My Fave Is Problematic: Scum’s Wish

By: Bryn Matthews March 27, 20190 Comments
A split-screen image. On the left is a teenage boy wearing a school uniform, glancing over his shoulder. On the right is a teenage girl with chin-length hair, also wearing a school uniform, looking straight ahead somewhat sadly.

CONTENT WARNING for discussions of sexual assault and unhealthy relationships. SPOILERS for the entirety of the Scum’s Wish anime.

There’s a scene towards the end of the first episode of Scum’s Wish that perfectly encapsulates what makes this show unique among its contemporaries. The female lead, Hanabi, and an unnamed boy stand against the wall of the school building, low and to the side of a shot that is dominated by the fresh-grown leaves of spring, in a framing that feels familiar.

This is a love story. We understand this.

A girl and a boy in school uniforms stand near a wall to the far left of the frame. In the foreground are green-leafed branches touches by sunlight.

Hanabi rejects him, polite and distant, and this too, we understand. By eighteen minutes into the first episode, we already know the two men in Hanabi’s life who might capture her romantic attention, and so the inclusion of this new boy never carries a threat of disrupting the show’s central romances. Rather, this scene exists to position Hanabi as popular in her social circle, desirable to men, and graceful in her rejection of them. We see this scene, and we see Hanabi as a Beautiful Girl, but also as a Good Girl, and a Nice Girl, and a Thoughtful Girl. She’s a girl we can support.

At least, that’s the expectation.

The boy grabs her arm and pulls her around to face him once more. He’s waited a week for her answer, he protests. With an expression that can be read as confused, disappointed, and disdainful all in one, he tells Hanabi that she “built up [his] expectations,” as if that will change her mind. As his arm drops to his side, Hanabi turns to face him and pauses for a moment, before delivering a line that contextualizes all of what Scum’s Wish does well.

Hanabi, dappled by sunlight, says "There's nothing more revolting than the affection of someone you're complete disinterested in, is there?"
From this moment, I was hooked.

I have never related well to romance media. The plot contrivances and coincidences-upon-coincidences that lead to romance seldom feel real. That might seem like an unfair criticism since the narrative buy-in of a romance is lower than it is for something like a supernatural fantasy. It’s far easier to accept two dissimilar people falling in love than a world of magic and battle. And yet, between the two of them, it was always the love stories that had me wrestling bitterly with disbelief.

As a queer teen struggling with my identity, I was forever falling in and out of relationships that involved me breaking off pieces of myself to give to others while hiding the most important pieces from view. In that context, how could I possibly accept the ease and comfort of romance as portrayed in dedicated romance media?

I could watch shounen battle shows and understand that no one on this planet was ever going to fight demons. But watching a romance, my usual reaction was to see the fantasy on-screen portrayed as real… so long as one was pretty and straight and unburdened by life’s expectations. On screen, romantic leads were quirky enough to catch interest but not so damaged as to be off-putting: a far cry from my real life experiences.

You can see their heads in each other’s shots, but the emotional distance is so great that even a scene with the two in bed together requires a barrier.

This rejection of romance media is what initially drew me to Scum’s Wish. A clever, beautiful art style with thoughtful directing helped. The camera’s tendency to show shot-reverse shot conversations in separate, manga-like panels as a way to convey emotional distance lent it cinematic depth.

But what truly sold me on the series was that it was a romance that didn’t play by the rules. Scum’s Wish promises sex drama instead of sex comedy, a romance where people are flawed, ugly, disappointing creatures rather than glossy cartoon stereotypes. Even as it continually went against my desire for satisfaction and validation, I kept returning to Scum’s Wish because I wanted something that hurt, where happiness wasn’t guaranteed and bad decisions led to bad consequences.

And so, in the frozen winter of northern Aomori Prefecture, living in a town of fewer than 5,000 people, hopelessly alone and deeply closeted to all but my oldest friends, I watched Scum’s Wish hoping to see something that showed my reality. Hoping to see something that “told the truth”: that relationships are hard and romance can’t be forced. That being alone sucks, but being together isn’t necessarily better.

Hanabi in a paper cut-out style, wearing a fur-lined coat and looking shocked. Subtitles read "I'm trying to get back my self-respect through other people's opinions"

Scum’s Wish revolves around two high school juniors, Hanabi and Mugi, who through undesirable circumstances agree to date. Hanabi is in love with Kanai, a handsome if somewhat milquetoast teacher at her school who has known her family since childhood. Mugi is in love with Minegawa, his junior high tutor who has now graduated to teaching full-time and secretly hides a sinister nature beneath her soft exterior. These relationships cannot be.

Hanabi and Mugi are attractive and popular, and clearly desirable to others, but this means nothing to them, as they watch the adult objects of their infatuation drift closer and closer together. Sharing mutual pain and mutual sexual frustration, the two teenagers hook up with the promise that there will be no feelings between them, and that if either Kanai or Minegawa becomes available, they’ll call their sham of a relationship off.

This could be the slightly edgy set-up for a fairly standard romance narrative. “Fake relationship” is a standard launching point for all manner of romance media, and could easily lead to a story about Hanabi and Mugi growing steadily closer, sharing more and more of themselves, building to a swelling, romantic climax complete with a tearful confession. However, in nearly every place where Scum’s Wish could zig and lean into genre convention, it zags and subverts the audience’s expectations. No trope is sacred, and no conclusion is foregone.

Hanabit holds a ball of light to her chest and thinks "every tiem I'm touched, I realize I'm so empty inside"

The show does so many things well. It may not endear it to romance fans to say that Scum’s Wish appears at times to actively hate on the conventions of the romance genre, but it’s that very fact that makes it so satisfying.

There’s an unspoken rule in romance fiction that nearly anything can be forgiven if it’s done in the name of love. Stalking, invasion of privacy, and uncomfortable public confrontations are all on the table if done for love, and even love doomed to fail contains a beautiful, tragic quality.

Not so in Scum’s Wish. Both Hanabi and Mugi have a childhood friend that is hopelessly in love with them, but these friends are portrayed as neither romantic and determined nor beautiful and sad. Rather, these side characters are portrayed as unstable, unhealthy, and potentially dangerous.

A girl and a boy walk away from the camera. The shot is framed in pink lace. Subtitles read "It was like we were playing pretend."

The characters, too, experience emotion and carry flaws that would seem out of place in many other romance shows. Hanabi, in particular, is an uncommonly deep, thoughtful character. Her inner monologue conveys her spiral downwards, her self-worth eroding as she begins to see herself purely as a sexual object for the consumption of others.

Her transformation over time isn’t cute or validating. It’s horrific as she grows to hate herself for the person she’s becoming, but lacks the will to do anything to change it.

However, this quality is also what makes Scum’s Wish endearing. Hanabi and Mugi are not models upon which to base one’s relationship. They’re hardly ideal friends, lovers, or even people. At the same time, their flaws ground them, make them seem human, and elicit empathy. They’re melodramatic teenagers, but they’re melodramatic teenagers who feel real.

A close-up of Hanabi's face in profile, streaked with sunset. She thinks "I know that I'm thoughtless and selfish."
Hanabi’s self-loathing is so expertly weaved into her narrative, and the fact that she’s aware of her flaws only makes worse her belief that they are unchangeable.

I could probably talk for hours about what I like about Scum’s Wish, and how it portrays confusion, heartbreak, and eventual disillusionment with romance in a way that resonated with me, especially at that time in my life.

As a queer viewer, I even found it possible to superimpose a queer allegory upon Hanabi and Mugi, two people who desire something they see as unattainable, and instead present a lie to the world that slowly but surely eats away at them. That’s why it’s particularly heartbreaking to say that the show’s actual queer character, Sanae, is its most problematic component.

Sanae is introduced to the narrative in the second episode as Hanabi’s school friend, and instantly begins to suspect that Hanabi and Mugi’s relationship isn’t as perfect as it appears. By the episode’s midway point, it’s clear that she has an unrequited crush on Hanabi. The episode ends with a sleepover, Sanae on top of Hanabi pulling away from a kiss while internally berating herself for having let things get so far. Over the next few episodes, Sanae and Hanabi begin a physical relationship, ultimately breaking it off after realizing how damaging it was to each of them.

A narrow-framed shot of Hanabi and Sanae looking at each other in bed. The shot is framed by black with white snowfall drifting through it

There are some legitimately likable things about Sanae as a character. She’s emotionally perceptive, realizing from the beginning that Hanabi and Mugi’s relationship wasn’t making them happy. She’s a queer character who engages with her queerness in a way that most anime characters don’t.

She also acts as an interesting foil to Hanabi and Mugi. While the two central characters of the show pine for the objects of their affection from far away, Sanae reveals her affection for Hanabi directly. Inexperienced in love, Hanabi and Mugi consider their ideal scenarios with Kanai and Minegawa to be physical, as they substitute them for each other while they kiss or have sex.

It isn’t that they don’t want real romance, just that the first thing they think of is physicality. Sanae actually attains that physicality with the person she loves, but it becomes unsatisfying to her over time because she wants something Hanabi cannot give her.

All of this would be compelling characterization, if not for how Sanae actually attains that physicality. Towards the end of the fourth episode, Hanabi and Sanae again lie in Hanabi’s bed, kissing. Sanae’s internal monologue reveals that she knows Hanabi doesn’t love her, but won’t refuse her advances because they’re close friends. Of course she’s going to take advantage, she thinks to herself. This isn’t the only scene like this either, as a later scene has Sanae groping Hanabi at school, even while the latter seems incredibly uncomfortable with the situation.

Sanae’s internal monologue reveals the darkness of her character, but never really goes anywhere with it. Admittedly, she does get a cool lesbian haircut at the end of the show, but that’s basically it.

Scum’s Wish isn’t shy about confronting unhealthy romantic behavior, and no one would mistake any of the characters on the show for good role models upon which to base their own relationships. But the show has a difficult tendency to group “unhealthy romantic behavior” and “abuse” into the same, former category.

Sanae’s stalker-like tendencies, Minegawa’s duplicitous, cheating nature, and Hanabi and Mugi’s needs for physical intimacy as a replacement for emotional intimacy are all unhealthy behaviors. Sanae sexually assaulting Hanabi, or Minegawa sleeping with her students, are abusive ones.

The fallout of these abusive situations is portrayed fairly realistically (her physical relationship with Sanae accelerates Hanabi’s loss of self-worth, for example), but the characters have a tendency to rationalize their own abuse in a way that feels somewhat irresponsible. Even if it makes some degree of narrative sense, it’s off-putting to watch Hanabi blame herself for Sanae’s affection, as if she is the abuser, rather than the victim.

Hanabi and Sanae lie in bed together under soft watercolors. Subtitles read "I deserve this punishment"

Worse still, Scum’s Wish capitalizes on and exploits the very things it criticizes, and perhaps that is its greatest flaw. In the first sex scene between Hanabi and Sanae (and in fact, most sex scenes in the series), the show waffles on how it wishes to portray the events.

The beginning of the scene is scored with these reverb-heavy staccato bursts of music, and Hanabi’s whimpers and sighs are uncomfortable. The entire opening sequences feels like a horror movie, and Sanae’s eyes are hidden by her bangs in a way that makes her seem impersonal and dangerous, only adding to the effect.

Later, the framing and music shifts, replaced with a romantic piano melody and soft-focus, cute visuals. It’s as if the show wants to depict the true uncomfortable nature of a sexual assault between friends, but also wants to offer a titillating lesbian love scene.

It’s hard to believe that predatory, off-putting motion and starry, cute static image could be within seconds of each other, but that is the nature of this show’s strange construction.

Scum’s Wish swings like a pendulum. For every place it captures something real and raw about the human condition, it thoughtlessly exploits something else for shock or excitement. Every time it drifts off in a surprisingly progressive direction for a high school romance anime, it makes sure to attach it to regressive, damaging tropes and stereotypes.

Maybe that’s all it can do. Scum’s Wish is a romance that defies all expectations of what it is, and what it should be—even mine.

Scum’s Wish is unique partly for its frank and unglamorous portrayal of virtually all of its central characters. The titular “scum” of the show are Mugi and Hanabi, and they readily accept their flaws as fundamental markers of their brokenness. When others hurt them, they rationalize, but when they hurt others in turn, they are ruthless with themselves for doing so.

However, it’s not until the series’ end that either of them take any concrete steps to better themselves or work on their personal flaws. For most of the show, Mugi and Hanabi are content to see themselves as incorrigible scum, destined to ruin whatever they touch.

Even so, there’s a wistful quality to the show’s conclusion. Hana, Mugi, Sanae, and others adopt a more hopeful worldview at the school year’s end. They see the potential for a future filled with “real love,” happiness, and healthy, beneficial relationships—so long as they earn it. It’s a strangely saccharine moment in a generally bittersweet ending, but it assures the audience that caring for these broken characters wasn’t all in vain.

The show teases the possibility of a relationship between Hanabi and Mugi, but the last shots of the final episode come with them affirming their hope in a better future, letting go of each other’s hands, and walking away in opposite directions. It’s poignant and moving and even beautiful.

Unfortunately, the story itself never reaches this point of self-reflection. In a way, the entire show is a metaphor for its characters. It stands on the sidelines, criticizing other shows and styles from the safety of its misery, secure in the knowledge that it might be trash, but at least it has the self-awareness to know it’s trash. It’s content to wallow in being scum, and this unfortunate quality holds it back.

It’s still a beautiful show with a lot to say about relationships and emotional hardship, but the unwillingness to confront its own flaws relegate it from “Required Viewing” to merely “Extremely Problematic Fave.”

About the Author : Bryn Matthews

Bryn Matthews is a teacher and freelance writer living in Seattle with an academic background in Film Studies and Japanese. She formerly lived in Akita Prefecture and Aomori Prefecture in Japan. Despite being a millennial, she is bad at social media and still does not understand "the point" of Twitter. Maybe one day she will have more links here, but today is not that day.

Read more articles from Bryn Matthews

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