movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s a dramatic tale that leaves the viewer feeling that maybe people aren’t so bad and evil will eventually be toppled by the weight of good men and women.
But I can’t help but feel that the alternative world Mr. Smith would tell is just as compelling of a story.
That has got me thinking about anime, happy endings and two shows that I’ve recently watched — Higehiro and Real Girl.
Will they or won’t they and other expectations
I have been on a kick recently of romances, romantic comedies and coming of age dramas. I pointed out earlier that these three fit into a similar silo of shows that I enjoy.
There is an expectation in a romance, at least the two main characters (and probably others) will end up together. This can take a lot of forms. Either they end up together at the beginning of the story, or they end up together at the end of the story. Either way, the relationship forms the fundamental tension of the story.
Now, these two shows handle this in very different ways. For those people who don’t know, Higehiro is the story of a salaryman, Yoshida, who discovers a high school runaway, Sayu, sitting under a street light on his way home from being dumped. While this could turn really skeevy, we soon learn that he’s not going to take advantage of her. She literally tries throwing herself at him, but he rebuffs her.
For most of the story, we really explore Sayu’s damage. The fact that she’s lost all respect for herself.
It becomes pretty clear early on that the salaryman isn’t going to sleep with her. On top of that, two other women in his office are doing everything except showing up at his house naked. I’ll get back to this later, but let’s just say for now that the main story is about Sayu, and it is more of a coming-of-age story than a strict romance.
While the expectation is that the teen and the salaryman will hook up, the show plays against that. Even in the end, where it’s obvious she is in love with him, he still doesn’t take advantage of her.
The tension comes from whether she will be able to overcome her demons and return to a normal teenage life.
Real Girl, on the other hand, is all about romance. It primarily focuses on the relationship of Tsutsui, a super nerd otaku, and Iroha, a beautiful weirdo. Just as a side note, this show could quickly dip into manic pixie dream girl territory, but it doesn’t. I’m just using weirdo because Iroha’s character motivations are pretty opaque until the end of the show.
They start dating early in the show, but we’re told that their relationship can only last six months. This, of course, provides a baseline of tension in the series. Will they stay together? How will they stay together?
But the story is really about Tsutsui’s and Iroha’s relatively tumultuous relationship. This is primarily driven by Tsutsui being awkward and Iroha having to put up with Tsutsui.
Well, until the second cour, which mainly focuses on the other two relationships in the show.
The expectation, of course, is that Tsutsui’s and Iroha’s relationship will somehow prevail, and they will make it. But we find out that Iroha isn’t just leaving to go to another school; she’s leaving to have brain surgery. And not just any operation, it’s one that will likely cost her the memories of Tsutsui.
When she leaves, she tells Tsutsui that he will have brand new memories and be happy. She asks him to do the impossible and forget about her.
So here we have two shows that play against expectations. They give us that alternative Mr. Smith ending.
Until they don’t.
How they really end
I’m not sure which ending bothers me more, but I’ll start with Higehiro.
After getting Sayu home, we see Yoshida return to his empty apartment and break down crying. If it had ended here, it would have been the best ending. I would have loved it.
But instead, we flash forward two years, and we see Yoshida at work. He still hasn’t hooked up with either of the two women in the office. He seems comfortable with this. Again, it could have ended here.
But it didn’t. As we work our way through a montage showing where the various characters end up, we see Yoshida walking home along the same path he walked during the first episode. Then he comes up to the streetlight where he first met Sayu.
And there’s Sayu.
Look, I get that people wanted these two to hook up. I know groundwork was laid out for this. But I have two problems with it.
The first is that it undercuts a lot of their relationship from earlier in the show. He spent so much effort working on getting her to go back home. Making sure she was healthy and could have healthy non-sexual relationships.
And the message is that she still ends up seeking out a possibly dependent relationship with a man she met when she was in her most emotional state. At best, this is unhealthy. At worst, it’s just turned this into the thing that it spent 12 episodes not being — otaku Mary Sue fan fiction.
My other problem is that Yoshida’s relationships are the least exciting thing in the show. I don’t buy that he’s in love with Sayu. On top of that, I don’t care who he ends up with. Like I said earlier, the primary tension is about Sayu and her well-being. Why make the last thing we see about Yoshida? I want to see her succeed. I don’t care about him. He’s just a means for how she gets there.
Real Girl presents a different problem. About halfway through episode 23, we get a flashback of a college-bound Tsutsui remembering his final conversation with Iroha, where she makes him promise that he will forget about her. This would have been an excellent place to stop.
But it keeps going for a bit, and we see the cast of characters when they’re 25. Tsutsui meets up with his friends from high school for drinks. They’re all successful. As he’s walking home, he has one final conversation with Ezomichi, a fictional magical girl that appears in the show from time to time. In it, he thinks that he would rather have his memories of Iroha and the sadness they bring. Again this would be an ideal place to end it.
At the end of the episode, we see Iroha at 25 without any memories. She has returned to Japan. She ends the conversation by telling her brother, “Let’s go back to Los Angeles.” This would have been a weaker ending, but I would have been OK with it.
But that’s not where it ends. In fact, there is one more episode where Tsutsui’s and Iroha’s love conquers retrograde amnesia. Because, of course, it does.
Look. I get it. Real Girl isn’t really rooted solidly in reality to begin with. But it had enough reality that it didn’t feel like pure fantasy. I would have been happy with a bittersweet ending. In fact, it felt fitting that Tsutsui moved on with his life. There was no need to staple a happy ending onto it.
Yes, I realize this is the ending from the manga but isn’t that what adaptation should do. Take the bad parts of something that remove them?
How Bad Are They?
I don’t think either of these endings is particularly amazing. Yes. I’m happy that Sayu finished high school and is now going to college, and I’m even glad that Iroha and Tsutsui ended up together.
But the alternative endings would have been so much better.
That said, I don’t think either of these endings really ruins their shows, but I can’t help but think that both of the shows would be so much better if they just stopped before they ruined it.
Not every show needs to have a happy ending. Not everything needs a pat resolution with our heroes riding off into the sunset. Sometimes just having characters in a different place than where they started is fine. There are plenty of shows that accomplish this and still maintain an audience.
Have some faith in the audience.
So if you got this far, what do you think? What anime would do you feel like the creators tacked on an unnecessary happy ending?
And as always, thanks for reading.