The Next Thing

Thoughts On Visual Culture

Month: March, 2013



Orange Days is a Japanese drama series based around the lives of college students. There’s Kai Yuuki (Satoshi Tsumabaki), a senior studying social welfare, and his group of friends (Hiroki Narimiya and Eita). They’re a tight-knit group, hanging out whenever possible, and just generally having fun. Kai is in the middle of applying for jobs, however, and this is stressing him out. One day he sees a young woman named Sae playing the violin near the school. He gives her an orange. Sae, however princess-like she may look, is all full of attitude, fragile emotions, and complexities. A few years ago, she went deaf, and it’s only recently that she’s gotten back to her normal life. The show is then about their complicated relationship.

I would like to mainly focus on just one aspect of Orange Days (though I’m sure I’ll end up mentioning a lot of stuff anyway): how it shows the time of your life when you start to love someone more than your own family, who means something completely different to you and can give you a completely different sort of happiness.


There’s a moment late in the series where Sae’s mom tells Kai he has no business meddling with Sae’s health issues, since he’s a stranger. It’s an understandable attitude coming from a mother. She’s worried about Sae, and she sees this boy Kai as relatively unimportant in the scheme of things. But what we’ve learned throughout the show is that Kai is not just a stranger. In fact, to Sae, he’s become her most important person. She has her friend Akane who she can talk to, sure, but when it comes to Kai, it’s different. There’s a great conversation in the show where Sae talks about what she imagines her future to be like, and in every scenario, Kai is there. The series is largely about the crucial time when the bonds and friendships you’re going to have for the rest of your life are created; it’s something different than your family, because this is something that you created yourself.


It’s something that’s inevitable. We each create our own world, separate from our parents at some point during our life. One of the key struggles for Sae is trying to figure out how to deal with her loyalty and love for her mother (and respecting her feelings) while still trying to be true to her own heart and do what she wants to do. In a sense, these thoughts and feelings are a little selfish. We must come to the conclusion that our happiness is what matters the most, and to seek that will mean forgoing some other person’s idea of happiness. Sae tries to go along with her mom’s vision of her happiness, because she’s trying to be a good daughter and she respects all the sacrifices that her mom had to make because of Sae’s illness. But it is not her happiness. Kai, the one who can make her laugh, the one who can make her cry, the one who can make her feel like “just a girl.” In Orange Days, Sae and Kai change each other’s lives, they motivate each other to keep trying hard, they hurt each other deeply; no one else could do those things for them. So when Sae’s mom calls Kai a stranger, the audience immediately knows that she is wrong. Who else could Sae share her fears, her insecurities, her tears, other than with the one she truly loves? No one could provide the same comfort, the same assurance that he could.

ImageMost love stories are about this, in the end. But they rarely affect me with the same power as Orange Days does. Perhaps it’s because I relate more to the college setting, the level of maturity and self-awareness of the characters that this strikes me as the best Asian drama series I’ve ever seen.  Most of these shows are fun, charming, and all that, but it’s very rare that I find one that I think has beauty and grace. It’s a show that dares you to become a better person. After watching Kai and Sae try their best to find their happiness, it’s up to us to go forward and seek out our own.


There are many different aspects of the show that I think are worthwhile and worthy of analysis: the character’s awareness of “coming of age” tropes, the different paths and definitions of “adulthood” and, most of all, its take on friendship. So this might not be the only time I write about it. This is the 3rd time I’ve seen this show in the last 7 years, and I continue to find new things in it. I think it’s a show I’ll keep returning to as I grow older. It’s absolutely one of my favorites.

How To Find It

Unfortunately, the Japanese don’t really license these shows (either for physical releases or for streaming). You’re going to have resort to other means.

Orange Days (2004)

11 episodes




On My Little Monster


My Little Monster is a show about two high school students (Shizuku and Haru) who meet each other and change each other’s lives; which, you know, big deal. Haru has been absent from class for a long time now because of his past bad behavior, and Shizuku gets tasked with bringing him back to class. The series then concerns him their relationship to each other, and how each of them grows from that.

Haru is seen as a scary, impulsive thug who glares at everyone. Shizuku is the serious, responsible type who always studies. But they each have hidden sides to them that the series then explores. Part of the fun of the show is finding out about those hidden sides to their personalities. My main focus here will be the main relationship between these two characters, and their general attitudes toward not only each other, but toward the world. Most of the comedy of the series comes from the clash between their viewpoints, and also a clash between their desires and the constraints of the “normal” world.


Arguably the most interesting thing about the Haru character is his enthusiasm. At the beginning of the series, he’s hiding out from school. He beat up some upperclassmen and  got suspended, but his suspension had been lifted and he simply refused to go. When he meets Shizuku, he escapes by jumping out a window. But later on, he accosts her and stops her from leaving. The truth is: he’s curious and anxious about school. His tough exterior actually hides a soft, rather inquisitive nature. He wonders out loud that since Shizuku brought him his school papers, it must be because they’re friends; and he later asks her how school was. His knowledge of friendship, of school, of all sorts of things, seems to be derived from media; he yearns to experience it for himself. Shizuku is the excuse he gives himself to attend school, but soon enough we see how important going and being there is for Haru. He earnestly believes in the significance of the rituals of youth; he wants to make friends so they can all hang out together after school, wants to meet them in the weekend, wants to live out his high school life the way it’s supposed to be done. But, again, he’s too weird, a little too intense, to get along with other people; in the end, only Shizuku seems to be able to handle him.

Shizuku, on the other hand, is a loner by choice. She comes across as cold, unfeeling, and stuff like that. But really she’s also as intense as Haru is. She focuses all her energy on her studies. She’s not interested in what happens around her, or what other people say, or that she might be missing out on some better life. For her, high school is just a thing she has get through, make good grades in, and get an amazing job later on. Which, fine; that’s actually a pretty great way to look at it. But immediately the show takes great care to show another side to her. Although she tries not to get involved in Haru’s problems, she cares too much to let things pass. She’s blunt and says what she wants, sometimes without thinking of the consequences, as when she calls out Haru’s friends for not treating him right; her truth-telling can be brutal. But Haru’s presence radically changes how she perceives her life. There’s a beautiful moment in the school rooftop (where else?) where she falls asleep. When she wakes up, Haru’s there watching her; it’s the first time she’s ever skipped class. She allows herself to relax, to feel the moment around her, to know why it might be an important experience, “my world is growing.”


What’s refreshing about these two characters is how these characters aren’t tortured souls without any clue about their real feelings. In the first two episodes, both characters have confessed to each other. Just like any good old-fashioned romantic comedy, a bunch of complications pop up; romantic rivals, past wounds, etc., just to put off what is inevitable. But I loved how sure they all were of their feelings. I’ve seen so many shows where the characters are completely clueless or never have the courage to say anything about what they feel that it becomes annoying. Haru and Shizuku may be clueless as to how to navigate the world and deal with people, but they are remarkably sure about their feelings; and honestly it’s thanks to that that the series remains solid and engaging. Haru and Shizuku are characters who are weird, too intense, to fit in “normally” with everybody else. They’re people who can’t turn off their personality just to fit in. The show, almost imperceptibly, allows them to build a world for themselves. By the final episodes, our main characters have found people who care about them, even though they themselves remain as stubborn and as weird as they started.

It’s a shame that we’ll probably have to wait for a sequel to find out what happens in the romantic lives of these characters, but that’s okay. The show has the confidence to basically end on a totally filler episode because we’ve already learned to love the characters and love to spend time with them. Perhaps a second season will introduce more drama into their life, perhaps not. The series allows our main characters to feel some new emotions, have their lives be changed, all without too much angst or anything like that. Haru and Shizuku have learned to enjoy themselves.

How To Find It

The series can be currently streamed through Crunchyroll.

My Little Monster (2012)

13 episodes

Brain’s Base




Future Diary aka Mirai Nikki is a series about a middle school kid named Yukiteru who’s all observant and distant and disaffected. He, apparently, has some imaginary friends called Deus and Murmur. However, these imaginary friends turn out to not be so imaginary. Deus turns out to be the god of space and time. Not only that, he’s turned Yukiteru’s cellphone into one that can predict the future. Oh:  and there are also 11 other people who have this power, and now you have to kill each other so you can become my replacement as god.
Though I think the series is largely uneven and, by its conclusion, has completely jumped the shark, I do think it touches on some rather interesting ideas; or, rather, the central relationship and the character behavior/personalities offer more to chew on than whatever the central conceit is supposed to do. The relationship between Yukiteru and Yuno (his love interest) arguably drives most of the series’ action, but it also highlights the series’ attitudes towards dependent/abusive relationships. This is the only interesting part of the show.

Yukiteru’s diary and Yuno’s diary are oddly compatible, so they team up in order to survive the game. However, it’s less of a “team” and more of a “Yuno goes crazy any time Yukiteru is even remotely in danger.” The thrust of the entire relationship is thus: Yukiteru completely relies on Yuno to save his ass, and then feels horrible after she goes way overboard and kills everyone. Not only that, at points, Yukiteru almost begins to feel afraid for his life, that’s how intense Yuno is. Yuno pledges undying devotion and love and bodyguard services, and Yukiteru takes advantage of this, basically using her and lying to her, while benefiting from her protection. This dynamic is deeply screwed up.


First of all, we have the way in which Yukiteru almost seems like an abused spouse character. Because of Yuno’s diary ability, he can’t really escape from her (she knows everything he’s going to do), and it’s because of this that he allows himself to think of her company and her actions as normal. She’s just trying to protect me and win the game (because she likes me). But every time that Yuno goes all ruthless and flies off the handle a little more than the previous time, Yukiteru has to keep making compromises and excuses for her. He’s told repeatedly by other people that she’s dangerous or that she’ll be the death of him. Little by little, her behavior becomes rationalized and coded as “normal” or “acceptable” and soon the feeling that this is what he has to deal with to survive becomes inescapable. He’s trapped in the relationship; Yuno keeps him safe, and he can’t get away even if he wanted to.

Also of interest are any moments where there is opposition between Yukiteru and Yuno. There’s a particularly great episode where Yukiteru tries to make new, “normal” friends. They invite him out to take a look at a dead body (because that isn’t suspicious) and he cheerfully goes, because the prospect of getting away from what he knows is a toxic attachment to Yuno is mighty appealing. She tags along, but mostly watches from the sides, as Yukiteru laughs with everyone, cracks jokes, and whatnot. But then the narrative of the episode kicks in, and Yukiteru’s friends turn out to be not so friendly. Which is exactly what Yuno thought would happen. The drama of the episode is then about Yukiteru’s struggle to redeem this friendship, and make it real; and Yuno’s constant refusal to make friends with anyone else, throwing doubt on anyone who would get close to him, almost stabbing everyone whenever they do something unexpected. But this opposition never even lasts; Yukiteru’s too weak to ever put up much of a struggle. Even after everyone witnesses how crazy Yuno is, he still ends up making excuses for her. He’s terrified by her behavior, but he can’t quite say that he doesn’t need it. Yuno loves Yukiteru, wishes to protect him and all that; but it’s a love that’s selfish, possessive and obsessive. It’s a love that includes no one else. At points, it doesn’t even include Yukiteru. It’s her love alone.


And, ultimately, Future Diary, if nothing else,manages to dramatize this unique dynamic very well. Although it often succumbs to ludicrous plot twists, silly Yandere antics, and literal deus ex machine shenanigans, the series manages to show how crazy and twisted this relationship is. The series’ denouement shows the utter ruination of the main character; he’s destroyed everything he loves for a lie. And still he lives a lie.

How To Find It

The series is licensed and will be released by Funimation.

Future Diary (2011 – 2012)

26 episodes

Studio Asread


On Shinkichi Kato’s BAKA AND GOGH


Shinkichi Kato’s Baka and Gogh is about the friendship between three people and how that friendship changes over time. The Baka of the title refers to two friends who are in a high school band. They’re desperate to play in their senior year festival-type thing, but it seems like they’re destined to be disliked or shunned. The Gogh of the title refers to a girl in their class who’s constantly being picked on. One day, the Baka step in and help her out. They then become best friends. But it isn’t that simple.  What follows is a beautiful portrait of outsider friendships, the strange paths that those friendships can take, and a subtle critique of the possessiveness of love (or obsession).

One of the most beautiful things about Baka and Gogh is how it treats the main friendship between all the characters. The characters are outsiders and they seem to be fated to never quite fit in. But, more than that, they’re far too alive and unpredictable to be restrained the expectations of the world. The two male characters, realistically, go straight from high school to the work force; there isn’t any worry about college entrance exams, they’re never in the picture. There aren’t any mentions of the rituals that high school students might be expected to participate in. None of that matters. Our characters are far too invested in their dreams to really pay that much attention to anything else. What matters is the bond that’s created between everyone here. Throughout the first volume, these characters find something that they want to protect, something that they want to cherish; but what’s beautiful is how Kato understands that it must necessarily change. The things that are precious do not seem to last.


There comes a moment about halfway in Baka and Gogh where one character confesses to another. It’s an embarrassing moment, for both the person who confessed and the person being confessed to, and even almost to the reader. Embarrassing because how real it feels, yes, but also because it feels like you’re suddenly not wearing any clothes; the people who you love have seen all of you now, and there is no taking that back. This is the moment that is the catalyst for what happens next in the story. This is the moment that begins the new phase of the friendship at the heart of the series.

Friends come and go from our lives. Some our always with us, while others may drift away. What Kato manages to beautifully highlight is that even if a friendship changes, even if the role that someone played in your life is different, they don’t truly go away. They stay in your heart, in your memories, wherever. You carry them with you to whatever new destination you’re going to. And sometimes the people you thought were gone from your life come back. Maybe you see them in a different way now, maybe they’re going to play a new role in your life; what matters is that the bond was strong enough that it could survive that time apart, that your friendship was strong enough to begin with that it could withstand that change in definition. The final chapter of Baka and Gogh shows how each character has changed, and it shows their new role in life. The Baka are still wildly enthusiastic and hilarious and still chasing their dreams, but experience and pain have matured them; they also no longer mean the same thing to Gogh as they once did.

I think I’ve played down the importance of Gogh in my analysis of the series, and this is a mistake. She’s arguably the most important character, because it’s through her that the other characters define themselves. And she’s the one who undergoes the most change. Her journey is different than from the male characters. They’re all about introspection and brooding and whatnot. Gogh has the strength to reject the things she doesn’t want, to know what is right for her. Kato draws out that inner strength and by the final panel she looks luminous; she’s found her own path and it’s led her to her own happiness.


In the background of this story about personal growth and friendship, lies a more interesting subtext. Both male characters have unrequited feelings for Gogh. One of them actually confesses those feelings, gets rejected, and leaves town. The other one keeps it inside, bottled it up, knowing that nothing would ever come of it. They both have an image of Gogh in their head, of what she should be, of what they want her to be. There’s a possessive quality to their feelings for Gogh, which is an outgrowth of their romantic feelings, that can’t be denied. She’s our Gogh.  When she declines to go along with them and stay behind, she asserts her status as an equal to them; she does not need their protection, she can make decisions for herself. This is what throws off the balance of their friendship. So much of their friendship has been based, at this point, on everyone trying to take care of Gogh and helping her out, that when she makes this big decision on their own, they get flustered.

Both characters are essentially trying to protect their own image of Gogh. They want her to remain the same, to stay in the same role that she’s always been in. The maturation, redemption even, of the male characters only happens after they let go of their possessive feelings toward Gogh. Their feelings must change, their role in Gogh’s life must change, their conception of what Gogh means to them must change. When a character late in the series says: “it’s the sound of the whole universe,” it tells us that his love for Gogh isn’t the same anymore; it’s transformed into something different. It’s a repudiation of his previous belief system; he even has to say goodbye to “my Gogh.” She isn’t the woman he knew, or that existed in his head. She’s her own person. But the beauty of what Kato achieves here is that he doesn’t say: “okay, so now that you can’t be together, that’s it; that’s the end of your friendship.” He allows the possibility for growth. In essence, Baka and Gogh speaks to how friendship can evolve and become even truer and more powerful as we grow older, as we accept the fact that our friends change, and our role in their life also changes. It’s one of the most beautiful expressions of this feeling that I know of.

How To Find It

Sadly, this wonderful series isn’t available legally in the United States. You’ll have to scour the web to find it.

Baka and Gogh (2000)

2 volumes


Images: Hetakoi






Hetakoi (Junko Nakano, 2007 – 2011)



The story of Hanasaku Iroha is almost ridiculously simple. A young girl named Ohana, thanks to the irresponsible behavior of her mother, is sent to an inn out in the country to spend her days. This inn is run by Ohana’s grandmother. But she isn’t a cozy grandma who’s going to spoil Ohana. She’s all business, all work, almost cold; and her coworkers are all rather ambivalent about Ohana, too. And although it does feel rather depressing at first, the beauty of this show (and of Ohana) is that, rather than get overwhelmed and feel miserable about her situation, she tries her best to make this place her own. She tries to take a situation that seems bad, and not so much find the positive, but rather tries to find a way to grow from it. The series is then about her growth as a person, the way in which she learns to find meaning in the work she does, the way in which she learns that she’s not the center of everything happens; it’s one of the finest portraits of a young woman I’ve ever seen in any visual media.

There’s a great line near the end of the series that handily summarizes a lot of what I thought was going on in this series: “what you gain from hard work can never betray you.” Time and time again the characters in the series strive to become better at their jobs. Whether it’s Ohana’s struggles to find her own routine and her own place, or Minchi’s struggles to learn the trade of being a chef or, hell, Ohana’s uncle struggle to become good enough to one day become the true successor to the inn – the characters in this series define themselves by how they do their job. Their job performance seems interconnected with their personal growth, but it’s also connected with their character – if I’m not working my hardest, what kind of person am I?


There’s a telling episode about halfway in the show’s run where the main trio of girls visit another inn for a school trip. The inn apparently has a new automated system for taking plates up and down the floors; this saves time and it does away with having full-time waitresses so the inn has some part-timers to do the work. Ohana is at first impressed with the work that everyone’s doing, but then she sees some of the waitresses talking on their phone while still at work, and of course they’re typical “high school” girls who have an attitude. Later on, these girls walk off the job because they say it’s too hard and you have to remember too many things. These girls, because of their unserious attitude toward their job, are painted as bratty monsters (later on we see them all wearing makeup and making fun of the inn of where they worked at). In Hanasaku Iroha, if you’re not trying to do your best, then that reflects badly on your character. In one of the funniest scenes in the show, Ohana more or less attacks them. Ohana only has patience for people who are trying their best, every character in Hanasaku Iroha is giving it their all.

This series reminded me of one of the most overlooked movies of the past few years, Margaret. One of the most important lines of dialogue in that film is: “We are not supporting characters in the fascinating story of your life!” During the first few episodes, Ohana is only concerned about what is happening to her. She sees the situation she’s in as hers alone, and she kinda steps on a few toes around the inn as she struggles to acclimate herself to this new place. She even gets called out as “inconsiderate,” at one point. One of key themes in the show is realizing that everyone around has their reasons (as in Renoir), their own beliefs, their own dreams. The great realization later on in the show where she learns to actually place herself in someone else’s shoes (first with her mom and then later on with her grandma) is so fantastic. She’s such a strong-willed girl that for her to give in and rescind her original feelings is marvelous.


I can’t write about this show without also mentioning how much it understands how impermanence of life. The show spans roughly 6 or 7 months. In this period of time, all the characters grow and are shaded with depth and are fully realized. But the reason why the time we’ve spent with these characters is special is because it’s something that’s untenable. People are destined to move away from you, your group of friends won’t always be there in the same exact configuration that you’re used to; things will always end. What Hanasaku Iroha understands most of all is that things are meant to change; it can be a positive change, it can be a negative change, whichever. Late in the show’s run, Ohana’s grandmother makes a decision that disrupts the natural order of what we’ve been watching for the last 20 or so episodes. She forces a change in these characters’ lives. Now, we may want these characters to remain the same way, like in Ranma ½, and never deviate, always acting out the same patterns of behavior, but that betrays a misunderstanding of how life actually works. We’re all working toward our own goals, and sooner or later, we might have to go our separate ways. The places that meant so much to us might become a memory, an important one, sure, but something that was not meant to last. Hanasaku Iroha feels like that. It’s a series that reminds me how much pain and how much laughter are required before you can truly grow.

How To Find It

NIS America has the license for this series. The first Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack was released in April. The second will be released in July. You can also stream the entire series on Crunchyroll.

Hanasaku Iroha (2011)

26 episodes

P.A. Works


On Junko Nakano’s HETAKOI and B-SHOCK


Junko Nakano’s Hetakoi  is about a young man who, upon turning 20 years old, decides to head over to a hot spring. He’s by himself, trying to relax, while still kind of feeling miserable about the fact that he’s all alone. But while he’s there, he sees a young woman completely naked for the first time.  Which, you know, is a momentous event in any young man’s life. After heading back to Tokyo, his outgoing friend ends up convincing him to join the Hot Springs club, since there are a lot of cute girls in it; it goes without saying that the “naked girl” is also a part of this club.

It’s at this point where you may decide to check out on Hetakoi and think to yourself: “oh, it’s just generic shounen romance, who cares.” This would be a mistake. Hetakoi largely concerns itself with the growing attraction and romantic feelings between said young man and naked girl, but within that template it manages to touch on many other emotions and ideas.

One of the main reasons that I chose to start reading Hetakoi was because I’ve grown tired of weak-willed, nothing high school protagonists and their love troubles and their school rituals which are all the same, and never change from series to series. I’ve consciously tried to find anime/manga that has college and/or adult settings because, not only do they speak more to me at this point, but they’re also rare enough that the ways in which they’re different are distinctive enough for it make a difference. Sure, Hetakoi  may have a school festival chapter, but it’s surrounded by chapters where adults make decisions that have ramifications and are treated seriously.


Sex is something that’s constantly on the minds of the characters in Hetakoi.  There are many humorous passages where sex and/or nudity are treated like a punchline. Think of the many scenes where our main character pictures someone naked and can’t even look at their face because of the embarrassment. Or how the main character’s best friend, nicknamed Obscene Dick, propositions every female member in the Hot Springs club. But sex is also something that’s completely serious. In Hetakoi, sex changes everything about a relationship. Two friends who had previously relied on each other solely for advice embark on a sexual relationship that’s unhealthy and based on consoling each other and trying to deal with each other’s pain. One young man wonders if the girl he likes has done it before, and wonders if that will make him think differently of her. Instead of dealing with problems, characters often try to lose themselves in sexual abandon, immerse themselves in their passion and forget everything. But this is something that’s new for the characters; this new way of dealing with their problems. Often they will think that what they’re doing is wrong, but be unable to stop. One of my favorite moments is when, with an absolutely brutal honesty, a character thinks to himself that it isn’t so much a partner he desires, but someone’s warmth.


There are moments in Hetakoi  which speak to me for reasons I can barely process or comprehend. I think of how it handles those moments in your life where everyone around you is having fun and laughing, and in the middle of that you’re feeling completely miserable. There’s a great chapter near the end where such a thing happens. Our main character, although inside he’s completely alone and suffering, resolves to make the occasion a lively one. It reminded me of times where I’ve tried to block everything I may be thinking by simply doing stuff.

Nakano’s series is special because it understands how serious and how utterly silly we can be while in the pursuit of love; how much meaning we can assign the smallest things, and how utterly humbling getting to know other people can be. And it does this while being utterly hilarious. Hetakoi is a work that understands and embodies the passion of youth; and it made me completely miserable.


Nakano’s B-Shock, on the other hand, is an entirely different proposition. It’s on the whole more outlandish, more ridiculous, a high concept series. It’s about two engineering students who, thanks to their mad professor, get bombs stuck to their wrists that don’t allow them to be more than 10m apart. In essence, it’s a series where two unlikely people are forced to be together at all times. It’s also a romantic comedy.

Part of the fun of the series is seeing the realistic response to the situation. The characters begin to ask themselves: what happens if I have to use the restroom? How do I keep a job like this? Things gets even more funny/interesting when the distance gets reduced to 1m. The scenes where the characters have to constantly stick together (this means pretending to be boyfriend/girlfriend in public because otherwise why are they holding on to each other) have an absurd, but iron-clad sense of logic to them. It makes sense to tie a rope between you – what would happen if one of you fell out of bed and one of you got separated?

When the series has that laser focus on the particulars of their situation and the growing affection between the characters, it excels. But I keep getting reminded of the long stretch in volume 2, where the lead characters have to deal with a pesky ghost, and I can’t help but feel that it’s wasted time. It’s space that is being taken away from the most interesting relationship/dynamic.

How To Find It

Neither of the titles covered in this post are sadly available through legal translations, unfortunately. You will have to scour the internet to find these two works.

I hope to cover more of Nakano’s work as it becomes available, Chisa x Pon specially. Nakano passed away in 2011.

Hetakoi (2007 – 2011)

10 volumes

B-Shock (1999 – 2000)

4 volumes