I haven’t read the light novels, nor will I ever. Every light novel I’ve ever touched has scalded me with its egregious prose.
That said, this will spoil the entire show, so if you haven’t watched it yet, careful.
The best fix this world has to offer is a good anime romance drama. Stop being hyperbolic, Chrissy, you say. Know that my face is as stern as the back of a ship. I do not exaggerate. Ever. And besides, deep down, you know I’m right.
The problem with good anime romance drama is simple: there are about three. I say ‘about’ because it’s unclear whether we should count Spice & Wolf, which lacks a high-school setting and therefore is barely even an anime. Putting aside that debate for another day, the three pillars of anime romance drama are Toradora!, White Album 2, and our titular Oregairu, all of which have brought repeated light and joy to my otherwise bitter life. Unfortunately, Toradora! has long-since concluded and the continuation of White Album 2 is forever trapped in an untranslated visual novel (I swear to you right now that I will one day learn Japanese and finish this story,) which leaves Oregairu as the lone torchbearer to carry us forward in these dark times when well-directed but vapid junk food like Love is War passes as the cream of the crop (for all you Love is War fans, duels can be scheduled through the Getting in Touch page.)
Which, in theory, is fine by me, because I absolutely fucking love Oregairu. Following the jaded Hachiman Hikkigaya as he staggers through his isolated high school years, Oregairu is that delightful blend of a completely insufferable protagonist who’s convinced he’s got the world figured out and a show that knows he doesn’t. Hachiman goes on a series of internal rants throughout the show’s first season about how the relationships of his peers are fragile, fleeting things, about how his goal in high school is to ‘minimize damage’, and about individuals in his class. The popular Hayama, Hachiman claims, is able to be friendly to everyone because he’s cultivated a sunny charisma that allows him to talk to unpopular people without taking any blows to his own popularity. The bubbly Yui, Hachiman declares, is a ‘nice girl’, a term he uses with disdain to describe girls who smile at everyone and give them (him) hope that they’re special, when in actuality it’s just a blanket feature of Yui’s personality.
In return, the show constantly wrecks him. Hachiman’s teacher dismantles each of his cynical essays with her superior life experience. Yui, it turns out, was actually trying to get close to Hachiman in particular, and Hachiman is forced to rescind his cruel accusations. Hayama declares himself as not only selfish, but jealous of Hachiman because despite having few friends, Hachiman has drawn the attention of Haruno Yukinoshita who Hayama is in love with. Oregairu is a non-stop brutal display of how toxic and destructive Hachiman’s particular brand of ennui is, while also demonstrating that he really is a good person who’s just been deeply affected by a middle school experience riddled with exclusion and mockery. The result is an addicting blend of cringe-worthy fuck-ups on Hachiman’s part and delightful moments of real character growth. Hachiman moves backwards just as often as he moves forward, and it’s this tension that keeps the show consistently fascinating.
Luckily, Oregairu is set to have a third season. Sure, it was recently delayed, but it is coming, and then we’ll get to dive back into the world of Hachiman Hikkigaya and his best buddy-pals Yui and Yukino. Tensions were high at the end of the last season, but it’s not time for the final resolutions yet. We’ve still got room for growth with our central trio, and time aplenty for feelings to form and fade. We can no doubt look forward to cynical monologues, cathartic revelations, and devastating confrontations. For a brief twelve weeks, the interpersonal drama of a bunch of fictional high-schoolers will completely eclipse the importance of global pandemics and vicious elections. Hopefully.
But frankly, I’m very worried that it won’t. Why, you ask?
Season 2, Episode 12, 14:30.
This was the moment when all of my nagging, dormant doubts were solidified in a single, crisp, horrible moment. Kaori, a girl Hachiman knows from middle school and who he asked out once, offers to make him chocolate. No, it isn’t romantic. Well, not for Kaori.
In a different context this could’ve been a powerful moment: part of Haciman’s deep-rooted cynicism involves that theory that girls like Kaori are shallow attention-seekers, and will therefore ignore him because he’s unpopular. When he first reunited with Kaori earlier in the season, Kaori helped reinforce this notion by switching between laughing at and ignoring him. However, as she continued to bump into him and see him in different contexts, she slowly came to realize her own quick-to-judge nature. Maybe if you look at someone and immediately think they’re boring, the problem lies in the person looking Kaori essentially tells him at one point, though Hachiman brushes it off. In this scene though Hachiman can longer ignore the fact that Kaori’s demeanor towards him has changed, even though he’s still not popular. She fundamentally sabotages his impression of ‘girls like her,’ making it clear that while she has no romantic interest in him she also no longer has any intention of scorning him. She’s okay with being friends. She’s no longer the girl Hachiman pinned her as, because much like the rest of them, she’s growing up, and Hachiman has to grapple with the fact that her and the rest of his peers are becoming less prone to surface-level judgments.
At least, that’s what this scene could have been about. Instead though, we’re treated to a rapid-fire reaction reel of Yui, Yukino, Iroha, and even fucking Kawasaki looking up in alarm. Another girl is offering to make chocolates for Hikki! scream their reactions. Lined up like this, Oregairu looks like a harem, and Oregairu just doesn’t work as a harem.
Oregairu is a good show because of a simple reason: its writing. All of its characters have believable personalities, and exist independent of the show’s goals or Hachiman’s world. Hachiman initially looks at this high-school world that’s inherently ambivalent to his existence and decides that it’s worthless, but slowly realizes that while some of his peers will never care for him and he may not always know how to fit in everywhere, there are people around him who he genuinely gets along with and that it’s worth putting in the effort to create those relationships. The central message of the story is that no one’s the center of everything, that each of us will always be an afterthought to most people, but that doesn’t make it not worth pursuing bonds with others.
The idea of anime harem shows are completely contrary to that thesis. In a harem, one character is the arbitrary center of everything. The (usually girls) surrounding them might each have in-universe explanations for why they’re so attached to the protagonist, but when you look at the larger picture it often feels like other people just don’t really exist in the world of a harem, resulting in a bubble where there can be tenuous justifications for obsession because there simply aren’t other options other than the protagonist. Add up enough individually reasonable coincidences and you get something else entirely–a story entirely removed from reality. For some show’s that’s fine. I have no problem with power-fantasies existing, and I completely get that some people just want to get away from the real world for a little while. But Oregairu has always been about facing the real world, as messy and difficult as it may be.
Which is why I’m so worried that Oregairu is becoming a harem. It started with Yui and Yukino, two girls who spend a lot of time in Hachiman’s company. Their shared experiences solving problems for the service club result in plenty of natural intimate moments, and because these two girls get to see Hachiman’s vulnerable side so often, it makes sense that they might independently develop feelings for him. It helps that neither of them have particularly strong relationships with other guys their age, but whatever, I can believe it.
Then along came Iroha, who only really knows Hachiman in a professional sense and still develops fast and obvious feelings for him just because he gives her a few tips on her student council dilemma and carries her groceries for her. This is when things begin to get iffy. By itself, Iroha’s infatuation with Hachiman would be fine, but stories are crafted deliberately by the author and when you pile Iroha’s feelings on top of Yui and Yukino’s it starts to feel like the intention is to surround Hachiman with fawning girls. Next Yukino’s meddling older sister Haruno starts being far more flirtatious with Hachiman than in the first season, and finally fucking Kawasaki who has never had more than a passing interaction with Hachiman starts when she hears that someone’s making him chocolate. At this point I’m worried that Kaori herself is going to develop feeling for Hachiman, which would completely undo the point of her character, twisting the show’s message into ‘when people reject you, it’s just because they don’t understand you well enough yet, and one day they will learn who you are and regret their stupid choice,’ which is super fucking childish.
Look, I love this show. I really do. But Game of Thrones already proved that a conclusion consisting of poorly-written fan-pandering can utterly sabotage seasons worth of cultivated goodwill. It’s not just that I think Oregairu becoming a harem would be eye-rolling and dumb, it’s that I feel like it would fundamentally undermine everything the series has been trying to say for twenty-six episodes. Yukino, Yui, Iroha–these are excellent characters because they’ve been firmly established as distinct personalities with vastly contrasting interests, conversational ticks, and general auras. And yet, in the final episodes of season two, we began to see each of them converge into the same glance-away blushing character. Regardless of the justifications for each one, the end result is the same, and the otherwise colorful Oregairu started to feel homogeneous. I had to go back to season one to after I finished rewatching the last episode of season two just to make sure I hadn’t fundamentally mis-remembered Yukino’s character. Sure, Yukino’s changed. Sure, we’ve gotten to see her weaker side, full of cracks and stutters and awkward glances. But when every other character is doing the same thing, and it’s all fundamentally revolving around the once-grounded Hachiman, the trend becomes too powerful to ignore.
Save yourself first, Oregairu. For my sake and everyone else’s. There are about as many harem anime as there are stars in the sky. If I want well-written girls fawning over a protagonist who acts as the center of the universe, I’ll go rewatch all seven million seasons of Monogatari. Can you just be, like,