Yes, really. I imagine at least some of you took one look at the title I chose and ran as fast as possible in the other direction. Others might be reading on with some vague sense of contempt, for me or for one of the most infamous anime titles out there, propelled out of obscurity more because of its grisly ending and the circumstances surrounding it than anything else.
Even I feel it – I’m compelled to show my bona fides to you, to say that my favorite anime titles are Utena, The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, and Gankutsuou. Real capital-A artsy stuff, right? Things a critic can feel legitimate writing about. But that doesn’t change my deep-down, ugly love for School Days. I couldn’t be happier that School Days exists.
Here’s the thing, right off the bat: I have to spoil the ending. This is a show no one would put themselves through without having that promise solidly in their mind. Otherwise you just have a subpar harem anime with questionable-at-best animation, a higher than average number of panty shots, and a strong candidate for most unlikable lead in anime history. So, here goes.
Average High Schooler 784, Makoto Itou, is caught between two girls: he has a crush on the shy Kotonoha, but is super bummed by the fact that she isn’t comfortable with her first ever boyfriend feeling her up in public; meanwhile, his friend Sekai (who set them up, in the most self-defeating scheme ever), has the not-so-secret hots for him and offers to let him “practice” on her. This gormless nitwit bounces between these two for the majority of the series, adding a truly boggling body count along the way as the anime merrily chucks in every route from the original hentai game in some capacity (read: the fucking).
Meanwhile, he never really bothers to tell Kotonoha he’s breaking up with her until she’s been bullied and assaulted into a complete mental break down, which looks a lot like her fixating on being his perfect girlfriend to the exclusion of pesky, contradictory things like “reality.” And then, with ten minutes to go, the love triangle resolves itself. In the most delightful, spectacular bloodbath I’ve had the delight of sitting through. And I like slasher movies.
Actually, that’s rather apt. The experience of watching School Days is not unlike the particular joy of watching a slasher flick: certainly not for everyone, completely understandable as to why many find it distasteful, but it scratches a particular itch by very obligingly offing the protagonists you’ve come to loathe over the running time in an exceptionally cathartic and creative way. That’s the thing about anime – for every Utena or Samurai Champloo, there are dozens of ImoChou and Bakumans waiting in the wings, waiting to wear you down with transparently marketed fetishism and jaw-droppingly overt contempt for their female characters.
It’s not, I should be clear, just the murder that makes SD such a satisfying watch. It’s a perfect cocktail of everything anime can do wrong. There’s the unlikable cast, with Kotonoha one of the only ones to escape just by virtue of having Urobuchi levels of misfortune rained down upon her; there’s the ugly designs, which personify “low budget mid-2000s anime” with their comically enormous eyes (even for anime) and overlong foreheads; there’s the plastic sheen to the fanservice, making it seem as though every supposedly erotic scene involves someone ineptly banging a pair of hateful Barbies together; there is the fact that the script does things like raining down punishment on the selfish but still largely human Sekai while the ACTUAL RAPIST character gets away with no consequences whatsoever (I freely admit this is a “laugh to avoid the tears” sort of thing); and finally, there is the slow way this all piles up, until we’ve gone from hackneyed swimsuit and festival episodes to WHY DOES THIS SCHOOL HAVE NO TEACHERS, WHO SIGNED OFF ON THE FESTIVAL HAVING A TACIT HOOKUP ROOM SWEET INFANT JESUS WHAT ARE YOU –
It’s a perfectly molded pile of steaming garbage, is what I’m saying, which works all the better because of how purely accidental it seems to be. The original game, like something out of Nitro Chiral, was marketed on the infamy of its bloody bad endings. But the decision to take that route doesn’t account for everything that followed, piling up every ugly, distasteful, cliché thing about harem and love triangle anime, overdoing them to the point of high absurdism, and then lighting it on fire on the way out.
It doesn’t even have the self-awareness of a Funny Games or Spec Ops: the Line, to take a narrative step back and shove your nose in the thing it assumes you’ve enjoyed and which it constructed in order to really hammer home that point. The fact that this show isn’t smart enough for that is its secret weapon. The lack of self-importance that comes from a work feeling like it’s Saying Something is completely missing here, allowing the consequences and catharsis to feel earned by the narrative’s own bizarre, melodramatic logic. Like a reanimated assembly of decaying corpse bits, it should not function. And yet, here we are.
I’ve wanted to give up on anime in the past. When I thought that if I had to sit through one more forced love triangle or script without even a passing familiarity for how actual humans look or speak, when I have stomached my last panty shot of characters barely old enough to be in braces, School Days was there for me. It isn’t as smart as Higurashi’s reversal of moe’s fetishized helplessness for horror points; it’s not as sharply written a dark comedy as something like Welcome to the NHK. But it exists like a scream, raw and driven by frustration. And there are days when that feels really great.
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