His and Her Circumstances

Holy shit man, where do I even begin this time around? Well firstly, I should probably acknowledge the fact that this will be the first review I write that’s actually available on a public forum to a wider audience; hi there! You’ll quickly come to understand that I like to use this particular literary medium as a way to communicate very openly with my readers and listeners (I usually read these reviews aloud to my closest friends personally). But while I do greatly appreciate your interest in what I do assuming you’ve come this far, the both of us know that this review exists for a purpose more pressing than that of introductions between us. His and Her Circumstances (with the original Japanese name of Kareshi Kanojo no Jijou, stylized as “KareKano”) is a show that I’ve actually seen before; around the same time Bloodborne released 8 years ago, I vividly recall taking breaks in-between my gaming sessions to binge watch it. But for those of you who don’t know what it is, let me explain. KareKano is a shoujo anime (essentially aimed towards a demographic of teenage girls for the anime illiterate amongst you) and romantic comedy starring female protagonist Miyazawa Yukino and male protagonist Arima Souichirou, chronicling their romantic escapades. But while KareKano may very well be a shoujo anime, I think that in its specific case “shoujo” is an extremely reductive label implying there is no literary depth within it worth taking into consideration for any other demographic. I am a firm believer in the notion that a good story is not about coming up with a good idea, but strong execution of whatever idea it is that you do have; essentially, good writing is not about coming up with premises, it’s about the ability to make something compelling out of even the most basic premise. Many of the best stories out there are extremely simple in concept—Mistborn, Re:Zero, Samurai Champloo, etc—and in many ways, KareKano is no different. When examined on only its most shallow surface level, KareKano is just another romance anime about a highschool girl and a highschool boy without anything unique to make it stand out from the crowd, but anybody interested in taking the time out of their day to sit down and actually pay attention to what’s written within it will quickly find it reads absolutely nothing like a traditional romance novel and plays out nothing like a traditional romance show, at least not initially—we’ll get to that. For context, KareKano was an anime released in 1998 animated by Studio Gainax and directed by Hideaki Anno, the very same animation studio and director responsible for the creation of Neon Genesis Evangelion. In fact, it was the very next anime adaptation released by Studio Gainax after they made Evangelion, only two years later. Despite being one of the most popular, well-known and debated animes in the history of the medium, Evangelion was notably infamous for having a very incomplete and lackluster ending when it originally released, which to my understanding was later rectified by the release of a movie in 1997 (just a year later) called “End of Evangelion” which was made as a way of realizing the show’s originally planned ending (for context, I have not actually seen Evangelion myself so I can’t comment too much on this). The incomplete and poorly animated ending of the original series came about as an outgrowth of multiple issues, the most pressing one being that of budgetary constraints; in other words, Studio Gainax ran out of money and simply couldn’t finish the show off at the same quality standard they started it at, but were given the opportunity to correct that mistake when Evangelion absolutely exploded and became recognized by many as the penultimate masterpiece of director Hideaki Anno (who some would argue is legendary in his influence upon the anime industry as a whole). Why does this matter? Well, the fact that this show was being adapted by the same people responsible for Evangelion was enough to get it on the radar of many, setting it apart from the competitors around it simply by virtue of being Hideaki Anno’s work. But it’s not just that—far from it. Hideaki Anno’s influence upon what His and Her Circumstances would eventually come to be is one thing, but do you remember what I just said a second ago about Studio Gainax running out of money during Evangelion’s initial run? Turns out that was prophetic, and it alongside the drama that took place between Hideaki Anno and original mangaka Masami Tsuda (“mangaka” is essentially just shorthand for “manga artist” if you’re not familiar) would eventually come to define KareKano for many viewers (me included among them) as one of the most tragically disappointing anime adaptations ever released. But before we talk about why exactly that is, I need to profess to you immediately that I fucking love this show and everything that it does well, there is almost nothing like it out there when it’s at its best. Before we talk about what made KareKano so unbelievably disappointing, let’s instead talk about what made it so good! First and foremost, when you imagine a romance anime in the traditional sense, you’re probably imagining a long-winded buildup to what will eventually become a romantic relationship at the end of the story, a chronicling of how the love interests fall for eachother where it is assumed at the end that they live happily ever after. KareKano could not be further from this; its adaptation into the audiovisual format was conceptualized as and eventually realized by Hideaki Anno into a personal case study of romantic relationships using what would otherwise be a generic love story as a vessel, meaning that the vast majority of this show is about the exploration of an already existing romantic relationship which forms only 3 or 4 episodes in. That’s interesting and cool enough on its own, but its also purely conceptual; in the end, what really makes KareKano special is the way in which they actually deconstruct the romance we’re presented with, to say nothing of how they expertly dismantle the entire romance genre in-and-of-itself and make a god-damn spectacle out of it while doing so. I like to talk quite a bit about how I am biased against “traditional romance”, but in all honesty it’s not so much about “romance” as it is about “romanticism”. My most common complaint with any romance show that I don’t enjoy is the nature of what’s being romanticized within it, something which can easily be applied even to shows which exist outside of and firmly disconnected from the romance genre; essentially, how is the relationship we see onscreen being portrayed, why, and what is actually happening within it? This is in large part the reason why anybody watching something for a purpose more substantial than that of junk-food entertainment will quickly check out of a story like Twilight, for example—an extremely toxic and abusive relationship that is intentionally twisted into being romantic and desirable for the impressionable demographic it’s targeting, a description which can easily encompass the vast majority of generic, crappy romance stories that exist. I tend to think of the romance genre as operating in its totality by the 80-20 rule of “80% of the effort is put into 20% of the written material we get”. But really, that’s an obvious bias on my part which could be applied to almost any other genre in existence—the label attached to something is often utterly irrelevant to its quality or its purpose. With all of that taken into consideration, KareKano is a show that I think is defined in large part by its rejection of over-the-top romanticism or excessive melodrama in favor of down-to-earth realism and humanity, a show willing to show you characters soliloquizing about their internal struggles and then tackle those struggles in an honest way without feeling pretentious for the viewer. Too often, romance stories are about escapism, a rejection of the reality which their target audience sees as being mundane and unromantic in favor of something fantastical and exciting. His and Her Circumstances is the complete opposite of that during its first half—a show about contextualizing love in a realistic way and actually trying to help the viewer understand it instead of simply assuming that its central characters are bound by a red string of fate and have the mystical power to read eachother’s souls, essentially an ideological divide between the two completely opposed viewpoints of “Love is all-powerful and ephemeral” and “Love is earned and always has an underlying reason” (guess which belief I subscribe to). That particular fallacy—overwhelming attraction and spiritual connection towards a destined partner making you lose control over your own reason—is a very dangerous yet incredibly common belief that I absolutely despise, and at first His and Her Circumstances makes what feels like a determined effort to reject it while still depicting something that I would argue is genuinely romantic and sometimes even sappy. I think that for those who enjoy extremely unrealistic and fantastical love stories, others which are more firmly grounded in reality might seem like they’re trying to deny the existence of love itself, but that simply isn’t the case here. Nobody here is trying to argue against love, they’re instead trying to argue against the notion that love is something easy and intuitive to understand for those struck by it—it isn’t, something that I can espouse based on my own personal experiences with it. To me, good romance stories are defined by the way in which they explore the unfamiliar feelings and thoughts of their central characters, using their core romantic relationship as a developmental and psychoanalytical tool; they’re choosing to ask the question of “why” and search for a reason instead of making an assumption as to the answer. That’s actually something I praised Bloom Into You for; I didn’t like the show very much in its totality, but I thought the concept behind it of a character confused as to what love actually constitutes in the first place was excellent. Whereas Bloom Into You tries and fails to execute upon that concept, His and Her Circumstances makes a genuinely great effort to try and take it all the way. In general, it’s a very character-driven romance; it’s about the romantic relationship itself, whereas a plot-driven romance is instead about how the romantic relationship is influenced by external elements (think Romeo and Juliet). As a consequence of being character driven and written within a real-world highschool setting, it’s also very episodic, but one of KareKano’s biggest strengths lies in its ability to take episodic storylines written with specific intent and purpose, then cleverly tie them into its core narrative through line—overall, you always feel like what you’re watching actually has weight and importance to the whole of the story! It sets up an incredibly firm foundation, then builds something more expansive upon that foundation, genuinely making you care about all of its characters and interested in how exactly what they do and how they interact with the protagonists is meaningfully connected to its core romance. And you know, KareKano is a romcom, not just a romantic drama—it has a really strong comedic element not just because its comedic moments are fucking funny (which they often are), but because they perfectly unite the dramatic and comedic elements in a way which strengthens them both; moments of self-flagellation and somber internal struggle are interrupted by sudden reality checks in which the characters here are given the opportunity to see how narrow their viewpoints actually are, or how unreasonable they’re being. It’s easy to end up stuck turning over a problem in your mind without paying attention to the world around you and how you’re actually being perceived by others, but I personally find it ends up being the silliest and smallest things that bring me back down to earth—I was in a bad mood while working a day or two ago for hours, and I ended up finally shaking it off after my coworker suddenly asked if I wanted to do a hot sauce challenge (which I did by the way). The world around you does not adhere to the way in which you’re personally feeling at any particular time, and it’s up to you to decide whether you want to allow outside influences to affect your perception of it or not. These are the sorts-of themes and philosophical concepts that KareKano explores, and I fucking love it for that—but even early on, you can see the problems start to creep in. Before I say anything else, I should mention that after I first watched His and Her Circumstances 8 years ago (at which time I would’ve been only 14 years old) I wrote what was at the time easily my longest review specifically because of how keen the disappointment felt watching the show take such a sharp downturn during its latter half. It still wasn’t nearly as long as many of my reviews are today (I believe it was somewhere in the territory of 1.5k words), but it was written from a place of genuine passion for a show that I was made to legitimately care about before witnessing it spectacularly fail. It’s important to understand for you the reader that in order for me as a critic to write a good review for a show, I have to be willing to let that show emotionally affect me, good or bad—if I were determined to stay stone-faced and detached from the material, it would make for a pointless and extremely pedantic critique. I often reference the “viewing experience” of a show, which at the end of the day is by far the most important thing determining whether or not it’s actually worth your time; Akikan is an excellent example, a ridiculous show which could be theoretically picked apart and ruthlessly dismantled on a wholly detached unemotional level, but is so incredibly fun and enjoyable to watch that it doesn’t fucking matter. This applies to other forms of media too—I recently watched the newest Worst MMO Ever video from Josh Strife Hayes reviewing Dungeons and Dragons Online, during which he acknowledges the game is deeply and undeniably flawed while also professing that it’s quickly become one of his new favorite games. Both of these things can be true simultaneously, and that doesn’t invalidate the criticism being made whatsoever; a case study into the incredibly important concept that critique has value because of its inherent subjectivity (I would strongly recommend you check out Josh Strife Hayes by the way, he’s a killer video game critic). With that said, let’s address the biggest elephant in the room; recaps. It’s not difficult to understand why recap episodes exist; writers want to try and catch new viewers up to speed on what’s happening within a show while it’s still airing on television, making it easier for them to jump halfway into a story without being forced to educate themselves on what’s already taken place within it. In actuality though, it usually ends up doing little more than insulting the intelligence of the viewer; if somebody is invested in your story, they don’t want or need to be reminded of the important events which they’ve already seen, and by doing so you are actively wasting their time. When I make a recommendation for a show to someone, the biggest factor involved is not that of monetary investment, but time investment; does the show respect your time, and is it worth paying attention to? Nobody has the time or patience required to watch every show released every season, so they instead try to make informed decisions about what they might enjoy or what they should avoid—basically, my goal as a critic is to try and help you the reader make efficient use of your time by avoiding shows you probably aren’t going to enjoy. Nobody enjoys filler. Nobody enjoys it when a story is padded—and that’s exactly what His and Her Circumstances is doing throughout the entirety of its runtime. The constant recaps at the beginning of almost every single episode, the specific episodes entirely or almost entirely dedicated to recapping all of the story’s events, nobody is fooled by them; as the one writing, I can extend the courtesy of assuming you the reader know full well it was never the show’s intent to extend a hand to those struggling to keep track of the story or those new to it, but instead to use constant recap as a tactic to intentionally pad its length, wasting what easily amounts to hours of your time reiterating what you’ve already seen over and over again. There were a couple of reasons for this, the first being that even from the beginning, Studio Gainax’s budget was tight; all throughout the show from the very beginning, you can tell they were desperately trying to do anything they could to avoid breaking the bank while still keeping the integrity of their work intact (something they sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed at). Worse than their budget constraints however was just how closely the anime adaptation’s production ran with that of the manga, forcing Studio Gainax to fill time with recap and dedicated filler for the sake of giving the manga time to breathe. At the time when His and Her Circumstances was originally brought into existence by Masami Tsuda, it was her first long-form manga series, and she hadn’t fully decided upon the story’s framework or where it was eventually supposed to go—there was great potential there worth being tapped into, but a lack of clear vision for the project. This in my opinion is the single most important reason as to why the show fell apart; eventually, you can pinpoint the specific moment where the writer lost focus on what actually made their story great. This was amplified by the creative disagreements between Masami Tsuda and Hideaki Anno as to what the show was actually supposed to be and what it was supposed to represent; to me, it feels like whereas Masami Tsuda was lacking a clear vision for her work, Hideaki Anno had a very specific vision as to what it should and could be, and ended up butting heads with the mangaka over it as a result. I don’t want to point fingers at any specific people here, but it’s hard not to speculate on what exactly happened and why; the contrast between KareKano’s first and second half is so stark that my immediate impression of the tonal shift therein was “This episode feels like it was written by a completely different person”. After the 16th episode (keep in mind episodes 14 and 15 are almost all recap and the 16th is a largely unimportant side-story which can arguably be considered as filler), Hideaki Anno was no longer being credited as the show’s director; his conflict with Masami Tsuda boiled over and resulted in his eventual removal from the project (which to my understanding is what caused the legendarily bad animation of episode 19 to happen). After this, everything begins falling apart quickly. Even early on the animation budget was clearly small and clever tricks were being utilized often to cut down on costs, but it breaks down completely by episode 19 and never fully recovers; the last episode is an almost entirely un-animated slideshow of manga panels that isn’t even completely voiced, being talked over constantly by extremely obnoxious, pretentious sounding narrators who attempt poorly to try and condense the events of those panels into reductive, minimalist descriptions that explain basically nothing, requiring you to constantly pause the episode and read everything onscreen unless you have the ability to read and fully digest subtitles at the speed of sound—what is the fucking point of making an anime adaptation if you aren’t going to adapt the original material into an audiovisual format in the first place? The direction becomes noticeably worse, attempting to cover up lack of animation budget by making simplistic and visually pretentious avant-garde backdrops for scenes that didn’t need them and aren’t enhanced by them whatsoever—is the internal monologue of our central characters supposed to be made more meaningful somehow by the spinning crosswalk lingering onscreen during the vast majority of its duration threatening to make me feel nauseous and straining my eyes? Don’t worry though, those particular moments of visual busyness are balanced out by the scenes where a completely still and unmoving backdrop lingers on screen for excessive periods of time to the point where I suddenly realized at one point that it felt like my screen had frozen, or I was staring at a desktop background. The show’s music is great overall and utilized excellently during its first half, but suddenly during the second half it feels like they forgot how to place it in areas of the script where it would actually enhance the viewing experience. But you know what? I can forgive them on some level for how bad their production quality is; or rather, I could forgive them assuming that the writing itself maintained the same quality standard it was at originally. Unfortunately however, this is the area where the show suffers the most during its second half. Everything I mentioned before—the philosophical viewpoint of the story, its attempt to contextualize love and help the viewer to understand it, its ability to be episodic while maintaining firm connection to its core narrative through line at all times, genuinely making you care about the characters and investing you in their relationships and struggles with a firm foundation—is almost completely thrown out the window and forgotten about entirely. It feels almost like the new director didn’t even bother to examine any of what happened in the previous episodes of the show whatsoever, and it ends up doing a complete 180 on its approach towards romance and love as a whole. Nearly everything they attempt to promote in the wake of this sudden Uno reversal is in utterly stark contrast to the message they wanted to deliver before: Yukino becomes incapable of operating normally without Arima around with the implication that she needs him in order to be a complete person, the love shared between them is glorified and depicted as being spiritual, psychic and deeper by comparison to that of Yukino’s other relationships partly because of she and Arima’s physical intimacy and partly because of the show’s implication that “true love” is about putting yourself lower on the list of importance than your romantic partner (which I categorically disagree with and in this particular case is somehow supposed to represent their relationship becoming more “adult” and “mature”), the show gets packed so tightly with boring recap and filler content completely disconnected from the core narrative through line that it’s to the point where you completely check out and stop caring about anything happening onscreen, Arima is completely character assassinated, his possessive disregard for Yukino as a person is borderline romanticized and never properly addressed to the point where their relationship ends up feeling insincere, and it feels like the writers start actively trying to create unnecessary artificial tension and drama for the sake of keeping the story going long after it should have already ended (especially in the sense of using Arima as a punching bag and refusing to resolve any of his trauma in any kind-of permanent or significant way). It’s not just that the show doesn’t deliver, it’s something worse, like the feeling of watching a loved one’s corpse being puppeted and paraded around. They beat the dead horse into oblivion just for the sake of trying to keep things going for as long as they can, desperately trying not to let down their viewers, but didn’t bother to stop and consider that just maybe it would actually be worse for those viewers to watch the show be ruthlessly fucking murdered in cold blood as opposed to watching it die with at least some level of dignity. I have talked to great extent thus far about all of the various unfortunate circumstances which led to this show eventually falling apart in both big and small ways, but at the end of the day none of those circumstances in any way justify any of what happened here. If you’re gonna make a commitment to creating a show, the simple fact of the matter is that you need to deal with and carefully consider issues like these before making that commitment, not after; they decided to adapt this particular manga into a show while knowing many of the complications they would inevitably run into (namely their small budget and the infancy of the manga itself). In that sense, this was partly inevitable and arguably deserved—I’m making an effort to provide context as to what happened, but it’s not like I need to! None of that matters—all that actually matters is the final product we received, because that’s the only thing a viewer will see and the only thing they can actually judge! The final episode ends on a cliffhanger for an extremely long and drawn out irrelevant side story with zero fanfare—there is something of a “real” ending for the show attempting to wrap up the main plotline which takes place a couple of episodes earlier, but it lacks weight when considering the context of everything disappointing which comes before it and the fact there’s still more recap and filler content which happens after it. When the show does finally end, you’re left feeling like you’ve been through an ordeal. Getting through the later episodes is a chore, at the end of which you’re left utterly unenthused by any of what happens within them and are just glad that you can finally stop and take some time to come to terms with the absolutely uncontrolled disaster you just watched unfold onscreen; keep in mind that this is a 26 episode show taking place over the course of roughly 10 hours, and it took significantly longer for me the critic to get through because I kept pausing multiple times every episode to take extremely dense notes (the word count came out to over 20k, more than double the amount I took for Madoka Magica). So with all of this kept in mind—the good and the bad—how do I feel about His and Her Circumstances in its totality? Well, for those of you who are new to my work, I don’t do actual review scores; there are scores you can see listed on my MyAnimeList profile but those are only there to give an extremely broad and general sense of what shows I do and don’t enjoy. I personally feel that they’re just too nebulous and artificial to have real weight. Instead, I give recommendations for or against shows based on everything that I’ve written. With that said, this is a complicated one; I love this show, but watching it is a really bittersweet experience. It’s definitely not something I would want to go through again, and I would feel horrible about giving any kind-of glowing recommendation for it to anyone without making sure to first explain how badly it failed to deliver a satisfying viewing experience during its later episodes. Part of me wants to say that by watching only episodes 1 through 13 you can enjoy all that there is to be enjoyed and move on, but I am not a fan of telling people to only watch part of a show without experiencing it completely—the knowledge alone that there’s an unopened Pandora’s box of disappointment and frustration underlying what is otherwise a fun experience will deflate the enjoyment of that experience for many people I think, not to mention make them understandably morbidly curious about just how disappointing the contents of that unopened box actually are. At the end of the day, I simply can’t recommend this show in good faith to those of you interested only in watching something entertaining from start to finish. It may very well be worth giving a try if you’re interested in the good aspects of it that I described and you’re willing to get your hands dirty dealing with the bad and the ugly, but I should warn you in that case to seriously prepare yourself and not expect a pleasant surprise. But you know, I do obviously understand this is a review for a show that came out roughly 25 years ago (older than I am), and I may very well actually have readers extremely knowledgeable about anime history now; many of you probably don’t need me to tell you whether it’s worth your time watching this particular show or not. Even still—in fact, especially so if that’s the case—thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to read this all the way to the end, it’s turned out to be a mammoth of a review compared to many of my others! As for me, it’s currently 8 AM as per my usual ritual of writing these reviews at ungodly hours of the morning and I should probably get some sleep. Oh, and for any of my family members who might be reading this, welcome to the largely pointless philosophical rabbit hole where I psychoanalyze cartoon characters on a regular basis, yes I stay awake too long and this is normal for me these are peak gamer hours.

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