Haganai is a series that generally delivered on the Hippocratic Oath of anime comedy – first, be funny – and it’s a show I certainly liked. But not as much as I hoped to.
Part of me worries for what the expected second season might be like, because in some ways it feels as if this series ran out of propulsion after the visit to Sena’s father and sputtered along on fumes the rest of the way. My sense, though, is that it’s not so much of a problem of a lack of good material to adapt as it is a fear of starting any new threads that couldn’t be addressed this season. Hell, they didn’t finish up a lot of the ones they did start – Yukimura’s gender, the main romance triangle – and barely closes the loop of Yozora and Kodaka’s forgotten childhood friendship. As a result the second half of the season had a lot of jokes and situations that felt recycled. Whether that would be a problem for a second season I can’t say, not having read the novels.
I will say this much – at its best, Haganai was very, very funny. It’s certainly a show that had a fair amount in common with it’s stablemate Oreimo, in that a lot of the humor is of the very self-aware otaku variety. Both of these shows are pitched very much at the experienced anime fan, because so much of the humor really only works if you understand the material being satirized. For all that, though, one of the most impressive elements to me (especially in the first half) was the way the show related the experience of youthful isolation in a way that felt very universal. There was very often a slightly tragic undercurrent to the wacky events happening on the surface, and Haganai never quite let you lose sight of just how broken the characters were.
In many ways Kodaka was the most “normal” person in the cast, yet he was living proof of just how shallow the social hierarchy in high school is. Shunned for his slightly foreign appearance and gruff manner, Kodaka never made friends despite being a perfectly reasonable kid who was the picture of patient protectiveness with his sister. As such he made quite a good lead, though by nature he came off a little bland when compared to the truly bizarre cast of characters surrounding him. I enjoyed the supporting cast, especially Rika, but none of them ever really became more than plot devices. Yukimura, Rika, Kobato, Maria – they all had lively introductions and the impression was given that they were a crucial part of the story, but in the end they were all effectively props. Very entertaining props at times, but I never felt as if the anime staff knew just what to do with them. Again, this may be a function of the fact that the first season seems so transparently a setup for a second.
So really, when push comes to shove the series is all about Yozora and Sena, and how they relate to Kodaka. Sena was easily the best thing about the show for me – a great Buriki character design, voluptuous and pretty, yet a complete mess of social ineptitude and insecurity. She was the one who really saw the club as something close to its stated purpose – it was her way to try and break out of the isolation she grew up in and begin to understand the way the social fabric of adolescent society worked. For Yozora the club was a sham, a transparent pretext gone out of control, but for Sena it was something real. I found her story much more engaging that Yozora’s, and I never really felt the emotional urgency of the drama surrounding “Sora and Taka”. I’m glad they dealt with it in the finale so it doesn’t hang over the next season, because it seemed like a bit of a tempest in a teapot to me. Maybe Yozora, for all her hostility towards the human race, actually began to get into the notion of the Neighbors Club in the end, and we’ll see some real growth from her going forward. She’s a character I can certainly empathize with, but she’s still awfully hard to like.
While Haganai isn’t going to win any awards for the quality of its animation – it’s generally about serviceable – I do enjoy Buriki’s character designs (I know not everyone agrees). I also rather enjoyed the BGM, and the cast is pretty much strong across the board. It’s a good show, capable of more complexity than the average comedy, with a couple of signature characters that are fully capable of carrying the series. But in looking back, it feels as if something was missing, as if we never (or rarely) saw Haganai giving its all. There was too many instances when the show took the easy path, choosing to recycle jokes and use characters as props rather than dig deeper and do something really inventive. That potential is there in the material, and we saw glimpses of it this season, so hopefully with the introductions out of the way a second season – if we do indeed get one – will be more of the character-driven dark comedy that offers real insight into the high school experience, and less of the easy but unsatisfying gag-driven comedy we saw too much of in the second half of the season.