Late into the first episode of Kare Kano or His and Her Circumstances as it was known in America, a character makes a realization that immediately disarmed me and shifted my perspective of this anime entirely. After receiving the highest grade on her midterm exam and receiving praise and admiration from her peers as a result, she relishes in the victory over her “rival.” When she looks for the newfound rival she’s bested in hopes of seeing his humiliation, she finds him instead complimenting her, paying no mind to the fact he’s lost a battle he never knew he was a part of. This leads to our protagonist commenting, “What is this? I won, but I’m not happy,” upon realizing how foolish it was to care so much. To find this within a teen drama where these melodramatic scenarios wouldn’t be all that weird a discovery, but upon finding it in a high school romantic comedy anime well, credit where credit is due. Though considering that the series was written and directed by Hideaki Anno as a follow up to his existential sci-fi classic Neon Genesis Evangelion it shouldn’t be a surprise that Kare Kano is far more than meets the eye.
That’s not to say that Kare Kano is another psychological horror head-trip through the psyche of children – not entirely anyway – but rather Anno’s themes of childhood expectations and interior perceptions that give weight to the whimsical lighthearted comedy. Based on the manga of the same name, we follow Yukino Miyazawa, a model student who thrives off being praised and well-liked by her peers; an image that she’s cultivated with great effort from the moment she realized she liked being praised. When equally impressive Souichirou Arima arrives and begins outperforming her in popularity and test scores, Yukino’s worldview shifts and the two become drawn to each other in a romance that allows them to shed their model student image and become vulnerable in ways not permitted before. Along the way we meet friends and rivals who all have their own personal turmoil or tragedies that open up Yukina’s narrow worldview. Instead of the usual cliché high school hijinks Kare Kano follows a much more natural and pensive approach; Euphoria this is not.
Some high school anime tends to go for almost absurd levels of comedy like the fantastic Nichijou while others tend to find themselves deeply grounded in their storytelling like aforementioned Kimi ni Todoke, or follow a 1940s screwball comedy premise like Ouran High School Boys Club. Kare Kano seems to elude easy categorization coming across more as a character study than out and out comedy. What happens when the model student realizes it isn’t worth all the effort if it only leaves one feeling unfulfilled in the end; a feeling that inevitably comes for Yukina later in the series.” While I was cramming for exams like crazy, everyone else was discovering their special talents. I never even thought of things like that… Somehow, I feel like I got left behind,” Yukina admits, a feeling that feels almost universal for anyone in high school, or at any age. Yukina’s friend rebuts, “The most important thing to remember is that it’s never too late to start.” It’s a genuine and thoughtful affirmation, and one that taps deep into the heart of many afraid that their time has passed; a gesture that extends to anyone at any age from children to burnt out adults.
Watching Yukina’s character slowly shed the image she thought she wanted into one that better suits her personal feelings is a great joy, and fosters a wonderful lesson in allowing one to define themselves on their terms. Her character arc is incredibly well crafted thanks to Anno’s acute understanding of not just teenagers but emotions in general. It’s even been reported that Anno went so far as to interview high school students to get a better idea of the mindset of a student and that attention to detail really shows. It also helps that the characters that surround never feel two dimensional, and also happen to be going through their own turmoils or tragedies like complicated families or feelings of not being good enough; everyone is fleshed out in a way that serves to guide Yukina away from the person she was at the beginning of the series making for an emotionally satisfying watch.
Kare Kano drew me into its milieu with its balance of vibrant and off-kilter animation with its contemplative nature. Scenes will go from whimsy and wacky emphasizing the joy and lightness of youth only to shift in seconds to static shots and drawn sketches emphasizing the overwhelming emotions that feel all too encompassing for people during that age. On top of that, Kare Kano has some beautiful imagery that complement the more contemplative side of the series. Shots of innocuous things like street lights, train tracks, electrical wires hanging overhead, the sun setting which casts our characters or buildings in wonderful silhouettes, and those beautiful bright blue skies; all these images that we never consider as children that wind up being cherished memories when we grow up. They even incorporate non-animation techniques like photos of real-life places and slowed down footage of towns. Even the ending credits are draped over shots of cars, trains, or boats traveling. I find it difficult comparing it to any other anime and find myself pulling more from films that seem to carry the same energy. Films like Microhabitat, Submarine, and Frances Ha all share an unique and adept understanding about life; they all acknowledge the harsh realities and the gentle comedy that comes with living in this life.
It is a bit unfortunate that a lot of what is known about Kare Kano stems from its creator’s previous work as opposed to its own merits. It goes even further when one takes a look at the behind the scenes and learns about Hideaki Anno’s quiet departure from the series (and quiet return) after creative differences and budget constraints. In an interview on Anime Tourist, co-founder of Gainax Hiroyuki Yamaga revealed that Hideaki Anno wished to have the series lean more into comedy as opposed to romance, while original mangaka Masami Tsuda wanted the series to be a mixture of both. As a result of growing frustration from both parties, Kare Kano never got approval for a sequel series, and it would end up being Anno’s last time working on an anime series before his pivot to live action and animated films like Shin Godzilla and the Neon Genesis Evangelion rebuild series. It’s an unfortunate turn out for such an exceptionally unique romantic comedy, one that despite its creative turmoil behind the scenes wound up being a gem.
“But it’s stupid to live only for the opinions of others, you know,” Yukina remarks as she begins opening up to her friends. So it goes; the things we learn with hindsight. Kare Kano is a special gem of an anime, one that works as hard to resonate within the heart as it does making you laugh. Many people will see themselves within these characters, and many will probably recoil at the memories of all the stupid things said and done in those years where everything mattered so much. Kare Kano never punches down though, acknowledging that those years were hard on all of us in one way or another. it went a long way into reminding me what really is important in life; cultivating your own happiness with the people that matter to you. As I near my 30’s with wide eyed curiosity and excitement I sometimes succumb to feeling like I should have done better in school, but ultimately this anime reminded me of what really is important; cultivating your own happiness with the people that matter the most to you. Or as it was so eloquently put in the last episode, “At the end of letting the past go… A fervent prayer for the future… May we be blessed with happiness.”