The Treatment of Queer Sexuality in Clannad

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It’s no secret that Kyoto Animation’s adaptation of the Clannad visual novel is generally considered one of the most heartwarming anime ever made. It tugs at heartstrings in a variety of ways, like through its portrayals of the beauty of a family persevering through turmoil, of childhood trauma and the struggle to process it and of the miracle of life. The romance at its heart is often praised as being one of the best in anime, with Tomoya and Nagisa appearing in countless lists of top ten anime couples. The core theme of Clannad is that family is paramount. Clannad believes that families must always stick together no matter what. Clannad has a lot to say about what it means to become an adult, the value of blue-collar work, the difficulties of parenthood and many other things. Clannad also has a bit to say about queer sexuality.

The issue of LGBTQ+ rights in Japan has become more prominent in recent years. Fear of queer sexuality is common in Japan, as it is in the United States. Naturally, this increased presence in political discourse has caused the most reactionary voices in Japanese politics to cry out in outrage. Mio Sugita, a parliament member belonging to the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, wields one of these voices. She recently appeared on television and recounted being asked whether LGBTQ+ problems have a place in Japanese education, saying that she thought it was “definitely unnecessary.” When told that the suicide rate among homosexual children is six times higher than among children in general, she laughed and articulated her belief that teachers in Japanese schools have more pressing concerns. Despite knowing that she is on the far right, has fringe views and has been condemned by politicians on both sides, watching this clip still sent a chill down my spine.

In my opinion, whenever a big fuss is made over one reactionary openly expressing their hate, the number of people that share that view is always more than the media backlash would suggest. What I’m saying is that Japan, like the United States, has a great deal of progress to make in LGBTQ+ civil rights and acceptance of queer sexuality. My impression of the clip of Mio Sugita on television is that her attitude towards LGBTQ+ people is one of dismissal. Dismissive attitudes are focal point in the system by which hatred is reinforced and passed between generations in Japan.

And now, a little bit about me.

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Once upon a time, a kid called me gay and I curbstomped him. I curbstomped the shit out of him. I stained that rocky gravel path red with his blood. I had just gotten off the bus coming back from church. As I stood above his body, smeared with blood and curled up in order to protect himself from any further curbstomping, I said, “that’s what you get when you mess with John Clark, boy… *loud manly aggressive grunt. *” I had been watching a lot of Looney Toons that summer before going off to camp, so I suppose I had been a little inspired by Foghorn Leghorn. It was so damn satisfying to watch him cry. I later learned that he had to get 12 stitches above his right eye. I had never been so proud of myself. I was sending a message to my peers that shared my cabin at that sleep-away camp: Don’t call John Clark gay unless you want your brains bashed in.

Outside of fighting a few times with my little sister, who I thought was out to get me, I had never demonstrated any violent behavior. This incident, during the summer before I started middle school, was only the second. In both cases, I became violent in response to gay-related name calling and got away with it because I lied and said the other kid had hit me first. The adults in charge never believed the other kids’ stories. They couldn’t fathom the thought of me violently attacking one of my peers. None of my behavior up until that point had suggested that such a thing would even be possible.

In my first year of middle school, a classmate tormented me with gay-related name calling, and one afternoon in late May, I punched him in the face on the bus home. It was so satisfying to watch him cry, though that was cut a bit short, because I had to get off the bus at the next stop. To be fair, I told him, “hey Kevin, I’m gonna punch you in the face if you call me gay one more time.” I was already set on punching him in the face, so when my stop was coming up and he hadn’t called me gay again, I just punched him in the face anyway. Right in the eye. It was the kind of punch that makes your fist hurt. I thought it was worth it though. It was particularly fascinating to watch the bruise swell up in real time. I remember laughing in amusement. I felt like I was on top of the world.

When his parents called the school, I pulled the same bullshit but ended up having to serve a detention anyway. With those incidents, I learned that I’m the kind of person that bottles shit in and then snaps, seemingly without warning. These memories were my first experiences with the concept of queer sexuality. The idea had filled me with so much fear and anxiety that I felt I had to fight for my life. I don’t look back fondly on these memories. It was petty and pathetic. It was also traumatic for me to witness myself cause such violence. Though I suppressed these feelings at the time, I became constantly aware and afraid of the potential I had for hurting other people. That stuck with me through high school. I ended up placing into the highest track for seventh grade, and there was a lot less name-calling from there on out.

As an adolescent male, there was no graver punishment than being branded as gay. That’s what it feels like when name-calling comes from bullies, or people you perceive to be superior to you, it feels like a punishment. The only thing that could bring me to challenge that authority was my intense fear that people would think I really was gay. Due to traumatic experiences I had when I was in second grade, experiences I’ll perhaps dive into another time, I came to associate bullies with authority. It wasn’t a healthy perception to have, but it’s pretty insightful when used as a lens to explore gay-related name-calling and bullying of LGBT+ students in Japan, where teachers sometimes join in on the bullying.

Why did I snap in each of those incidents? What was so gravely offensive about being called gay that would lead me to become so violent? Why is gay such a potent slur? It often has little to nothing to do with sexuality, but at the same time, it has everything to do with sexuality. In 2007, when I was in sixth grade, I was playing with Bionicles while all the other kids were out playing sports or playing video games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto. The only video games I played were Pokémon, Lego Star Wars and Lego Indiana Jones. Naturally, I never had anything to contribute when guys would stroll into class in the morning, raving about their heroism and exploits on the battlefield. I was too busy thinking about Bionicle’s expansive and complex lore. In addition, I have ADHD, so I’ve always been very impulsive. That combined with anxiety, tied to those traumatic experiences I mentioned, made me socially incompetent compared to most of my classmates. If life was a masculinity competition, I was losing, and that’s why I was labeled as gay. It had nothing to do with my sexuality. Well, maybe I was also particularly sensitive to it because there was a period of a couple weeks that year when I seriously questioned my sexuality. Anyways, being branded as gay has more to do with failing to conform to gender roles than it does with actually being gay. They called me gay because I wasn’t manly enough.

Thoughts along the lines of, “there’s nothing wrong with being gay” never occurred to me, and if somebody said such a thing to me, I don’t think it would have made me feel any better. John Clark knew that being gay was a bad thing. That misinformation didn’t come from my home; it came from my peers. I entered middle school and the regime of masculinity sorted all males my age between ‘gay’ and ‘not gay.’ The kids that conformed to gender roles naturally were on top. The kids that were designated gay could only remove that label by conforming to the behavior of the kids designated as ‘not gay.’

Adolescent males also throw around ‘gay’ while messing around with their friends. The difference is in the delivery. When it’s from a friend and in a lighthearted manner, it doesn’t feel like bullying. It’s not being used to dismiss that person’s very existence. That doesn’t mean it isn’t harmful. Even I engaged in playful gay-related name calling with my friends, though I quit relatively early. One day, in February of my first year of middle school, my friend and I were messing around in the auditorium before play practice and calling each other gay. The only other people there were the director and the set manager, an incredibly muscular high school sophomore named Steve. To me, he was the pinnacle of masculinity. He was a very easily irritated person, and I was always afraid that he would bully me. He also wore pajamas almost exclusively, which I thought was awesome. The director, Andy, excused himself to go to the bathroom. When he left, Steve walked over, grabbed my friend and I each by the collar, and told us that he never wanted to hear us call each other or anybody else gay in a demeaning way ever again. He told us that Andy was openly gay and asked us how we thought it must feel for him to hear us throwing around homosexuality as an insult. He said it was like we were stepping all over Andy. My friend was scared shitless in the moment, but he didn’t really adjust his behavior after that, except for when he was around Steve. I never called anybody gay again… I think. That moment stuck with me, and I often thought about it even after the name-calling had ended in seventh grade.

I had never questioned the idea that homosexuality is wrong and weird back then. It wouldn’t have mattered to me, what mattered to me then was the fact that those that branded me as gay thought it was wrong and weird. The possibility that there could be people that thought otherwise never occurred to me. All of my negative feelings toward homosexuality were rooted in my resentment for being labeled gay and being dismissed and put down for it. The wakeup from Steve call is something that I’ll always be grateful for because it laid the foundation for me to eventually realize that there’s nothing inherently wrong or bad about being gay. I’d never thought about how there were real people who were really gay and it was the first time that somebody other than my parents said that it was wrong to call to weaponize homosexuality as a tool for putting other people down. It was my first experience that challenged all the misinformation regarding homosexuality that was washing over me each and every day in class. On top of that, it came from the guy that I thought was the pinnacle of masculinity. I think it helped prevent me from getting totally lost in the hatred and fear that my experiences with gay related name-calling carried with them.

In the summer before I went into seventh grade, I really got into Avatar. There’s an episode of Avatar in which Katara describes Aang as being, “more in touch with his feminine side than most guys.” I was immediately able to identify with that sentiment, and even through college, I often used it to describe myself when it would be relevant to conversation. Even more influential than that was watching Zuko grow and change over the course of the series. Zuko started out as the villain, chasing his father’s approval. As the series progressed, Zuko grew softer and warmer as he struggled with which side he was going to take. Zuko, at the end of the series, was much less concerned with masculinity than he was at the beginning. That growth stuck with me so much that the one thing I most associate with growing up is growing out of the obsession with masculinity that grips most adolescent boys. Breaking that obsession with masculinity is, in my opinion, the key to combatting homophobia.

The strongest fuel for homophobia is lack of information. That’s the key to how homophobia gets passed between generations, and the only way to ameliorate that is through education. Most people don’t understand queer sexuality. I think this is far more common than people not wanting to understand queer sexuality, though there are many people that feel that way. To them, queer sexuality is a source of fear, something to be driven away. However, it is precisely because people don’t understand queer sexuality that they fear it. Those folks that fear queer sexuality don’t want others to understand it either and spread misinformation, even through education. The lack of any positive or accurate information means that the misinformation is likely to spread, take root and remain unchallenged. The kids grow up knowing only that misinformation, and, unless they research on their own, they never will understand queer sexuality, so it will remain for them something to be feared. And why would kids research queer sexuality if they believe they’ve learned, formally or informally, everything they need to know about it?

Not all folks that don’t understand queer sexuality are overwhelmed by fear and the hatred that it sows but that doesn’t mean those people will see the value of understanding queer sexuality. Activism and visibility for LGBTQ+ folks are the only cures to this system. The truth needs to overwrite the misinformation. The lesson, which I think can be drawn from the anecdotes I’ve shared, is that a few positive experiences with something could potentially drown out the darkness cast by countless past negative experiences with that thing. Those experiences changed me for the better. They saved me from potentially living the rest of my life in fear of queer sexuality. The best way to prompt people to question the misinformation they were fed and seek the truth, is advocacy for understanding. As time progresses, it will hopefully become impossible for the LGBTQ+ community to be ignored. I would say the United States has seen this come to fruition to an extent over the past 15 years, at least in urban areas. The internet is a vital source of information and means for maximizing visibility as well. This is precisely why LGBTQ+ issues have been discussed more openly in recent years.

Everything I’ve written so far has come research and reflections prompted by my most recent watch of Clannad. Clannad indulges itself in four ‘jokes’ that treat queer sexuality as a punchline in its first season. The first time I watched Clannad, when I wasn’t thinking critically, just mindlessly consuming, I laughed out loud to all four of these jokes. With each rewatch of Clannad, I’ve become more and more perturbed by these ‘jokes.’ I’m going to use the research and anecdotes I’ve provided to contextualize Clannad’s jokes that target queer sexuality and explore the implications of each of them.

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Clannad’s first major gay joke is in the second episode. Tomoya is speaking with Ryou Fujibayashi, the class representative, who has a crush on him. Her sister Kyou, who also has a crush on Tomoya, mowed him down with her bike on her way to school that day. Tomoya starts to complain to Ryou, but Kyou, who’s in another class, comes in, cuts Tomoya off as he’s saying “bike” and pulls him out into the hallway. She tells him that it’s forbidden to ride a bike to school and she doesn’t want anybody to know because she doesn’t want to get in trouble. Tomoya walks back to his seat and, as if to continue what he had been saying before getting hauled off, he stands up and announces, “Kyou Fujibayashi is bi.” That’s the joke. Confusion and shock follows, and Kyou drags Tomoya back into the hallway.

This is the most simple of Tomoya’s gay jokes. Unlike the others, it’s not meticulously crafted, because it happened in the moment. In reaction to Okazaki’s announcement, many students wonder aloud what “bi” means. The confusion here is actually reflective of the lack of specific information about queer sexuality in Japanese schools. One of the students in the class reacts by saying, “you mean like male and female,” to which another student responds, “she does seem very masculine.” This absurd piece of misinformation, which might sound right to somebody that doesn’t understand queer sexuality, is never refuted by the show. It’s left uncorrected. Clannad actively participates in spreading misinformation about queer sexuality.

Clannad is also making light of the very serious issue of LGBTQ+ students being outed against their will. In Japan, in recent years, increased prominence of LGBTQ+ issues and representation on the internet and in media has caused more Japanese youth to begin to question their identity. Kids explore the more remote corners of the internet or stumble upon manga like Girlfriends, or anime like Flip Flappers, Love Live and Gatchaman Crowds. They meet other folks or see characters with whom they identify, characters that are endearing yet don’t fit into the artificial boxes of male and female, into which society tries to stuff anyone and everyone. In the stories they read, they find shared experiences, similar in nature to the way I found reflections of myself in Aang and Zuko. With this trend, more and more LGBTQ+ Japanese students are approaching teachers and coming out to them for various reasons. Examples of these sorts of exchanges include a young transgender woman requesting to wear the uniform assigned to girls, or to change in the girls’ locker room, or to sleep with the girls on the class trip.

Unfortunately, most teachers in Japan have no training in helping LGBTQ+ students and have only cursory knowledge regarding LGBTQ+ issues and experiences. Much of this knowledge is likely informed by harmful stereotypes. Even formal education in LGBTQ+ related issues is problematic, because in Japan, being transgender is still considered a mental illness. As a result, most Japanese teachers are unequipped to assist their LGBTQ+ students. This lack LGBTQ+-related training for educators causes a variety of problems, the most prominent of which are the cases in which a teacher outs an LGBTQ+ student to their classmates and/or their parents against their wishes. This isn’t always malicious. It is the natural result of a lack of education and a proliferation of misinformation. What is malicious is Mio Sugita’s assertion that educating students in LGBTQ+ matters is a waste of time. Luckily, the system is changing. More people in the Japanese government are pushing for LGBTQ+ rights and the education ministry sent a notice last year to all teachers that outing their students can cause depression and suicide.

In the United States there is an infamous example of a student being outed by his peers. Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University, took his own life after his roommate secretly livestreamed an intimate evening between Clementi and another male student via iChat. Dealing with the suicide of a classmate or somebody else at your school can be a traumatic experience. It happened a few times when I was in high school and at Notre Dame. The entire campus is shaken, even those that don’t know the deceased student. Though it doesn’t seem as though Kyou is actually bisexual, Tomoya’s cruel joke makes light of the act of outing somebody against their will, and all the baggage attached to the subject.

The second gay joke is much more calculated by Tomoya and is only possible because the writers crafted it. It wouldn’t have gone nearly as far if it only depended upon the natural outcome of Tomoya’s setup. Tomoya and Sunohara are helping Nagisa recruit members for the drama club, so Tomoya directs Sunohara to tell Ryou to come to the roof of the school because there is somebody waiting there that wants to confess their love. This is particularly cruel on Tomoya’s part because Ryou has a crush on Tomoya. Since Ryou knows that Sunohara is Tomoya’s “best friend,” she was likely led to believe that the one waiting on the roof to confess their feelings was Tomoya. If nothing else, she at least got her hopes up.

When Ryou reaches the roof, she’s shocked to learn that the one who wants to talk to her is a girl, Nagisa. Naturally, the charade would end shortly after Nagisa began speaking to Ryou, but the writers overreach and deliberately make Nagisa’s lines vague and misleading. The joke becomes artificial. After a lot of misleading build up, Nagisa asks Ryou to join the drama club, at which point Kyou comes out onto the roof, having been eavesdropping.

This scene mocks a very delicate type of situation, one in which somebody comes out of the closet to the person they are confessing without knowing how that person will react. The writers even have Nagisa say, “I’ve been troubled by it, but I decided to be brave,” mocking the immense courage required for LGBTQ+ students to come out and confess to somebody who likely won’t even be attracted to them.

When Ryou says that she didn’t expect it to be a girl, Sunohara chimes in saying, “Sex doesn’t matter, the important thing is the heart.” This is a good sentiment, but coming from Sunohara and in the context of the joke, it comes across as mocking homosexuality. Sunohara’s characterization, especially at this point in the story, is such that nothing he says is meant to be taken seriously. He exists to suck so that Tomoya can look good in comparison. He is presented as a character that ought to be dismissed and this extends everything he does and says. Clannad’s attitude toward Sunohara’s declaration is just as dismissive as Mio Sugita was in her interview.

The third joke, which seems to target transgender and genderqueer people, is probably the most intricate and calculated of Tomoya’s LGBTQ+ focused jokes. For this joke, Tomoya once again takes advantage of Ryou’s submissiveness and her feelings for him to craft his hateful prank. When Fuuko zones out in the hallway, Tomoya tells Ryou say to Fuuko, “I’m Okazaki, I’ve become a girl,” when she comes to. Tomoya further instructs to her say, “it comes off sometimes” if Fuuko asks what happened and, “for the time being” in response to any other inquiry from Fuuko.

After hearing from Ryou that “it comes off sometimes,” Fuuko asks whether “it” might come and attach itself to her. This is yet another artificial joke. Fuuko’s questions and responses were designed by the writers to have maximum comedic effect without any regard for how realistic it would be for anybody to say such things. I admit, the idea of a little cartoon penis running around in red sneakers and randomly attaching and detaching itself from various individuals is a bit humorous, but the fact that the writers thought it reasonable to believe that the audience would buy into this is yet another testament to the void of information and pervasive misinformation about queer sexuality in Japanese schools.

Fuuko’s immediate concern that the wild penis in red sneakers might pose a threat to her, her gender and her sexuality is a testament to the disposition uninformed Japanese students have toward queer sexuality. All of these jokes treat queer sexuality as something alien, and this joke also portrays it as a source of fear from Fuuko’s point of view.

The final joke targeting queer sexuality focuses on Sunohara. Many Clannad fans, including myself, have theorized that Sunohara might be gay and Kyo-Ani’s adaptation seems to put some effort into portraying Sunohara in a manner which does not rule out this possibility. If Sunohara is gay, then this joke would be the only one in Clannad which directly targets a queer character.

After the end of Kotomi’s arc, Tomoya and the various women he has assembled in his harem all decide to join the drama club, giving Nagisa the number of members she needs to officially reestablish the club. The last thing they need is a club advisor. In the time in which the drama club had been dissolved, the former drama club adviser became the adviser to the choir club. The choir club was formed by Rie Nishina as a means for her to continue pursuing her passion for music after sustaining permanent injuries to her hand in a tragic accident which made it impossible for her to play the violin. Sunohara devises a dumbass plan to show the members of the choir club that they shouldn’t let handicaps hold them back, hoping to somehow convince them to surrender their adviser, the one true good boy, Koumura-sensei. This was something they did not need to be shown at all and was incredibly insensitive on the part of Sunohara because it just reminded Nishina of the fact that she can never play violin the way she used to because of the injury to her hand. Sunohara’s plan was to demonstrate their ability to overcome handicaps by having the drama club play the basketball team three on three. Tomoya had been on the basketball team and was forced to quit due to permanent damage to his shoulder, a consequence of domestic violence. Tomoya wants to avoid basketball, so he turns down Sunohara. Sunohara persists, constantly chasing after Tomoya and trying to convince him to get on board with his incomprehensibly idiotic plan.

With Sunohara on his heels, Tomoya, at the end of the school day, grabs Nagisa and runs away. When Nagisa asks him what Sunohara is chasing him for, Tomoya tells her that Sunohara actually likes him. I’d like to note that, if that is true, which is a point of fervent debate, it would be another example of this show making light of the issue of LGBTQ+ students being outed against their will.

The subject of the joke is Sunohara, but the purpose of it is to freak out Nagisa. Nagisa’s reaction is the substance of the comedy this joke is creating. Nagisa’s response to this is framed for maximum comedic effect. Nagisa’s immediate reaction feels a lot more like horror than shock. She becomes frantic and restless. In his explanation, Tomoya leans fully into the show’s portrayal of Sunohara as being totally pathetic, saying, “Lately I haven’t paid much attention to him and it’s made him so lonely that he’s carrying on like that.” Nagisa tells Tomoya that he should consider Sunohara’s feelings seriously. That’s a wonderful thing for Nagisa to say, but unfortunately, the writers made that part of her reaction because it is supposed to be funny. The worst part of Tomoya’s relationship with Nagisa is the dismissive attitude he sometimes has towards her when she becomes assertive. Nagisa herself doesn’t seem too confident in what she is saying.

When Sunohara catches up and reaches for Tomoya’s sleeve, Nagisa grabs his arm and tells him to stop. She then lies and says that Tomoya is her boyfriend, hoping that she can “protect” him from Sunohara.

When Sunohara’s sister later overhears Nagisa mentioning it, Nagisa clarifies that Tomoya and Sunohara aren’t lovers and that Sunohara is just “forcing himself” on Tomoya. Nagisa adds that she thinks that “love comes in different forms for different people.” This is a wonderful sentiment. Unfortunately, it is undermined by the fact that this is all a part of one big joke. When Nagisa asks Tomoya to say something to comfort Sunohara’s sister, he directly undermines and dismisses any sincerity of Nagisa’s words by saying, “this is too much fun, I’m just gonna sit back and watch.”

For Nagisa, Tomoya’s deception recontextualizes Sunohara’s behavior as harassment, reinforcing various stereotypes in Japan regarding gay men. In my opinion, the second most prominent way in which homophobia manifests in straight cisgender men is in the fear of gay men pursuing them, and I think this “joke” plays upon the fear that many straight men have of receiving unwanted sexual advances from gay men. In addition, Sunohara’s thorough characterization as a connoisseur of sexual harassment and depravity matches harmful stereotypes associated with gay men. Ultimately, the drama club does follow through with Sunohara’s plan, and it works. Sunohara’s suggestion of this plan seems to be intended to be a redeeming moment for Sunohara, an opportunity for him to not be the literal worst. Tomoya turns Sunohara into the bad guy by telling Nagisa that he is gay.

So, what does it all mean? Well, if you are going to opt to adopt the dismissive attitude of the people that allow homophobia to fester, you’ll tell me that it means nothing because they’re just jokes. If you’re not in the mood to take the attitude of oppressors, you’ll realize that, either intentionally or unintentionally, Clannad essentially contains anti-LGBTQ+ propaganda. At first, that might seem like a radical jump, but there are four of these jokes in the first season of Clannad. Two of them span across two scenes and one even carries over from one episode to another. Three of them are very intricately crafted. All of them treat queer sexuality as a punchline and between them, they cover quite a variety of different manifestations of queer sexuality. The worst moment in all of these jokes is after Sunohara runs away during the fourth joke. Tomoya and Nagisa are both blushing and Tomoya tells Nagisa that it made him happy when she said he was her boyfriend. This moment establishes Clannad as a story where heterosexuality reigns supreme by putting down queerness. Clannad is not wholesome. The warmth and fuzziness of Clannad disguises a disturbing preoccupation with demonizing and dismissing queer sexuality.

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Here, to cleanse your soul after having to read so much about my past and about Clannad. That was some fucked up shit.

For subtitles, I’ve seen a few different versions of fansub, but here I’m using Sentai’s subtitles for reference.

If you’re interested in all the technical stuff regarding LGBTQ+ students in Japan, or even if you aren’t, I suggest you read this report by Human Rights Watch. This is where I pulled my information from.

https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/report_pdf/japan0516web.pdf

Violet Evergarden is Good, Actually

*Disclaimer*

So this is my first post since, like, July, right? To make a long story short, I’ve had quite a bit of trouble in my personal life over the past few years, yadda yadda yadda, I’m not in school right now and am in the middle of psychiatric testing to see if I have some sort of cognitive issue (other than ADHD, which, boy, do I have). Over the past year, I’ve come to realize that I have trouble stringing my thoughts together. Think about it this way: you’re walking along the shore leaving footprints in the sand and every few steps, a wave comes and erases your footsteps. That’s what my thinking has been like lately. In addition, I have crippling self doubt that has kept me from posting this up until now, despite the fact that I’ve been working on it since the first episode of Violet Evergarden aired. I want to get these thoughts out there regardless and contribute to the discussion, so I’m like, whatever, now, here you go Anitwitter. I won’t make any progress improving if I don’t do anything, right? Okay, on to the good (bad) stuff.

Also, check out Zeria’s video that does exactly what I set out to do here, except better.

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Violet Evergarden is good. Yeah yeah yeah, the animation is splendid and it’s like one of the most beautiful anime productions ever, or something like that, yeah, everybody knows that and nobody is denying it. I think that what we’ve seen of Violet Evergarden so far is exceptionally well written. Yo, it ain’t hyped enough. This is so much better than Clannad.

Kyoto Animation produces good anime almost exclusively, but very few of them really gave me the impression that they were ‘smart,’ at least not as a whole. This isn’t a knock against Kyo-Ani at all, and it’s not to say that their shows are dumb, the stories they adapt simply rely more upon emotional intelligence and empathy. That’s the way it ought to be for those stories. A Silent Voice was very smart, I think, especially with the way it depicted Ishida shutting others out of his world. This is what I mean when I say its ‘smart,’ it finds a simple, creative and compelling way of visually representing the psychological state of Ishida.

Hyouka is smart too, especially in its occasionally fantastical depictions of Oreki’s mental state and the creative animation that typically accompanies the exposition or solving of mysteries. Hyouka is also ‘smart’ in it’s depiction of Mayaka’s social anxiety and frequent frustration, and smart in a way that made the most of the studio’s strong character animation work. The depiction of Satoshi’s unspoken self-loathing is equally compelling. Chuunibyou was pretty smart as well in its depiction of the complexities of the grieving process.

I think this is the sort of smartness that the Kyo-Ani team has mastered better than anybody else in the industry. This smartness is also what makes  Kyo-Ani’s sparse sexually charged scenes so special. Kyo-Ani’s product can be just as sensual and unconventionally erotic as anime that focus more on the blossoming sexuality of their awkward teenage characters. Of course, I also know absolutely nothing about animation, so please don’t take anything I say seriously.

I suppose that, for me, a ‘smart’ show is one that presents its characters, conceits or themes in such a compelling manner that I find myself reflecting upon it frequently.

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Being smart alone doesn’t necessarily make a show good, in fact, being ‘smart’ isn’t even necessary for a show to be good. Even though my favorite show of this season so far is A Place Further than the Universe, I think Violet Evergarden is probably the ‘smartest,’ primarily because Violet Evergarden is heavily informed by psychology. Kyo-Ani manages to make important psychological concepts and their manifestation in Violet’s experiences accessible and even relatable to the audience. Casual viewers that don’t recognize the ways in which psychology informs the foundation of Violet’s character can still understand Violet’s story because of Kyo-Ani’s presentation.

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Violet’s emotionless demeanor is the most obvious symptom of Violet’s problems. Violet’s story is one of a former child soldier that was trained into a doll now carrying out her final orders to live and be free. Violet takes pride in her identity as a weapon. She has been conditioned not to consider herself human and, for the most part, nobody else in the military besides (maybe) Gilbert seems to have treated her like a human. Violet needs to become human, to embrace her identity as a human, rather than as a weapon, in order to be free and truly live.

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Though she has survived the war and has been discharged from military service, at the beginning of the series, I would not say that Violet is free. Violet’s continued commitment to military conduct is not simply out of force of habit. Violet is completely dependent upon orders. She can’t function without them. The first episode demonstrates this during the meal scenes. Violet does not touch her food until Hodgins vocalizes permission for her to eat. Hodgins has been out of the military for just as long and it takes him a while to realize that Violet’s mentality is still totally entrenched in the war. Violet’s dependence upon the structure that the military provided, demonstrated by the way she treats every job like a military operation and her approach to customer service, is just the most tangible evidence that Violet is not yet living free from the influence of the military, which robbed her of her childhood and groomed her into an ideal child soldier, an emotionless killing machine. I’ll note here that it seems as though Violet was taken as a prisoner of war, so it seems she had already been refined into a weapon by another military by the time she met Gilbert.

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Why would Violet cling to such a state of mind, especially one so contrary to Gilbert’s order to be free? Well, I’d say that mindset probably safeguarded Violet from the potential horror of sitting alone with her thoughts and reflecting upon her experiences. Prompted by her encounter with Gilbert’s brother, that shoe finally dropped in episode seven, while Violet sat alone on the train.

Although Violet may be expressionless, her behavior reveals some of the specific ways in which her characterization is informed by psychology. The most obvious of these is her oral fixation, something which really stood out in the first episode. I’ll spare you the psychobabble and give you the sparknotes, or rather, the senpainotes version of what this means. Basically, Violet didn’t really get all the care and attention she needed as a child (infant, technically, but I don’t want to limit that arbitrarily), so she’s “making up for it” now by occupying her mouth with things like her dog plushie, putting on her gloves, and, most importantly, with the broach Gilbert gave her. All of this is reinforced by scenes where we see Violet curled up in the fetal position, another symptom of regression. Violet is trying to make up for the deficit of care and love she received as a child with love from Gilbert, something that makes sense given her background as an orphan and child soldier. Unfortunately, Gilbert ain’t coming back.

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Violet is in denial with regards to Gilbert’s death. Accepting that death will only become more painful for her as she comes to understand what love is as an auto-memory doll. Violet is clearly repressing memories of her experiences during her time in the military. She remembered Hodgins from the night before her final battle, but in one of Hodgins’s flashbacks, it’s shown that he had seen her before then, fighting and killing in what I can only describe as an Atrocity Exhibition. Childhood trauma is almost always the subject of repressed memories. Being a child soldier, it’s difficult to imagine that Violet’s memories of that experience could be anything but traumatic. What is likely most traumatic about this, as episode seven has suggested, is that Violet was forced to kill. The military molded her into a moe murder machine, but it seems that, rather than directing her rage towards the militaries that wielded her as a weapon, Violet’s realization that she is indeed on fire will only cause her to hate herself.

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“I’m so fucked up”

If there are any aspects of Violet Evergarden that go underappreciated, let me know in the comments, I’m curious to hear what others have to say.

 

Socrates Meets Reki Kawahara (Part I)

Socrates: So, Kawahara-sama, I watched the anime adaptation of your legendary light novel series, Sword Art Online, and I must say, it was quite the fascinating experience.

Kawahara: Subbed or dubbed?

Socrates: Subbed, of course, Kawahara-sama. I might not be a master of high art like you, but I’m certainly no pleb. As I said, I was fascinated by the story you crafted, but, since I know nothing, especially with regards to literature and the art of crafting fiction, there are quite a few questions I have for you, regarding a variety of different aspects of this story which you crafted. Would you mind answering a few of them?

Kawahara: Of course not, buddy! And I’m glad you loved my story, I take a lot of pride in it.

Socrates: Really? I see… Well, before I get to those questions regarding Sword Art Online, Kawahara-sama, I have a question about you. I believe you’re familiar with the maxim, “give a woman a fish she eats for a day, teach a woman to fish, she eats for a lifetime.” Tell me, do you agree with that?

Kawahara: Absolutely, though I think I’ve heard it phrased, er, a bit differently. But yeah I totally believe that… Haha, I often like to say, “give a man a light novel, he eats for a day, teach a man to write a light novel (and it’s not very hard, trust me), he eats for a lifetime in his parents’ basement.” In fact, I made a point of making this idea a theme early on in Sword Art Online. In the first episode, our great hero, Kirito, teaches Klein (who is actually my favorite character, to be honest) how to play the game. Initially I was using it as an excuse to take care of some exhibition, but then I was like, let’s be all literary and shit and make this a theme! I’m sure you remember the scene, which was adapted in the second episode of the anime, where that one asshole interrupts the council held before they took on the first boss. He says that the Beta testers have to pay for allowing 2000 players to die because they went on ahead and left the noobs to fend for themselves. Then Egil comes in and reminds him about the strategy guide compiled by the Beta testers using all the information they had learned in the trial period. Everybody in SAO was given an opportunity to learn how to fish. There are other examples too, y’know, I actually really put my heart into this bit

Socrates: Truly brilliant, Kawahara-sama. I suppose that’s what you consider a theme, but I’ll have more questions about those later.

Kawahara: Woah woah woah, now that was definitely a bit sarcastic

Socrates: My whole point with bringing up the teaching-to-fish analogy is that it seemed to me, surely the lowest common denominator of your audience, that Kirito often distributed free fish. He has to fight Heathcliff to get Asuna vacation time. Isn’t she the vice commander? Wouldn’t it have better for her to learn to assert the authority that should accompany her position? Or does this guild take vacation time that seriously? It seemed out of character that she wouldn’t just be assertive on the basis of her position. Maybe my mind was just too feeble to accurately gauge your characterization of her up until that point.

Kawahara: Yeah yeah yeah, I’ve heard that a million times before, it was a way to get Kirito and Heathcliff to duel.

Socrates: Of course, what a fascinating way to push your story forward. I mean, I have more questions for you regarding that later. What about the dear loli? Even though Kirito warned her about the dangers, that didn’t keep her from getting tentacle groped on two separate occasions, or is it just that these poor women find themselves in these dilemmas regardless of the decisions they make?

Kawahara: Yeah, no, the situations these women find themselves in aren’t brought about by themselves, but, like, let me argue my case a bit, will you? It’s not just relegated to technical skills, the way the teaching-to-fish theme is applied in Sword Art Online. Kirito and Asuna’s relationship (y’know, the greatest love story ever told), is built upon the ways, you could say, that they taught each other to fish, right? Okay, so in the murder mystery vignette, it starts out with Asuna nagging Kirito…

Socrates: (As women are accustomed to do)

Kawahara: … because Kirito is slacking off while the rest of the front liners are working hard, but Kirito points out that it’s Aincrad’s nicest weather setting, so it’d be a waste to stay inside playing video games. Kirito teaches her to make the most out of her time in Aincrad. Asuna’s berserk focus on escaping was stressing her out so much that she was reaching her breaking point

Socrates: Was it? I hadn’t noticed, of course, as I mentioned, I am but merely the lowest common denominator of your audience. Technically speaking, with regards to screen time, there was only one scene with her between the end of the second episode and the scene you’re describing.

Kawahara: …Anyway, Kirito teaches Asuna to stop and smell the roses, and Asuna teaches Kirito that investing yourself in a relationship is worth the risk, right? I mean, he was never one to be social, but when he first tried it, well, it didn’t go that well, did it?

Socrates: I kind of thought Kirito kind of figured that out on his own, since he decided not to push her away, right?

Kawahara: Well, yeah, but I figured Kirito was willing to take the risk with Asuna because he knew she was strong…

Socrates: …Not as strong as Kirito…

Kawahara: Ha, of course not, but strong enough for him not to push against the kind of momentum their relationship was gaining after the murder mystery.

Socrates: So it’s better to invest yourself in relationships with people that are strong?

Kawahara: Well, I mean, at least in a death game, right? Just look at The Hunger Games! That being said, as cold as it sounds, I can’t say it’s the kind of principle I disagree with. Doesn’t it make more sense to ally yourself with somebody strong, strategically or romantically? Survival of the fittest, right?

Socrates: I mean, Kirito looked pretty emaciated at the end of the Aincrad arc, but I’ll give that to you.

Kawahara: Leafa recognized Kirito’s power and was quick to ally with him, despite him being “one of them (a race that exists only in the game)”

Socrates: What about Shinon?

Kawahara: Ah, good point, Kirito was able to seduce her by playing innocent and pretending to be a woman, but I think she helped him out ‘cause she saw a bit of herself in him.

Socrates: Anyway, back to the fish thing, I’m glad to hear you value that maxim, and your comment about how you so skillfully incorporated it into Sword Art Online actually transitions perfectly into my next question. Would you rather read a story about a character who is given a fish or a story about a character who learns or has learned how to fish? Which premise do you think would make for a more compelling story, Kawahara-sama?

Kawahara: Hmm, well, of course, as I’m sure you’ve already assumed, I would much rather read a story about a character that knows how to fish. I guess you could say that, for me, the key to making a great character is to make them a great fisherman, like Kirito is!

Socrates: I see; a great character must be a great fisherman. So then would learning to fish be what you consider character development, Kawahara-sama?

Kawahara: Character development? Ummm… yeah, well, I guess that fits pretty well with the whole metaphor, especially considering the examples I gave before regarding Kirito and Asuna… Wait, but it’s not like I can limit it to that, I mean, anything is possible in a story, right? The teaching-to-fish method is just one that I used quite a bit.

Socrates: As expected of your literary brilliance, Kawahara-sama, but I have a strong aversion to such open-ended answers as that one, y’know, they cause me to hurt myself in my confusion. There’s another anime light novel adaptation that I’ve watched and enjoyed, called Bakemonogatari. I think it might be able to give us some direction as we explore the idea of character development. Are you familiar with it?

Kawahara: Oh yeah, the Monogatari series is like my favorite harem anime… Lol, just kidding. Yeah, that’s one of my favorite anime, and definitely my favorite light novel series. I remember reading the first Monogatari novels as soon as they came out. I don’t know how Nisio Isin manages to write stories like those, where the characters feel so special and real. He’s actually quite a bit younger than me.

Socrates: I agree! Let me try to apply that show, at least its first five story arcs, to the fishing metaphor. Would you agree that in Monogatari, characters dealing with personal problems is the fishing?

Kawahara: Uhh, yeah, actually, well, not really in the case of the snail but I don’t know… Well, of course, I mean, that’s what Monogatari is all about, ain’t it? I guess since all of the apparitions are really just representations of whatever emotional baggage each character is dealing with, yeah, being able to deal with them would be like knowing how to fish. Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, Oshino’s mantra, “only you can save yourself, but I’ll lend you a hand” isn’t too different from the teaching-to-fish analogy we’ve been discussing. In Monogatari’s case it takes quite a bit of mental fortitude and humility for each character to actually go fishing. Nisio Isin really is fantastic, especially at writing great characters. Go on.

Socrates: So you’d say that character development in the Monogatari series is, like it is in Sword Art Online, when the characters “learn how to fish?”

Kawahara: Yeah, I’d say so, I think. Wait, no, but that… That’s way too specific, I mean, I’m not even sure that applies to Sword Art Online, to be honest, but we can run with that for the time being.

Socrates: Now, it may have very well gone right over my head, but how does that fit with Shinon’s character arc?

Kawahara: Lol, actually, now that you mention it, I’m reminded of the ending credits sequence from the Gun Gale Online arc.

Socrates: Oh yeah, I loved that, it was always my favorite part of the episode, and not just because it meant it was over.

Kawahara: Ouch. Anyway, that ED basically illustrates how Shinon taught herself to fish in that arc, right? Still, I don’t feel comfortable settling with that specific definition. I mean, this whole dialogue has gotten much messier than it was ever supposed to be.

Socrates: I agree, I was surprised with how poorly thought through my inquiries have been, it’s turned into more of an interview than a dialogue, really. Maybe we’ll do better in part two.

Kawahara: If there ever is a part two, I mean, does this writer ever not leave things half finished?

Socrates: Lol, good point. Anyway, back to the central question: what constitutes good character development? It may seem like a dumb question, but somebody asked the author to explain it the other day. What definition would apply to all the examples we’ve discussed from Monogatari and Sword Art Online?

Kawahara: I mean, character development, in my experience primarily as a consumer of stories, can be defined as a character changing over the course of a story or portion of a story while still being recognizable as the character they were established as in the beginning, but, I don’t know man, I’m just a light novel author. In my opinion, the characters and their development are the most fundamental substance of a story, especially in this genre, which is dominated by coming of age stories. Character development in light novels and in much of anime can really be understood as just growing up, y’know? Light Novels are written for angsty teens to read and escape reality while also affirming their way of viewing the world from which they seek to escape, so it’s not like there are many light novels that illustrate what it means to grow up… But what do I know, I was just minding my own business having fun writing light novels and shit, *sigh*. To the reader, I suppose I’ll see you in part 2, if it ever comes, I hope you were at least mildly entertained by this clusterfuck.

30 Day Anime Challenge Day 1: Gurren Lagann

What was your first anime?

Who the hell do you think I am?

I was inebriated the first time I watched anime. If I hadn’t been, you probably wouldn’t be reading this. What show was it that captivated me enough to keep me from passing out while my friends went off-campus to another party? Gurren Lagann, of course. One of those friends, after I asked them if I could join them on their way to that party, began lecturing me on Gainax, Trigger and Imaishi, and told me, “now go back to your room and don’t come out until you’ve watched the first three episodes of Gurren Lagann.” I did just that. Oh boy. I was all like, what the hell is going on? I had no clue at the time how incredible this animation was. I ended up making it to episode eight before I stopped watching. That was the October of 2014.

I picked it back up in the following summer, which I spent almost exclusively watching anime. I’ve only recently come to realize how awesome Gurren Lagann really is. It is a masterpiece of anime logic and the gunmen aren’t the only things that defy physics (for better or for worse). This easily one of the most influential anime ever released. It marked the end of Gainax’s golden years, which stretched from 1995 to 2007. What a way to go out. TTGL’s influence can be seen most obviously in the productions from Gainax’s wayward daughter, Trigger. Kill la Kill obviously, and this season’s shining star, Little Witch Academia, are inseparable from the legacy of Gurren Lagann. Last year’s best show, Flip Flappers, consistently reminded me of Gurren Lagann. I’m currently about half way through my rewatch, which I’m taking it rather slowly. This show is so awesome, so bombastic, so everything that makes anime great.

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Where is Monogatari Headed?

The Monogatari series has been, by far, the most compelling long running anime series of this decade. It is easily the best light novel adaptation I’ve watched so far, and, as much as I’m enjoying Katanagarari, an adaptation of another novel series authored by Nisio Isin, I don’t see that changing any time soon, if ever. Monogatari is a hot mess, but I wouldn’t have it any other way; that’s part of what makes these stories feel so real. I can imagine Nisio Isin staying up late at night, contemplating some sort of emotional turmoil, then awakening the next morning, picking up a pen, and asking himself, “now, how will I use Monogatari to tell a tale of that turmoil?” It’s like Monogatari is a medium of its own that Nisio Isin has a monopoly on.

Of course, there are many strands of cohesion that tie Monogatari together as a whole. To those that have read the final volume of Owarimonogatari, or at least its spoilers, it seemed as though all these strands had come together and neatly wrapped up Monogatari once and for all. However, Nisio Isin has gone ahead and announced another season of Monogatari. It will be titled Monster Season. Has Isin really not yet exhausted the Monogatari format? Haven’t all our characters grown up with the lessons they learned from their experiences with apparitions? Perhaps not.

What has been left unresolved in Monogatari? The first thing that comes to mind is not an unresolved problem, it’s a sorely missed character. Hopefully, in Monster Season, Nisio Isin will be generous enough to treat us to another Kaiki arc. While we’re on the topic of Kaiki, although I am not one to aggressively “ship” characters in the entertainment I consume, I do believe that Hanekawa and Kaiki have some great chemistry. I think that it is fair to say Nadeko’s character development has run its course, although that doesn’t mean she won’t show up. Kanbaru’s coming of age story has also concluded, I believe.

Whatever Monogatari has in store for us in Monster Season, I’m sure Kanbaru will be playing a major role anyway, most likely as a specialist or specialist in training. Perhaps we will see her formally confront Gaen, who pretended to be unrelated to her when they first met. I think it goes without saying that Hanekawa will continue to, well, be Hanekawa. Her story arcs have the most definite sense of completion, so I’m sure she won’t have to deal with any more apparitions springing forth from her own mind. I can only imagine her playing a support role. I think it is possible, especially if Monster Season takes place after some sort of time skip, that the Fire Sisters might be brought into the loop regarding apparitions, especially since Tsukihi has been helping Nadeko with her manga and is an immortal apparition herself.

There’s one final matter that I can’t imagine Isin leaving alone. He’s not going to let Araragi go off and live a happy life while ignoring what would inevitably become an awkward situation. I’m sure every Monogatari fan has thought at one point or another how weird it will be for Araragi to spend his life with Senjougahara with Shinobu, his “lifelong partner,” lurking in his shadow all the while. Kizumonogatari’s ending was designed by Oshino so that “everyone would be miserable.” Since then, both parties involved have grown fond of the bond they forged. However, Araragi should know by now that he can’t have his cake and eat it too. I bet you Nisio Isin will force Araragi to choose between Shinobu and Senjougahara. This should be quite interesting.

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A Case for Scum’s Wish

If you follow me on Twitter, you probably notice that the majority of my tweets regarding this season’s anime are about either Maid Dragon or Demi-chan. Those two shows are absolutely delightful, and both have brought tears to my eyes on multiple occasions, which is no easy feat. However, the shining star of this anime season, for me, is easily Scum’s Wish. Of course, if you know anything about the plot of Scum’s Wish, you surely know that the characters do just about everything except shine.

There are a lot of ways to describe exactly what Scum’s Wish is, from ‘Toradora, but problematic,’ to ‘a harem deconstruction, minus the harem, minus the deconstruction.’ I think the latter description, which was the one I’ve used myself, offers some interesting insight. I always look at music, anime, political events, art, etcetera in the greater context of the history surrounding them. When I first read the Scum’s Wish manga, which was the first manga I’d ever read, the first and most distinct connection I made was, of course, to School Days. This is one reason I believe that School Day’s is a must watch for all anime fans. Like Evangelion, FLCL, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Angel Beats, Monogatari, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, and Sword Art Online, School Days, whether you like it or not, is a title that is frequently mentioned in reviews of many anime that have been released since.

Scum’s Wish reminded me of School Days, but as I thought more about what School Days was, a harem deconstruction, I quickly realized that Scum’s Wish was not a harem, and since it was not a harem, it could not possibly be a harem deconstruction. Scum’s Wish is the anime equivalent to the first member of a new species. It has inherited quite a bit from its predecessors, but it is too different from them to be considered the same species. This is a good thing for anime. This genre was born among the early visual novels, most prominently, White Album, which eventually received a fantastic anime adaptation in 2009. There were many other visual novels from that time that revolved around infidelity, and the first of these to receive a widely viewed anime adaptation was School Days. This tradition of infidelity-centric visual novels is most interesting because these stories typically end in a huge clusterfuck. I can’t really give any examples without giving spoilers, but if you’ve seen any of these shows, you’ve got a pretty good idea what I’m talking about. Unfortunately, Visual Novel adaptations, especially eroge adaptations, are, for the most part, not very good. Part of this comes from the problems that come with adapting multiple routes, but for the most part its because of their questionable final causes.

We’re only five episodes into Scum’s Wish, and it is already a huge clusterfuck. Scum’s Wish is a deeply psychological show as well. The characters are constantly striving to understand the reasons why they interact with each other the way they do, and we know that because we’ve spent some time in each of the protagonists’ minds. They’ve all gotten, or will get, some time serving as the narrator. This show feels very real. I suppose what I’m trying to say here is that Scum’s Wish is a special show, and if you aren’t watching it already, you should consider picking it up.

My All Time Favorite Anime

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I need to post something today in order to keep up the momentum I’ve been building, so I’m gonna provide a list of my all time favorite anime. I’ll revisit this now and then to go into more detail explaining why these are my picks for the greatest anime of all time.

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  1. Neon Genesis Evangelion + End of Evangelion
  2. Flip Flappers
    1. I might very well just be riding off the high that came with Flip Flappers last season, so maybe this will change. It is the most triumphant anime of all time. It has a happy ending, and that was refreshing.
  3. Puella Magi Madoka Magicamahoushoujo-7-12
  4. Monogatari
    1. I’ve watched the entirety of this series over 13 times
  5. Oregairuyahari-ore-no-seishun-love-comedy-wa-machigatteiru-zoku-my-teenage-romcom-snafu-too-episode-9-13-15_2015-05-29_10-27-47
  6. Toradoratoradora-23-large-32
  7. Shin Sekai Yori
  8. Eden of the East
  9. ef: a tale of memories/melodies
  10. Clannad/(Afterstory)
    1. Consider this a guilty pleasure. I understand very well all of this series’ problems.
  11. Spice and Wolf
  12. Hyouka
  13. Sound! Euphonium
  14. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya + Disappearance
  15. Gatchaman Crowds

This is definitely subject to change. There are some shows I need to rematch and there are many that I have yet to watch. Let me know what I ought to make a priority.