Roses and Their Thorns

August 27, 2014 § 2 Comments

What does it mean to be special? What does it mean as a person? What does it mean as a show? Rewatching Kare Kano this week, these are the questions that stood out to me.

An empty street in Kare Kano

Actually, what made them stand out to me more than anything was the similarity of the anime to Neon Genesis Evangelion. The celebrated but controversial director Anno Hideaki directed both works, which really couldn’t appear more unrelated. If you aren’t aware, Evangelion is a psychological deconstruction of the shounen genre, the mecha subgenre, and the hero’s journey that often describes both. Kareshi Kanojo no Jijou, sometimes known in America as His and Her Circumstances, is a somewhat traditional shoujo romance, at least on its surface. However, these two disparate shows share common motifs and themes, each using them in ways that support their respective strengths.

For instance, there is the isolation, brought about in its various forms. Both Evangelion and Kare Kano envision the urban landscape as a cage, even a procession of cages, through which the characters are trapped in their immature and fragile emotional states. In Evangelion, the spectacle of Neo Tokyo-3 is reason enough to show the maze of telephone poles, alleyways, and streetlights that conspires to keep Shinji from going where he wants to go and seeing whom he wants to see, if even he could. It is a place of twists and turns where characters are perpetually lost, the fact of which is reinforced by the Brigadoon-like disappearance and reappearance of the city center into and out of the GeoFront when an Angel attacks. Shinji doesn’t call it “a lonely city” in the second episode for nothing.

Neo Tokyo-3 from Neon Genesis Evangelion

Kare Kano uses a similar set of symbols. Miyazawa Yukino and Soichiro Arima walk home through streets hemmed in by nets of power lines, their way often blocked by a phalanx of traffic lights hauntingly switching in unison. The loneliness only possible in a big city is at work here, just as in Evangelion, but there is also the impression of a vast forest that can be crossed by only a few paths, the walkers of which will inevitably encounter each other at some point. There is an impermanence as well as an inevitability to the solitude of Yukino and Arima, even though it is achieved through the same means as Shinji’s insuperable alienation. Cities drive people together as well as drive them apart.

At this point, you’re thinking what so many people to whom I’ve recommended Kare Kano are thinking. Is it just Evangelion, but with young love instead of giant robots? Well,  yes and no. In its own way, Kare Kano is strongly reminiscent of Evangelion, but not only Evangelion. In fact, even within the context of Evangelion itself, Kare Kano is most reminiscent of the infamous two episodes that closed out Evangelion, but reassessed and expanded out into a more holistic and thoughtful show.

Yukino assaults a cardboard Arima in Kare Kano

The reason I think of Kare Kano that way is mostly how Anno seeks to deconstruct what I called a traditional shoujo romance a few paragraphs ago. Seldom here does he break down the genre and narrative of his subject, like he did in Evangelion, but what he does do is try to break down the medium of anime itself. The integrity of the anime is constantly being transgressed in Kare Kano. From the first episode, Yukino literally rips through the very animation cels to interject her own (often incongruously but self-consciously crass) commentary on the events of the anime.

As the show goes on, the ways in which the show is disrupted as a piece of animation increase, especially through the intrusion of other forms of media. Scenes with a high volume of dialogue often devolve into storyboards or manga sequences. The animation style sometimes imitates a news broadcast or a home movie to indicate a shift in tone, setting, or viewpoint. Photocopied or crayon versions of the show’s art proliferate until the nineteenth episode, mostly a recap, which is done through finger puppets and hand-drawn buildings glued over photographs of an actual city. The craft of anime is increasingly exposed and referenced as the show disintegrates around itself, just like the characters are exposed and referenced through their own debates and monologues, to the point of deconstruction. In Kare Kano, breaking down the characters and breaking down the anime in which they appear go hand in hand. It’s nothing short of fascinating to watch, and not just because Anno lights a finger puppet on fire.

Yukino burns with love for Arima in Kare Kano

As with Evangelion, it’s impossible to deny that financial and political concerns dictated most of Anno’s supposed genius here. The mangaka for Kare Kano, Tsuda Masami, apparently took issue with the focus of the anime on humor rather than drama (which, for the life of me, I cannot actually find within the show itself) and had Anno removed as director before ultimately refusing to authorize another season. Many people cite this precipitous end as a flaw in the anime, just like they cite the truncated run of my favorite TV show Deadwood as a flaw, but I don’t agree with them at all. It is in fact because it is incomplete and imperfect that Kare Kano continues to be the subject of my thoughts, silly as that sounds.

Actually, let me just say rather that the function follows the form. Kare Kano is an anime about broken people fixing their problems and in the process fixing each other. It’s always ongoing, as I noted to myself while watching the show again. You can stop at any time, because everyone’s getting better, and yet at no point is anyone all the way better. Yukino, Arima, and all the rest will always be there, doing their best to be good to each other (and sometimes failing, of course). It’s reminds me of what Ichikawa Koichi said during his interview with Patrick Galbraith The Otaku Encyclopedia. No one makes doujinshi about An American in Paris, a movie that apparently is perfect. A work has to be imperfect for people to be able to find a place for themselves in it.

Yukino and Arima from Kare Kano

Accordingly, Kare Kano‘s flaws are what makes it so special. Its characters have faults, but that just gives them room to improve. Its art is chaotic, but that just makes it more expressive. Its story gets cut off, but that just leaves the viewer to decide their own ending. As Hiroyuki, the father of Yukino, says in the sixteenth episode, “Love is something that spreads.” The magic of Kare Kano, so much like Evangelion but also unlike it in important and distinct ways, is that its faults, cracks in the perfection we expect from our anime, allow for that love to keep spreading, even though the show itself has been brought up short by its own end.

Honestly? I want to go back and watch it again from the beginning right now.

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§ 2 Responses to Roses and Their Thorns

  • filmwalrus says:

    I would watch it with you. I think I started it years ago with Shannon, but I’m not sure how far I got.

    • Ben says:

      The funny thing is, it’s hard to remember where you’ve stopped in Kare Kano, if you do stop. Every episode looks backward and forward in the same careful way. This really makes it one of the best and worst anime to show to people looking for minimal long-term commitment — it’s easy to stop whenever you want, but it’s also easy to stop whenever you want.

      Talking to people, I’ve found that most people that quit for good do so between episodes sixteen and nineteen, for which the Anno/Tsuda power struggle is backdrop to ambitious but unpleasant tonal shifts. I admit, I only watched the last seven episodes while doing something else this time, because they radically deemphasize the main couple in favor of introducing other characters that never have the chance to go anywhere.

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