I had a pretty good season for sleepers this Summer. Two of my three picks (this series and Majimoji Rurumo) wound up being not just watchable but among the very best series of the season. It was also a good season for sequels – Tokyo Ghoul, Aldnoah.Zero and Baby Steps are already announced, and Haikyuu!! is a mortal lock. I think it’s almost as safe a bet that Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun will return – the anime boosted manga sales almost as much as Tokyo Ghoul’s did, and this show figures to be a better seller on disc – but it may be a little while before the manga is far enough ahead for that to happen.
It’s easy to see the appeal of this show, which without waxing too hyperbolic I think may be kind of an important one. In an era of increased regimentation in anime – “this show is for otaku, that show is for female otaku, and the other one is for shoujo fans” – Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun gleefully obliterates demographic boundaries at will. That was apparent even before the series began and was one of the things that caught my eye, and it’s a common feature of Gangan Online series (though none of the others is quite so focused on the obliteration process as this one).
It’s not just a matter of industry demographics, though. Gesshounoku just as effectively takes aim at broader gender stereotypes. It hits shoujo manga tropes most obviously, but this series is really about upending traditional gender roles generally speaking. That can only be a good thing as far as I’m concerned, because one can’t separate the calcification of gender roles in anime and manga and those of society in general. Popular culture holds up a mirror to real life (albeit a funhouse mirror sometimes) and these tropes exist for reason – either wish-fulfilment or simple closed-mindedness and traditionalism most of the time. And any series that puts all that to the lie is doing society a service.
Of course, for all that, Gesshounoku has to follow the Enzo Hippocratic Oath of comedy – “First, be funny”. If the humor didn’t work none of the cultural stuff would make any difference, and I’ve no doubt that the main reason this series has proved popular is that it’s very funny. It has a large main cast, seven strong, all of whom are comedically powerful characters and collectively provide such a wide range of peculiarities that they can appeal to almost any taste. Because of that the series has the ability to be funny in different ways, which only very strong anime comedies like Minami-ke and Mitsudomoe have on offer.
Because this is nominally the final episode and the sequel may be a little ways off, this episode has the responsibility of more or less acting like a finale. And so it does, giving all of the main cast an opportunity to show off their comic talents. It mainly focuses on Chiyo, though, specifically her relationship with Nozaki. I’m not quite sure which of these two I’d call the main character of this show, because like almost everything about it Gesshounoku handles this in an unconventional way. I’d argue that the traditional protagonist duties are split almost fifty-fifty between these two characters, but Sakura is definitely the one that’s more of a true point-of-view character. Thus it makes a lot of sense to close the season by looking at the main relationship through her eyes.
Normally I’m pretty sympathetic towards frustrated romantics in anime, and Chiyo has certainly done nothing in 12 episodes to make herself less than sympathetic. Yet I find myself sort of hoping that things don’t go anywhere between she and Nozaki, and I suppose it’s for a couple of reasons that all tie back to the same issue – normalcy. Chiyo and Nozaki getting together is what would happen in a normal manga (certainly a shoujo). And having the main couple in a relationship would in itself make this a somewhat more conventional series, I think. I like both these characters and find them both very funny (especially Nozaki) but I think I like the show better if they’re not a couple. Maybe Nozaki likes guys. Maybe he’s just not interested in sex (that is a real thing, you know, and actually a growing social problem in Japan). But just because Chiyo is infatuated with him doesn’t mean he has to like her back, does it?
Happily, there was no way this episode was going there no matter what last week’s preview looked like. It was nice to see the flashbacks to Sakura and Nozaki’s first meeting, and the whole bit with the chocolates was sweet, no pun intended. But as usual this mostly amounted to misunderstanding, right down to “I love fireworks too” at the end of the festival. If they want to get these two together in the final chapter, I’m OK with that – but I kinda hope the torture continues right up until then because it just makes me laugh.
As for the rest of the gang, they were all a part of the fun too. I especially liked Kashima lifting Hori-sempai up in the air so he could see the fireworks (that made me think of Brienne of Tarth, for some reason), and Seo was her usual ball of chaos (just what did happen at the end of that story she started to tell Sakura?). And best girl Mikorin has – as usual – the best moment of the episode, as he gives Sakura a few compliments about her yukata so he can sit back and eagerly await having them reciprocated. We also got a conspicuously long look at a boy who looks like a mini-Nozaki, who I assume is the younger brother I see in the character lists. Perhaps a teaser for the second season right there.
All in all, like every episode of Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun this was a fun ride. This show does play like the 4-koma adaptation that it is, but it manages to transcend simple manzai gag-spinning and explore some genuinely ingenious character dynamics. It’s smart, it’s funny, it can be heartwarming on occasion, and most importantly it’s subversive – this is a show that loves to mess with our preconceptions and test the limits of its mediums. When a show that strikes me as a sleeper ends up being a keeper for exactly the reasons I suspected it might, that amounts to a huge win on every level – and this show is one of the true pleasure of Summer 2014.