It’s nice when a show you peg as a sleeper comes through, and even nicer when it happens for all the reasons you suspected it might even without knowing the source material. Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun has been just that, a series that’s handsomely paid off on all the elements that seemed to give it a quirky and genre-busting edge. Where it’s exceeded my expectations, though, is in just how genuinely subversive it is.
Subversive is a term I don’t use often with anime, because to be frank very few of them rise to the definition. The ones that do tend to be comedies, and often those with a meta side to their humor – Watamote comes to mind, but an even more obvious example is Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita. Gesshounoku is subversive in a different way, but make no mistake – this series is all about questioning our assumptions and biases when it comes to traditional gender roles. And not just in the world of manga and anime, but Japanese society in general. By no means does a series have to be subversive for me to hold it in high esteem, but I certainly have a lot of respect for those that have the ambition to try and the chops to pull it off.
There’s a nice little Hors d’oeuvre featuring Ken-san to start this episode, which doesn’t necessarily break any new ground but does offer a great gag (Nozaki-kun’s idea of “keeping his distance“) and a real sense of just how scarred he was by his time with
Miura Maeno. The meat of the episode is perhaps the strongest chapter yet when it comes to pushing the Nozaki-Sakura paradigm – it pretty much checks off all the cliche boxes like making bentos. Of course as usual all of this is part of a subverted scenario – Nozaki is trying out various surprises on Sakura to gauge her reactions. My favorite of these, certainly, was when he made himself her chair at the start of the day.
The interesting development here comes when Nozaki offers to walk home with Sakura, leaving her seeing potential dangers in every corner. But the “surprise” is at the very end, when Nozaki says “I just wanted to walk you home” and strides off. Yes, there’s a research element here too, but as much as anything that’s happened (not counting this week’s preview, which I’d bet is a huge troll) it seems intended to make us take this pairing as a serious possibility. Normally I’m all for seeing relationship advancement, but I kind of like the fact that Nozaki is totally oblivious to Chiyo’s feelings – it gives Gesshounoku a certain specialness, and seeing them enter into a relationship might make the show as a whole feel a lot more conventional.
It’s the second chapter which for me sets off all the series’ genius points. Honestly, being Nozaki’s friend is a dangerous and exhausting experience. Why? Because everything and everyone is a research opportunity. I’ve compared Nozaki to a less-annoying Sheldon Cooper before, and if you can imagine Sheldon writing a shoujo manga I really think it fits – there’s this alien quality to Nozaki where the course of normal human emotion seems inexplicable yet fascinating. He’s an observational writer who betrays no evidence that he’s ever personally touched by the feelings he writes about. Nozaki-kun is the eternal emotional outsider, yet he’s found an ingenious and often hilarious way to turn this to his advantage.
Of course, this last chapter also works beautifully both in character and comedic terms. A sudden rainstorm has forced Mikoshiba and Waka to seek shelter at the Nozaki estate, where Hori is already planning to spend the night and work on the manga. One of the great things about Hori-sempai is that he’s aware of the madness around him in a different way than the rest of the cast is, and he provides a kind of audience proxy in the strange evening that ensues. We have a first, second and third-year guy, each very different than the other, and the additional angle of Hori needing to keep his involvement in the manga secret.
Mikoshiba – who’s never met Wakamatsu-kun – immediately sizes him up a rival (but for what?). There’s a kind of awkward feeling-out period between the boys, then Mikoshiba takes it on himself to try and create a typical (as defined by manga) male-bonding experience. For him this means looking at gravure and talking about what their type is, but when he asks Nozaki for material what he gets is first Nozaki’s manga magazine, then a collection of his color covers, and finally his middle-school yearbook. The clincher here is that Nozaki is – naturally – using all this as a rare opportunity for research. He plans to turn what he sees into a pajama-party chapter for his female characters, and he has no problem using the boys’ behavior as a literal model for this.
See, that’s incredibly subversive because it works on so many levels. It plays with the audience’s expectations of the characters themselves, with the ways boys and girls are generally different (and not so different), and it sure as hell dissects the tropes attached to the demographic labels we stick on a manga or anime. Plus, it’s hilarious – especially when Nozaki refuses to let the others go to sleep because he wants to see them talk about their love lives, then passes out himself just when they’re going to ask about Chiyo (a superb troll executed). There’s just so much happening in this series all the time – it’s incredibly smart and fearless material and it always has a purpose behind it, while still managing to be consistently funny in a straightforward way. That’s a foolproof recipe for success, and it’s no wonder Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun has ended up as one of the best shows of the season.