If you could write a letter to your younger self, what would you say? “It will get better”? “Don’t stress too much about fitting in”? “Yes, what you’re feeling is love, and that’s okay”? “The future is awful and sad and I want you to work tirelessly to make sure you don’t end up a regret-stricken wreck like me”? Orange takes this last approach, and the result is a series that I have a barrel full of mixed feelings about.
Spoilers and content warning for suicide ahead.
On the first day of the new school year, protagonist Naho finds a strange letter addressed to her, which was apparently sent from herself, ten years in the future. Naho is confused and dubious that such a thing can be real, but then the events the letter describes start coming true: the letter tells her that a new student, a boy named Kakeru, will be joining their class that day, and he’ll sit next to Naho. Naho’s friends will attempt to be welcoming and invite the new kid to hang out once school is over, but, the letter warns, they should absolutely not do that. Not that day, at least.
Naho soon realizes that the letters are full of specific advice from her future self, chiefly about things that Future Naho regrets and wants to change. These mostly concern Kakeru, since, as Naho is shocked to find out, ten years in the future Kakeru is no longer alive. In Future Naho’s world, Kakeru died—in an accident later discovered to be suicide—when he was seventeen, and she’s sending these letters back in time to try and stop that from happening.
Off the bat, if you’re expecting a sci-fi series, Orange is not the one for you. How the letters from the future arrive is left mostly as a mystery, pondered by the characters but never really explained. Ultimately, this is a high school drama, and ultimately, it’s a story about how the people around you could be dealing with things you don’t know about, and so you should always be compassionate, supportive and kind. While this is an incredibly important message, stories that deal with these themes of mental health and relationships, like Orange, all too often run the risk of perpetuating both clichéd and ableist tropes.
The first bit of beef I have with the show is that it tiptoes towards, and sometimes crash-lands into, the pure savior trope. We’ve all seen this before: character A is down in the dumps and self-destructive, but character B (often a sweet young woman with few problems of her own) lifts them out of this and guides them onwards with the power of her pure and unwavering love. They save the depressed character, and this is the terminology that starts my teeth grinding.
I had a very similar hero complex a few years back, so I can certainly empathize, but eventually you have to learn that supporting a loved one or friend who’s having a bad time, be it clinical depression or otherwise, is not you “saving” them. It’s helping them, validating them, and giving them that love and strength that they can’t find inside themselves at that time. The savior motif not only places an unfair amount of pressure on the carer in this case, but also kind of makes it all about them. If you (the hypothetical, universal “you” that also applies here to fictional characters) fixate on your own ability to “save” your loved one, you can get caught up in that guardian angel mentality and start to see them as something to be rescued and/or repaired, and if you handle things wrong, your fixation becomes on your personal failure to “fix” things, rather than on the other person’s feelings.
This is not a good outlook to have in real life, which makes it all the more iffy when this kind of story is written into media over and over, endorsing the message that real people need to tell themselves they have to “save” a mentally ill loved one. Naho often manifests this, mostly in the repeated use of that word “save”. “I will save Kakeru,” she assures herself and the audience, multiple times, both in the present and in the glimpses we get of the Naho who sent the letters in the future. With no other real motivations in the story, it becomes her only driving force. She and Kakeru don’t entirely get trapped in this pattern, but even if not all of their interactions revolve around her “saving” him, it’s pretty hard to untangle their growing affection for one another with Naho’s future-sent quest to rescue Kakeru from his own negative emotions with the power of her love.
Midway through the series it’s also revealed that Naho wasn’t the only one who got a letter from the future—her four friends did as well. So they all team up to try and make Kakeru’s life the best that it can be, which becomes… actually significantly creepy, mostly because Kakeru is now the only one in the friendship group who doesn’t know about this, and thanks to the knowledge sent from the future, the gang have a bunch of intimate information about his life and emotional state that he hasn’t consented to giving them. The rest of the group also don’t get the focus that Naho does, so they get no character growth, no narration from their own perspective (apart from a few tiny scenes), and no insight into their lives—the only thing they’re in the story to do is keep Kakeru alive and happy, existing entirely as Guardian Angels and falling into that aforementioned least favorite trope of mine.
The possible saving grace of the show is that, most of the time, it also allowed Kakeru to be his own character, rather than just a symbolic sad figure who needed “fixing” by happy, ordinary, presumably neurotypical people. Still, I’d hesitate to call him a stellar example of representation, unfortunately, because the words “depression” or “mental illness” are never mentioned, and it remains ambiguous whether Kakeru’s suicidal urges are the result of a longer struggle with mental illness or just out of the crushing guilt and isolation he feels due to his mother’s own recent death. This is something I wish they’d gone into a little more, given the social context and how much of a problem Japan has with suicide. With a little reading between the lines, though, I have to say Kakeru is generally pretty damned good portrayal of someone dealing with depression: his loneliness, his complicated grief for his mother, and his tendencies to cover up his troubles with a smile out of a fear of burdening his new friends, were all played out respectfully and relatively true to life, making him an empathetic, interesting character you wanted to see end up okay, and not just because Saving Kakeru was the goal of the series. And he was actually allowed to emote, which is always an important thing to portray in young male characters.
Unrelated to the complicated tangle of representing grief and depression, this series pulls another of my least favorites out of its hat: Kakeru is saved by the magic of friendship, yes, but most of the heavy focus is on romance. You don’t actually know why any of the friends are friends in the first place, and Naho’s relationships with the two other girls are skimmed over in favor of exploring the budding love triangle between her, Kakeru, and unofficial leader of the group, Suwa.
In the future, you see, Suwa and Naho are married and even have an adorable little baby as proof of their happy ending. Suwa has feelings for Naho but graciously sets them aside so Naho and Kakeru can end up together, because the whole group is convinced that this is one of the key things that will keep Kakeru alive. To add to the already outrageous pressure foisted on her by her twenty-six-year-old self’s instructions, Naho is now at the center of a life-affirming matchmaking plot. Be sure to end up together, and be sure to love the boy right, Naho! Otherwise he could literally die and it would basically be all your fault!!
Even if this aspect is pretty obnoxious (again with that emphasis on the healing power of a woman’s pure love, bleh) the blow is softened a little in that the show at least made me believe in Naho and Kakeru as a couple. They have quite a sweet dynamic and grow more and more comfortable with each other over the course of the series, and, in true slow-burn shoujo style, spend a good eighty percent of the series blushing, stammering, smiling shyly, then dramatically confessing their love to one another. Naho is a fairly typical romance heroine—selfless, modest, easily embarrassed and socially anxious, and sweet as maple syrup. Her shyness is not just a quirk but a philosophical point in the show since, as she acknowledges, it’s all very well for her future self to tell her to do this or that, but Naho’s inherent personality and anxieties can’t be changed so easily.
As the plot demands it, she eventually becomes more confident, but there were plenty of instances throughout the series where I found myself muttering “Just tell him how you feel, you silly girl!” or related things at my computer screen. Luckily she has the other, albeit much less developed, members of the friend group to support and spur her on. They also occasionally swoop in to protect her from Kakeru’s ex-girlfriend, who is petty and possessive and a relentless bully for no real reason other than the show needing a “she wears short skirts” to Naho’s “I wear t-shirts”. Which is another trope I’m so, so sick of, by the way. There was precious little positive interaction between girls in this show, especially if you decide not to count any conversation about setting Naho up with Kakeru. I know it’s the plot, but don’t you people have anything else to talk to each other about? To flesh out your backstories? To confirm why you like each other? To make a vague attempt at passing the Bechdel Test?
Did I even enjoy this show, I hear you asking? I think I did. I’m not going to lie, I did bubble over into tears at the end. This show’s ending is a positive and moving one, though bittersweet, as it becomes apparent that in sending letters to the past the twenty-six-year-old versions of the gang have not saved Kakeru in their own timeline, but instead created an alternate one where the future is now different and unknown, but looking like it will be all right. Which, while also being a nice hopeful but not-too-sappy ending, is also a neat way to deal with the compulsory love triangle—even if Naho and Kakeru are endgame in one universe, there’s always that original future where she and Suwa are married and Babies Ever After if that happened to be the ship you preferred.
It’s mushy, it’s drawn-out, it sways towards problematic savior complex tropes, but in the end Orange, most of the time, is actually a fairly nuanced and non-sensationalized story about helping someone through a rough time. Suicide or self-harm are never depicted and are always treated as something serious and weighty, not simply a plot device to propel momentary drama or something used for shock value. And, as I said, even if Kakeru probably can’t be considered out-and-out representation of a person with depression, the way the narrative treated him was generally quite good, and it was rewarding to see him end up in a situation where everything was going to be okay.
And yeah, the romance is cute. I’ll give it that, even if I was throwing things at the screen at certain points in frustration at these two people who clearly liked each other but were intent on doing nothing about it. But hey, that’s the business of slow-burn, isn’t it? It will appeal to some but not to others. I probably won’t rewatch Orange at any point, but I wouldn’t time travel to tell my past self not to watch it.
Read more from Alex at her blog, The Afictionado!