Oregairu Ends: A Series Review

Oregairu, or My Teen Romantic Comedy is Wrong, as Expected, or Yahari no–

Okay anyways. Oregairu is over. There are very few high-school anime that are actually good, and for the past decade or whatever Oregairu has been one of them, alongside White Album 2, Toradora, Hyouka, and… Aku no Hana I guess, though that one is more psychological horror. All of those are either done or never getting finished though, so Oregairu has been asked to bear the burden of providing us with love triangles and awkward teenagers for some time now. Personally I’m a love-triangle addict, so I’m grateful to have had a show like Oregairu at all. But now that it’s over it’s time to dig into the details and talk about which aspects of the show were triumphs and which aspects could have benefited from another round of editing.

No pics on this one. I’m feeling lazy.

There’s one area in which the show stands above just about every single one of its kin, and that’s the character writing. Rarely has there been a show with such a decisive grasp of its character’s traits, personalities, arcs, and relationships. There’s a complexity and nuance to pretty much all of Oregairu’s main cast: Hachiman, Yukino, Yui, Iroha, Haruno, Hayama, and yes, even the teacher, are all some of the most well-realized characters in anime. They’re multifaceted, detailed people with a ton of thought put into them, and they’re expressed with enough subtlety that their traits feel organic.

Rarely can you find a show in any medium where small scraps of offhand dialogue can carry so much weight behind them, or where development is so precise. Hachiman at the the beginning of the show and Hachiman at the end are two completely different people, but there’s no distinct moment where this change happens. Even after Hachiman’s season two moment of revelation most of his original traits initially remain, and it is only after a long and arduous season three that his habits and actions catch up with his emotional ambitions. His slow, grinding trudge towards vulnerability is full of pitfalls and backsteps, each carefully building on each other to form an arc that makes Kasuga’s arc from Aku no Hana look like a rough draft (and if you’ve read the full Flowers of Evil manga you’ll know just how lofty a claim that is!)

There’s really no denying it: when it comes expressing characters through dialogue, none of the other high-school shows can touch Oregairu. Not even Toradora!, my long-standing favorite of the bunch. The delicate, intent-filled conversations of Oregairu are one of a kind, and that’s enough to firmly earn it a spot among the best of the best.

However, despite all this, I think both Toradora and Aku no Hana have better overall scripts than Oregairu. There’s a difference between character writing and regular-old writing, and the difference is that no matter how precise your script’s grasp of the id is there are a few basic tenets of fiction that most stories would be wise to follow. The first and most important is that actions speak louder than words.

Let me say that again, Oregairu.

Actions, you know those things where people express themselves by doing things?

Yeah, those can convey a lot more than people standing around having endless conversations about what they’re thinking and feeling.

Now in Oregairu’s defense a big part of the story is its characters learning the importance of facing each other directly and expressing their thoughts and feelings instead of assuming that others understand them or attempting to cover their embarrassment by conveying themselves in roundabout, convoluted ways. Hachiman standing in front of Yukino and saying outright that he cares about her, wants her in his life, and is willing to put in the effort is a triumphant rebuke of everything he used to stand for, and it’s a monumental moment done through simple words alone. But there are many, many conversations in this show that are not that one, and most of them would have carried more impact if the meaning behind them had been conveyed by someone doing something to express their thoughts or feelings instead of rambling about them. Oregairu’s conversations are great, but they’re overused, while events like the high-school prom (of which there were two) should have been easy slam-dunk show-don’t-tell moments and were instead basically skipped over. That’s a crazy person’s choice. Who skips prom in a rom-com?!

Additionally, Oregairu’s second two seasons suffer from a relative lack of breezy fun-times, a fact made harder by the fact that when the show does goof off it’s really good at it. Hachiman rapping, Yukino obsessing over cats, and Iroha harassing everyone are all great gags, but unfortunately they’re scarce and swallowed by vast swaths of melodrama. I’m not saying that all high-school shows need to be funny, but casual fun goes a long ways towards humanizing characters. This is especially true when the stakes are low, as they are in Oregairu. Aku no Hana doesn’t need humor, because it’s a story about an anxiety-ridden teen who deals with rape and suicide pacts and other fucked-up shit. But Oregairu is a feel-good coming-of-age story, and those succeed based on audience investment. Having god-tier writing goes a long ways towards that, but so do the little, pointless moments that make characters relatable.

The other major issue I ended up having with the show was the harem elements. I wrote a whole article about this before, so I won’t harp on it, but basically my worries of Hachiman becoming Araragi came to fruition in the final season. Yukino, Yui, Iroha, Saki, and Kaori all have explicit crushes on him, while Haruno and even Shizuka (the goddamn teacher) spend extensive time flirting with him, whispering in his ear, falling on top of him, and more cliche anime nonsense. It’s wish fulfillment, pure and simple, and as I mentioned before completely undercuts the show’s main themes. How can you learn to except the pain and disappointment that come with the joys of trying to get closer to the people in your life if there is no pain and disappointment?

The positive is that I saw this coming, so it didn’t ruin the show for me. Disappointing and unnecessary? Yes. But at least the show sticks to only having emotional fanservice. It’s anime. If this kind of crap is a dealbreaker for you, go try a different medium.

What I do want to give the show credit is the ending. Few anime have proper endings, and of those even fewer are actually good. Even my dear love Toradora! has a final ten minutes that are rushed and disjointed, much to my continuous chagrin. Oregairu has one of those rare anime endings that is both satisfying and complete, wrapping up nearly all of the story’s loose threads while pointing the characters in decisive directions. The romantic undertones are resolved, the fate of Hachiman’s friend group is resolved, multiple side characters have their arcs completed, and it manages all of this without speeding through anything. The meticulous storytelling fully pays off here, giving us a chance to spend one last important moment with each cast member while making sure that all of the show’s final turns feel solidly earned. It’s a rare treat to finish a good anime and not immediately have to start doing research about the possibility of a sequel, but Oregairu is one of those few.

And, overall, Oregairu is a good anime. To be fair, the general quality of modern TV anime is low enough that being a ‘good’ anime isn’t saying a whole lot, but I would count Oregairu as one of the overall better rom-coms in any medium (again, not saying a whole lot.) I don’t think the show is revolutionary, and I doubt it would change anyone’s mind on the rom-com genre by itself, but if someone asked me for rom-com recommendations and they weren’t prejudiced against anime I’d probably rattle of this one along with the likes of Toradora!, Lovesick (which used to be Scrotal Recall and was tragically renamed,) Never Have I Ever, and Palm Springs. It’s probably the worst of those, dragged down by harem elements and random first-season ecchi, but for me to add it to The List at all is a real compliment. If you like rom-coms, watch Oregairu. If you don’t, I’d probably give it a skip. And if you’ve followed it until now and have been worried that the final season will undermine your love of the series, the good news is it probably won’t. The dips into wish-fulfillment aren’t that much more egregious than the first two seasons, and the ending is one of anime’s better ones. The show is another example of how most ‘anime-isms’ are blights that drag down otherwise good stories, but it endures in spite of them. A day may come when we are free from Christmas cake teachers and thigh shots, but it is not this day. Today we watch Oregairu, because it’s pretty dang good and our standards are low.

Final Score: 7/10, made me yell at the screen twice, got me to write something for my stupid blog.

DC’s Harley Quinn: A Plot-Driven Comedy

I don’t like superhero stuff. It’s a genre that’s inherently hoaky, which is fine, but most of its modern iterations try to use that base assumption to spin perceived depth out of just ‘not being a stereotype.’ Unfortunately, dabbling in basic concepts like ‘actions having consequences’ or ‘characters not being morally uniform’ doesn’t inherently make a story good. That’s more of a baseline that you can pile other, actually compelling ideas onto, which modern superhero stuff rarely does.

I also don’t like for-adults Western Animation. Shows like Rick & Morty, South Park, and Family Guy revel in the nastiness of humanity, upholding cynicism and cruelty and mocking sentiment and vulnerability. I find that kind of hard-edged mantra to be exhausting and pointless, and I steer far away from it.

Enter the Harley Quinn TV show, an MA-rated animated superhero show. I’ll admit, I’m a close-minded old coot and I would never have given this show a shot if it hadn’t been recommended to me by a good friend of mine who I know shares my sentiments on both of the above points. But when the guy who loves Let the Right One In, Umineko and Revolutionary Girl Utena comes to you and tells you that you have to watch the new Harley Quinn TV show, curiosity takes over.

Turns out he was right. This is one of the best TV shows I’ve ever seen, and I say that as someone with little knowledge and no interest in the DC superhero universe. The quality comes from a basic place, really: Harley Quinn is a plot-driven comedy with a good story. Centered around Harley herself, a violent criminal known for working as the iconic Joker’s sidekick, the show quickly goes off the rails. Harley breaks up with the Joker, striking out on her own with the help of her supportive friend Poison Ivy, putting together her very own misfit crew including a techie shark, a shapeshifter who wants to be an actor, and a telepath supervillain hit by cancel culture thanks to his misogynistic streak. They meet Kite-Man, a villain whose power is owning a kite, and who I learned recently is somehow actually from the comics. They confront the Legion of Doom, an organization of big-name villains that’s also essentially a country club. They tangle with the Queen of Fables, a mythical sorceress who summons characters from fairy tales complete with horrific twists. And all that is just the beginning. From there on out it’s chaos, baby.

Originally set in a classic version of Gotham city and occasionally starring various famous villains and superheroes from across the DC universe, Harley Quinn manages to completely deviate from any kind of comic canon by the end of its first season, ripping apart any notion that the show would try to fit its antics neatly into the rest of the DC storyline. Iconic characters start dying, and perhaps more dastardly they start developing, their personalities drastically changing as a result of the events of the story. Whoah, whoah, slow down, amirite? This is a comedy show. Aren’t you supposed to establish characters with a set bracket of quirks and traits? And if you do make radical changes to a long-established character, isn’t it supposed to be over the source of a single, self-contained episode and then you reset everything by the end?

Nah, and that’s what I love about this show. There are plenty of talented comedy writers out there nowadays, but something I’ve always been on the lookout for ever since being captivated by the basic conceit of The Devil is a Part-Timer is a comedy show that puts real effort into having an actual story. Shows like New Girl and Brooklyn 99 definitely have overarching plots, but on an episode-to-episode basis you can be fairly sure that the status quo in these shows will remain the same. There’s nothing wrong with that style of comedy, but I personally can get tired of stories that prioritize a strong status quo. The way I see it, comedy is funnier when you’re consistently building something, because you have a likelier chance to become legitimately invested in the characters you’re laughing with and you get a ton more material for jokes. Your comedy show then also isn’t make-or-break on whether or not the audience is laughing; you can lean into moments of sentiment or tension that feel earned.

And wow do those moments feel earned in Harley Quinn.

One of the big selling points for the show is Harley herself. She’s manic. She’s impetuous. She kisses people at random. But she’s also a heartfelt, complicated woman with a multiple-part character arc. Her hyperactive personality makes for a fun show on a moment-to-moment basis, but the entire show is initially constructed around her struggle to get out of a long-term abusive relationship and find her own sense of identity. She’s constantly falling into holes, getting into her own head, and relapsing into bad habits, but she’s also endlessly, earnestly pushing for a better version of herself. The show doesn’t ever make fun of this effort, nor does it make it easy for her by lumping her development together into one transformative epiphany. Harley grows slowly, in pieces scattered throughout dozens of episodes that gradually add up until you realize you’re watching a different person than you were at the show’s beginning. It’s nothing mind-blowing, but it’s sincerely powerful character development, good enough that I’d watch the show just for Harley even if everything else was played entirely straight.

The show’s other twin pillar is Poison Ivy, Harley’s snarky friend who has the distinct privilege of being written like an actual human. And I don’t mean in terms of goals and motivations; I mean in terms of dialogue quirks and voice delivery. The extremely talented Lake Bell gives her a subdued, stuttering texture that comes off as incredibly naturalistic. Ivy isn’t funny in the way that she delivers one-liners for the audience–she’s funny in the way that an actual person might be funny: saying random crap that pops into her head and often makes no sense, cracking dumb jokes for her own amusement, and reacting to insane situations in believable ways. It’s kind of absurd how likable Ivy is, and a lot of the early audience investment in the show comes from Ivy and Harley’s friendship. The two of them are close from the get-go, a bond that’s shown mostly through daily hangouts and downtime rather than dramatic gestures or shared action sequences. The way the two of them chill and bicker and make each other laugh captures the most relatable and important qualities of a close friendship. Sure there are antics, but contrary to what a lot of media portrays having a best friend doesn’t need to involve lots of ‘antics’. A lot of the time it’s just sitting on the couch for an hour and talking about dumb stuff. By placing a strong, sincere, and constantly-evolving friendship at the center of the show, Harley Quinn got me invested quick, not just in the jokes but in the story.

And once you’re invested in the story, the jokes get that much better. I’ve been talking a lot about how effectively Harley Quinn positions itself as a comedy with strong narrative elements, but let’s be real: the reason the show is so fucking good is because it’s funny as fuck. Asides from just being consistently clever, the show also addresses my initial point about Western Adult Animation being consistently abrasive and mean-spirited. A lot of the show’s jokes come from creativity, genre-riffing, or characters just being funny people rather than at the expense of the cast. I mean, I don’t want to be misleading; there is a ton of gore, swearing, and general evil in this show, and it’s got a streak of not shying away from what many people call politics

All the main characters are self-proclaimed villains after all. But the show always takes characters’ emotions and vulnerabilities seriously, upholding their bonds rather than messing with them for cheap humor. It’s amazing to say about the show that features Bane stomping on a bunch of fish in front of a weeping Aquaman, but Harley Quinn isn’t cynical at all. In fact, it’s deeply hopeful about people and their capacity to overcome their most toxic elements through willpower and effort. In an era when the world often feels like an unchanging wreck worth giving up on and worth throwing aside for a laugh, it’s refreshing as fuck to see a piece of Western adult fiction built around such deep-seated positivity.

I don’t know if I can say much more without getting into spoiler territory, so I’ll cap it at that. Obviously I recommend this show to anyone able to handle excessive blood and a first episode that might slightly overuse the F-bomb. I’d go beyond that though, and say that Harley Quinn is one of my all-time favorites–the anime comedy I always wanted to exist but never came along. I finally understand all those people who want to count Avatar: The Last Airbender as an honorary anime. This show is the shit, the absolute best piece of television I’ve seen this year, and I can only hope that it gets a third season.

Final Reckoning: 9/10, not enough Bane.

Never change, Bane.

Bloom Into You: Anime and Manga Review

Guys, I’m kinda obsessed with Bloom Into You. I’ve had my eye on the shoujo-ai genre ever since I finished the excellent Aoi Hana back in college, and while I’ve found a few other great ai stories throughout the years I hadn’t found anything that actually topped Aoi Hana until now. Yes, I do believe that this is the greatest lesbian romance story I’ve seen from Japan, and wow am I reeling from it, but I’m not the same starry-eyed fanboy I was in college either and while I absolutely love this story that does come with a few caveats.

So, what’s it about? Unlike many romance stories, Bloom Into You starts off with where most romances end: with one of the main characters, Touko, confessing her love to the other main character, Yuu. However, it’s pretty obvious from the get-go that this isn’t a very earned confession: Touko doesn’t know Yuu very well: what she does know about her is that she’s someone who has trouble falling in love with anyone, and Touko, an incredibly popular and sought-after overachiever, wants someone who doesn’t see her in any special light, someone that she can be real with. Yuu, true to her nature, doesn’t have any feelings for Touko, but is at least willing to get to know her better. What follows is obviously complicated, and to what degree it works deserves a bit of dissecting.

Let’s start with a bit of backstory. As you may have noticed from the title, this is a review of both the show and the manga, because I think it’s important to note that I had very different reactions to them. I watched the show about two years ago without being familiar with the source material, and I actually didn’t like it very much. It was an extremely competent production, with excellent facial animations and gorgeous backgrounds and seamless pacing, but it really didn’t get any feeling out of me. It wasn’t an unfaithful adaptation or anything, either: after reading the manga, I think that the part of the story that the show covers is executed about as well as anyone could ask for. And yet, even having finished the manga and loving it, I still don’t think I would recommend the show until you’ve read the manga. Why? Well, the reason lies in the fundamentals of the romance genre.

I’m a firm believer that in order to write a great romance story an author has to give compelling reasons for the audience to care about the characters independent of the romance. Romance isn’t the plot–it’s the payoff, and how much I as an audience care about that payoff is directly related to how much I care about the characters involved. There are a lot of ways you can do this, but one of the most universally successful is through the wacky hi-jinks that people, quirky and fascinating as they are, indulge in on a daily basis. Shows like Friends, Scrubs, and New Girl use the fun, fascinating weirdness of their casts’ everyday lives to both endear you to them and also make them feel more relatable as people. In anime, successful rom-coms like Toradora! and Oregairu both feature any number of fun side adventures and episodes entirely dedicated to just watching the cast hang out and have a good time. They have plenty of scenes dedicated just to exploring the unique interests and quirks their casts, with iconic moments like Toradora’s Minori freaking out because she successfully made a bucket of pudding or Oregairu’s Yui having a blast getting to sing with a band full of people that she idolizes often being some of the most memorable moments of the show, moments that made me sit back and say ‘I like these characters enough that I now seriously care about what happens to them’. Humans aren’t dedicated monoliths of drama: they follow tangents, have bizarre and creative conversations about insignificant things, and fall down rabbitholes of random interests. Stories that can capture this vital energy of daily living are also usually able to succeed as romances, because they make you root for the people involved independent of the romantic plotline.

Bloom Into You isn’t quite like that. It’s not that the story doesn’t showcase Touko and Yuu’s daily lives or try to endear you to the quirks of its cast, but it likes to fit these details into the cracks rather than make them the primary focus. This is because of the story’s incredibly efficient storytelling: Bloom Into You really doesn’t waste words, conveying as much information as necessary with clean, tight lines of dialogue and doing a lot of heavy lifting with its absolutely phenomenal artwork. Seriously, the visual composition of both the show and the manga are astounding. Sprawling shots of the characters and their romantically-portrayed town convey many of the details of their lives through the pictures on the page rather than the events of the story, and masterwork drawings of close-up expressions reveal nuanced character emotions in a way that plays out in real life, where people often show more about how they feel through body language than direct words. There is, however, a downside to this kind of efficiency, and that’s character investment. While there’s some number of casual scenes of Yuu and her friends joking around and the occasional bit with the student council that Yuu and Touko are both a part of, most of the story is dedicated to providing sharp bits of naturalistic insight into who the characters are, what makes them tick, and the emotions they’re experiencing. Even regarding its characters the series is efficient–Bloom Into You paints complex people using broad strokes, defining the outlines of who they are so well that the audience quickly understands when some action they take is usual or unusual for them, while never wasting time diving into the details. It doesn’t need to.

Or rather, it doesn’t need to because it’s such a well put-together story. This is the part where I have to come back to the anime, and why it didn’t work for me. When all the pieces of your narrative are so deliberately interlocked, cutting out and serving a portion of that story just doesn’t work. Bloom Into You‘s anime stops at around the halfway point in the actual story, and without the inevitable payoffs of the series’ second half the show is essentially just… pretty. It’s never bad–the dialogue is refreshingly free of Kimi no Todoke style fluff and melodrama, and the characters are inherently like-able and believable–but without the focus on quirks, chaos, and daily living that shows like Toradora! and New Girl are stuffed with, there isn’t any particular reason to get invested. Bloom Into You’s reason to invest comes from its character arcs, but getting half of those arcs just doesn’t work. Bloom Into You is a story that you kind of have to, well,

Bloom into.

And yes, I’d see that as a flaw. I’m a firm believer that you shouldn’t have to wait for a certain part in a story in order to get invested in it. I’ve heard plenty of times from the anime community the dreaded words just wait until episode X, that’s when it gets good. Good stories don’t ‘get good,’ and people don’t owe any of their time to stories that require hours of groundwork to build up to something decent. And, let’s be clear, Bloom Into You isn’t exactly like that. It’s fundamentally ‘good’ from the very beginning, if you go by the metrics of writing and pacing and aesthetics. But for me at least it didn’t resonate until the second half, when all the work the series had put in paid off in an avalanche of cathartic moments. After finishing the series I feel confident that when I go back to it in the future, which I will, the early chapters (or episodes, if the adaptation is ever complete) will be brimming with emotion for me because I’ll understand the context of the entire story. But finishing a story should never be a prerequisite for making its beginning feel enthralling, and for this reason I both do not recommend the anime until after you’ve read the manga and have to unfortunately knock this incredible series a couple of points.

Alright, we’ve got that out of the way? Awesome. Now I’d like to sell you on the flip-side–the parts of Bloom Into You that are absolutely phenomenal. I’ve already talked a bit about the visuals and the storytelling efficiency, but those are just words. The truth is that finishing this manga filled me with that incomparable hunger you get when you’re immersed in a piece of fiction so gratifying that simply consuming it and reflecting on it aren’t enough: you want to somehow do something more than read it, to in some inconceivable way be closer to the story than is reasonable or possible. It’s this hunger that leads people to fan-art and figurines and computer backgrounds as ways to involve themselves more deeply in the stories they care most about, and its an ache that I’m constantly chasing in fiction.

Obviously that’s a personal reaction, but hey, personal reactions are worth sharing. As for why I had such a reaction to Bloom Into You–there I can be a bit more concrete.

The first two are simple: the tone and the character consistency. The two leads, Touko and Yuu, are written as remarkably thoughtful, deliberate people who put a lot of consideration into their words and actions, and as they grow in many ways throughout the course of the story there’s a noticeable lack of the tears, outbursts, and breakdowns that so often line the halls of romance stories. Don’t get me wrong: I loved every single bout of hysterics in Toradora!, but novelty is the necessity of invention and witnessing a romance unfold that managed to string together a series of phenomenally cathartic scenes using small, subdued lines and reactions instead of big, show-stopping set-pieces was utterly riveting. Even more importantly, this didn’t feel like a whimsical tonal choice but instead a result of the story’s consistent dedication to the core aspects of Yuu and Touko’s identities. In many ways, Bloom Into You is about what parts of people can change and what parts are core to their identity, and the way it subtly defines Touko and Yuu’s core traits early on and then faithfully abides by them for the duration of the series gives our two leads a sense of concrete being seldom found in romance stories. Being able to trust a story to know it’s own characters well enough that you can guess what they’ll do in most situations is an incredible strength, allowing even slight deviations from these established expectations to hold great power and meaning.

The third caught me off-guard, and is specific to romance stories. Bloom Into You doesn’t shy away from physical intimacy, thank god: having the payoff for an entire romance story be a single kiss can be exhausting and unrealistic (depending on the story, don’t jump me please,) and this lovely deviation revels in the fact that young people are horny as frick. Before you call me a creep though, lemme be clear–that alone isn’t what I was so impressed with. What struck me more is that without a single character ever reflecting on it, whether it be out-loud or in some sort of internal monologue, the story managed to perfectly convey the vast and incomparable difference between intimacy with someone you’re attracted to and someone you’re in seriously in love with. I seriously can’t get over how effective this series was at making this point felt in the deep part of the heart, and its a testimony to the excellence of the character work that similar romance scenes repeated at different points in the story could, completely wordlessly, have such incredibly distinct significance.

The fourth? It’s a spoiler. Sorry, guess you’ll have to read this fantastic manga.

Overall, I can’t pretend that Bloom Into You is perfect. The show is kind of a wash until it gets completed (and boy do I hope it does,) and the manga has trouble grabbing the reader despite being technically brilliant. But wow oh wow are the good parts good, and I can say with certainty that this series has landed itself a spot on my list of favorites. If you’re a fan of dedicated romance stories I’d strongly urge you to pull up the first chapter right away. You’re in for a treat.

Oh and also, because I couldn’t find a place to make the joke organically:

Bloom into Yuu. Haha get it

Anime: 4/10, through no fault of its own. The score changes if it gets finished.
Manga: 8/10, read the ever-loving shit out of it.

The Disappointment That Was Eizouken – A Review

It feels wrong to swing the hammer at a show made by Masaki Yuasa. Everything the distinctive director has been responsible I’ve enjoyed immensely, and even his messier works like Kaiba and Kemonozume were full of heart and punch.

Last season’s Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! was different though. I had to drag myself to the finish line on this one, forcing myself through the final few episodes. It really shouldn’t have been this way. Every piece of Eizouken is incredible: the animation is distinctive and evocative, switching styles with a grace that demonstrates great understanding of the medium. The central trio all have powerful, unique personalities not often found in anime–Asakusa, the imaginative gremlin, Kanamori, the stern pillar of willpower with a love for money, and Mizusaki, the bubbly, popular idol who really just wants to make anime. Their dialogue is well-written, their various strengths and weaknesses well-defined. And if you look at Eizouken at a glance, the story is completely functional, following our artistic trio as they embark on their maiden attempt to create their own anime. It’s an informative and passionate tale of the many challenges faced by budding creators, and a lot of the specific aspects that go into making an anime.

So what’s the issue, you ask? Well, at first I wasn’t sure. All I knew is that by the time I got about halfway through I was bored. Even though the quality of the show hadn’t dipped, my interest had plummeted. After thinking about it a bit though, I noticed a pattern that hung through to the finale.

Every conflict in this show has an immediate, easy resolution.

There’s no tension! The show throws a non-stop barrage of problems at our protagonists, but they shrug off every single one after a minute of deliberation. Eizouken sometimes starts an episode with the group being presented with a conflict: a lack of funds, a story idea that hasn’t come together, censorship from the student council, whatever it may be. Then, Asakusa will go on a walk, or see something neat, have an idea, and that idea will fix the problem. Queue fifteen minutes of the main characters going to the baths, or wandering around looking at the town. Look, I have no problem with slice-of-life stuff, but even this show’s fucking title is aggressive: Keep Your Hands of Eizouken, a bold challenge towards anyone who would meddle with our trio’s project. I can only assume this title is supposed to be about the student council, who consistently attempt to stand in our protagonist’s paths, but rather than building towards any sort of meaningful conflict where the practical nature of the administration clashes with the creative-driven soul of Asakusa and Mizusaki, the student council functions more like the show’s Team Rocket, popping in to stir things up and then easily being bested, often off-screen.

And yet,

they never do…

All throughout the show Eizouken provides signs that it wants to be about creative perseverance, not simple, easy living. The show brings up the financial viability of anime, the social taboos of being implicated in creating it, the restrictions imposed on the mobility of minors, the struggle of working for a deadline, and more. But rather than delve into these roadblocks the show seems content to wave them aside with ease. None of our main characters are forced to really grapple with anything difficult. Everything they do takes two sped-through tries, if not one. Asakusa is supposed to be lazy and easily distracted, a fatal flaw for the director of a production, but everything gets done on time anyways and she’s never forced to face it. Mizusaki initially worries about how to not disappoint her high-society profile while working on anime, but then everyone just immediately accepts it and she moves on without having to make any difficult choices. Kanamori resolves financial problems by waving her hands. Where are the sparks? Where are the moments where the characters fail and face consequences, or have to take a real step back to dig deep and do some growth? We keep getting told that the club is always on the verge of being shut down, but they continue to do whatever they want and nothing comes of it. It’s an ethereal threat, just like the rest of the threats in the show, one that has no weight, and as the show goes on and the audience starts to realize that none of the so-called conflicts have any bite behind them and the show gets boring. This is the A-grade Yuasa show equivalent of a maxed-out shonen hero who always wins easily.

I could see an argument that the merits of this show outshine any issues with lacking tension: after all, it’s a show about making anime first and foremost. But the fact that a show about the conflict of creation lacked any actual tension feels pretty damning to me, and the fact that it was straight-up a chore to watch by the end when it should have been magical and addicting… well, I can’t really overlook that. I love Yuasa and even in this project you can see many of his countless strengths exemplified, but for Eizouken in particular…

I guess it was just too goddamn Easy Breezy after all.

5/10, pretty and pointless.

Oregairu, Past and Future

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,


Kill La Kill and Focused Theme

Thanks to the endless quarantine time provided by our dear friend COVD-19, I recently accidentally re-watched all of Kill La Kill, the hyperactive first child of Studio Trigger and golden standard for utter nonsense. Following vengeance-driven Ryuko Matoi as she makes her debut at the bizarre and mysterious Honnouji Academy, Ryuko quickly realizes Honnouji isn’t like other schools: here, students fight for the right to wear special Goku uniforms, magical clothing that gives the wearer unnatural powers. After befriending a family in town that runs a sketchy back-alley clinic as well as an old sailor uniform found in her dead dad’s basement, Ryuko sets out on a mission to fight her way to the top of the school and beat answers about her dad’s death out of the Honnouji’s student council president, Satsuki Kiryuin.

Yes, that’s just the premise. You read that correctly. Be warned that from here on out there will be spoilers.

Absurd as that synopsis may be, it honestly doesn’t do the show justice. Kill La Kill seems determined to animate every single idea that pops into its creator’s heads, tethering its boisterous conglomeration of nonsense together through enthusiasm and character consistency. If you’re looking for unhampered inspiration, Kill La Kill’s got it all: sentient clothing, nudist rebels, alien invasions, and BDSM-powered combat suits. The very first thing Ryuko does on-screen is buy a lemon from a vendor and take a straight-up bite out of it. One of the show’s core selling points is that it’s a non-stop barrage of vital energy and shattered expectations, doing its best to make sure that the audience is always having fun.

Protagonist Ryuko Matoi eating a lemon for fun. If this doesn’t put the fear of God in you, what will?

It’s hard to argue with the success of this goal. Kill La Kill is a roaring good time, full of sharp, funny dialogue, unforgettable characters, and adrenaline-pumping action scenes (whenever it hasn’t spent its budget, that is.) Watching it again, it was easy to get sucked into the intoxicating makeshift-family atmosphere and relentless string of hype moments, and for a moment there in the early episodes I had to ask myself–why did I stop touting this show? Don’t get me wrong, there are some immediate and persistent flaws: the budget is stretched thin, there’s an argument to be had about whether the show’s fanservice ‘parodying’ is really that, and some of the jokes are actually just uncomfortable and bad (like the ones revolving around all the men in the Mankanshoku family being horny for Ryuko.) But there’s also a whole lot of good–the writing is sharp and consistent, the soundtrack is one of the greatest of all time, the art direction is always stunning, and it’s got a strong central cast comprised entirely of distinct and well-developed female characters. And yet, around when I reached episode eight or nine, I remembered.

For a show about clothing, Kill La Kill sure does come apart at the themes.

I want to preface this by saying that fiction in no way has to adhere to a strong thematic core in order to be excellent. Different stories have different primary objectives, and if a story aims to be a side-splitting adventure romp, more power to it. For a great example, look no further than Galavant, a British musical-parody of Arthurian fantasy epics. Sure Galavant has character development and a central story, but at its heart it always prioritizes being goofy, endearing, and getting the audience to laugh. It’s a great show, and I’d recommend it.

I’ll do a write-up on this one soon, promise.

But Kill La Kill isn’t content with just being the fun uncle. It becomes clear quickly that underneath the manic explosions, skimpy outfits, and toilet humor, Studio Trigger is determined to grow Kill La Kill into an epic with a purpose. There are near-endless reminders from the stern Satsuki Kiryuin about how people are ‘pigs in human clothing’, alluding to the concept that while humans may have evolved to be more sophisticated and civilized than other animals, as individuals we’re still beholden to our animal instincts when it comes to our wants and desires. Honnouji Academy is also a pretty clear thematic vehicle: the student’s standings at the school decide the economic prosperity of their families, creating harsh class divides based on student’s abilities to perform within a specific set of rules.

There’s a ton of thematic meat to potentially chow down on there, including parallels to our own capitalist society in which success and lifestyle are determined solely by income and not other, less-tangible values such as integrity or kindness. The show makes it clear early on that it is intent on examining these ideas, coming to a head in the episode A Loser I Can’t Hate in which Ryuko’s foster-family, who have spent their lives scraping by in the slums, get a chance at a wealthy lifestyle. The luxury quickly transforms them from kind, generous people to cutthroats willing to do anything (including beat the tar out of Ryuko) to keep their newfound status. The episode still has all of Kill La Kill’s usual pomp and quirkiness but it is undoubtedly thematically driven, based around the question of to what degree our economic and social classes define who we are and the decisions we make.

This might be obvious, but the reason this episode is successful is that it structures its story around the conversation it’s trying to have. By putting the focus on a relevant vignette of a family able to work within the system to change their standing, Satsuki’s speech at the end of the episode has weight because the audience has just seen a clear example of what she’s talking about unfold. The show’s repeated obsession with clothing becomes clearer, too: clothing in Kill La Kill represents the ways in which we perform for each other, how we use physical appearance to display status and differentiate ourselves, and how most people are always looking for better clothes–or rather, a higher status than the one they have.

Yes, even the dog is dressed up fancy

Or at least, that’s what clothing in Kill La Kill represents for a brief, gleaming moment in episode seven.

The thing with theme is that if you want it to resonate, you have to earn it. Overarching theme isn’t an afterthought. It’s something you have to consider as you’re writing your story, and each step of the way you have to consider ‘how does my plot contribute to my overall theme?’ A show like Galavant can go, well, gallivanting off on random tangents about pirates and evil makeover artists and not suffer for it, because it doesn’t aspire to be more than a rollicking good time with a couple of solid character arcs. Again though, Kill La Kill is determined to have a central theme; it bases its entire story around the ways we adhere and conform to a society based around socioeconomic class. Every episode features characters giving dramatic, emotionally-charged speeches about ideals and ambitions. The show, as many of its super-fans will tell you, is absolutely overflowing with meaningful symbolism, with everything from Jojo references to Japanese Shintoism smartly stuffed into the show’s corners. But symbolism isn’t theme. Effective symbolism can support a show’s theme, but it isn’t enough to drive a point home by itself. Kill La Kill starts to labor under the assumption that a combination of shotgun-blasts of symbolism and summarizing speeches is enough to make its thematic points land.

It’s not.

As I rewatched Kill La Kill, every time I hit one of its emotional climaxes I felt like I had missed some key scene or event. There’s a school raid arc, which seems to be about educational conformity and cultural dominance–except the majority of the arc is spent on tangential jokes about stuff like sightseeing and how dumb American football players are. By the time Satsuki gives her capstone speech about the power of following values over money, there’s been maybe three minutes of actual screentime devoted to that idea. Most of the arc has been Ryuko making dramatic entrances on her motorcycle, the show’s iconic elite four engaging in nonsense battles in which Inamuta defeats illusion-wielding mages with some kind of reverse-paradox mumbo-jumbo and Jakuzure crushes opposing students with heart-shaped shockwaves from blasting Pomp and Circumstance.

No, this doesn’t make more sense in context.

Kill La Kill clearly wants this arc to have core themes, but it also wants to go on lots of fun, irrelevant sidequests, and unfortunately those two aims don’t go hand in hand. I can tell what the show’s intended ideas are here because it spells them out straight-up at the end of each arc, but I don’t feel them, because the plot hasn’t been structured in a way that effectively supports them. It doesn’t matter how elegant Satsuki’s speeches are if there’s no weight behind them.

The unraveling of Kill La Kill’s thematic threads becomes even more apparent in the show’s second half. For those of you not familiar with the main team at Studio Trigger, there’s a very particular plot about a loud-mouthed instigator going into space to fight magical aliens to determine the fate of the world that this team absolutely loves. Just look at Gurren Lagann or the recent movie Promare and you’ll see what I mean. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this plot blueprint–it’s fun to watch the stage grow exponentially as these stories pull back massive curtains. But magical space villains and battles to determine if humanity lives or dies don’t lend themselves to every type of story, and Kill La Kill is one such example.

Wasn’t this a show about identity and the nature of a class-based society?

Essentially, Kill La Kill decides ‘this is the plot we want to have–how do we get the themes we want out of it?’ and that’s just not how stories work. Plot is theme, and trying to mash ideas about the way class informs the decisions of individuals at every point on the socioeconomic spectrum into a good-versus-evil tale of hot-blooded rebellion simply doesn’t lead to something cohesive. Kill La Kill is trying to tell a story about how the systems we’re a part of are also a part of us. How does that line up with a burn-it-all-down combat epic? It doesn’t. What Kill La Kill wants to be about and what it’s actually about don’t line up, and that’s what makes it so jarring.

The result is that the second half of Kill La Kill feels like a tug-of-war between the plot and the themes. Its easy to glance back at the show as a whole and say, oh yeah, of course it was thematically rich, look at all these meaningful moments! For example, there’s a brief arc towards the end where Ryuko is consumed by the desire to live a normal, comfortable life, and as a result turned into a puppet for the main antagonist, Ragyo. For a moment the show feels to be pulling something coherent together: Ryuko has always been a symbol of individualism, and watching her struggle with her inert desire to simply achieve happiness as measured by society could’ve made for a compelling conflict to center the end of the series around.

But while the themes of the show demand internal conflict, the plot of the show wants a superhero-esque heroine. Ryuko cuts her strings with relative ease and turns to face the real finale, a compilation of sadistic, evil villains who need to be bested using callback battle tactics and plot-based solutions like Infinite Absorption! The themes are forced to take a backseat again for the finale, because they don’t fit naturally into the plot structure the show has decided it wants. The show gives answers that exist only on a technical level (the reason Kamui suits are so skimpy is to minimize skin contact to lower the risk of the wearer getting taken over! The twin scissor blades were created because if you cut life fibers from both directions they can’t regenerate!) because these plot choices have no thematic basis. The result is a heartfelt, fist-pumping story, but one that leaves me personally wanting, imagining what this story could’ve been if it had put more thought into the kind of plot that would best serve it as a vehicle. At the end, the only real theme the show was able to effectively prosecute, was, well…

This one

Look, I love Kill La Kill. I don’t rewatch shows I don’t love. But I also think it’s a cautionary tale. Before crafting all the details of a fictional story, it’s important to ask yourself a few key questions. Namely: is this story thematically driven, and if it is, how can I create a plot that best helps to uphold and accent those core themes? If you try to start by creating a plot and then forcing themes onto it without making serious changes, you might end up creating something like Kill La Kill–glimmers of greatness stitched together, but never able to add up to a whole that’s greater than its many fabulous parts.

Series Review: The Nevernight Chronicles

Good eve, gentlefriends, I see you’ve returned with a hunger for more regarding our tragic tale. O’, there’s little I can say to put your heart at ease, but prithee, rest your weary arse upon your seat if you wish to hear my sordid thoughts, and pray that you have the stomach to handle them.

I’m here today to talk about Jay Kristoff’s bloody fantasy epic trilogy, starting with Nevernight, continuing in Godsgrave, and recently wrapping things up in Darkdawn. The quickest review I can give you for The Nevernight Chronicles is that if it hurt your head to read that opening paragraph, then you should probably skip this one. This series and its obtuse writing style are extremely divisive, with some lauding Kristoff for setting his series apart through daring stylistic choices (such as skipping lines whenever the hero, Mia, uses her shadow magic,) and others comparing the experience of reading it to banging their head against a brick wall.

Personally, I fall somewhere closer to… eh?

Maw’s teeth, it had been grand to forget it all just for a moment.

Nevernight (which from here on out refers to the series) follows Mia, an assassin described by the series’ cynical narrator as a cold-hearted killer who topples tyrants and leaves ’empires in ashes’ in her wake. That’s not a spoiler, it’s in the prophetic prologue that also tells us that Mia dies at the end of the story. That’s right: Nevernight begins by foretelling the death of the protagonist we haven’t even met yet, a move reminiscent of the epic tragedies of yore. However, the jaded prologue is full of lies–once we meet her, we learn that while Mia is adept at ending lives, she’s not nearly the sociopathic slayer the narrator claims she is. Motivated by revenge for her parents death against the corrupt government leaders that brought about their demise, Mia trains as an assassin with an exclusive school for killing called the Red Church. There she learns to make friends, fall in love, and discover that she’s actually a deeply sympathetic person unwilling to sacrifice innocents for her cause. She may be very good at slashing the throats of the vile, but make no mistake: Mia has a strong moral compass throughout the series.

Which is probably for the best. I might be alone in this, but personally I find fierce, hard-driven revenge stories to often be super fucking boring. Protagonists who are aggravating balls of anger and spite, who live and breath for the sole purpose of being able to shank whoever wronged them, are not only unrelatable, they’re one-dimensional. When all I know about the person I’m supposed to be rooting for is ‘they hate this other person a whole lot,’ that doesn’t really give me a reason to root for them. Nevernight is made better because it quickly breaks the promises made in its introduction, characterizing Mia as someone who is working towards the eventual goal of getting revenge on the tyrants who killed her parents but who is still willing to stop along the way to live her life. She enjoys learning how make friends, get hot & heavy, and mix elegant poisons. She has pride in her skills and loyalty towards those she loves. I give Kristoff credit for creating a protagonist who is likable without eschewing her more terrifying traits: make no mistake, Mia kills people very easily, and I couldn’t even begin to tally up her body count by the end of the series. I still found myself rooting for her, only pausing to reflect on her more frivolous carnage when she herself was questioning how ambivalent she was to slitting throats.

She had killed a few hundred of their calvarymen, she supposed.

Part of why cheering for Mia felt to me so easy was not so much related to her though, and instead a product of the series’ tone. While the overarching story is taken seriously, it should be mentioned that Nevernight is in many ways a dark comedy. Mia is accompanied by Mr. Kindly, a mysterious shadow-cat who’s always unfazed and makes snide remarks at every turn. There’s a great deal of banter between all of the characters, a non-stop slew of sex jokes, and a fair number of extraneous details added to the plot for no other reason than to elicit a laugh. While it’s certainly not a dedicated comedy, I did find myself snorting somewhat frequently while flipping through the pages.

It helps that Mia herself has a strong sense of humor: she gives her horses dumb, insulting names, cracks witticisms while on the verge of death, and derives a great deal of pleasure from slinging insults back and forth with clever people. But most of the laughs, or attempts at them, come from the narrator–distinct from Mia herself, Kristoff’s narrator is utterly determined to not take most events too seriously. No matter how intense the plot gets, the cynical, crass narrator is always there to inject humor in between the bloodshed, or, more often than not, at the bottom of the page.

Which brings us neatly to the matter of the footnotes.

Perhaps one of Nevernight’s most distinctive stylistic choices is its use of footnotes. Kristoff’s tangential asides, marked by an asterisk or similar symbol, make full use of their tiny font to tell all sorts of unrelated stories about the history, lore, biomes, and traditions of his fictional world of Itreya. It might be wrong to even call some of them footnotes: some of them, to my chagrin, were multiple pages long, interrupting the story of Mia whenever they pleased to talk about two-hundred-year-old idiot kings and which of Itreya’s lifeforms had the biggest dick-to-body ratio. Now, I’m not fundamentally opposed to the idea of using separate, parallel text to help with world-building in an otherwise propulsive and fast-paced novel. Kristoff’s narrator keeps fairly close to Mia’s experiences and internal dialogue, so it wouldn’t feel very natural to jam the information into the actual pages. The problem, especially in the first two volumes, was that after I’d read the first couple of darkly funny footnote-stories, I felt like I’d read most of them.

The vast majority of Kristoff’s footnotes follow a similar structure: start with a piece of relevant information about Itreya, launch into an elaborate, tongue-in-cheek justification of said information that feels more like the set-up for a joke than actual information, and then wrap things up with a sex or death related one-liner. Most of the footnotes are too long to fit here in their entirety, but here’s some examples of their tail-ends. Don’t worry, they’re spoiler free: most of the footnotes have nothing to do with anything that happens in the story.

The pair’s rivalry spanned decades, and looked surely to end in the death of one or both. But when the daemon-king, Sha’Annu, rose in the north and threatened all the empire, the pair joined forces to defeat him. Bound by the kinship found only in battle, the pair declared themselves brothers, and vowed in blood they would remain so ’til the end of their days. Tariq even refrained from bedding Andarai’s mother again.

His daughter, however…

Folk marked with three circles are the rarest and most valuable, their brand indicating they’re possessed of an education or some exceptional skill: scribes, musicians, majordomo, and some highly prized courtesans.

And if you’re wondering why skilled prostitutes are so valued in the Republic, gentlefriends, you’ve obviously never spent the night with a skilled prostitute.

Caravaggio fought with twin blades–one in each hand–pioneering the art of dual-wielding that eventually bore his name. Ironically, his fondness for twins also proved his downfall: he was killed in a duel by Don Lentius after spending a night of drunken passion with Varus’s twin daughters, Lucilla and Lucia. Reportedly still intoxicated and too exhausted to heft his rapier, he was skewered by his opponent quite easily–and inglorious end for such an artisan of the blade.

His last words were reportedly “Worth it…”

Now, I won’t claim that they’re all like this. A smattering are actually informative, and some are just one-line quips that can actually be funny. But after you’ve read your first three stories about dastardly rogues sleeping with people’s daughters you start to wonder how much you’d really be missing if you just ignored the tiny font on the bottom of the page. And in fact, the answer isn’t much–as it turns out, these footnotes built around their punchlines are mostly irrelevant to the story, meaning they’re pretty much just an excuse for Kristoff to tell an endless string of jokes about dumb people dying and horny people with weird kinks. Maybe this wouldn’t be so exhausting if Nevernight wasn’t already almost entirely about exactly those two things, but the result is definitely an over-saturation of the same subject matter. At the very least the footnotes are turned down in the third book, thank fuck.

While I’m on the topic of Kristoff’s smut, let’s have a chat about the series’ actual smut. Some wise English teacher once said that sex for the sake of sex in fiction is just porn, and using that description I’d argue that some portion of Nevernight is, well, porn. There’s definitely not much character development or thematic purpose to the sometimes pages-long love-making scenes. It’s all just their mouths found each other, a warmth spread between her legs, and then her fingers, trailing down. Spirals, turning ever lower, into the mysteries below. Mother, she wanted her. Pulled her in. Tangled her fingers in that golden hair. There, now you’ve read all of Kristoff’s sex scenes, except it’s usually this for many more paragraphs and it always ends in everyone orgasming. Much like the footnotes, these scenes suffer from gross repetition in the way that they’re written. Is all sex the same in this world? Every sex scene in this entire trilogy could probably have been more evocative as a four-sentence allusion that left most things to the imagination.

The flipside is that when there aren’t bloated sex scenes, the actual relationships in the series are super compelling. Kristoff writes believable romances between his cynical assassins, most of it starting as lust in a world where death is omnipresent and then slowly developing into bonds the reader can believe in. And not just romantic relationships either: whether longtime friends or long-estranged siblings, Kristoff is careful to define the relative strengths and weaknesses of character’s ties to each other. Mia’s fellow assassins-in-training, Tric and Ashlinn, both bring out different sides of her, and it’s her distinctively different but comparably potent connections with each of them that pull the series forward even when its simplistic revenge plot doesn’t seem to know where to go. Seriously, credit where credit is due–the bonds between Mia and her companions drastically increased my investment in the story because through watching their dynamics shift through shared experiences I was able to understand and appreciate how much these characters defined each other. I believe I actually wept at one point while reading the third book because of how tightly Kristoff had knotted his leads together. If there’s anything that I look for first and foremost in fiction it’s whether I can fall in love with the cast, and on that front Nevernight succeeds.

Unfortunately, Nevernight’s cast have some heavy lifting to do. While Nevernight often feels more intent on being entertaining than truly epic, there’s definitely a central effort by Kristoff to tell a grand, sweeping tale of espionage and myth. The only problem is that the plot is a poorly-paced jumbled mess, focusing nearly the entire first book on a Harry-Potter-esque training experience, taking the second book on an extended tangent through the gladiator circuits, and then trying to cram most of the promised story into a rushed and inevitably predictable third novel. The central antagonist doesn’t get any real lines until book three, the second book does actually nothing to advance the main story until the very final pair of chapters, and there’s an entire plot line about Itreya’s divinities that feels like it only exists to make the story feel bigger without actually earning it. If you’re looking for another Game of Thrones, run for the door. This is more like Jersey Shore with the setting of The Lord of the Rings. However, if you’re just interested in following likable characters through a furious, heart-pounding romp of drama and backstabbing, the series is worth a look. I laughed more than I cringed, and even the footnotes weren’t all bad. Three cheers for Mia, and may I never have to write the word gentlefriends ever again.

A moment to think. A moment to breathe.

Oh, and for what it’s worth, I hated the ending.

Nevernight — 6/10
Godsgrave — 6/10
Darkdawn — 5/10

Series Score — 6/10, because I’m feeling nice.