Content warning: discussion of suicide, depictions of mental illness
What’s it about? Nakimi Ganta experiences insomnia, awake all night in a spiral of anxieties and exhausted when he’s at school during the day. Looking at his seemingly happy-go-lucky classmates, Nakimi assumes he’s the only one who’s going through anything like this. However, when he attempts to take a nap in the school’s abandoned (and apparently haunted) observatory, he finds an unexpected kindred spirit in a freewheeling, upbeat girl named Isaki.
This is a very grounded, quiet premiere that holds a lot of potential and a lot of room for fumbling the ball. How it fares will depend on a couple of key things: how it handles its love interest, Isaki, and how it handles the theme of mental health and isolation that underpins the whole premise.
Insomniacs After School has the makings of a tender story about two teens with similar issues finding solace in each other. It also has the makings of a not-so-good-old-fashioned fantasy about a sad, misunderstood everyboy being dragged out of his funk by an idealized, extroverted girl. Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a phrase that’s been on the way out for some years now, but the narrative problem that it represents remains. It’s immensely frustrating to watch a female love interest characterized solely by her role as the cosmic force that pulls the broody, lonesome male lead out of the sadness hole he’s in.
Now, is that what Isaki is? That’s not entirely a question I can answer right now, since it will depend on longer-term story queries like “does she get her own character arc, or does she just prop up Nakimi’s?” There are elements of this first episode that make me hopeful, but other elements that make me… tentative. She’s introduced with almost ethereal framing, positioned as a sleeping princess draped in a gossamer shimmer of light. There are a lot of shots where the camera pans up or lingers on her legs and her hips. Nakimi remarks that she’s different to the other girls in their class. She’s unmistakably quirky, energetic, a little bit odd but in a cute way, and is the one who urges Nakimi into action throughout the episode.
With all that, it’s not looking super good. However, there are glints of a deeper character (that is to say, a character, rather than just a romantic archetype). We see her exhibiting more than one emotion. We learn that she was frail as a child and thus has a complex about “burdening” people, which is why she doesn’t want to tell anyone about her insomnia or her secret napping hideout in the old observatory. As much as she drags Nakimi out of his comfort zone and flings them both into the night, she admits to being nervous about it—so, ya know, we get some insight into her thought process and understand that she’s not totally perfect, confident, and raring to go. It’s a low bar to clear, but it’s there.
As well as the development of Isaki, the other interesting thing to watch with Insomniacs will be the way it talks about mental and physical health and wellbeing. And it does talk about it. The school nurse matter-of-factly tells Nakimi that one in four people in Japan have some sort of sleep disorder, and explains that what he’s going through isn’t “just stress” even if the stress of modern life exacerbates it.
He explains, more than once, that he’s reticent to get help—or even go take much-needed naps in the nurse’s office—because he doesn’t want his classmates thinking he’s weird. As noted above, Isaki also keeps her troubles to herself because she doesn’t want to burden anyone. This episode very frankly and, I think, heartfeltly, addresses the horrible cycles of self-destruction and isolation that people can end up in due to the stigma attached to being “sick” or “different”.
Now, this episode also features a ghost story about a girl who committed suicide that’s, to me, a little on the schlocky and melodramatic side. The depiction isn’t graphic; in fact dare I say it’s romantic, full of wistful imagery about the dead girl calling to the boy who secretly loved her as she dances on the moon. But in-universe this was made up by a teenager trying to scare people away from her secret napping spot, so maybe that accounts for that. Still, it makes me… curious to see how this story will treat the subject matter of mental health as it goes along. It’s not been shy about showing how much it sucks to have chronic insomnia, but it’s also dished out its fair share of whimsical and dreamy imagery—again, particularly regarding its Cool Sad Girl love interest.
If nothing else, this premiere has promise: it’s nice to look at, grounded in realistic, atmospheric details that make the wistful, larger-than-life romantic imagery stand out. If it can pull it off, we might end up with a truly lovely story about overcoming isolation and the importance of human connection. If not, well… let’s sleep on it and see. Or at least, let’s give it three episodes.