A couple of months into my senior year, Ion about how much I despised the J.C. Staff adaptation of Takako Shimura's Aoi Hana, which made me so violently angry, I would eventually claim that I sought to smash in my computer monitor by the third episode. The comment wasn't for effect; I'm too earnest for that. I oozed similar rage in , in which I more or less asserted that I was done seeking wholesale realism in anime, which for the most part tended not to come together, anyway. However out of whack I was over the course of that godawful year, I don't apologize for the particular sentiments. Such energy wasted over clumsy banging on the table! The feelings are still ambivalent or negative, but I don't care anymore. It's no longer worth it.
Half-expected her to whip out a bokut .
Other than the issues articulated, I think the reason I hated Hana was because I didn't get it. I understood what it was doing. I got that, as long as some people could get into the show or manga, they wouldn't feel alone or slam down gavels at least ideally, if the product "came off right." That's always the ideal with these sorts of works. I got that there was an interesting effect exploring ambiguity in a cultural tradition emphasizing lines and boxes. But in retrospect, I just didn't get why the mangaka set about approaching the assumptions of "girls' 2-D" in such an unmoving way when it seems to me that the project could have achieved far more. It bothered me that its argument made a sort of lazy sense, but that it was really only concept and didn't really come together. If it was going to handle shit on that level, why be so circuitous and obtuse? I'm a careful reader, after all--I hope. Is everything cool simply because I turn out to be in the viewership minority?
Curiously, it took quite some time (years) before I suddenly realized that I didn't dislike the AIC adaptation of her Hourou Musuko. In fact, a recent re-watch got me thinking I mildly like it (really hits its stride in that badass second half). I might have written a lazy blurb guessing at why my second impression was so positive. Something like, "This time around, Shimura's work isn't vapid." Or, "The animators adapted her work into something people can give a shit about." Or, "Stuff actually happens in this one." Or, "The characters are fun this time." But that wouldn't really convey the vision in my head, would it? So, yeah, I'm going to text-wall your eyes in with my typical loop-the-loop reasoning.
BRO LET THE GOOD TIMES ROOLLL
Let me be very clear. One: this post is not about the social or physiological issues, in which I'm not really interested--not here. Neither does it argue for either title's social currency or poignancy. Let's avoid unreason. We all know that they're about gray area and inner conviction and stuff. We know that a lot of readers like them. We know, at least if we read carefully, that certain issues, potentially-offensively portrayed, are in fact central (the scene from which I drew the above screencap hearkens back to realities--and meta-parodies--of English Renaissance theatre). Besides, the best of the best already discussed it. Read that stuff, not mine, if that's what you're looking for. Start , if you like. Two: I am not much interested in comparing manga versions to anime adaptations, or in literary context-speculation. As far as I can tell, Hana's versions are like night and day. Of course the manga works better, more or less (the end of chapters 2 and 3 are off-the-top-of-my-head examples). Some images are awesome, having nowhere near the same power in the adaptation (like the Kou-Ky ko stuff at the beginning of chap 4).have already engaged that side of things, besides, and there is no concrete expectation for anyone to research the bases of a work. Every work is, in some sense, "its own thing." Not causally, of course, but in terms of how little authority artists and source material really have, precisely speaking. Barthes and all that. Our willingness to acknowledge or to elevate the author does have an effect--perhaps a wise and affirming one--but we need to recognize that we play our part in effecting it.
In my with JS over genre and demographic and authorial laziness, I mentioned the concepts of --e(n)strangement--and motif, as utilized by Viktor Shklovsky in his Theory of Prose. I made the kinder case in that post: a hell of a lot of this stuff is up in the air. I can't write from a moral or cultural high horse--not without clumsy, nigh-unhelpful brackets. Despite this, I can write in order to get people to see this series from a slightly new angle. I'm an artist, hoy.
As you've probably noticed by this point in the post, I don't do snarkiness--much. TGFMLPFIM and all that. I've been known to say things openly like, "I raged at this show because I was jealous of the characters' X," or, "I didn't get out of bed for days because I couldn't handle X character's resolution," or "I banged my head against the wall because I don't believe X author's moral or artistic argument (I hovered for a time about the modifier "aesthetical") and I find it repugnant, swindling, or pernicious." Fictionally, I'm Russian that way. Totally tsundere. So I want to clarify wrong impressions I might have given in my earlier writings regarding the series. Restatements should be straightforward.
More for less, know what I'm sayin'?
* Shimura is not necessarily an immoral artist; neither do I think she has nothing of worth to say. Far from this. First, these are anime adaptations (although they've killed off my drive to read the manga versions past the adaptation endpoints). Second, I appreciate implications of the reality that some simply don't share my benchmarks or biases. I think she tries to tell the truth. She clearly wants to convey the experiences of people going through this stuff. I just don't think her style (original or interpreted) is all that unique, precise, or stimulating--though I'll readily admit that what she does pull off is achieved via the medium's "higher-order" concepts. There. I sound enough like a snob to you?
* Claiming that Shimura's work is "realist" is nonsense. It foolishly reveals you to be unwilling to understand her work the way in which I gather that, for fuck's sake, she would have you to. As is the case for a lot of other highbrow adult-demographic stuff, verisimilitude is high--but, yeah, the realism is variable.
Shklovsky's claim is that art particularizes, rather than generalizes, an experience--a factor that would seem to distinguish art from mere communication. It alienates you, gets you to see "something" in a way you hadn't before. If art comes down to motifs, or to particles informed by societal and experiential context (a rhyme etched on a bathroom stall, passed around by word of mouth, used for a song, thrown into a book, which ends up in a movie, which inspires part of a cartoon), it also comes down to permutation, the attempt to transmute the "real life" that gets away from us. For literature, Shklovsky argues, the particles would be words, "prose," everyday-life communication (Modernism is known for its revamped perceptions of hierarchy and dichotomy). Anything more elaborate would only raise the number of possibilities and complications. What sympathetic critics and artists (not unreasonably) take from this is that when people call works "boring" or "uninspired," they are in one way or another saying that they "recognize" too much (so as to quickly label), and "see" too little. The goal is to nudge the reader to slow down, to hesitate to label. The goal is to shuffle, appropriate in a fresh way, an adequate way. Not an anarchical way, but one that somehow coheres, meticulously developing an argument that people can get behind, care about--ideally, a razor-sharp, life-affirming one ("life-affirming," in this context, does not mean "happy" or "comedic").
You might think this to be obvious or ubiquitous, but noticeable cases still occur. Examples may be found in both the States and in Japan; I list the more obvious ones. In the West? RWBY (tailoring of the anime database), Megas XLR (parody of space opera, tokusatsu, and mecha tropes) Adventure Time (modern re-legending), The Amazing World of Gumball (postmodern grappling with the nature of verisimilitude), Avatar: the Last Airbender ("Eastern" stories told in a "Western" way, plus shounen and FLCL). In Japan? Evangelion, the later Gad Guard (failed to move people in execution BECAUSE GONZO), Bakemonogatari, Texhnolyze, Sazae-san, Madoka and the other works of Shinb . As you can probably tell, I'm emphasizing "deeper" shuffling, rather than claims of "creative idea" or "moral tenacity"--separate questions, indeed. What the authors of the shows did was ask themselves about what came before, puzzle out how to tell their stories differently, work in necessary elements so as to accommodate the different telling. Deceleration, jarring, borrowing (so as to create dissonance in a new context), et cetera. Nobody honestly disputes that this happens for 2-D constantly. Give Tanaka's Gad Guard OST a modicum of credit: it threw together street music and the synthier, more majestic orchestrals we'd expect from a mecha show.
Don't take my outdated, nostalgic word for it--you mightn't be able to stomach the show.
It's the slip-ups in scanlation grammar that make it.
At the moment, I'm pining after more chapters of a trashy Taku Kitazaki series entitled Kono S o, Mi Yo! A guy born with a mysterious stigma birthmark on his asscheek--he's unhealthily self-conscious about it, due to childhood teasing--finds it impossible to date seriously, to get close or to have sex. He discovers that it has the power to compel women who see it to fall head over heels for him, attempt to charge him and leap onto his dick (yes, this literally happens). It's basically a cross between Death Note, Code Geass, and your choice of harem craziness. My point is that the very depiction wrenches, systematically causes us to feel disgust, hatred, bitterness, shame, self-loathing. This happens narratively, for the most part. We see how unstable the guy really is (the story has a decent amount of restraint in, as best it can, avoiding sermon), as he conspires and does stupid things in order to preserve what he thinks is the well-being of the decade-older girl he's always had a thing for. Only a few chapters in, it caused me to grimace at the sudden conviction that I behaved the same way at 22, when for half a year I thought I'd actually gone insane. It wasn't quite protagonist "kinship" or "connection," not "narrative immersion" or whatever. Before that point, the time period had remained a rationalized bracket of time, reduced to psychological generalization. If this were the golden days of 2010 or something, I might have composed a brilliant, artsy post on it all, but neh. Still, let it be said: for all of its trashiness--not even worth disputing--Kono S(tigma)'s effect is legitimately admirable.
Back on topic. I think it's only right to admit that Shimura does some "weird shit" in her stories with respect to mimetic frame, but you have to get used to that. In Musuko, the characters seem to straddle adulthood and childhood: some moments they behave absurdly, in ways that make obvious their being children, in ways that even lead us to facepalm--but their thinking patterns usually end up, somehow, being conceivable as "aligned with the adult." They think in preachy ways. They talk out loud in obviously-contrived ways, even annoying ways. They get lovey-dovey and yay-friendship in ways that are frankly impossible for me to care about. Back when I was in ninth grade, my friends went to other states in order to get themselves illegal fireworks, and the stuff they could afford--in spite of the fact that they didn't have all that much money--ended up being pretty damn awesome. Tangent again. Maybe I'm just out of touch with preteen stuff. In Japan. Anyway, characters in Musuko say what they feel in dissonant or cryptic ways--y'know, rather than being that way quietly. The reason why isn't hard to grasp. Shimura's obsession is plays and theatricality, histrionics, revision, the supposed line between "acting" and "being." I figure I'm familiar enough with the theme; most stories that do this sort of thing end up in some way or another reminding me of Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
Look, let's just be fucking done with it; Shimura's works are no Tolstoy. They don't come together in the delicate way that makes you shout out, "Oh, fuuuck yessss! Master strokes." But I've already dealt with this matter in my recent conversation with JS. None of this means that they're useless, only that these particular elements are noticeably and definitely unsatisfying to me; they are valuable and satisfying to others, in some way even to myself who is spinning and tale-weaving because of my experience with the show. Basically, the medium is hard to navigate for most fans, because too many people end up involved with the projects. Too many possibilities, and I'm not even all that fond of the visual arts. I don't go to anime for desperate life affirmation, because I tend to angle my moral attention toward holistically-sound stories that make razor-sharp arguments, whatever they may be (even so, it's only fair to keep myself ambivalently open to emotional movement). The vast majority of 2-D entertainment fails to meet these stringent benchmarks. Upon sincere and stern self-reflection, I am now aware that I don't go to it for "novelty," an unintelligible concept, anyway. I go for titillation, the flutter. I can be repetitively or obsessively or spasmodically or atomically entertained. Most of these products are patchwork in their effects, so whatever. So in the end, there's little point snootily measuring them against novels or arthouse films (even really impressive commercial films) when so much can go wrong in anime adaptations, anyway.
[Sigh.] Just[Sigh.]This said, Musuko strikes me as impressive, accomplished--and, in any case, noticeably more so than Hana. I'll put forth the toying contention. The problem with her works at their weakest, as I see it, isn't that the concepts are "uninteresting," in and of themselves. Or that the mimetic frame is "bad" or "wrong." It's two other things: (1) they don't seem to "cohere," and (2) they aren't conveyed in the various "interesting" ways necessary to really hit home with ostranenie. In addition, the Hana adaptation shows dissatisfying understanding of the conceptual hierarchy Shimura used, lacks its (clumsy) passion. It just gets us to reaffirm shit we mostly believe, is really just something of a double-check. And while that's fine in a two-dimensional sense, it doesn't really work when a story's trying to y'know "do stuff." Everybody who isn't an ignorant and desperate hikikomori otaku (I can be flippant because I've actually been one) knows or figures out that "old-school yuri isn't real life" or that "life is tough when you're trying to figure out your gender/sex questions." I know this because I made the very mistake as a 19-year-old. I awkwardly asked the awkward question of a straight girl (I was probably grinning or breathing hard or some shit), and she gasped, "Eeewww, no!"
I had been thinking to myself, "Even straight chicks slip all of the time into taking things too far, right?" Wrong.
By "cohere," I merely mean that the structure-fiddling "tightly" ties us into the story and ostensibly incongruous, absurd, or Catch-22 visions or doesn't, in a way that also, oddly enough, seems articulable. An example: years ago, Cuchlann wrote the and probably will be on Highschool of the Dead. I haven't forgotten it, even now. He pointed out an element of the show--the kind you pick up but never quite get until somebody explains it to you. That is, the juxtaposition of physical body-tearing with sexual body-tearing (objectification). The link to Platonist eros (he actually uses Freud, but you get my idea). At that point, obviously, ensuing questions would, for example, involve how major his premise is--whether it really is the argument (he doesn't take the claims so far, and neither would I, since art doesn't necessarily exist in order to "make an argument")--or how precisely the thread of the argument is conveyed, in terms of sociological implications. I'll let you figure those out for yourself.
As an aside: I don't mean to sound like I necessarily believe in only one argument, or one articulation, or even an encoded one at all. It's true that authors attempt (some don't, exactly, but merely seem just to "do"), and we can be kind, try to figure out "what's going on"--"fair readings," as I've often put it before--but I merely mean to articulate the sincerest one I can, here, and hope that it will serve as a decent-enough placeholder for the sake of exposition.
Guh. Too honest for my own good.
Just had to throw this in SOMEWHERE.
In terms of argument, I think Musuko is sharper and more convincing because it doesn't feel to me just to be composed of stuff slapped together, with interspersed moments of coherence and something "happening" or "connecting." More impressively, Musuko more thoroughly, harmoniously connects; nothing feels trivial. Or this strikes me as being less the case than for Hana, the plot of which even some milder critics have said to be uninteresting or tedious. Do not be deceived: something is "happening," is "interesting." Kou and Ky ko's sham engagement, which potentially allows for a new perception of convention? After all, Akira is invited to date him. Yasuko's self-referential school legend? Memories--something like what we observe in Musuko--spliced into scenes? Notice Fumi's habit of rubbing a finger on her mug? What was that about?
Aforementioned "something," however, is just more obvious and label-able, in a way that disappoints or bores me. Never mind the fact that the structure seems muddled. Even when it's trying to break the line, the result just ends up being too safe, too yeah-I-get-it (the words of Egoraptor in his Megaman Sequelitis vid), so that it never honestly feels like it's going anywhere. Earnest truth-telling is reduced to playing angles lazily so as to seem ambiguous or empowering. And loudly so, to what I think is its detriment. Clinging to the passionate playing of an angle, however embarrassingly, might've saved it.
Let me talk about the various elements that really worked for me, and where Hana tended to come short. Again, this post deliberately avoids, to the best of its ability, "this captured the x of y" claims or whatever. The thing is, I suspect people have been reading in their personal experiences or research or whatever. Hell, there are a lot of people who've taken to calling Shuichi a "she," almost defiantly, like, "Yeah, I hold X worldview--deal with it!" I'm shrugging here. Laissez-faire:
* Revisionism, performativity (the degree to which the concept exists in real life), and theatricality are more densely and satisfyingly woven into Musuko's narrative. The story is supplemented: scenes filmed in takes, still frames "interrupting" expected scene progressions, voiceover that subconsciously, intuitively links elements of current story to recollection. Initially, they may feel out of place, clumsy, a little obvious (and, to be fair, they from time to time are)--but there's still something deeper going on there. With a goofy grin and a thumbs-up, I give it due credit.
* Because of comprehensible-but-unsatisfying organization, said themes/processes (while existent) have less force in Hana--which does kill genuine ambiguity. Bisexuality is never really taken too seriously (which strikes me as an odd choice, since yuri-played-straight tends to work similarly-individualistically--attraction to a person rather than a sex, and all).Real issues are "there," but feel tacked-on, inserted for so-called breadth of presentation. The structure could have gone into the permeation of theatricality, or rather, the inner reality of a person who gets carried away. The elements causing them to behave in certain ways ought to have been intricately or substantially linked. Instead, we get lacklusterbanter, literary analogy, or character mapping. As a result, neither the manga nor the anime really sing.
* The Hana adaptation defamiliarizes by interspersing standard nondiegetic points of view (like the title of book a character is reading) with ones where you peer at something characters peers at, ones where you peer at something from behind them--even rare moments where you peer at the character peering at something. You never quite share their POVs. Distance from them helps us to see their situation slightly differently, and exposes our/their assumptions. If this sounds brilliant, hold the fucking phone: in a nutshell, all of that's used to distract, to seem significant, and in my view this does a lot less in conveying than one might initially think.
* Musuko achieves ostranenie not only through (1) and elements of (3), but by continually tossing the characters into situations where applicability of theme takes fresh form--diegetically and nondiegetically. Dissonance abounds, the kind I personally care about.
* Musuko isn't about "issues." It's about narrative-building, finding your place within society, coming of age, those formless questions. The fulfillment isn't in sex or soulmate--lust, even "noble lust"--but in developed agency, achieved through hard, stumbling work and a blessed network of friendship and family. The desire for and commitment to so-called agency is only a tenth of the story. Hana, on the other hand, is ultimately about "right love"--whatever its insipid use of flashback (both sepia and black-and-white, of course) might imply about the nature of recapturing romantic imagery.
* For Musuko, emotional stylization (saying the groanworthy, sounding like characters in a play) is eclipsed, if not explained, by the fact that the work knowingly depicts adolescent incongruity and irrationality. That doesn't mean it can't be perceived as "bad" or "wrong" or "lazy." It's merely easier to find the elements "coherent."
* In Hana, the groanworthy is sometimes about frame, sometimes about dissonance, and mostly about gap-filling or advancing obvious story in a headbanging way. You'd think it would turn out this was because it was taking old-school yuri tendencies to eleven and making an O ZNAPZ argument, but no. Fumi will recall something that for some shrugworthy reason makes her giggle, just to get Akira to respond, so that we can get an obvious, boring contrast between past and present. Memories are actually described in full and shown (when the story isn't hiding them for dull effect), once-in-a-while compared. I can't help but find that uninspired.
* In Musuko, people are unrighteously mean or cruel; other people have to figure out how to deal with it in real time, in real proximity to the people they can't stand. It's not about "what's right or wrong" but about "how do I survive?" Hana fucks with the passage of time in order to move things along, thus killing its potential tension. The hoped-for payoff, in my opinion, is thwarted.
* Even friends can intimate insincerity; the real fun is in the grapple. AHA AHAHA AHAHAHAHA SAAAAAOORIIIIIN *smooch*
She's so Dostoevskian it's ridiculous.
Essentially, you're reading the gripes of a guy who feels catfished. Yeah, Hana isn't "awful." It isn't even "bad." It's likable. It's just worth a sigh. It follows through on little that the vast set-up seems to suggest. For example: in my very first post on the series, I made it clear that I was aware of the element (it's true that Ky ko barely fits the character with the insincere-betrothal element, and the character with the "abuse" she gets). Ah, Wuthering Heights. Think about it: violence between (or rather, within) sexes, reality vs. fantasy, suffering to the point of insanity, natural limitations, boxing oneself in, constructed dichotomies, and communication. There was a fuckton to work with, all kinds of textual pyrotechnics to be attempted, literary victories won! And, sure, there are various blips on the show's radar for all of these things (eps 3, 10) or, at least, one could bullshit them. Yet I find the presentation to be one of the most boring and--I take the shadowy risk--obvious I've ever seen. There are really only strong "moments," because most of them come down to slipshod analogy. Why tell this story? Sure, there's the mystery to Yasuko's character, and her cruelty. Yeah-I-get-it. But that doesn't mean that the characters should treat her irrationally (unless you've fleshed that out), nor that the narrator should treat her unsympathetically--only that the question of her redemption or getting over her issues is in the air.
While we're at it, why use Wuthering Heights at all? It almost seems as if Shimura decided that if she could just really sell that element, the work would come together. But really, why? Is that just for the yuri-but-not-yuri effect, doing the sort thing we'd expect from one and then pulling out the rug?Is that a "subtle" nod to the emotionally-crazy-i.e.-not-realist way in which Hana is handled? Is it the opposite, an acknowledgement that real suffering is quiet, drawn out, and boring? How inadequate! Is the work throwing up its hands in an attempt to go "who knows what Yasuko's deal was?" That doesn't even make sense! You've literally explained her story. You've had her do it, and we're supposed to believe it, right? And had her apologize at the very end! Are you analogizing the story in any useful way (not that I'm into analogy)? Are you contrasting the explicability of the situation with the seeming irrationality of fiction-fantasy? Adaptation with original? Presentation with perception? Ughhhh.
When in my Usagi Drop post, I took this same approach, I wasn't denying its various bits of sense-making, or moaning about statistical believability, or denigrating the plot. I was pointing out that it wasn't really selling much other than a vague, "Cool, bro, I guess you somehow could put things that way." Granted, as I wrote earlier, the Hana manga does "more"--but I'm not really going to elevate it, because it's gotten the hell enough of that. Although we understand that Yasuko has issues, that Fumi more or less fakes confidence in her pushing Yasuko away, that Yasuko's presumption of alignment between assertion and reality is flawed, all we come away with are some odd moralizing claims (I hesitate to add "nonsensical" or "arbitrary," because I want to be optimistic) that win out over storytelling honesty. It seems genuine, superficially, but when you think upon the matter, it's like I said--it only affirms shit we already recognize and label. To do this doesn't strike me as a good call: don't you want razor-sharp precision, even in addressing hazy matters? Wasn't this what the project was all about?
Whether or not you find Musuko to be some kind of masterpiece, you'll agree that it's ordered in something of a jarring way--one that I actually found to be more interesting on the whole than Hana's. The Hana manga pic earlier in the post speaks for itself in matters of vague potential, the adaptation for itself in unsure, equidistant appropriation. On the other hand, Musuko's adaptation likely surpasses its source material, because the writers found ways to really make all of the different things pop. One of the elements I liked very much was its use of frame skip.
This takes us to the opening animation of the first episode. I thought to spam images like I did in my last big post, but rather than let them hit you on their own (a flood of screencaps wouldn't quite work in this context), I'll analyze.
First, the talking (umee STs: "What are little girls made of?") begins and ends on a dark screen, with intro credits. Next, this:
We get to work reading the text closely, formally. We take notes: in this case, rough thoughts that will be polished once explication begins:
* Image of a boy sitting primly, awkwardly, blinking once. Perhaps "girlishly?"
* --CUT-- He tugs at the collar of his uniform, the front.
* --CUT-- He fixes the back part of the collar. Important to note that at first glance it appears as if he's fixing a ponytail.
* "Seifuku" means "uniform." The word is said nondiegetically, apart from its accompanying visuals. It is said as the boy is fixing the back of the collar.
* --CUT-- Original prim posture. The sentence is continued: "I asked for/wanted a baggy one, but this still kind of suffocates me." Again, he checks the front of the collar, but differently. He's more or less pointing something out, as if to someone else. "I checked the collar, and found this plastic board thing." He doesn't know what it's called. "It feels very tight, and cool against my skin."
* Nondiegetic speaking: "But I still have to wear it."
* --CUT-- Boy is smiling. "Starting today, I'm a middle school student."
Who would pretend that what's going on here isn't layered? Still, I aim to shed some light on the general "structure" or "hierarchy" of the story for those unaware or browsing for an even slightly-different take on stuff they've already figured out on their own.
If you were doing such a scene straightforwardly, you'd have the character sit down at the desk and talk to the camera. In fact, this is what happens. Absurdly-sharp readers might deduce that Shuichi is either the sort to make constant assessments of the world--what seems to be it, anyway--or the sort to seek to make certain impressions on it. They would then wonder about the identity of the observer. Imagined? Real? Such a scene would also get them wondering about the artificiality of presented events. Let's add a layer of self-consciousness, why don't we? In an obvious way. Let's add fidgeting!
But rather than convey matters in the ordinary way, with fiddling ubiquitous or beginning things, the opener spaces discrete events; this has a defamiliarizing effect. Look closely at it, and you'll realize that what you're "supposed" to be seeing is a series of takes; both camera and subject shift positionally. This implies that events in the natural sequence have been removed, hidden. It also leaves the viewer to fill in those spaces, in much the same way that we do from scene to scene in a film. If the word "seifuku" is chronologically consistent with the rest of the uttered sentence, even audio may have been lifted. What, then, would that mean for the voiceover near the end, for the black-screen narration at the beginning? We are thus made starkly aware of animation's artificiality. Though Shuichi would appear to be the one in control of the narrative, we know that an animator has the power to disorder a scheme's original progression and to deceive us. Should we believe the story as told, or not? How much control does Shuichi have over the presentation? Where is this place, and how connected is it to the "real" world? You're far more likely to be turning over such questions in your mind when the story is conveyed this way than you are when the story is conveyed in the same old way you encounter in, say, your "typical" slice-of-life or romance series.
Who knows how far apart these takes actually are from each other and from the comments made, save the manufacturer of the sequence, the fiction? To what degree is there a fiction, and who is the audience? Consider the reading we're most likely to draw out. We start with an obviously-reductionist nursery rhyme (an uncertain kid wonders about a dichotomous something said to and by kids). Only darkness when the question is asked. Next, an intent-looking boy--if bashful--with a small frown on his face. Following that, two takes. For both comparison and for contrast, the images frame each other. Both are, in essence, the rearrangement of a collar. The first one looks quite ordinary; it's the second that draws our attention, however: Shuichi seems to us to be "girlish," or at least, the sort to fidget over clothing. We rashly bracket "action," and class it, even dichotomously. Shuichi will be described by Saori some minutes later as an individual possessing cuteness and charm. Only an unsympathetic few who see him will be taken aback by his actions. It will be clothing that makes the difference (for him, one should observe) at the episode climax, not a faux-essentialist nursery rhyme.
Clothing? It suddenly strikes us as oddly right that "seifuku" would be suspended from the rest of the sentence. It's unmoored from the diegetic, which places it alongside voiceover and frees it from the constraints of the immediate situation. "Seifuku" is linked to the appearance of hair-primping; which is linked to both the wig and the sailor fuku Shuichi uses part-way in; which is linked to the realization that he needs to launder his school uniform. It's now evident that what had appeared to us to be a "usual" introductory or self-referential scene is in actuality far more. Don't freak out here, reader. It doesn't matter if you haven't yet rationalized "how everything relates." The submerged feels are enough. You can see that it comes together, you're asking yourself moral questions, and you're cued sympathetically to do all of this by means of a 45-second opener. The most brilliant works of art evade this sort of concrete reasoning--which is why a lot of people hate reading them. I adapt the wise reaction of Egoraptor:
"Hourou Musuko, on the other hand, has so much to offer, and it teaches you all of it in the first ep. No! In the first fuckin' scenes of the series. It's NUTS!!!"
Why not see if we can get more waves out of the thing? Let's link "seifuku" with the other nondiegetic statement our protagonist makes, "But I still have to wear it" (the single word said before the cut, and the sentence before the next one). This progression, central to the opener (in your first viewing, you'd care about it most immediately), leaves important textual clues; we are helped along by our grasp of the dissociated word's role throughout the story.
Sans voiceover, we really only have shots of a kid griping about a baggy "one"--contextually, the uniform he's pointing out. Again, who is Shuichi's audience? Us? Possibly, though this would likely be true only indirectly. Himself? Intriguing. Are we akin to a magazine readership? Why does he possess the power to describe situations both in real-time and in the past tense (looking backward, it almost appears, from various points in the story), to so impossibly inhabit himself? His declarations comprise diegetic thought, narrative, and distant reflection--or rather, they happen to be able to serve those purposes. All three of which are blurred together, placed on the same pedestal. We might even turn to Takatsuki's unbroken sequence at the episode's end, which--almost like a dream--"disrupts" Shuichi's sleep (the nursery rhyme question, thematically contrasted with Takatsuki's emphasis of "just the difference between wanting to wear boys' clothes and wanting to wear girls' clothes"). Her case, nonetheless, appears to us to be one of wavering self-rationalization, the very sort of wishy-washiness from which she fleetingly encouraged him to turn away.
Shuichi's placement within the text becomes slightly, or possibly much, clearer. He can't deceive us by jumbling the events themselves, by singularly generating "the" narrative or guiding its direction (even we viewers have our part to play, for all of our wisdom and folly). He is called "cute," after all. He is perhaps objectified. Images of him are repeatedly captured by camera and on imaginary film. His body is undergoing male puberty. His dressing up as a girl, even while alone, maintains a layer of performance and anxious looking to the world around him. Even so: though he is unclear on the meaning of "begin" and "end," though we don't capture all there is to him (and, very likely, neither can he), though reality tends to etch its effects, he can reflect, assess, redirect if he can't transmute. His narration appears somehow disembodied (even superpositioned, if the physics analogy isn't too distracting), but it is also utilitarian--if only retrospectively. To wear a gakuran or not comes down to his assessment of his very real personal limitations. What does it mean to be a girl? Is it enough for him to perform as a girl? To look like a girl? To be recognized as a girl? In this shifting, defamiliarizing presentation of narrative distance, we viewers observe theatricality and sincerity in tandem, earnestness and reticence, the influence of one on the other.
And that's it. What more do I honestly need to say? We don't need to go into the use of Debussy's Impressionistic work "Clair de lune" (the third movement of his Suite Bergamasque), and its ties to . We don't need to plunge deeper into the repetition of the question of what girls are made of, precisely when it is that these questions are asked (hints: performance, "cute"), the motif of physiology (appetite, "stink"), something with which the episode ends, or the discussion of the relative ease/difficulty with which Shuichi and Takatsuki might achieve their aims. There's no need to agonize more exactly over the relationship between thought and action, between "authentic" and "reductionist" claims; we're given no hard-and-fast rules, as is only right. It's all good. Those ideas--motifs--have already been grafted onto a woven web of meaning. Imagine that.
Final facial expression. Aaand the first episode comes full-circle.
It's worth noting that this sort of deceleration, shuffling, or interruption happens throughout the series. It isn't spammed, which is obviously a good thing. Rather than leaving us with mere ideas or concept, structure itself accords--pretty damn tightly, actually. The artistic argument is continually evolving and changing: it always takes work to follow, but the attentive viewer never quite loses it. There's a pretty good chance you've noticed this sort of thing running around a bunch of times yourself, even if you had no idea it was even there--and, one way or another, it likely got through to you. Hell, the only reason I didn't break down Saori's scene at the beginning of the very next ep is because the process would've been redundant, and the magic doesn't look as cool twice around.
More than a year after my first run-in with Aoi Hana, do I hate it? As artistic work, I'm not impressed with the manga's ideas, hit-once-in-a-while structure, or its morality (though sincerity is the most recommending trait of Shimura's work). I dislike the anime, not because there's nothing there, but because the writers didn't know how to build upon a work that was already pretty well, not great. In some sense, it wasn't J.C. Staff's fault, and they do seem to have tried. If I were to go all the way, even to harshness? I think it was a case of the half-blind leading the half-blind. The manga version of Musuko seems to me cleaner, though really obvious. But, see, I like the adaptation so much more that I don't even think to appraise it. It's the adaptation I'll be recommending, if or whenever I do so.
What I'm really happy about is the fact that I'm finally at peace regarding the whole matter. I'm not mad that Hana exists, only disappointed it couldn't be better. As usual; Hana never had been special that way. And I've been so clear-minded writing this post that I barely care about the good and bad shit people said about it that ran me up the wall. And here I thought I was going to end up hulking out and throwing vehicles. MAAAAN I FEEL GOOOOD
So, yeah--fuck Aoi Hana and its watercolors.