What We’re Reviewing When We’re Reviewing Nostalgia

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I recently rewatched Toradora!.

Warning: This post contains spoilers for Toradora!, SNAFU S2 up to episode 4, and Bitter Virgin. 

High school was a difficult time for me. Imagine a much less insightful Hachiman, take away his propensity to act on his plans by injecting him with a nasty case of social anxiety, and then throw him into a dysfunctional relationship with a girl he started dating in middle school and stuck with out of some case of Stockholm syndrome, and you have a portrait of me as a young boy.

Naturally, this relationship didn’t work out. After three years in that shoulder rolling boxing match of a relationship, we ended up cutting off ties with one another. Oh-so-typically, that’s when I began watching anime, and the first show I watched was Toradora!.

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Toradora! is a good show. From its very first moment—the unforgettable “There’s something in this world that nobody has seen yet. It’s something gentle and very sweet”—it captures its audience with a promise to show its viewers and its character that “something”. And it delivers. Its characters exceed the archetypical spaces they originally occupy, growing in ways unexpected but always true to the lived lives of the characters. Taiga’s tsun comes from the deeply seated mistrust of others her relationship with her parents has instilled in her. Minori’s energy serves as both shield and tool. In short, the show’s characters, as much as they are Characters, are also human.

Central to the show’s drama is the sentiment that people mature in different ways and at different rates. Minori is keen to what makes both Ryuuji and Ami tick. Sumire Kanou, the student council president, refuses to date Yuusaku because she understands how his irrationality and infatuation with her might damage his future. Ami’s irritation with her friends comes from a place of deep understanding; it’s precisely because she’s so thoughtful that she finds her peers so bumblingly dull.

But the center of the show itself is the eventual resolution to the romantic tangle between Ryuuji and Taiga. Over the course of twenty five episodes, the two piece together—while tearing open the luggage that their pasts (and parents, especially) have hoisted upon them—eventually coming to realize that they’ve found what they consider true family in each other and even, because of how much they’ve helped each other grow, managing to say what means a tremendous amount to them. This is all handled with a delicate sensibility towards the emotionally charged period of high school adolescence, so there’s the sense that they mature through each other, but also that they’re constantly the seeds of the people they become.

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There are some things you only realize as you grow up. Which, really, is just another retrospectively “wise” way for me to say that when I watched Toradora! for the first time, I registered absolutely none of the three paragraphs above. Zet, zilch, nada, nip.

What I did see was a bitchy blue-haired girl—sure, intelligent and right, but still bitchy—, an immature genki girl with a barely consistent, hamstring-y and “forced” character, and a really cool fight scene. Fortunately, I managed to extract something worthwhile out of my myopic focus on the Ryuuji-Taiga relationship, which was that we, as damaged as we may be, can always be loved. I think that’s what I needed to be said to me, then; I was in a rut blaming myself for failed relationship. I cried, preached all of the show’s virtues to whoever would listen, and probably said a bunch of silly things about it. It was important to me.

So how would I go about reviewing Toradora!? Insofar as I can be objective, those earlier three paragraphs are all that I can do. The show, however, means much more to me than the sum of its parts: there goes the saying that “Nostalgia is the most powerful emotion.” Cinematography, writing, craft, animation, allusion, historicity—all of these are salient aspects to bring up, but our relationship with media is far more complex than the definitions we can produce by reducing ourselves to formalistic analytical functions.

I, and I imagine many others, wouldn’t be writing if these shows—the shows themselves, not necessarily their elements—didn’t mean something to us.

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What about Sword Art Online, then? Why, despite its sinful writing, trashcan narrative, and juvenile constructions of masculinity, do I still like the show?

I think the answer is this: I love myself and the people I’ve been. While SAO came too late for it, there was, without a doubt, a time in my life I would have thought that sexual assault was an excellent way to characterize a villain. There was irrefutably a time when I entertained the idea of being The Savior In Black. Those were parts of my youth. DanMachi bears a similar problems to SAO—the idea that women need to be saved or corrected by men, or that violence is the best way to demonstrate cruelty. These are silly. But at some point, I would’ve easily bought into both of those ideas. And while I’m not sympathetic to them, I am sympathetic to my old self and others like him: the current fans of Sword Art Online who we love to pick on.

I find it difficult to dismiss the actual content of these shows as infantile or auto-inane. They reflect their audiences’ desires and show them what they want to see—and although, in most cases, these desires can be repulsive, there are times when people need the art to reflect their life. To show them that they can be loved, to tell them it’s not your faultor to reassure them that they can find family. That’s what fuels nostalgia.

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In episode two of SNAFU, Hachiman, “knowing” that Tobe’s confessing to Erina would tear apart their group of friends, interrupts the former in order to keep the group together. His actions pay off, and the group continues doing what they do. Yui, however, pulls Hachiman away and pleads with him: “Would it kill you to spare a thought for how someone feels?” Hachiman has gotten results, but at the cost of others’ experiences. Friendships and romances breaking up in high school are frequent and natural, and high school confessions will ultimately be meaningless. Say that Tobe had confessed: Even so, ten or so years down the line, neither Tobe, Erina, nor Hayama would have cared about that confession. If it would’ve ever been brought up at all, it’d’ve been over drinks, tender recollective grins, and laughter. But, as Yui understands, these meaningless moments aren’t worthless: the emotions in that moment are substantial. And part of growing up is coming to peace, as Hachiman manages to do with his middle school crush at the end of episode four, with the fact that these experiences are meaningless. Like a world-ending breakup with your high school “destined one.”

When we’re reviewing nostalgic shows, especially after a large gap of time, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve changed: we’re more mature, wise, perceptive, smart, educated, intellectual, sensitive, sensual, whatever. All that’s happened, though, is that we’ve changed. I’ve written awful, pretentious things to justify my emotions, just as others have. Where I once I would’ve praised Subarashiki Hibi as the greatest work of mankind, I now realize that I’ve grown out of some of what it has to offer. And there’s literally no doubt that seven years ago I would’ve written something awful about how “clever” Saekano is (it’s really not). Its through the wire/air guitaring in its opening sequence, however, that I can relive a bit of my younger self’s idiotic (I’m horrifically tone-deaf) ambition to be a musician. Tangled into my enjoyment of shows like Saekano or SAO is my desire to revisit, along with a little bit of living-in-the-past, the child I once was—and to accept that person.

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Bitter Virgin ends when Daisuke Suwa and Hinako Aikawa reluctantly start dating—”reluctantly”, because they know that their relationship isn’t going to last, and that they’re just using each other to help plug up emotional holes. I read the manga about two months after finishing Toradora!, and I was furious. “Why, after all that happened, would they not remain together?” I posted angrily onto an internet message board, tabbing out to check if my ex had maybe emailed me.

I’ve come to peace with the realization that, in a realistic world, Ryuuji and Taiga would almost definitely break up a couple months into their relationship, after dependency becomes too much of a strain on both of them. I would’ve vehemently argued against that the first time I watched the show. But, I’ve gotten older and moved on. I’m not a part of the primary audience for most of that show’s emotional beats: in my rewatch, most of the show’s scenes had me nodding and going “Oh, that’s true”, a kind of stony-and-wise reception to something I would’ve bawled and fawned over in high school. Ryuuji and Taiga’s romance can’t sustain me anymore; but hopefully it’s not too shameful to admit that at one point, it would have.

The same goes with SAO and DanMachi.

Reviewing nostalgia doesn’t mean that I—we—shouldn’t value the ultimately meaningless. It doesn’t mean that we should just blindly excuse rotten ideas under the pretense of their entertainment/nostalgic value, either. It’s just a part of organizing our personal rooms—rooms that’ve accumulated a fair degree of clutter over the years. It’s throwing away those middle school basketball trophies or that Ibanez guitar you barely used; it’s remembering love and accepting the worse parts of yourself. Above all, it’s an exercise in empathy. We’ve all been horrible and immature, and we’ve all had moments when an underdeveloped lie has helped us along. Revisiting nostalgia helps us to remember, vicariously, that there are still people out there to whom those lies are emotionally valuable—and that we were once them.

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“…And if you were able to put your eyes on that something, then you would yearn for it. That’s why the world has hidden it. To make sure that not just anyone can get their hands on it. But at some point, someone will find it. The one person who is supposed to find it is the one who will be able to find it. That’s just how it is.”
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2 thoughts on “What We’re Reviewing When We’re Reviewing Nostalgia

  1. lpf May 3, 2015 / 3:18 pm

    Great post! Sheds light on very valid ways to enjoy certain types of anime.

    (This is just a rewriting of my reaction on IRC, but giving my own thoughts some structure can’t hurt, and maybe it’ll fuel more discussion)

    I know what you mean about a work meaning more than the sum of its parts. Certain stories can help achieve catharsis or closure, but it’s often more because of the viewer’s mindset than the work itself. Bakemonogatari deliberately deals with sexual assault in characterisation, but it’s because people in my life have dealt with this that the show means /something/ to me that is a little more than the sum of its parts. I resonated a lot with FLCL’s cathartic adolescence scenes, but a few more years down the line I predict I’ll have peermanently moved on from puberty issues and will find less personal value to FLCL.

    The thought process you suggest for enjoying SAO is interesting. It takes some effort in empathy, but I think that a lot of people already apply that rationale in other situations. Precure doesn’t appeal to the adults we are; it appeals to the former child we were and to the current children watching this series. While most people are repulsed by their teen self, a lot of people are /envious/ of their child self, and are excited by these kids anime. Heck, y’all watch Aikatsu and shit; I know someone at my uni following religiously the latest Pokemon episodes. Though I have troubles connecting with the kind of “base desires” (silly phrase) SAO exploits, I am sympathetic to Precure’s cause, even if it doesn’t /directly/ appeal to me.

    I’m most of the time indifferent towards most little girl shows, but when I watch one with my 10-year-old sister and see the happiness these shows give her, I start enjoying the hell out of them too.

    As a side note regarding Toradora, I would say your “mature” and your “immature” readings of it can coexist. Yes, you can say the characters are Human in that they have logical reasons to exhibit certain behaviours, but also yes, you can say that said behaviour is cartoonish or exaggerated. (I have seen Toradora! too long ago, but food for thought)

    And as a final side note, you make the point that Toradora!’s romance is an over-romanticised lie, considering in the real world, Taiga’s relationship will end quickly. (Although this lie of an over-romanticisation may be what cerain people need to see beauty in fiction, and that’s aight.) Since it’s a recurring pattern in HS romance, I’d like to recommend the Kare Kano anime; first, the characters become a couple very early on in the series, skipping the entire over-romanticisation of “c-confessing to senpai!”, and second, there’s a brilliant anime-only eva-style monologue where Yukino comes to term with the fact that her relationship might, someday, outlive its purpose and end. The tone is not dramatic but rather mature and empowering. It’s still one of my favourite scenes in anime, I think.

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