Most of the times, people look for entertainment and escapism from their fictional media. Grounded and realistic story about failed relationship doesn’t exactly fit in with that. But, sometimes… I just kind of feel the need to scratch the old wound.
To clarify: I’m not talking about Romeo and Juliet-esque type of story, the romantic tragedies spurred by extremely unfavorable external circumstances. Instead, I’m referring to stories about unrequited feelings, people falling out of love, and/or relationships that fall apart because the people involved couldn’t make it work among themselves. Make no mistake, these are still love stories; you don’t necessarily negate all the romance just because it doesn’t end the way that the characters and audience wanted to. In fact, this type of story tend to bring out the best, depiction and observation on romantic love and the possessive desire it always entails. They’re hard and heavy to watch/read (even when you’re in a very specific mood that compels you to seek this type of story, you probably only want to have them in small doses), but there’s a lot of value in them.
It’s always difficult to find good anti-romance work, let alone from anime/manga series, a vast majority of which tends to triple down on romanticizing the days of youth. However, I do manage to dig up a few examples that I like to highlight in this column. These aren’t flawless representation of anti-romance by any means, but apart from one exception (which I still find as an interesting work to discuss, all things considered), they do a lot of things right and display the kind of bold honesty that I could really get behind.
(My favorite works of this sub-genre are all live films of American and Asian origin. Do let me know if you happen to read this and would like to recommend something, especially from a long form series)
Makoto Shinkai, he of the phenomenally gorgeous scenery art, has produced perhaps the most well-known anti-romance anime in the form of feature film 5 Centimeters per Second. Revolving around one of the most common causes for relationship death, 5 Cm depicts the change in time, distance, and people with often stunning amount of gravitas. The film earned numerous plaudits for its visual direction, which is richly deserved, seeing how it managed to convey a boatload of atmosphere through the sheer power of imagery alone. A certain train scene in particular, where a boy suffers through interminable train delays on the way to see his long-distance girlfriend, stands out as one of the best directed and composed sequence in any anime, even in isolation.
On a personal level though, it feels like I couldn’t connect and relate with the film as much as I should’ve been. It doesn’t take long to figure out why: the characters are unengaging, the script is over-stylized, and the overall presentation, while atmospheric as hell and doesn’t lack in memorable moments, comes off as staggeringly one-note. A love story, including the ones about break-up and separation, tends to work best when it offers just the right combination of sugar and salt, a conflicting and co-existing balance between joy and pain. While 5 Cm refreshingly lacks overt melodrama or histrionics, it’s also suffused with angst from the very beginning. Seriously, these kids look completely heartbroken all the time, even when they’re falling for each other or in other supposedly happy times! Such an oppressive form of melancholia tends to dull the impact for me.
It’s still a film that I’d generally recommend on the basis of its cinematography, though. The train scene alone is worth the price of admission, and I also really like the final shot of the film and the message it entails.
Now, School Days is something I wouldn’t recommend , except maybe for the hypothetical occasion when I want to play a cruel prank on someone (“hey, you’re looking for cute and cozy series about high-school romance? Do I get a perfect one for you..” ). Originated from a best-selling visual novel, the anime adaptation explores the extreme ramifications of kids taking their romance seriously. A bit too seriously.
As an anti-romance, the rough concept of School Days isn’t bad at all: a triangle love that completely falls apart because everyone involved keep making the worst possible decision. It’s the execution of the idea that’s the problem, though. The show escalates things at a quicker rate than Yoshiyuki Tomino on his worst days, as well as goes out of its way to make every single character (especially the morally repugnant, dick-for-brains, main protagonist Makoto) as unsympathetic as possible. In the end, any valuable message that can be gleaned from this hormone-fueled tragedy gets drowned by the sea of crass shock value and the show’s raging contempt toward its own characters. The manga version does go to less extreme extent by presenting a significantly more sympathetic (if frustratingly indecisive) Makoto, but it also has similarly mean-spirited conclusion and unfortunate depiction of women as ‘volatile nutcases who will devour each other and the man they’re after’.
My personal take from School Days is the realization that just like its more optimistic counterparts, anti-romance doesn’t work well when it’s exclusively populated by douchebags, sadists, nymphomaniacs, sociopaths, and/or doormats. ‘Fundamentally good and well-meaning people make mistakes’ is a much better narrative hook than ‘horrible people destroy each other’, unless you’re in a schadenfreudic mood or specifically looking for pitch-black comedy. Even then, as darkly amusing as School Days could be, it’s no substitute for genuine insight and catharsis that the best of anti-romance could provide.
Of course, it’s a tricky balancing act when you have sympathetic and endearing characters whose hearts you need to break. A good show can pulls that off by maintaining a sense of respect for the characters despite the unfavorable turn of events, and Super Dimension Fortress Macross clearly has overflowing sympathy for its characters, not least of which are the lovestruck pilot Hikaru Ichijyo and iconic idol Lynn Minmay. Hikaru’s superior Misa Hayase will later completes the triangle (and Lynn Kaifun makes it a quadruple I suppose, although I’d like to pretend he doesn’t exist), but it’s Hikaru and Minmay who provide the emotional core for most of the series. From the moment Hikaru catches the falling Minmay and tucks her inside the Valkyrie to the special fourth episode where they spend weeks being stranded together (the same episode also features a giant floating salmon in space, and not incidentally, marks the point where I started to really fall for Macross), they’re set up like a quintessential romantic pairing in the middle of trying times. Then, things slowly change through a combination of inaction, obliviousness, and differing paths.
Macross has many moments of pure cheese and emotional outburst, but the series works because of just how unflinchingly sincere those moments are, and how they come with real acuity. Such moment takes form of, for instance, the closing scene of Episode 27 (Burst Point), when Hikaru hangs up on his beloved Minmay following a tragedy and sudden realization at how far apart they really are. That’s how SDF Macross, one of the most romantic anime series ever made, also managed to produce painful countermeasures to the promises of “happiness, laughter, and joy ever after”.
Lastly, we have Ore Monogatari! …. wait, what’s a sickeningly cute and feel-good series doing here? Thing is, in spite of its sparkly visual and bubbly main relationship, Ore Mono also depicts an unusually high number of people with unrequited feelings. Bucking a romance shoujo trend that every relevant character should end up in relationship one way or the other, the anime series instead hones in on one-sided affection and the many different ways to deal with it. What stands out to me is its subtly mature approach, refusing to wallow in parade of angst and instead let the characters sort out their own feelings in rational manner, with significant moral support around them.
The second half of Ore Monogatari! does a lot of acknowledgment on things that wouldn’t work, then follow up with consistently positive and enlightening resolution. Saijou Mariya learns to be honest with herself, speak it out, and manages to move on without hard feelings. Sunakawa Ai learns to let go, displaying remarkable selflessness and sympathy for the person she cares about. Oda Hayato eventually realizes how wrong-headed it is to egg the girl she likes into what would’ve been a painful and uncomfortable situation. Yukika Amami builds up the courage to step forward, and learns to really know the person she’s crushing rather than being content with an idealized image in her mind. Makoto Sunakawa dishes out rejection in the best way possible, making his preference clear while still treating the other party with respect and kindness.
Thus, Ore Monogatari pulls off something rather special in its depiction of anti-romance. Instead of a cautionary tale highlighting things that lead to an unsuccessful relationship, it acknowledges the unsolvable nature of romantic attraction and how it often doesn’t pan out through no fault of your own. However, it also gently reminds you that there are mature ways to deal with that, that you don’t always have to keep things complicated forever, and that it’s not the end of the world despite how it feels at the time. This part of the show is really underrated, even among its own fans.
On a closing note: anti-romance doesn’t have to be about angst, silent suffering, or pity party (or stabbing your rival with a kitchen knife) all the time. Maturity isn’t necessarily measured by how much you suffer, and a mature work of anti-romance tends to signify people’s resilience and capacity to grow past the pain.
Personally speaking… there was a time when I used to be extremely jaded and cynical on romance, but thankfully now with the benefit of hindsight, I can see things that used to hurt as either embarrassing memento, lessons and reminders for self-improvement, or experiences I genuinely cherish. A lot of things burn out or fade away, even the one that really matters, but I shall have no regrets.