Welcome to the first installment of The Unpopular Poplar’s “As Good As I Remember?” Series.
As the title suggests, this series will look back on anime that were important to me in some way in the past, and, after a bit of overview about what it means to me, assess how my feelings have changed… or if they did change!
This post has been a long time coming. It’s a post I’ve struggled with since the reboot of this blog. I have a finished version of this post sitting in draft form, even as I type this, but I didn’t really like it. I let it sit for about a month, then re-read it, and discovered that I liked it even less now. So to hell with it; we’re starting this baby up fresh.
This series will not be your typical review, in which I explain what I liked, disliked, and give a star rating out of 5 at the end. Ignoring my obvious nostalgia bias for the series I will be discussing, this is more an effort to explain what the anime in question means to me, personally. Be prepared for long, personal tangents, with very brief analysis of the anime itself sprinkled in between– especially during this first one. I also suggest that you watch the first season of OreGairu before or after reading this post, if you haven’t already.
Now, if any of that sounds interesting to you, buckle up, because this will likely be a long one!
Jake’s Youth Romantic Comedy Was Pretty Wrong, Too.
Well, lads and ladies, I suppose it’s story time. It is a story of love won and lost, bad decisions, loneliness, and maybe a bit of getting yelled at by a tall and terrifying Kenyan pâtissier. I’ve never been a spectacularly good person, but there was a time where I was much worse.
OreGairu is arguably the most important and formative anime I have watched as of present. Before watching it way back in the summer of 2013, I wasn’t much of an anime fan at all. In fact, I thought it was stupid.* I was a jaded culinary school student, still in my late teens, and full of the usual uncertainty and self-doubt that comes with being that age. I had a relatively small but close circle of friends, and a long-distance girlfriend with whom my relationship went through some serious ups and downs–mainly because of me. The relationship ended poorly, in a manner that still makes me cringe to this day. Again: my fault. She was a few years younger than me, and probably no more certain of herself than I was, but I was self-centred and largely blind to other people’s struggles at that point in my life. I was desperate for validation, for some semblance of certainty in my life as a young and stressed-out culinary student, eager to prove himself, but unwilling to take the risks required to do so.
*(You may recall in my 90s post that I said I was an anime fan as a child. Well, that didn’t carry over into my youth or teens. I actually kind of looked down on kids who watched anime in high school. I was a very judgemental creature back then.)
I was frustrated with the impracticality of the world, and the seeming incompetence of everyone around me, oblivious to the fact that they were adapting, co-operating, coping and enduring, under the same or worse pressures as me, and doing so much better than I was. But I was convinced at the time that the world was out to get me, and me specifically. Everything was about me, even when it wasn’t. I was cynical verging on paranoid, and a bit narcissistic.
I won’t go into the gory details of my life during that era, even though all the drama would probably make for some juicy reading. Just imagine an oresama style character from any anime or manga. I was basically the real-world equivalent. I know some people like those characters in shows, but trust me: outside of anime, those qualities are a lot less desirable. I got by basically with my prettyboy looks and by playing innocent. Acquaintances thought I was polite and meek, but people closer to me would know how much of tyrant I could be when I was in a bad mood– which was most of the time. I don’t know how my friends put up with me for as long as they did. They were good kids. And even as my problems came to a head, it was mainly me who cut ties with them, rather than the other way around.
It’s funny looking back on it all, because, I was so clearly a bad dude, but the thing is, you never consider yourself to be the villain of the story, not while it’s still being written. That takes hindsight. At the time, I thought I was giving the rest of the world its just desserts– payback for not understanding me. The irony being, I never went out of my way to understand other peoples’ feelings, either. Others probably reached out more to me than I ever cared to. But that’s the thing: I just didn’t care.
It’s a story without a happy ending, but with a silver lining. I cut ties and burned bridges. I broke up with my girlfriend in the meanest, pettiest way my bitter little heart could think of. I decided I didn’t need anyone; I’d live out my life as a lone wolf, and make the world regret its inability to further bask in my august presence. Aye, you’ll rue the day you crossed Unpopular Poplar! I’ll show you– I’ll show you all! Just you wait! And wait. And wait. And wait, and wait, and wait.
A lot has happened since 2013, and for the most part, I’m now a completely different person. The me of the past wouldn’t be able to talk so frankly about his problems. I would go back and completely redo that part of my life if I could.
But I promised you a silver lining, and there is one (I would have lied about that as well back then!). It’s that these events made up one of the main reasons I got into anime, and that anime itself has served to great lengths as a formative– or perhaps reformative– influence on me ever since.
I could go on about this dark and embarrassing part of my life for many more paragraphs, but it’s not a happy topic for me, and I think you get the gist. I’ve spilt this all out so you have a crystal clear idea of where my life was at, and what sort of person I was, going into this anime in 2013. I won’t wax dramatic and say this anime saved me, or any such sappy stuff like that; but I will say that it marked an important turning point in my life. And if I never did decide to watch this very specific anime at that very specific point in my life? Well, I don’t think I’d be who I am today.
As I’ve mentioned, OreGairu wasn’t technically my first introduction to anime. A lot of my friends at the time were into anime, and often recommended shows to me… which I promptly turned up my nose at. Ironically, I was also a huge (read: yuuuge) fan of shows like Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, and Yu-Gi-Oh! when I was a kid, but for some reason these shows didn’t count as “anime” in schoolkids’ heads those days, and therefore could safely be watched without being seen as “uncool”. Except maybe for Sailor Moon. I never admitted I watched that show to my elementary school friends, despite being a Tuxedo Mask fanboy. Why did none of these shows count as anime back then? I dunno. Schoolkid logic. Grown-ups wouldn’t understand. They never do.
I think it was memories of those days, and of all those friends I just finished ruining my relationships with, that inspired me to type in “watch anime free” into my browser that summer of 2013. I was alone, and feeling sorry for myself, and needed something to distract me from these facts. I figured, why not? If it’s stupid, I’ll just do something else. I found a (now sadly defunct) website known as Anime-Exceed which hosted a library of free anime, along with one of those chat bars on the side of the page that were just starting to lose popularity at the time. I remember looking at all those usernames scrolling up the screen for the first time, excitedly talking about their favourite anime, what shows they were currently watching, and thinking to myself… wow, these guys must be losers. They didn’t get my hopes up. It was with this charming attitude that I so tentatively clicked on the first anime title that caught my eye– which is to say, the one with the longest and strangest title: Yahari Ore No Seishun Love Comedy Wa Machigatteiru. With zero expectations or knowledge of what I was getting into, I navigated to the first episode and pressed play.
“Youth is a lie; it is nothing but evil.” Within the first five seconds of the first episode, the protagonist was already speaking my jaded, cynical language.
The story is told through the perspective of Hikigaya Hachiman, who is, as it so happens, a jaded, cynical high school student. MyAnimeList describes the plot thusly:
Hachiman Hikigaya is an apathetic high school student with narcissistic and semi-nihilistic tendencies. He firmly believes that joyful youth is nothing but a farce, and everyone who says otherwise is just lying to themselves.
In a novel punishment for writing an essay mocking modern social relationships, Hachiman’s teacher forces him to join the Volunteer Service Club, a club that aims to extend a helping hand to any student who seeks their support in achieving their goals. With the only other club member being the beautiful ice queen Yukino Yukinoshita, Hachiman finds himself on the front line of other people’s problems—a place he never dreamed he would be. As Hachiman and Yukino use their wits to solve many students’ problems, will Hachiman’s rotten view of society prove to be a hindrance or a tool he can use to his advantage?
In case you were still wondering why I opened up this post with my life story, I hope now that it is very clear. I cannot emphasise enough how lucky I was to stumble across Anime-Exceed and That Anime With The Weird Title at that particular point in my life.
I finished the first episode, and just like that, bam. I was hooked. Instant weeaboo. Sugoi sugoi. Well, it wasn’t quite like that. I became the Japanophile I am today over time. But that’s another story for another day. This show could have been in English or Korean or Hungarian, and at the time, it wouldn’t have made any difference to me. Listening to Hikigaya Hachiman’s cynical monologues about society gave me hope that I wasn’t the only person who thought like me, who saw all of society’s superficial nonsense for what it was. I devoured the episodes over the course of a few days, annoyed to discover that the Internet Police had taken down the last few episodes of OreGairu from Anime-Exceed. I needed to find a new way of illegally watching the show. And I did. On YouTube. Can you imagine? Keep in mind that this was before the Adpocalypse and the resulting tempest of faecal matter that came after– you could actually have nice things on the platform at this time. What a concept! Anyway, I gobbled up the last few episodes, and was hungry for more. The question that every otaku is familiar with: Season 2 when? Resonated all throughout the withered remnants of my putrid soul. Like a tweaker jonesing for his next hit, I grew desperate, and started trying out new drugs to soften the edge. And by drugs, I mean anime. They didn’t have the same effect on me, but they were pretty good, I guess. More on those anime another time.
With all that said, would you be surprised, then, if you learned that now, when I went back to watch OreGairu for the second time, that I felt… nothing?
…Well, almost nothing. I was certainly excited to watch this anime again after so many years. So many memories! Such nostalgia! But that was the thing: I kind of surprised myself at how little I actually remembered about the plot of each episode. Sure, I knew the general premise, but I don’t think I could have described it in any more detail than the MAL synopsis featured above. After a while, it felt almost as if I was watching an anime I’d never seen before, only had some basic knowledge about. I remember relating to Hikigaya on so many levels when watching it for the first time. But the second time? It was a revelation: my perspective had changed– I had changed. Characters, especially Hikigaya, the protagonist I once heavily related and quietly looked up to, were not at all as I remembered them….
Characters: Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover
I don’t think there’s a single character in this series that hadn’t changed drastically from my image of them at the time of my first watching in 2013. It occurs to me now, that, much like how I treated everyone IRL back in the day, I’d been quick to judge each character, and failed by a spectacular degree to grasp the depth of their personality and struggles, taking them instead solely at face value. There’s probably not a single bigger mistake one could make when going into this series!
Now, before we delve further into this, I feel compelled to mention two concepts most Japanese are familiar with, but foreigners might not be. Japan is a very “structured” culture, with many unspoken customs and rules pertaining to a plethora of daily situations, from attending parties, to exchanging business cards, to your behaviour on a bus or subway, or even just walking the street. Given western cultures don’t have these rules, and that most Japanese are extremely forgiving and do not expect foreigners to understand or abide by these concepts, most of them just fly over our heads. But as you can imagine, a lot of this structure is, at least thematically, present in Japanese media, such as anime. To watch an anime, and comprehend situations as a native Japanese viewer would, requires you to be at least vaguely familiar with some of the more ubiquitous concepts of Japanese society.
Those concepts most pertinent to OreGairu are, in my opinion, “Hon’ne”, and “Tatemae”. You can follow the hyperlink to read my article which explains the concepts in much greater detail, but for now, suffice it to say that the latter refers to how one behaves whilst within the public eye, and the former refers to one’s true feelings, or innermost thoughts.
Each character in this series has a way they wish to be seen by their peers, as opposed– oft diametrically opposed– to how they truly are. This is an elementary argument that anyone could write an essay about, so I’m not going to waste too much time trying to drive this point home. If you don’t trust me after all that talk about how I was a lying, deceitful snake (and who could blame you!), just (re)watch the anime.
This was the character that 2013 Jake hated most when he first watched the anime. I remembered him being disingenuous, deceitful, and only caring about maintaining his status as the most popular kid in the school. All the nice stuff he did for people was ‘invalidated’ by the fact that he wasn’t doing it exclusively out of the goodness of his heart. Projection, much?
Due to my hating him in the past, I went into my second viewing of this show expecting to feel the same way. I did not. With the slightly more level-head I possess at present, I could see that, while he is somewhat deceitful, he only really uses this deceit to ensure an amicable resolution is met. And strictly from a seasoned anime-watcher’s perspective, I could see that he was not, by many means, unique in this character. Hayato is a slightly different take on a fairly common trope for prettyboys in anime: using their good looks and honeyed words to achieve some ulterior motive. In Hayato’s case, that ulterior motive is more benign; though there are similar characters in other anime who are far more malicious. Why did I hate him so much back in 2013? Probably because the way he behaved was diametrically opposed to my beliefs at the time– which is to say, that everyone is only out for themselves. Every time he would hint at some ulterior motive, only for it to turn out that he had good intentions, it struck me like a much-needed slap in the face at the time. And I hated him for it. Surely people like this could not exist in real life… right?
Another character I found annoying back in 2013. And again, one I enjoyed much more during this second viewing. I used to hate people like her when I was in high school: almost always loud and outgoing, but never willing to break the mould and stand out from their peers. It seemed hypocritical that their outgoing natures existed only insofar as they weren’t at risk of being judged. They struck me as naive and weak-of-heart.
Yui is definitely a bit naive, even by my present standards. But I no longer think that’s inherently a bad thing. Ever hear the saying, fake it ’til you make it? I think we need people who believe the world is a better place than it really is, in order to make the world a better place. If everyone had my or Hikigaya’s mindset, society probably would have collapsed a long time ago. The world needs optimists more than it needs us pessimists, that’s for sure.
And as for her being weak-of-heart… it must have just flown over my head at the time that her entire arc is basically her journey towards becoming a stronger person? I dunno. I remember her being this ditzy, trend-following airhead, and she certainly comes off that way on the surface; but it’s pretty clear when the show delves beyond that point that she’s an extremely thoughtful and sensitive individual.
Society has a way of squeezing every last drop of optimism out of a person until they’re nothing but an obedient husk. When I encounter pure, genuine spirits like Yui in real life, I do my best to support them in whatever way I can, even if it’s just making them laugh on a bad day by doing something stupid– something I happen to be a natural at. Unfortunately, they’re a bit of a rarity outside of anime… which is probably why I enjoy the Cute Girls/Boys Doing Cute Things genre so much. Everyone is nice, honest; and I can let my guard down and pretend that my own world is like that, if only for a little while.
I knew a guy like this during high school. I’d always egg him on to make myself seem more normal by comparison. I’m not sure if it worked, but he was always interesting to be around. He’s pretty normal these days, which is a shame. The world needs more… shall we say, imagination.
Not much else to say about Zaimokuza. I kinda felt sorry for him in 2013, as he was probably the character I understood most aside from Hikki. Now, he just gives me a good chuckle. I know that, for all his eccentricities, he’ll turn out alright in the end.
A personal favourite of mine that I was fairly indifferent about during my first viewing, and one of the best examples of Tatemae I can think of in this series, aside from her younger sister, Yukino.
I have a bit of a weird love/hate relationship with the ‘nee-san‘ character trope in anime, that I can’t easily explain without going on a super rambly self-analysis that nobody would be interested in. It’s made all the weirder since I don’t think her personality is one I would mesh well with in real life, for better or worse. But luckily for me, Haruno is another one of those larger-than-life characters we don’t see too often IRL. I can enjoy her character and cuteness from a safe distance.
Just to give you a bit of an idea of how distorted my world view was when I watched this in 2013, I initially thought Yukino was going to be the main rival/adversary of Hikki when I first watched this anime. She would be this character who constantly mocks and doubts him, only for Hikigaya to come back and prove to her how virtuous and right he was all along. This is obviously not the case!
If anything, the two sort of learn to improve themselves based off each other’s own strengths and weaknesses. Hikki learns from Yukino, and Yukino learns from him… a bit. Hikki and Yukino are all at once very similar and very different, and that is why they’re such a strong duo. As with most characters, she was a much more sympathetic character this time around. Much like Yuigahama, I took her simply at face value the first time I watched this anime… a fact which probably doesn’t surprise you anymore.
Equally unsurprising to you, I imagine, is why I saved this character for last. One of the most significant characters of my late teens, rivaled only by Holden Caulfield! Hikki was the main reason why I was so eager to go back to this series a second time. I had a suspicion that he was not all I cracked him up to be in 2013, and I was right; but what shocked me most was just how different the two of us had become.
It’s difficult to consider myself an optimist, especially these days; but searching my memories of this series proves that there was once a time where I was way more pessimistic, despite knowing much less about the world than I do now.
My past self’s misinterpretations of Hikigaya are two-fold: Firstly, that he is the hero of this series. I wouldn’t even call him an anti-hero. He’s something of an object lesson, whose ridiculously over-the-top condemnations of society are quite often used as the butt of a joke. Though probably relatable to anyone who was a bit of a loner during their youth, he’s clearly a character not meant to be taken as seriously as I once did.
Secondly, as he grows as a character, we begin to see a more altruistic side to this behaviour; whereas, during my first viewing, I perceived him as an unwilling martyr– a victim of society. It astounds me just how much about this character flew over my head when I was younger.
The Conclusion: What I Expected; What I Didn’t.
What a difference 7 years can make! That really doesn’t seem like such a long time, in the grand scheme of things. While a bit embarrassing to think back on, it’s a strong reassurance of my current doctrine: If I can’t look back on the ‘me’ of the past, and see what an idiot I used to be, then I have stagnated as a human being… and that would be a cause for great concern. A stagnant human is a human just waiting to be replaced by the next generation. Each year I strive to be better in some way than I was the year previous; and I think, for the most part, I succeed in that goal, even if I stumble along the way, even I might not always have the material gains to show for it. Knowledge, as they say, is power in its own right.
So, was this anime as good as I remember?
Unfortunately… no. It was not as revolutionary as I remember it, and, based off my current knowledge of anime, not even the most subversive RomCom out there. But does that diminish the impact it had on ignorant little 2013 Jake? Not at all! So much about art depends on the when and why of the viewing: Your favourite show now might have had little-to-no impact on you ten years ago, and vice-versa. If there’s anything you take away from this post, I hope it’s that fact.
I think a part of why it took me so long to re-watch this anime was that, deep down, I knew it wouldn’t be as good as I remembered. It didn’t take re-watching this series for me to realise how much of a fool I used to be. I’ve known that for a long time now, and consequently, I knew OreGairu would disappoint me on some level. That said, it was still an enjoyable experience in its own right. Watching this anime with a more mature, more knowledgeable lens in just about every respect, though bittersweet, was certainly more sweet than bitter. It felt less like a nostalgic homecoming and more like a second chance of sorts.
But now I think it’s time for me to shelf this one once more. I don’t know when I’ll go back and watch the first season for a third time; maybe ten years from now, maybe much sooner, if I ever need a reminder of who I once was… of who I still have the potential to be, at my worst. Regardless, I think this series will always mean more than it was meant to be in my eyes. To most people, it will be little more than a fairly lighthearted RomCom about the uncertainties of growing up. But to me? It marks an important turning point in my life. Certain scenes evoke very vivid and poignant memories of the past, some good, some bad. And I’m grateful for each and every one.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, it is done. It has taken me a long, long time to finish this post in a way I consider satisfactory. Maybe you can understand why. I still don’t think I’ve perfectly encapsulated who I was, or what this anime meant to me, but I do think that this is the closest I can come to doing so as things stand, without re-writing it another ten times and agonising over every tiny detail. I usually enjoy writing these posts, but this one? I don’t think I’d subject myself to something similar again. It seemed like a good idea when I started out, but only when I forced myself to finish it did I realise that there’s really not much point in opening up old scars for the sake of a cheap internet read. I hope you got something out of it, though! Let me know if you did! Or at least, what you thought of OreGairu, if you watched it.
This review was based entirely on the first season of this anime, but there is a second and third season. I’m currently watching the third season as it airs, and I may re-watch the second, at a later date. Will I review them? Eh, I’d say the odds are pretty high that I will. I hope you’ll join me for those reviews as well– they’ll be less wordy and sentimental, I promise! Until next time, cheers, and may your own romantic comedies prove happier than mine!