Title: Yahari Ore no Seishun Love Comedy wa Machigatteiru / My Teen Romantic Comedy Is As Wrong As I Expected / Oregairu
Length: 13 x 24 minute episodes (per Season 1 & 2), 12 x 24 minute episodes (Season 3)
Genre: Comedy, drama, school-club comedy, harem, (Season 3) romance
Year of release: 2013 (Season 1), 2015 (Season 2), 2020 (Season 3)
I don’t like anime rom-coms very much. That’s not to say that I don’t like rom-coms in general, but there’s a very specific niche that anime has carved in the genre, and it’s a particularly boring mix of (frustratingly vanilla) wish-fulfilment-fantasy and teenage dopiness. The latter point is especially damning, as I almost never buy into these romances.
Enter Oregairu – with its full (and unbearably long) title suggesting some sort of parody on the genre. Well… the long-short of it is that it isn’t. It makes a couple of meta-gags once or twice, but in reality it’s just a solo protagonist doing school-club things alongside 2 (and during Season 2, 3) girls. He’s so self-depreciating, and the situations so intensely focused upon, that there’s no room for romantic feelings or flirting or any of that nonsense. I don’t even give Season 1 or 2 romance tags.
But let’s backtrack to the, uh, elephant in the previous paragraph. Hachiman Hikigaya (Hachi or Hikki for short), Oregairu’s wonderful protagonist, is self-depreciating. Not in the ‘dark room depression’ kind of way (like a certain Evangelion protagonist might be), but in a downright hilarious, self-aware sort-of way. As cocky and as smart-ass as he can be, he knows his place in the social hierarchy is right at the bottom, and he has no intent on changing that. Rather, he revels in it, he basks in it, and he even abuses it to do things other people wouldn’t dare. The series picks up on his complete lack of dignity several times, analyses, and promises it will confront it… eventually, as it gets him caught up in the whirlwind of high school life – properly, against his will, and makes him realise how much he doesn’t fit in with it.
The character designs were much more cartoonish in the earliest Season, with much more bland lighting and colours. Although later Seasons have a much more refined animation and a prettier lighting setup, there’s something to be said for the straight-forward framing approach of the first Season, which helped the early series come across witter and in-the-moment instead of the later introspective, almost rose-tinted second and third Seasons.
But he is gradually convinced to give it all a go. And the means to do that is the rather awkward series setup. Well, it’s not that weird, these light novella types are chock-full of unbelievable premises, and Oregairu’s is hardly the worst: Hikki’s language teacher stroke school counsellor is so peeved with his constant smartass essays on how he wants to do nothing that she forces him to join the Service Club. This club is manned by only one girl, the smart, cold and standoffish Yukino Yukinoshita.
Man, Yukino is a can of worms. Similar to Hikki, she also knows what other people think of her – and she, similarly, revels, basks and abuses the position that other people see her in. She is pretty far up her own arse, basically, but she sort-of gets away with it because her real goal is to help other people, hence why she runs this club – so that people can come and ask for guidance, assistance… whatever she can do, she’ll do it, because she knows she can.
And these two are are put into competition.
Well, the competitiveness quickly gets sanded down when the more down-to-earth main character of this series, Yui Yuigahama, joins the fold as early as episode 2. She’s the first person the club helps, when she wants to make cookies for somebody but has no cooking skills whatsoever. She enjoys her time so much with this pair that she joins the club, but the rest of the series is only these 3 helping others. Similarly, Yui knows that she’s something of a ditz, she knows that she struggles to get across what she means and too often goes with the flow, and that’s why she likes these two so much – because they say exactly what they mean, no bullshit.
Now, let’s analyse the cookie problem to demonstrate where the core conflict of Oregairu resides. The ‘making cookies’ thing has sort-of rom-com vibes, and the whole series often uses semi-rom-com shenanigans, but it ultimately doesn’t result in Hikki getting touchy-feely-flirty-feely with women. No, it presents the difference in how Hiki and Yukino solve problems: one of changing and overcoming, one of accepting and a deeper understanding. Case in point, Yukino spends a whole evening trying to show Yui how to bake cookies and it’s consistently a disaster; Hikki, who is standing-by as the taste-tester, says an honest truth that is kind, but requires some gymnastics to realise; Hikki explains that it doesn’t matter if she bakes good cookies or not, what matters is that she gave them for a reason and the reason matters. He then proceeds to eat the cookies to show that the taste doesn’t matter at all, and almost chokes on his words, because, hey, it’s still a comedy, but despite all the self-depreciating and put-downs, a feel-good one.
Hikki and the gang consult in their clubroom, and the sitting positions really illustrate their relationship. Yukino is who is being asked for help, Yui is supporting her and Hikki is the dark-horse that helps out of his own misguided kindness, in ways nobody really wants but needs. And he’s constantly getting jabbed at for being anti-social, friendless, awkward and, best of all, being called ugly with his dead-fish eyes. A masochistic fantasy indeed.
Throughout the rest of the series (particularly Season 1, where the show episodically handles the problems the club gets), Yukino will attempt to solve a problem herself in a logical way that solves the problem. Hikki, on the other-hand, will be an asshole or just outright become an antagonist in a bid to shift the problem to get the happy ending for everybody… but him. He will say what nobody else is willing to say, and there was a reason for that. Because he thinks his social standing couldn’t get any lower, he will outright state the unspoken issues, which makes him come across as a tactless dick that even gets bullied for it, but it’s always getting the best possible solution. Hachiman typically riles people up against him to get the people’s he’s helping to bond, or to make them prove him wrong. Gymnastics indeed, but the show is good at explaining them.
A great script would be required to get all of the double-speak, deeper-meanings across, and indeed, Oregairu’s steps up big time. The smart-ass Hikki has extremely layered dialogues and monologues, where it becomes clear that he’s often hiding his own kindness from himself. He genuinely wants to solve these issues and make everybody happy, he just… doesn’t need to be a part of that himself. It’s really impressive that all this comes across with #MeToo self-put-downs that even have ego. There’s a lot to Hikki, and he is the definite draw of the series. Not only is Hachiman frustratingly relatable and downright hilarious, but his problem solving-style is… fascinating, and just immature enough to come across like he is the age the series pins him at.
As the season goes on and his good side comes out more-and-more – even if, by all means, he is continuing to outwardly show this bluntly honest critic to larger groups – it becomes more and more like he earns the affection he gains from his closest friends (and sister – his chemistry with his sister is fantastic!). The Chuuni, the Tennis Club-androgynous boy, the standoffish big-sister, even the popular-and-perfect boy in his class… Hikki gets all these tight relationships with a huge number of the student body that are too complex, too intimate, too bizarre to explain simply.
Actually, on that note, I should probably add what I think one of Oregairu’s strengths is – popular people. It’s no secret that anime/light novels/manga are aimed at… well… lonely people, nerds etc. I’m so used to seeing popular cliques be the punching bag to criticise, outright bullies or thick. No, not here. Hayama Hayato, the pretty boy of Oregairu’s cast, is smart, layered and his group is just as complicated. There’s no malice anywhere in the cast, it’s not like anybody is being mean for the sake of it. Even the popular group are just trying to do their best, just like Hikki.
The later Seasons continually play-up the sunset-lighting in the clubroom. The thematic motif – of Hachiman and the girls feeling their group’s at a twilight juncture – is not hard to miss, but the other implications of the lighting feel a bit more rubbed in. It’s less cynical, less parodical, than the first Season suggested this story would play out.
In Season 2, the series gains much longer, more complicated, and more personal arcs. Hikki and the gang end up helping a girl called Iroha who is the shoe-in for becoming the school council president… but she doesn’t want to do it. So the gang have to find a way to prevent her becoming president, and Hikki’s methods have become so contentious at this point that the gang don’t want to see him doing a speech so poor that nobody would want Iroha as president. So the gang split-up to find other ways.
This does the show’s ‘romance’ portion, the thing that the series wants to quietly build in the background, no favours at all. Hikki spends a lot of time with Iroha in Season 2, which is great, because the pair have great chemistry – no romantic undertones whatsoever. Iroha’s ‘foxy’, or brazen personality, grates against Hikki’s self-depreciating competence, and results in some great scenes. Maybe Iroha’s ‘I already have feelings for somebody else’ apologetic gag is overused, but even at the end, it continues to be funny.
Season 2 comes from a new director/studio combo (who would continue Season 3), and there is a definite stylistic difference. The drama aspects are really upped, with a reverb-heavy piano score which threatens to undermine the blink-and-you-miss-it funny script, and enough CGI Bloom to warrant every scene have curtains. But this prettier series is still absolutely hilarious, such as when Hikki is helping to organise a cross-school-project and has to deal with the ‘business talk’ of the other school’s council president. Seeing Hikki try to duke it out with him, saying the thing nobody else wants to say in layers of business innuendo, is some of the funniest stuff I’ve seen in anime. When this character cameos again in the final Season, the sheer creativity of Oregairu meets its head in an impromptu rap battle of business speak.
The doublespeak is a constant threat of capsizing the script, but the distinctly shifting vocal tones, between external dialogue and internal monologues, creates the hilarity. Comic timing is crisp, and what makes this scene so funny is the way it introduces specific character animation – the high frame rate handwaving is so goofy but so damn funny.
I scoffed a lot at Oregairu’s run. Hikki is hilarious, and the put-downs he receives just get better and better the more you get to know the characters. His monologue on why the present is the best time to be in – by process of elimination – is the kind of depressingly hilarious humour the series carves its niche in. Season 2 is excellent at dramatising situations, too, with the cast making meaningful changes into more active, more sympathetic, more empathetic people.
But, sadly, Series 3 tries to ramp up the romantic aspects. And I almost want to say it’s incompetent at it, but it’s actually far too competent at everything else that it makes the gulf between genre-execution seem bigger than it really is. Hikki, Yui and Yukino have developed this fantastic chemistry and it makes sense these girls… wouldn’t necessarily be attracted to him, but are falling in love with him. There are a handful of romanticish moments in Season 3 demonstrating who he might pick. But it’s still doing its drama stuff well, it’s still funny, but it isn’t convincingly romantic.
Outside of the big moment, Oregairu lacks the doki doki; it lacks that heartstopping feeling of romance, because it just doesn’t even try to do those moments, and the more subdued stuff is busy doing other things. THEN AGAIN, it’s hard to avoid how the series’ longterm ‘talking around a problem’ results in the cast saying a whole lot of nothing for a good chunk of episodes, and feels like the once-great scriptwriting is longer by virtue of padding instead of deepening.
Of course, there’s a big moment, a big outpour of feeling from Hikki which does convince, in a moment-to-moment sort of way anyway. Then the anime decides to take a downhill slope ride from there, with him and the chosen girl doing tweeny coupleish things and being blushy with one another. Ew. Not so parodical at all, huh? It felt majorly out-of-character, and nothing to do with why I binged and fell in love with the series in the first place. But, hey, it only lasted an episode and a half – Oregairu’s still got 35 or so fantastic episodes under its belt.
Hiratsuka-sensei is the most blatant example of an underutilised character. By the series’ finale, many of the threads that are toyed with in the supporting cast feel like they’re wrapped up without proper closure. I say this in the best possible way: it was too soon to wave goodbye to her, but also Hayama and his intriguing background love-story – and many more.
Astute readers would notice I used the ‘L’ word up above. Yes, I definitely did love my time with Oregairu. I think it’s a terrific anime, largely because of excellent writing, a strong workman-like production to back it up and, most importantly, some great episode direction and voice acting. The continuing development of characters run parallel to some of the best high school comedy in the medium. But there’s a hole in my heart at the end, and that’s not because the series is over… rather, it feels like it’s not really over. Not only was I a little unconvinced by the romance (especially its longevity – feelings of love can’t cover up how many times every character in the show comments on Yukino and Yui’s beauty compared to Hikki’s dead-fish-eyes…), but I was also not convinced that Hikki’s arc is over. Much of his personality was confronted across the series, particularly his longing to have genuine friendships that mean something and last, but Hikki’s still far too willing to sacrifice himself for a cause, and he still doesn’t really have any care for himself.
To go back to my earlier Evangelion reference, there’s no ‘Take Care Of Yourself’ moment for Hikki, despite the story being wrapped up in one final hurrah. Despite not being what it said it was on the tin, it was easy to buy into because it was so good at what it did do – but after the curtain falls, it’s almost like it became what it wanted to ridicule.