There are a couple of ways one could go about trying to explain the appeal of this series, starting with the most obvious: list all the things it does well. But that would be a long list, and it’s much easier to use the converse to prove the point – there just isn’t anything it doesn’t do well. To wit:
- Tonari seems incapable of introducing a plot element that isn’t interesting and worth pursuing.
- Tonari seems incapable of introducing a character who isn’t interesting and someone you want to know more about.
I’ve always appreciated the series that didn’t accept the notion of the filler character – someone who’s just there to fill out the cast and perform a specific function to advance the plot. A few very good shows have the inclination and wit to give everyone in the cast distinction and make them a true character, and few recent examples do so better than Tonari. We see it in the four leads, all of whom are obviously top-notch, but at every tier of the supporting cast as well. It’s almost a kind of reverse VN – as if everyone has a “route” we could follow if there was time to do so, and it would be just as interesting and entertaining as the main one.
A couple of lines of dialogue from Shizuka stood out for me this week.
- “Every time I deal with another person, I’m reminded of how little control I have over my own life.”
- “Why does he care so much about the things I find meaningless?”
If I were to try and sum up Shizuku’s character and her relationship with Haru, those two snippets would be a pretty good start. It’s all about control with her – that’s been obvious to us for a while, but what’s changed is that she’s starting to see it herself now. If you step back and look at her, there’s no reason why she should have been so isolated. She’s smart, she’s attractive, she’s responsible – her loneliness is entirely self-inflicted, a product of her own creation. The reasons have been clear for a while too, and again, what’s new is that she’s starting to see those reasons herself.
There’s a remarkable web of stories being spun around the Shizuku and Haru plotline, interconnected but important on their own terms, too. The story of Shizuku’s father is perhaps the most obviously relevant given the way it’s molded her personality, and like much of what happens in this series it’s a pretty profound and sad tale presented with deft humor. The fact that her father sees himself as a failure – and even more so that her mother repeatedly demeans him as such to her children – is a bit of a tragedy, really. He’s a guy with a good heart who obviously lacks any self-confidence whatsoever, and six failed attempts at running a business obviously have a lot to do with that.
Then we have Yamaken, who’s already transcended the “other guy” role and emerged in his own right as a viable alternative. I wanted to dislike him based on years of anime training, but he’s interesting – and showing us revealing moments like his getting lost five times trying to find a library book and being too proud to be shown the way do a lot to humanize him. I loved all his inner monologues about Shizuku this week – they were funny but revealing. Yamaken is sharp – he realizes that his falling in love with the same girl as Haru is packed with complications, but he can’t help himself – the classic smart teenager who’s realizing his hormones can supersede his intellect. The fact is that he’s actually a better match for Shizuku on many levels – he certainly understands her in a more sophisticated way than Haru does, and it’s clear she’s fascinated by him. But with her own feelings for Haru still unclear and Haru’s single-minded dedication, this is a road that’s fraught with danger for all parties, and Yamaken is smart enough to know that.
Then, of course, we have Natsume and Sasayan – who, as always, shine brightly in every moment they’re on-screen. From the pre-open shots of Natsume’s “Golubaser” blog she’s both the series’ funniest and most tragic character. She’s the opposite of Shizuku in that she desperately wants to be a social animal and she’s isolated in spite of that, and her overeagerness really is gut-wrenching to see. Thank goodness she at least has three friends now, though she and Sasayan seem oblivious to their seemingly perfect compatibility as a couple. Sasayan is a character who’s larger than the sum of his parts, so to speak – he seems the very epitome of a boring, “normal” kid – but he’s not. There’s a spark to him, a cleverness and mischievousness that reveals itself in such a low-key manner that it’s a credit to the writing and the anime production that it’s as obvious as it is.
I actually said “Uh-oh” aloud when this moment happened – I confess I never saw it coming. Mi-chan is another character we feel as if we know much better than we actually do, and it seems that he has a natural instinct to protect those who need protecting. It was surely this that tuned him into what was happening at the kissaten and caused him to leap to Natsume’s defense like a deadpan knight not in shining armor, but it was clear from the look in her eyes that she’s smitten. That can’t go anywhere, obviously, but it is the first sign we’ve seen that Natsume has interest in a guy – she’s mostly been obsessed with enabling Haru and Mitty – so perhaps this schoolgirl crush on an older man will be good for her even if it breaks her heart in the short-term. Mi-chan will surely let her down as easily as possible, thank goodness.
In a funny way, perhaps it’s because Haru is so completely wrong for Shizuku that he’s perfect for her. She needs control, and he’s a wild child. She’s all calculation and defense, he’s completely impulsive and lacking in any tact or boundaries whatsoever. She needs someone to shatter the high walls she’s built around herself, and Haru is uniquely suited to do so – and he needs someone who can see past the challenging nature of his personality to the wounded and compassionate person inside. It’s really the magic of Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun that it can keep all these plates spinning and not even look like it’s working hard to do so, and that it can deal with such heavy emotions with such a light touch. It’s effortless – effortless in its style, and effortless to watch. For my money this is the best series of its kind in 2012, and maybe even longer.