Talk about value – Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun continues to overdeliver in every department. It’s a romance that’s much more than a romance. A show about a couple in love with an enormously interesting supporting cast that’s at least as compelling. A character-driven school life series with art and animation that would put most action series to shame, and delivered with an enormous amount of visual creativity and wit. In just about every aspect this is a series that delivers more than it needs to in order to be a merely good show, and that’s what great series do. I’m not ready to call it that yet, especially knowing we’re likely dealing with a non-ending ending, but it’s dangerously close.
As always with Tonari, I could start with any number of things – but this week I’ll open with tone. In terms of that it strikes a perfect balance between abject silliness and serious emotional heft, something few shows are able to do. It can be typified in a single character like Natsume, but also with the larger picture – the Christmas party being a perfect example. It’s leaden with serious implications for pretty much every major cast member, but it’s also full of hilarious tidbits like Mabo and Tomio’s catfighting (“You don’t get to hit on her first. You have phimosis anyway!”) and Natsume’s usual irresistible brand of over-earnest randomness. There’s no separation between the frantic silliness and the character drama – they’re happening side-by-side, sometimes with two conversations literally occurring simultaneously.
It’s very hard for me to make a call on which I found more involving, the main couple or the supporting cast. Natsume continues to provide the most pronounced spikes on both sides of the tonal spectrum. Good lord, she’s adorable with her cosplay and her puzzle books and her online support groups – she tries so damn hard, and that’s what’s so heartbreaking about her. Organizing group events isn’t enough, she even takes it upon herself to call Yamaken onto the carpet for getting in-between Mitty and Haru – and then has to try and rationalize it when he tells her that Ooshima, one of her prospective (and desperately desired) social circle confessed to Haru.
As for Sasayan, there’s finally some real movement there this week. First off, we get another example of his perceptiveness when he doesn’t take Ooshima’s “no” for an answer when it comes to the Christmas party. He sees her momentary hesitation before declining to attend, and you can almost see the wheels spinning in his head – he’s about to ride off before he decides that the right thing to do is give her the nudge she needs. He’s also spotted Natsume’s crush on Mi-chan-san, and reveals in cryptic form that he may just be interested himself – “It feels like I’ve lost. Not that it matters…” His easy good humor may just be hiding a shyness and a reluctance to put himself on the line by telling Natsume he has feelings for her – and to be fair, we’ve seen no indication from her that they’d be reciprocated. It’s easy to see from a distance that Sasayan would be a great fit for her, but if she doesn’t feel it, there’s not much to be done.
And then there’s Yamaken. While it was an unintentionally cloddish (and hilarious) moment, Natsume’s “She knows her place!” about Ooshima was unerringly on-point. Ooshima seems unwilling to knowingly be the cause of trouble for others, but that can’t be said about the fascinating Yamaken. What I see here is a cruel streak in him that’s impossible to ignore. He likes to provoke Haru, to push his buttons – some of it because he resents the fact that Haru is with Shizuka, but some of it because he simply has that dark side to his nature. He knows he can manipulate Haru’s emotions, and it’s fun – so he does it. He may now be also thinking that he could push Haru far enough that he does something so stupid even Shizuka won’t forgive him – but I don’t think that was the initial calculation. He’s also still torn between the intellectual side of him telling him that chasing Shizuka under Haru’s nose is a bad idea, and his hormones telling him otherwise (“Why am I making a competition of this? It defies all reason!”). He’s in love with her, and he’s obstinate and combative – it’s a dangerous combination, and makes him a much greater thread to Haru and Shiuka than Ooshima (and a threat to himself, too).
Of course the greatest threat to Haru and Shizuka is Haru and Shizuka themselves. They just can’t seem to get in-synch with each other, and Haru’s complete social ineptitude and lack of delicacy is a constant problem. He’s still in the “She’s mine” mode of a grade-schooler, and when Shizuka finally comes out and says that yes, she does love him after all, he has absolutely the 100% textbook worst reaction possible. When she says “I love you, you can trust me!” he says “Great! So you won’t go to cram school?” Damn, he’s clueless – Shizuku is stubborn and proud and she has no wish to be owned by Haru or anyone else, and though she knows her study addiction is a crush, it’s hers and her academic excellence is something she’s genuinely proud of. Of course Haru should trust her to begin with, but here Yamaken’s relentless poking at his psyche is again partly to blame – he’s doing everything he can to exploit Haru’s insecurity and make him fearful about the future.
It would be easy to dismiss this as a mismatch and leave it there, but Tonari has done a fine job of portraying just what the true meaning of this relationship is. The reference to Akutagawa’s Buddhist parable “The Spider’s Thread” is hardly subtle as it applies to Haru and Shizuku’s relationship, but it captures it perfectly. She’s the precariously thin strand that he clings to for salvation, but it’s his possessiveness that threatens to break the strand and cast him back down to Hell. Mitty surely isn’t responsible for Haru’s salvation and she has her own share of baggage and then some, but the point is still poignant – and it’s a beautiful thought, that this messed-up but fundamentally compassionate boy and emotionally barricaded and lonely girl might end up lifting each other up and finding happiness by providing the other with something they desperately need and want. It makes me root for them to make it as a couple despite all the setbacks and frustrations, and it allows that struggle to stand up at the central pillar of the story and not be overshadowed by the exceptionally interesting characters and subplots surrounding it. It’s rare for a series to get so many things right, and that’s why I love this show as much as I do.