It won’t be spoiling much suspense when I say that Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun is a lock for my 2012 Top Ten list, and the reasons are manifold. In fact, one interesting thing about this show is that even if pressed, I would be ill-prepared to say just what it is I like best about it because it does so many things incredibly well. Last week we had an episode that focused almost exclusively on Mitty, Haru and Yamaken – in the process ignoring the supporting characters I love – and was superb. The eps focusing in the nuts and bolts of the romance between the leads are superb. And this week we got an overdose of Natsume and Sasayan at last, and it was another grand slam.
It would be hard to overstate just how much I love these two “side” characters (the term doesn’t do them justice), whether as a potential couple or not. Natsume and Sasayan are pretty much perfect as supporting players because they’re interesting and loveable enough to be mains on their own, but they slot perfectly into their places alongside the leads. The serve many roles in Tonari, most especially Natsume – they provide a “third way” perspective on Haru and Shizuku, they drive much of the comedy, and they expand the storyline in new and interesting directions. If you were to go to the drawing board and design the Platonic ideals, these two would be pretty close.
But of course, I can’t ignore the “potential couple” part of the equation, because I’ve rarely seen too anime characters that seem such a perfect fit for each other. Natsume’s crush on Mi-chan is certainly genuine and heartfelt, but it’s as she says herself – “I can act normal around Sasayan.” For a girl who struggles with self-loathing and restless anxiety every day and hates boys to boot, how special does that make Sasayan to her? Yet she seems quite genuinely unmoved by him as a potential romantic partner. Even Natsume seems to realize that Mi-chan is a fantasy more than a real romantic option, but given her professed hatred (overstated for self-denial purposes) for guys, that makes him safe as an object of affection – there’s no chance of things really going anywhere.
As for Sasayan, he continues to be one of the most interesting and downright mysterious characters in recent anime, especially those focused on teens. He’s bright, normal, seemingly very centered – he has many friends he has fun with, and indulges his goofball teenaged-boy side without channeling it in destructive directions. He is, superficially, easily the most well-adjusted of the main quartet. Yet his feelings for Natsume are genuinely Sphinx-like. He always seems to be hanging around at key moments, his face symbolically half-hidden, overhearing things with an impassive reaction. He’s aware of Natsume’s crush on Mi-chan, and acts to help pave the way for his friend with her. Yet she’s also the first person he thinks to call on New Year’s Eve, even if his “plan” was superficially not for his own benefit. Behind his smiling, kind face I suspect he has strong feelings for Natsume, and in spite of that façade he’s as tortured by the fear of rejection as any other boy his age.
Ah, what a mess – but then, adolescence is a mess, and Tonari is able to portray the essence of that painful experience without being maudlin or depressing. Natsume is the perfect poster girl for the way this show is gut-wrenching and uplifting at the same time – she’s so sweet, so desperate to be loved, and so awkward in everything she does. I’ve been lonely on New Year’s myself, and it’s not fun – especially when you’re a teenager. I see no future between her and Mi-chan and to be clear, I hope there isn’t one – he’s way, way too old for her and it’s a terrible idea. But fortunately I think he’s both a very smart and very compassionate person, far too much of both to be swayed by her shock confession. He tells her that “The best kind of love helps us grow up” – very wise words that could apply to the main couple in this series – and perhaps they might fit her crush on Mi-chan too. And if somehow the stars aligned for Natsume and Sasayan to get together, I think it would apply to that relationship too, as Natsume desperately needs to be involved in a relationship that can help her realize how special she is and how not all boys fit the ogre-like image she’s built up in her mind. She may have convinced herself that she’s in-love with the idea of “normal” female friendship, but her own romantic inclinations haven’t been denied – only submerged.
No question about it, this show is special, and it’s painful to see it ending when it’s absolutely in superb form. I loved so much about this episode – Mitty’s “She’s being really pushy for someone so timid” comment that captured Natsume so well. Mi-chan’s warning to Haru not to dive off the roof – and Mitty’s reaction. Natsume’s frank and honest conversation with Ooshima, so on-point and direct. And the extremely clever sequence with the phone calls, with the audience only finding out at the end that Sasayan called Natsume at Midnight, hoping to hear her voice. It was my favorite New Year’s sequence since Cross Game, and given how often this holiday shows up in anime that’s saying a lot.
I’ve spent six paragraphs talking about the penultimate episode of a school romance and have barely mentioned the lead couple, and that’s a testament to just how deep this series is in terms of character and plot. Tonari isn’t one for easy answers and I don’t expect that to change now. Haru and Shizuku have problems to sort out – with each other, but with themselves first. Her bribe to keep him off her back for the rest of cram school was more akin to a mother trying to motivate her elementary-school son to study than a girlfriend and boyfriend, but that’s in essence a good measure of the issues these two face as a couple. Yet as surely as they have those issues, I still see no indication that either of them has felt anything remotely as strong for another person as they do for each other. If Natsume and Sasayan is a stealth relationship, this one is full of dirty laundry – while neither Haru or Mitty has really confronted their own root cause for the baggage they’re carrying, they share a remarkably open communication – and that familiarity speaks to the connection between them. Maybe it will work and maybe it won’t – who knows, if the manga sales see a sizable bump we might even find out on-screen someday, unlikely as it is – but contrary to what some believe I really think there’s a lot to build around in their relationship.