[Feature] How Clean Freak! Aoyama-kun compassionately handles mental illness

When this season started out, Clean Freak! Aoyama kun had a huge uphill battle to win my respect. I can count the number of sports anime that have really grabbed me on one hand, and even if that weren’t the case… well, look at the title.

While admittedly that “Clean Freak” is more of a poor translation choice than authorial intent (the Japanese title, 潔癖男子, is more literally “Cleanliness Boy,” as seen on-screen during the opening theme, and can directly refer to the more clinical germaphobia), a series that chooses to focus on a germaphobic prodigy is still a gimmick that practically screams future exploitation. But, as I said when I reviewed the premiere, it won me over. Aoyama-kun is good. And it’s stayed good, mostly due to the compassion it shows for its ever-expanding ensemble cast.

A boy wearing a gi and cat ears and paws high-fives a girl in pigtails and a boy with a topknot. Text: "Yay! Yay! Yay!"

Fujimi High’s soccer team is a tight-knit bunch of weirdos, each with their own quirks and conflicts, and the show works to endear us to them by showing how those oddities bring happiness to others (in the case of class clown Tsukamoto) or by validating a character’s emotional wants rather than mocking them (as with sweet yandere manager Moka). As successive episodes turn the spotlight to different members of the cast, it proves its determination to laugh with rather than at its characters. But nothing surprised me more than ”Narita-kun Keeps It a Secret,” which shines a light on both a new character and Aoyama himself.

The titular Narita-kun is a classmate of Aoyama’s and a fellow germaphobe, but while Aoyama is open about his mental illness, Narita prefers to… well, keep his secret. He goes to extremes to appear “normal,” putting on a neurotypical face while feeling agonized by the casual messes made by his classmates. Despite the stress he’s under and the unhappiness it brings him, Narita insists that hiding his mental illness is the best way to function.

Narita sits at his desk, hands folded, imagining his classroom as a forest with a volcano. The other chattering students have monster heads. Subtitle: In an hour, this classroom will become a battlefield.

The episode (humorously) pits Narita and Aoyama against one another, though the competition is only in Narita’s head. The various scenes of slapstick, one-sided competition during the school day initially suggest that Aoyama has found happiness by being open about his mental illness and that Narita, by contrast, is miserable because he has to make time for cleaning and rituals as well as the additional exhausting effort of doing those things out of sight.

It is, at times, hard to watch. Narita’s need to arrive an hour before his classmates just so he can finish his cleaning rituals, his struggles not to react while someone sneezes on his desk, and his attempts to play off why he won’t (or rather, why he almost physically can’t) give his notes to an unkempt classmate in a way that seems “normal” capture the crushing anxiety of those feelings with painful accuracy. The episode is dominated by Narita’s narration, which invites us to understand the logic that governs why he must do certain things. It helps the viewer sympathize with why certain behaviors become imperative, even as they also become suffocating.

From there, it seems the episode is on its way to painting a fairly simple dichotomy, implying that Narita would be happier if only he told people about his germaphobia—something that sounds nice in theory but is truthfully quite naïve (or would be if this were the real world rather than the hyper-understanding universe of Aoyama-kun). But the episode proceeds with a great deal more nuance, complicating both sides. Narita and Aoyama get into a cooking competition in Home Ec, for instance, and Narita assumes that the reason they both excel at it is because they can’t eat food anyone else has made. Later, though, based on Aoyama’s low-key enthusiasm, he wonders if Aoyama actually enjoys cooking for other people rather than simply doing it out of necessity.

Young Narita frowns as he stares at a piece of expensive meat. Subtitle: Anything we want to eat, we have to make ourselves.

Narita also plays an MMORPG that allows him to unwind and feel more like “himself,” and Aoyama winds up joining his party. In the game world, Aoyama seems able to relax too, albeit in a very different way than Narita does. He high-fives his virtual teammates despite avoiding touch entirely in the real world, is energetic and openly emotive, and has a very messy private lobby. Narita is forced to reassess yet again, both acknowledging that just because they share an illness doesn’t mean they’re identical (Narita’s personal lobby is, by contrast, very neat) and also wondering if Aoyama is as frustrated with his real-world life as Narita is.

Each of these scenes occurs from Narita’s perspective, without giving us a concrete answer about Aoyama, and the result is a pleasantly complex picture. Yes, Aoyama would be different in some respects if he didn’t have to deal with the coping mechanisms around his mental illness, but he’s also found satisfaction and even joy in his daily routines beyond simple compulsion. It’s a shocking degree of complexity that I’m not used to seeing in media; OCD and its adjacent symptoms in particular tend to get boiled down to “jokes,” and despite being attuned to it, I’m struggling to think of another series that depicts characters with germaphobia/OCD that have any traits beyond exaggerated tics related to their condition.

Narita, Aoyama, and their MMORPG teammate stare toward the camera in shock. Aoyama has cat paws and a fighting gi. Narita is dressed as a ranger.

Narita isn’t even outed to his classmates as a germaphobe. While Aoyama encourages Narita to let his classmates “get to know him,” he doesn’t press the issue further than that, and the series allows Narita to continue growing at his own pace. In the end, both characters have unique sources of happiness as well as struggles, and the show respects that without moralizing or mocking them.

In the grand scheme of the overall narrative, the episode provides solid grounding for plot-important occasions where Aoyama pushes through his phobia for the sake of his teammates while simultaneously reminding us this isn’t something he can simply “get over.” But it’s also just a good, gentle-hearted one-shot that more series would benefit from emulating. Its nuance is practically unheard-of, not just in anime but in media overall, and it’s a shame that years of ingrained wariness over lazy, offensive portrayals almost kept me from missing this gem altogether.

 

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  • Robert Keaney

    This was a really great review. Thank you for writing it!!!!!!

  • tsundoku pasha

    More should watch this series….

  • j____l

    Thanks for another great article! I’ve been enjoying this show a lot, it’s more or less the only one I keep up with this season.