Updated Thoughts on School Days: A Middle Finger to Harem Tropes (Spoilers)

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For a more formal (and outdated) review on the anime, click here.

There seems to be a collective agreement among casual viewers within the anime community: School Days is horrible, if not the worst anime in existence. It is casually placed among titles such as Boku no Pico and Mars of Destruction as the most pointless and disgusting creations anime has graced the living world. As a young, upcoming anime enthusiast, I had heard the rumblings of the community and became curious enough to want to see what the fuss was all about, seeing as any press is good press, or so they say. During the 2013 Summer of Anime, I went ahead and watched School Days for the first time… and hated it. I was disgusted, horrified by what had taken place. All the illogical reasoning from the characters and the laughable conclusion it decides to take; everything about what was said by the community was true: School Days was a horrible anime. But there was something about it, something I couldn’t quite place. It was interesting—I couldn’t rip my eyes away from the screen. The kind of dreadful feeling one has when they expect the most harrowing of climaxes. It didn’t feel right to reward it a one out of ten, especially when a so-called “elitist” wanted to distance himself from the masses. So, I slapped a five and called it a day, wondering what exactly it was that made the series so volatile.

Elitists in particular like throwing around a term sometimes to use as a compliment: “Deconstruction.” Many elitists like to use this term with Madoka Magica, which is supposedly a good “deconstruction” of the magical girl genre. What exactly is the meaning, the benefit of said “deconstruction”? In layman’s terms, it’s essentially flipping the script on a typical formula certain stories use that have proven successful in the past. Magical girl anime typically have a self-conscious, teenage (or child) heroine who don’t know what to do with their normal, dull life. Then comes a magical source that whisks them away and gives them a sense of purpose and magical abilities to ward off evil or the misfortune of the world. Madoka Magica is a deconstruction because it takes this concept and shakes it up, creating a new perspective that many wouldn’t expect from synopsis or cover art alone. Somewhat like walking into a bakery and finding a salad bar.

The point in explaining all of this is to translate the mindset going into School Days, which is also often referred to as a deconstruction of the harem and high school drama genres.

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Usually I’m not one to argue “the point” of indulging in a particular subject, but there are some where if one isn’t experiencing it in a particular way, it’s really not worth it. Many often screech when someone tries to watch slice-of-life as a serious, character-developed story of constant entertainment. School Days is something I feel very much fits within this category; if one is to take this story seriously, then of course people are going to vilify it! It’s a hilariously unrealistic and disgustingly immoral story of psychopaths and erratic, sociopathic teenage behavior. As a true story, the only real benefit it has going for it is shock factor.

As the years went by, I continued to hear the impression that School Days was horrendous. It was horrible. Worst anime ever. Complete waste of time. Not worth a single penny put into it. Shortly after completing it, I felt they were justified in their complaints, as I was just as disgusted with the series as they were. However, time began to dull upon the disgust I felt for the series, and much like anything I hear about constantly, I begin to become irritable. I wanted to re-watch the series to become better acquainted with the reasons I didn’t outright hate the series in the first place. And with further pondering, I began to realize something very interesting.

What are some of the arguments people use when criticizing School Days?

“The main character is a cheating asshole who only wants sex!”

Believe it or not, people cheat. It is a simple fact of life and despite what anime would lead you to believe, many teenage boys would gladly cheat if it guarantees them sex. In harem anime, especially ecchi harems, many of the women would gladly give the male protagonist exactly what he wants, but he never takes it. Why is this? Why does the male lead never have sex with the women who want him? Because it’s wrong? Perhaps. Because it’s against his morals? Most likely. But why is it that every harem male lead always behaves in the exact same way no matter the title? School Days simply answers this question, and it gets shit for it. I’m not arguing that the cheating asshole should be despised, because he absolutely deserves to be, but to say that the anime is flawed because of this is naive.

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“Why doesn’t Kotonoha just leave Makoto?! He treats her like garbage!”

Why do the women within a harem find the male lead so fascinating when, usually, he’s little more than “a nice boy with good morals”? Even within School Days, many of the women he sleeps with give the excuse that he was a “kind and caring” person who’s trustworthy, and was nice to them in one way or another in “the past.” This is just as much the explanation that other harems use to justify the infatuation to the male lead, and in some cases even less. Despite, at times, knowing they’re part of a harem, the group of women oftentimes compete with one another for the male lead’s affection, yet he will likely never yield. Why go through all the effort of remaining faithful when the future looks fruitless? Why is this male lead so irresistible that the women are willing to degrade themselves to embarrassing acts? This blind dedication is hardly new within anime.

“Why are all the girls actually sleeping with him?! WTF?!?!”

This one’s actually fairly funny. School Days actually makes fun of this by having the women constantly complain to themselves, “I really shouldn’t be doing this with you! Take some responsibility!” Sometimes before, usually afterwards, the women of Makoto’s harem regret their actions and guilt themselves into a corner, then resort to doing it again for the sake of covering that guilt with physical pleasure. Only to repeat the process over and over! It’s actually hilarious in hindsight, the irony involved in a situation like that. Makoto’s no fool, either. He knows it. In all seriousness, this is again no different from normal harems and how the girls blindly devote themselves to the male lead’s whims. Of course, the male lead doesn’t show himself to be a cheating sociopath, but for parody’s sake, this criticism actually works for the series.

“That ending?!?! Holy shit!!!!!”

Also fairly funny. The ultimate ridiculousness that makes School Days so memorably insane. The devotion that these women have for Makoto and the lengths they go to to be able to always be by his side. If Infinite Stratos 2 can have its harem of women compete in a moe contest organized by a cupid-like character to get the male lead aroused (unsuccessfully) for shits and giggles, then I don’t see how School Days and its ending is any less ridiculous considering the psychological profile of its cast of characters. If anything, its actually somewhat realistic, though certainly not justified.

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The point I’m trying to make here is that School Days is a deconstruction, a parody, a joke. To look at it from a completely serious and normal understanding is a dead end. With context, this series is a hell of a lot more enjoyable, and even slightly funny! To analyze these things from the perspective of a normal harem drama, it makes School Days feel like a Mel Brooks film, an obvious parody aiming to take shots at the norms rooted within the genre. Of course, School Days is more nuanced. It portrays itself as one within the genre, without making itself immediately known. The last two episodes are, in my opinion, the dead giveaway that this series is literally fucking with the viewer. To have the girl who wanted Makoto’s male friend randomly sleep with him!? And then chastise him for being so irresponsible for playing with Sekai’s feelings? The irony, the beautiful, scrumptious irony!

Of course, this also makes School Days an incredibly one-dimensional viewing, only for those able to identify its parody. Even after a second viewing, I can understand people’s disdain for the series. They don’t see it, nor do they take the time to find it, taking everything at face value. I don’t mean to criticize this as a means of lazy watching, but there’s a lot of value to School Days with a different perspective. If people don’t care to watch the anime as a means of laughing at clichés, that’s no issue. It is, essentially, a twelve-episode joke directed at harem norms. One can only find enjoyment with this if they can appreciate the property of deconstruction.

Even with all this context, School Days is a slog to watch, as a lot of the opening episodes rely on exactly what they mean to parody, to rope the viewer into a false sense of security. The characters are fairly dull, fairly cliché, and the situations are no different. Even character dialogue is mind-numbingly boring and insipid. The biggest genuine complaint one could have with the anime from an objective standpoint is that it’s abysmally boring. It tries so little to make anything of interest arise out of certain situations, especially within the first three episodes or so. One likely wouldn’t even care to continue to “the good stuff” with the bland introduction. The art and animation is fairly decent, though not without a gray tint that makes everything feel ordinary and unappealing. If not for the sake of incredible irony, there is absolutely nothing here other than shock factor.

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It’s not the worst anime of all time. It’s not even a bad anime if one has a penchant for laughing at clichés (I know I do). The ridiculousness is off the charts, but it’s intended to be. The characters are illogical and downright disturbed, but it’s intended to be. Everything here is carefully formulated to construct the biggest middle finger the anime medium has ever seen, similarly to something like Panty & Stocking. Of course, it’s hidden—very carefully and very subtly building to the ultimate ending of bloody proportions. I had a great time with it my second time around. Why not give it another shot as a so-called “ironic viewing”?

The rating for this title and all others can be found on MyAnimeList.

School Days Review (Revised Version)

Back when I was younger, I believed that if a movie or a television series or a game didn’t end happily, then it wasn’t worth getting involved with. However, as I matured, I realized that there are titles that can be just as fulfilling to watch as the feel-good ones that choose to end in a cheery manner. This may be due to a “change of pace,” or something that intrigues me or others simply because it is different from what I or they are originally accustomed to. If one is to truly appreciate what they’ve come to enjoy, would they rather bask in that topic forever? Or perhaps explore other topics in order to see what would meet their interests the most? While opinions will always differ, one thing is certain: human beings aren’t play things. Emotions are what make a person who they are and constitute to what they believe in. But in some cases, these emotions can turn on oneself, if manipulated by an outside source.

Referring back to my opening statement, the decision to remain faithful is an important part of what School Days means to convey. School Days is an anime about high school, which is nothing short of truly original. However, School Days doesn’t follow the typical make up of what school-oriented romantic comedies tend to abide by. Instead, it decides to turn the best possible scenario into the worst possible scenario through the enflamed emotions of students in heat. A single action can have major implications for events to come.

School Days takes place in an unnamed rural town and is normally shown from typical settings in school themed anime. The train station, the classroom, the characters’ homes; places of that nature. It begins with our hero, Makoto, as he narrates about how he’s “taken an interest” in a quiet girl who rides the train with him everyday on his way to school. This quiet girl turns out to be Kotonoha, a fellow student of his school and an all-around gentle person. He proceeds to take a picture of this girl, while never speaking a word to her, because of an in-school rumor stating that if you take a picture of a someone you like on your cell phone and keep it a secret from everyone you know for a pre-determined time, you’ll eventually get together. It’s this action alone that shows that School Days began with what many would assume to be another typical high school romance. Unfortunately for Makoto, his myth is ruined when a female classmate named Sekai barges over and catches him gazing over the picture of Kotonoha on his phone. His luck turns when Sekai offers to help him get together with Kotonoha for absolutely no reason. Her efforts are successful and the two eventually get together, but at a cost.

A lot of the unprecedented attention towards this anime comes from the decisions Makoto makes throughout the entirety of the anime. After getting together with Kotonoha, he begins to behave differently from the all-too-familiar submissive main male lead that the anime industry has turned into a cultural norm. To this, I would suggest is because of experimentation. As any experienced anime viewer would know, not many anime titles feature a main male lead who has enough bravado to chase after his physical desires. While they may fantasize about it, fantasy and reality are two completely different experiences. The trouble with this is that Makoto becomes unlikable and unrelatable to those who choose to watch the anime. And because of this, the overall enjoyment of viewing this anime is likely to turn for the worst. One can only applaud the decision to take the road less traveled.

While Makoto is seen in a negative light, Kotonoha has a similarly opposite effect. The viewer genuinely feels bad for her, knowing that she doesn’t have the will to stand up for herself while at the same time she’s kind (or naive) enough to forgive Makoto for his actions. Not only this, but she’s later bullied by virtually everybody in the series through strings and misunderstandings about her relationship with Makoto that even she makes decisions she regrets. Kotonoha is the perfect sob story, while Makoto is the perfect villain. Everyone’s roles are established and they perform them well, if only for an instant.

In regards to the minor characters, they take part in the story by either making Kotonoha look better or Makoto look worse. It’s almost pitiful to see some characters disappear for a few episodes, only to have them return for a couple minutes in order to relegate themselves for the sake of the plot. What’s more disappointing is that some of the minor characters had potential to become something more than background space, but are usually disregarded halfway through the series for the sake of the main characters’ reputations. School Days also likes to give off the impression that gossip travels fast around a student body. Whether this be true or not, it served the plot well, both realistically and half-heartedly. The absence of adults in this series is also a subject of this series’ lack of realism, but it’s minor compared to others aspects of the anime.

The animation for School Days actually impressed me. For an anime airing in 2007, I could have sworn it was made by the turn of the new decade. The character designs are nice to look at, while at the same time standing out from the dull background. What this could imply is that the importance of the series is based on the characters and not their surroundings. As long as nothing slips outside the realm of School Days’ logic, nothing is at risk of being criticized. Nothing looked out of place and the expressions were as gut-wrenching as the drama within. Other than the unnecessary fan service outside of the hot and heavy scenes, I have no complaints about the style of animation. Just a nice looking moving picture.

To say I didn’t enjoy watching this series would be less of an understatement and more like a joke. Words like horrifying, disgusting, revolting, vile, gross or repulsive don’t even compare to the feeling deep within the pit of my stomach as I watched the second half of this series. Just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, it did. Just when I thought the characters wouldn’t act any more irrational, they did. This title takes the expectations of a light-hearted, romantic drama and beats it into the ground. The characters’ actions are worthy of controversy. Their mindsets could be compared to an unstable dam, withering away at the amount of sheer force with which the waves of reality strike them. The ending sums up the worst possible scenario and makes it a reality, taking any likability away from each character in the series, whether it be because they weren’t developed enough or their final decisions proved disappointing. This is not a happy anime. But then again, it’s not supposed to be.

The original review paid more attention to the sexual nature of Makoto’s mindset, but I decided to cut that as I felt it was too… spoiler worthy. It was also more snide towards the ending of the anime. I prefer this version.