You’re watching this show, and you feel for these poor kids. They make their lives very difficult, and make tons of bad choices. But you’re experienced. You’ve seen these sad romantic shows. Somehow it will all work out in the end.
Not this time!
This is one of the more bizarre slice-of-life/romance shows you’ll ever see. I find it engaging while I watch it, but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. If nothing else, it is extremely memorable. And this is almost completely due to its infamously horrific ending. Proceed with caution…for more reasons than just spoilers!
These characters are reasonably complex. They receive a very appropriate amount of development each. In that sense they are well done. But none of them are very interesting individually. Like pretty much everything else in this show, they might be colored negatively by the last episode. Either way, a good but fairly uninteresting cast of characters overall. Much like this paragraph.
Let’s start with the villain. Itou Makoto has got to be one of the worst male characters ever devised in romance anime. Not worst as in poorly designed, but as a person! Ugh the moments I remember! “I like you more.” What a horrific thing to say to a girl! What a horrific thing to say about a girl! It’s his despicable behavior that ultimately results in the horrors at the end. And I don’t quite get why this happens. He goes from shy and uncool dude who has a fleeting interest in a girl on his train ride to school to a sexually voracious bastard who thinks nothing of others and leaves wreckage in his path. I think initially he’s certainly selfishly motivated (probably sexually motivated as well), but it’s in a normal boy-girl way. You can understand why he’d initially be interested in Kotonoha. You can definitely understand how he becomes interested in Sekai. What I don’t understand is how it devolves from there. He becomes disinterested in these two rather quickly, almost shockingly so. And it just gets ugly from there. He sleeps with every female character from his school we see other than poor Nanami, who mercifully is spared.
I cannot find any thread to grasp in his character. Lots of characters in stories experience these kinds of descents to evil, and often the underlying cause is elusive to our discovery. For all I know this could be a commentary on some personal experience of the author. Maybe not something he did personally, but something he’s seen happen, etc. You could say Itou is preying on weaknesses, but I don’t see any particular evidence for that. I can’t find an obvious clue within the show that points me towards any reason for his behavior. Nor his popularity. That’s another thing that makes me think maybe this has to do with someone’s personal experiences. The bad guy always gets the girls! A rather tired and whiny theme in all kinds of literature, still it provides a dramatic setting for any romantic tale. But this guy can win the heart of any girl he passes in the hallway apparently, and I can’t think of anybody less deserving. Or, perhaps he does deserve it, given how it all ultimately works out!
Katsura Kotonoha is of course the first target. She’s the one he takes the picture of, thereby triggering the “urban legend” that’s mentioned throughout this show at times. This character is so depressing. She’s so shy and reticent it’s painful. Her and her little voice and all those shy little sounds she makes. You can understand why she might run a potential boyfriend off because she’s so unable to express anything other than fear of almost every situation. Not that I agree with the potential boyfriend’s decision in that regard. She’s certainly very sweet initially, and even though she can’t overcome her fears, she seems thoughtfully aware of the dangers of giving in to those fears. Or at least in part.
One could argue both ways in regard to her overcoming those fears. You could say she overcomes all of them, since you could hardly act as boldly as she does in the end without overcoming such fears. Even if she had gone mad. But I believe she hasn’t overcome any of them at all, not in the slightest. This is what I think ultimately drives her to the choice she makes. Near the end when she seems to get back together with Itou she says that “soon” she will allow him to “touch them.” If you’ve seen the show you probably remember the defining feature of her physique, so I needn’t detail this comment more. But I think that moment tells us that she still hasn’t overcome any of her fears, many of which are embodied in this element of her discomfort with anything physical. But does fear drive her to kill?
I would have thought this show extremely remarkable if Kotonoha was the only person who did any killing. It’s remarkable enough the way it works out, but consider this. I mentioned Kotonoha’s fear of any physical intimacy. I won’t get down into the weeds of all that’s possibly going on there. For today we’ll simply say that’s the most outward sign of her personal insecurity and the greatest source of fear in her heart. But that aside, who else in the show shares this kind of fear? Not a single person does. On the contrary, every other person could be described as promiscuous, all to different degrees. Every other girl is not only willing to randomly have sex with Itou, but often they are the ones seeking it. This sets Kotonoha apart from them quite distinctly.
It’s easy to point to the fact that she’s picked on as one of the reasons Kotonoha is driven to madness. That’s very difficult to watch in this show, even if it is a little cliche in this case. But if you were looking for certainty that the author was trying to set Kotonoha apart from everyone else, you need look no further than this bullying. She is relentlessly tormented by those four shits. And to return to Itou and his despicableness once more, he never interferes even when he’s around. I hate that about him the most. But I stray. Kotonoha is the only person we ever see singled out in this regard. It hurts her continuously. This and the drama of her relationship with Itou and the rumors always swirling around them stab at her heart as mercilessly as she stabs at Sekai in the end.
This is why I would have found it more interesting if she was the only person to do any killing. From a practical view (using “practical” cautiously here, in a literary sense), I can understand why she would finally snap and kill Sekai. Sekai didn’t go through anything compared to what Kotonoha’s been through, yet she resorts to vengefully killing Itou over the slight he pays to her. It’s easy to understand why the author would make this the final straw, as they say. But having set her apart from the other characters so distinctly, I feel it would make more sense if she was the only person to take things to this length. Indeed, even in her killing she separates herself further from the other killer, Sekai, choosing to insanely lug Itou’s head around with her and slice into Sekai’s genitals to prove she was right about Sekai’s lie. So it’s a little strange to me that both of them would resort to this ultimate decision, instead of it just being Katonoha. I guess you could say this is some odd attempt by the author to actually make Sekai and Kotonoha seem more similar than we’d thought, but I can’t see that being the case. Not after Kotonoha ups the severity of these acts so horrifically.
So why does Sekai kill Itou? She’s definitely not nearly as wounded as Kotonoha. Sure she’s fits the character mold of the girl who stereotypically suppresses her feelings for a long time. But she hasn’t been suppressing them recently. On the contrary, she’s gotten everything she wants. And I think that’s just it. She’s been in total control of this situation for some time now. Once that control starts to slip, she takes drastic efforts to remedy the situation. The lie she makes up about being pregnant is the clearest example of that. Obviously we know it was untrue ultimately (thanks Kotonoha!), but initially at least I think we’re supposed to wonder if Sekai even knows for sure herself. Maybe she doesn’t want to visit the “clinic” not because she knows she isn’t pregnant, but because she doesn’t want to know the truth. It’s Kotonoha who shines the light on the truth. And this attack on her control over this situation causes her to snap. Kotonoha finally finds a kind of strength, the ability to see through Sekai’s efforts to control Itou, and bares her teeth finally at her. So Sekai’s game is up, and she takes one more drastic action in her desire to control the situation right up to the end. Which of course doesn’t work out so well for her.
I could dive into this deeper. But it’s disgusting enough as it is. Hopefully I’ve demonstrated some of the depth of these characters at least. If it weren’t for the “bad taste” it all leaves in your mouth, I think these characters would feel much more interesting. For one thing, it’s fairly rare in anime, or in any literature I guess, where character development continues up to the apex of the story. At their tragic ends, each character’s development is at its fullest. Itou is shamelessly and irrevocably motivated only by selfish sexual desire. Sekai has lost her control over the situation with no hope of regaining it, having shamed herself and yet lost to her ultimate rival. And Kotonoha finds the only way out of her desperately unhappy situation she can see: insanity, murder, and suicide, throwing aside herself and becoming the monster. It’s all very clever in that sense, even if it’s a little bizarre, to say the least.
The other characters are incidental to the story. I like Nanami, even though she’s mean to Kotonoha once and I don’t like that. She’s tall and strong. Or so we think. Even she breaks down in the end. I don’t like to talk about foreshadowing too much in literature, as it’s a fairly easy tool to use, and fairly common at that, but Nanami sinking into depression probably is a clue about what’s on the horizon. That’s pretty sad, as you know she’s been after this same guy for a while and now she’s humiliated over the “break room” video. That whole thing is disgusting through there. Ugh, the perversion in this show and its excruciating results. Well, I guess that’s the effect of all these ancillary characters. They contribute to pretty much making the situation as bad as it possibly could be. Even Kiyoura makes things worse.
Bleh, enough of the madness! Let’s vomit those rainbows and move on. These are good quality characters. They definitely are not as memorable as they could be, given their decadence and the horror of the final outcome, but I cannot deny the effort the author put into their development. For that I can only applaud, even if I must turn away at the choices these characters make. They’re decently powerful in an artistic sense, without question.
I always mention Clannad when I see these kinds of faces. Questions of Clannad’s faces being the poster child of this style aside, we have those same big weird eyes in this show. But I like how they’re used here. The eyes are weirdly expressive, and I mean that exactly. The large, trapezoidal shape is eerie, giving an unsettling feeling to the appearance of these characters. At the same time, all that extra space and the accompanying long, thin eyebrows make for a massive array of unmistakable expressions. Kotonoha’s unease and sadness are clearly and constantly visible, her eyes drooping at the corners more prominently than other characters’ eyes, her eyebrows always slanted downward and slightly inflexed. I love how the reflective circles on her eyes disappear when she first begins her descent into madness. The artists were not very nice to us when they caused those white circles to reappear near the end, making us think there was a chance this was going to end nicely for Kotonoha.
I should note that this facial type is only used for the girls. The two boys have very different eyes from the girls. Itou in particular looks like a MC from an adventure anime. His eyes are much more “normal” anime size and his hair is pretty undetailed, large triangular locks spanning out from his face. If there’s an artistic reason for this, I’m not sure. Usually those bizarre Clannad appearances are reserved for females, but you usually see males with similar looks when this art style is employed in a series. Not so here. That makes me wonder what the specific reason was for this decision. I speculate maybe his lively “adventurer” look could simply be to throw us off. The girls’ appearances will alarm you, cluing you in pretty quickly to something twisted lying in wait beneath the otherwise normal development during this story. So perhaps Itou’s appearance works to deny that feeling. The stereotypical “harem” MC right?
Darkness. Yeah, you don’t really even notice it much until the series ends as it does. I can’t think of a single scene where there were ever any lively colors. Now, given the spectrum that romance anime spans, that might not be too surprising. One of my favorite romance anime is White Album, and you get a ton of white and gray and blue in that series. But then you have Snow White with the Red Hair on the other end, where everything is extraordinarily bright and cheery. Even the difficult moments in that show are not particularly characterized by a lack of saturation or predominant grayscale coloring. School Days is very dim. Think about it. Probably the most vivid color we see is the red on the characters’ cheeks when they’re embarrassed. Even the red on the girls’ uniform ribbons isn’t very bright. The rest of their uniforms, despite the white portions, are very dark.
Another prominent place you see this darkness is eye color. They all have very dark eyes. Blackish, grayish, maybe even brownish-reddish, but all very dark. Kiyoura has red eyes, inexplicably. That gives her a more ghastly appearance than any of the other characters in my opinion. Maybe that’s another effort at foreshadowing. Otherwise I’m not able to readily explain it, since no one else has even a hint of bright coloring in their eyes. Even the slightest shadow will remove any trace of color from these characters’ eyes. Again this is easiest to see in Kiyoura. Her eyes switch to a grayish color, almost unreasonably so at times, if any kind of shadowing is perceptible in the scene. And these eyes have as little percent whitespace as you’ll ever see.
The scenery often reflects this dimness as well. The trio’s rooftop oasis (arena?) is about as bland a place as you’ll ever see in anime. It is cold and gray and metallic. The sky, both in those roof scenes and elsewhere, isn’t a really pretty blue. There’s usually a lot of clouds, white or otherwise, and it feels a bit on the gray or purple side of the spectrum. I think it’s supposed to feel fairly normal, while quite obviously it isn’t. The school itself is ordinary, but continues the dull color theme.
These characters are slight in stature and appearance, but there’s an undeniable sexiness about the girls. I don’t know if this is due mostly to the thin and pointed strands of hair we often associate with sexy character designs, or the uncomfortably short skirts, or the angles at which we see the girls, or something else. But it adds a level of discomfort to the show at a pretty constant rate. There’s a bit of the fanservice-y stuff going on in here, particularly with Kotonoha, but it’s not nearly as bad as what we usually associate with harem anime. Still, the feeling is definitely there. I presume the discomfort arises partly from the inescapable fact that these are highschoolers, something we’re constantly dealing with when we’re discussing physiques in anime unfortunately. The rest of the discomfort comes from Kotonoha’s shy innocence and Itou’s disgraceful promiscuity. These themes mount in visibility as the series progresses, heightening the viewer’s awareness of the unease of the appearance of the girls.
I think the art serves its purposes. There’s nothing spectacular about it that would make me say it has some superior effect on the series. But between the dim coloring and the weird faces, it does a really good job toying with our minds and making us squirm just a little more in our seats. I can’t argue with its effect at all in that regard!
Why must they die?
Before I get anywhere near that, there’s a handful of things going on in this story that are worth examining briefly. And I’m going to leave foreshadowing out of that discussion entirely. Why does he want to do that? Because foreshadowing is used in many parts of this show, not just in the story. I’ll get to that a bit more in the final section below.
Let’s start with “urban legends.” We see this phrase somewhat frequently in anime. Many of you probably think Celty Sturlson when you hear this, and rightly so. But what’s up with it in this show? Essentially, the “urban legend” here says that if you take a photo of a girl/boy on your phone at this school (is it localized to the school?), then you and that person will end up being a couple. This is the first thing we’re exposed to in this anime. Itou is on the train, he decides he “wants a little more” (oh please), and so he takes a picture of Kotonoha without her consent. After this happens, people continue to take pictures of their amorous targets throughout the show, usually unbeknownst to the target, to the point that almost everybody’s flip phone (ugh) background is Itou at some point. I’m kidding, but it’s probably the case nonetheless. Phones are depicted prominently in general. The ending sequence always features Itou’s phone showing a different picture. The in-break and out-break splash screens I believe always feature a phone somewhere. We see the message alert light on the phones probably a hundred times on multiple phones. Why?
The short answer is I’m not certain. It’s either a great artistic point that I’m missing or a confuzzled mess, but this focus on phones and the urban legend itself don’t seem to amount to anything. Phones tend to get a little extra attention in romance anime because, as we all know, a great deal of uncertainty and emotional pain in relationships revolves around messages on phones, or the lack of them. Hence phones often play an unusually enlarged role in romance anime. Or at least if it’s set in modern times (InuYasha?). Perhaps therefore this hyper focus on it in this series is meant to utilize that affect and to lend a feeling of normalcy to the show. But the urban legend still lacks explanatory power. Okay, so Kotonoha is the last person Itou is “with” in a relationship sense, but nani-tf? So urban legends come with catches, a typical Japanese theme?
Names play an important role in School Days. Or I think they do. We are not left in any doubt that Sekai’s name is unusual for a reason. Even non-Japanese viewers are familiar with the translation of this word, meaning “world.” At another point in the show, Itou points out that Kotonoha’s name is unusual too. So my curiosity is piqued about what’s going on with names in this show.
Unfortunately, my knowledge leaves me unable to follow this trail any further. While I could speculate about the use of “sekai” as a name, it’s not clear to me why “Kotonoha” is unusual. Perhaps Itou means “rare.” But I think he probably means something about what her name means. And that’s where the trail ends for me. I believe that it translates to something like “words” or “language,” but if there’s more significance to it than that I cannot discover it. I wonder about its cultural meaning, just as I wonder about the cultural meaning of the phrase that translates to “urban legend.” But for us the viewer, I can say for certain there there’s probably some significance to these names. Does that significance tie into the essential question of this series? Probably, and thus in this review a lot of questions could be left unanswered.
What is that essential question, you say? It is this: Why must Itou, Sekai, and Kotonoha die?
Is it something as simple as if you dive into “worldly” things (sekai) and involve the supernatural (“urban legend”) then the harsh reality of the matter (represented by “language” or “words”) will strike back? I sure hope not. That would be most trite. So hoping that’s definitely not the case, I am left with no real answers to this question. In fact, I wonder whether there is any deeper thread behind any of it. Is it really just a crass and visceral ending to an already devastatingly unhappy plot? At this point that’s what I’m left to conclude, if cautiously given the dead end I encounter regarding names.
Hence the story resides mostly in the melodrama realm. There’s a limited number of emotionally charged and semi mysterious plot lines going on, and while one can understand where they end up and why, there doesn’t immediately seem to be anything deeper undergirding all of it. As far as melodrama goes, is it well done? Yes. You feel bad for these girls. Not Itou. Itou can go f**k himself. Wait he’s already doing that anyway. The scene at the end is perhaps both predictable and unexpected at the same time. If the goal is simply to twist your insides, differently than simple horror, then this show is a smashing success. You will always remember this story for its ending, and that allows your memory to trigger to the rest of the plot. I can’t say it’s a failure artistically at that rate.
So why does the Hawk not like foreshadowing? Because it is a simple and overused plot device. It’s easy to say something foreshadows a subsequent event in a story. I guess I should say it’s too superficial of a device to be very interesting to me. That being said, this story uses foreshadowing pretty effectively, so it’s worth noting.
For one thing, the writer uses it a lot. So I’ll simply tell of the good, the bad, and the ugly, and I’ll throw in a best as well. The ugly is when we start to see pictures of the knives around Ep10. Once both girls use knives to kill their targets, it seems blah in hindsight. It’s too obvious. The bad, or I guess “neutral,” is the change I mentioned to Kotonoha’s eyes. It’s subtle, hardly noticeable unless you think to look for it. It’s effective not only in heightening our sense of her madness, but also when remembering it afterwards as she carves up Sekai. The good–I’ll use that term generously for the sake of the well-known phrase itself–is several moments where there’s a focus on Itou’s head. This could be incidental, but if it’s not, it’s a creepy but masterful touch. I can think of one instance early on in the show where Sekai and Itou and Kotonoha are having their lunch on the roof, and Kotonoha is still really shy, and she simply watches in alarm as Sekai puts Itou in a headlock and chides him. Later on, also on the roof, Itou reclines his head on Sekai’s lap. I know what you’re thinking. These are just ordinary events in any anime about school romance. True, but are they just passing events here? It’s nice to imagine they’re not. Foreshadowing is used so heavily in this show it makes me wonder. That and the fact that what I consider the best foreshadowing element in this show is so carefully done I have to wonder all the more about anything that could be considered as foreshadowing.
And that element is Kotonoha’s yarn. It’s a little startling, so bear with me. She’s so sweet. She wants to make a sweater or some such nice thing for Itou as a Christmas present. So she goes out and buys all this red yarn. She seems to be carrying it in a bag with her everywhere after that. Until of course she sees Sekai and Itou eating each other’s tongues on the rooftop. At that point she drops the bag with the yarn balls, and one of the balls rolls away, creating a thin trail of red down the stairs. If that doesn’t creep you out enough, we see her undo either part or all of what she’s worked on not long after this. She announces “I made a mistake” or something like that, the gleam in her eyes gone dead, and she mindlessly and meticulously begins to pull her knitting apart. The resulting mess pools up on the floor. If that doesn’t creep you out enough, let’s back up. Why’s she carrying it around everywhere? Given what I just said, what other strange thing does she eventually carry around with her? What’s the shape of that thing? What does she carry it in?
Ouch. Maybe I got it backwards and that’s the ugly. I’ll leave it at that.
So what’s going on in this show? Why all the plot threads, the foreshadowing, the character development, and the ultimate destruction? In this case, I’m inclined to believe there’s nothing to it. Just as I said about the story, there may really be nothing much to any particular element. I think it’s just a very visceral and extreme tale of the harsh environment young love sometimes finds itself in. Perhaps to look for more than that in it would do it a disservice. It ultimately is highly entertaining and evocative, even if it only has mild artistic value. Perhaps it has that potential simply because of how everything is twisted together so effectively. Maybe the ball of yarn is more apt of an object than I even thought.