There was so much happening this week that I could start almost anywhere with this ep, and why it was such a good one – it’s an embarrassment of riches. But to start with it’s worth repeating again that this is a truly excellent series in terms of sheer technical proficiency. The cast is mostly superb, starting with the peerless Tomatsu Haruka delivering another fantastic performance as Shizuku, and Tanezaki Atsumi (Natsume) and Ohsaka Ryouta (Sasayan) also stellar. The BGM is not only fitting, but used cleverly and with restraint. And the visual style of the show is consistently inventive and whimsical. There are too many reality-themed anime that simply “point the cameras” and let the dialogue carry the day – writing is obviously extremely critical, but visual flair doesn’t have to be limited to sci-fi and fantasy.
At this stage I can’t really point to a single thread in Tonari – and there are many – that doesn’t interest me. I’m intrigued by Shizuku’s family – there’s some stuff going on under the surface that’s only being teased so far. Mom is and apparently always has been mostly absent, Little Brother is only shown sleeping or in dim half-awake visions – or shouting one word from off camera – and Dad seems tasked with the burden of raising the family himself. I sense that Shizuku’s obsession with over-achieving comes as a direct result of this odd family life and trying to gain the attention of a mother who’s never around – and one might guess she had to act as a mother to Takaya in his mother’s absence – and we’ve only skimmed the surface of this particular part of the story.
Another satellite story seems just as interesting as the main one, and that’s the situation with Asako and Sasayan. While I always find myself craving more screen time for these two, I also find myself wondering just why the heck neither one of them has initiated a romantic play towards the other. They’ve clearly settled into the same orbit around the main pair, and they seem like an ideal match – though admittedly, Sasayan probably has some emotional baggage that hasn’t been explored on-screen and Asako certainly has some that has. “Natural” is the word I’d ascribe to the pair that makes each appearance so delightful – they’re easy and fun to watch, consistently funny without trying too hard (Sasayan even less hard than Asako) and it feels natural that they should make a go of it as a couple. Later days, perhaps.
And then there’s the matter of Oshima, who acts as the catalyst for much of what happens this week. She’s not fitting neatly into the “other woman” box as usually presented in shoujo romance – she’s shy, awkward, and seems genuinely mortified to think that she might be causing a rift between Haru and Shizuku. Yet she can also be surprisingly direct, and she’s so obviously in love with Haru that it’s obvious to everyone but (not surprisingly) him. Fact is, if Shizuku continues to play the “just friends” game with Haru for too long she would be quite justified in making her move, and he for reciprocating her interest.
That you can have all those compelling satellite plots orbiting around the main couple in a shoujo is nice in itself, but sometimes – often in fact – it’s because the supporting cast outshines a boring pair of leads. Not so here – Haru and Shizuku are both interesting characters, and their relationship is complicated and original. They each have their own reasons for putting romance on the back burner. In his case, it was fear that he wasn’t ready for a mature response to the “I love you” moment, which caused a temporary retreat (he’s already “run away when the moment comes” though not in the way his brother meant it). In her case, she doesn’t like the way her feelings for Haru distract her from what’s always been her singular purpose – over-achieving for its own sake. For Shizuku studying is a crutch, and it’s one she leans on whenever things get a little confusing. Haru, for his part, was I suspect speaking from experience when he cautioned Oshima about the dangers of expectations – I believe more strongly than ever that one reason he fled home is that his father actually preferred him and placed huge expectations on him, and one reason Yuuzan isn’t anxious to have him return home is that in doing so Haru would threaten his place as his father’s inheritor.
Sasayan expresses his surprise that Haru and Shizuku still haven’t sealed the deal, because they’re both so honest. And they are in some ways – in his case expressed in a complete lack of tact, and in hers the way she always tells him exactly why she does what she does – but they both have aspects of themselves they’re running away from. My sense is that so far, it’s mostly a question of bad timing – Shizuku and Haru have each been ready to go to the next stage, but never at the same time (and how realistic that is, even for teens). Of course unless that changes sooner or later one of them is going to move on, and it seems Haru is the more likely – he’s already got another girl seriously in love with him, and a class full of girls admiring him from afar. The thing is, though, that while Tonari is dealing with serious relationship issues there’s a lightness to the presentation that keeps it from playing as melodrama – the sense is that this will all work out somehow, though the story is going to be more about the journey than the destination.