My Best Girl the Yamada

July 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

I had planned to write something about Paranoia Agent this week, but I’m leaving that for later because of reasons. Instead, talking with Katie about the meme of “best girl” in anime fandom had me thinking, as often it does.

Have you ever seen Working!!? Don’t worry, I’m not frantic, it’s just the kind of title that has an exclamation point or two. The thing is, Working!! is not a very good anime. The best part about it is its opening, which has the kind of high-energy presentation that’s reached its apotheosis in recent years with shows like Servant x Service, another anime adaptation from the same mangaka. When I finally watched Working!!, as opposed to just watching its OP and ED on YouTube, I immediately wrote it off. Why shouldn’t I? The jokes aren’t funny, the characters aren’t likable, and the plot doesn’t go anywhere. I watch dozens of shows just like it every year, so I never expected to think about it again.

The cast of Working!!

And yet…

And yet, somehow, the DVD release for the show (inexplicably titled Wagnaria!! in the United States) has been sitting in my Amazon shopping cart for almost two years now, waiting only for NIS America to stop fooling around and release a standard edition of the second season. Why? It’s because Working!! has a “best girl” and her name is Yamada Aoi. Well, that’s not her real name, but we don’t need to dwell on that fact. First, let me digress a bit, by way of a explanation.

As far as I am aware, the “best girl” meme, like zettai ryouiki, arose from the fan culture surrounding Neon Genesis Evangelion in the late nineties and early naughties. If you’ll remember, there used to be fierce debates on internet forums over whether Ayanami Rei or Soryu Asuka Langley was the better girl, which seems stupid to me now as I approach my thirties because it’s obviously Misato. Anyway, the debates got so tired, since fans of Rei and Asuka were each so intractable, that they often got reduced to telegraphic slogans typed out in fonts of ever-increasing size. “REI BEST GIRL!” “ASUKA BEST GIRL!” I’m almost nostalgic for it, to be honest.

Asuka and Rei from Neon Genesis Evangelion

I think other fans probably had the same nostalgia as me, because the term continued to be used even after Evangelion began to experience a backlash in popularity. It evolved alongside the infamous term “waifu” but with a difference in purpose and sense. A “waifu” is a girl from an anime that you love totally and irrationally to the exclusion of all others. It’s self-reflexive, if only because it’s inherently self-deprecating to declare a two-dimensional girl your wife. A “best girl” is more like critical commentary. It’s a girl that the show doesn’t appreciate, most often in an ensemble but sometimes as a minor character, and also a girl that makes the show worth watching. In some ways, it’s even a pejorative, whereas “waifu” never is, because a “best girl” is scarcely ever the main character and therefore identifies something of a failing in the show itself. These days, it’s gradually being assimilated by “waifu” after years of separate existence, which is too bad, because I think it’s actually a useful and even feminist concept, not when it’s being used to pit women against each other, like how Commie Subs and other groups use it, but when it enables us to champion characters on the sidelines, characters too easily forgotten, and characters not allowed to have a life of their own, all types that are overwhelmingly given to women in anime and just about every other medium.

But how does Working!! fit into all of this? Well, like I said, it’s not a very good anime. It’s ostensibly about Takanashi Sota, a self-described “minicon” (read, pedophile) who decides to work at a family-style restaurant franchise because an extremely short girl works there. Over the next several episodes, he meets her friend and coworker, a girl named Inami Mahiru, who suffers from violent androphobia. Literally! She punches him every time they’re together, yet somehow they develop feelings for each other anyway, and… That’s it. That’s really it. There are several other characters, all of whom have unrequited feelings for each other in various combinations, and we’re just supposed to be entertained by watching them work with each other and despair of being loved. It’s terrible, truly terrible.

But then there’s Yamada.

Yamada from Working!!

Yamada is a runaway — more aptly, a stray. She tags along with the absentee owner of the restaurant when he makes a rare visit late in the first season and basically guilts everyone into giving her a job. Sounds like someone who’s ripe to be slotted into the love-dodecahedron, right? Wrong! Yamada is lazy and clumsy, as well as being naive and petulant, but craves validation and therefore always tries her hardest at her job, even though it’s never that much. Everyone hates her, nominally because she is annoying but really because she doesn’t fit into the cozy family that’s quietly growing up in the restaurant. Since no one loves her or even likes her, she violates the rhythm of the show, requiring her to be chased upstairs to the attic where she lives or sent on errands that will take her hours, so that Takanashi can have a heart-to-heart with Inami or that Jun can have a heart-to-heart with Yachiyo or that Yachiyo can have a heart-to-heart with Kyoko or… You get the picture. Even her voice, excellently acted by Hirohashi Ryou in a performance that’s miles away from Rakka in Haibane Renmei, clashes with the voices of everyone else, being breathy but loud with a cadence that makes it hard to follow. Flatly put, Yamada doesn’t work as part of the anime, which makes her the best part of an anime that doesn’t work.

And that’s why Yamada is “best girl” to me and why “best girl” is important as a concept just as much as a meme. More shows need to have a character that exists outside the specific logos of their fiction, maybe even one that rejects it, because that allows those shows to transcend themselves.

Or maybe it just allows me to enjoy them. Seriously, how can you watch this scene and not be tempted to watch the whole show? Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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