You’d think that by now I’d realize that Facebook is dangerous. No, I wasn’t drawn into a debate with relatives who don’t seem to understand that being an awful, ignorant person on all facets should not be a viable political platform. I was drawn, instead, to watching an anime. Usually those ripped video clips stuck between two white bars that say something to the effect of “When you break up with a girl in anime😂😂” don’t grab me, but this video did. Here, let me show you. (Content warning for child abuse and bullying.)
These are the first nine minutes of the 2013 anime Kotoura-san, and immediately after watching this I knew I had to look up the summary to see if it was worth investing any more time in. I had no interest in watching a series devoted to the further torturing of its protagonist; however, the summary wasted no time in saying that this series was a romantic comedy (what?) that focused on the titular Kotoura-san making friends and healing from her childhood trauma. What followed was, yes, that in generous helpings. But Kotoura-san was also filled with, in equal parts, a bunch of uncomfortable sexual harassment and an unsatisfying narrative resolution to parental negligence which only served to undermine the actual good things going on.
Spoilers below the cut. All the previous warnings still apply, with an additional one for incest.
If you chose not to watch the video–nine minutes is pretty long–or just want something shorter, I’ll reiterate the main premise. Since birth, protagonist Haruka Kotoura has been cursed–in her mind–with the ability to read the thoughts of others. What makes this especially problematic for her is that it’s not until she’s much older that she realizes that the people around her aren’t actually saying these thoughts out loud–in other words, she can’t distinguish what her psychic powers pick up on from actual conversations going on around her. As a young girl eager to make friends and please others, this gets her into trouble as most adults and children don’t want their most inner thoughts revealed. Abandoned by her friends, bullied by her peers, and discarded by both her parents, Haruka grows distant and closed off to the world and the people around her. It’s not until she meets fellow classmate Yoshihisa Manabe that she starts to believe that she may actually be able to make friends and have something akin to a normal life.
Despite what I said earlier about sexual harassment being a problem in this anime, one of the aspects of Kotoura-san I liked the best was the female representation. None of the girls or women in this anime are demoted to the role of the “cheesecake girl” or are simply there for titillation. Additionally, panty shots are basically not a thing, which is a huge fucking deal for a non-shoujo, school-based romantic comedy. What’s important is instead the actual relationships and growth between the female characters. While it’s Manabe who starts Kotoura down the route of opening up to others again, it’s ESP Research Club president Yuriko Mifune and her constant support of Kotoura that solidifies that yes, people want to be friends with you, Kotoura. Mifune isn’t even relegated to being the “friend” character either. When Kotoura is traveling down her path to healing, Mifune is struggling just as much. She started the ESP Research Club to avenge her mother–a psychic who worked with police, but was disavowed and branded as a fraud leading to her suicide when Mifune was very young. Mifune is dedicated to using Kotoura as a prop, proving once and for all that psychic powers are real. However, throughout this, it’s shown time and time again that no matter how “hard-hearted” and “bad” she tries to be, Mifune can’t detach herself from legitimately liking and wanting to protect Kotoura, which is much deeper than I honestly expected from this show.
My favorite character actually ended up being Hyori Moritani. She starts out as a pretty flat character; she’s Manabe’s childhood friend who has a crush on him, and who gets jealous when it becomes obvious that Manabe and Kotoura like each other, leading her to bully Kotoura. While I have a love-hate relationship with fictional characters making friends with their bullies and abusers, I actually think Kotoura-san tackled it well. Moritani is not only narratively shown that she was in the wrong, but she also steps back and really examines why she was bullying Kotoura, and truly comes to regret her actions and genuinely apologizes. Though she still holds onto feelings for Manabe, she works just as hard as everyone else to make sure Kotoura knows that she is loved, supported, and that Manabe is definitely an idiot but loves her.
Strangely enough, this anime’s sexual harassment problem doesn’t come in the form of Manabe. Manabe is not exactly the deepest character and does get his kicks by imagining Kotoura in various provocative outfits and scenarios, which he knows she can see due to her psychic powers. However, these events are typically so over the top that it becomes a parody of itself and serves only to prove how utterly simply Manabe truly is. His visions are typically not supported by the cast around him, and he’s called a pervert in non-appreciative tones. It’s a high school boy thinking about a high school girl, and as far as anime like this go, it’s relatively tame. I don’t like it, but at this point there would be approximately zero anime to watch if I nixed every one with any sort of in-character/ camera-driven ogling at all. No, my problem is with Kotoura’s grandfather, of all people.
After being abandoned by her mother, Kotoura went to live with her grandfather. As expected, they’re pretty close, so close that his house is the place she runs to when she tries to switch schools despite being at least half a day’s train ride away from where she currently lives (she lives alone since starting high school). While they appear to have a good relationship, and he clearly cares about her, one of the first scenes we see with him is him gushing about how nice Kotoura’s legs and butt feel when she’s sitting on his lap. Then, when Manabe and co. come to talk to Kotoura, her grandfather starts arguing with Manabe about which parts of Kotoura are more appealing and why he hasn’t done anything physical with her yet. Unlike Manabe, everything her grandfather does is played for laughs, and also unlike Manabe, he’s never called out by anyone for being so utterly disgusting. Her grandfather essentially has no character traits in non-flashback scenes outside of being perverted and being conveniently rich. He pretty much ruins all the episodes he’s in and the series would lack nothing if he was gone and Kotoura was simply taken in by the nice little monk who lives nearby her grandfather.
My final problem has to do with Kotoura’s mother, Kumiko. In reality, people cope with and forgive their abusers in a myriad of ways, and I’m not here to say that any one way is wrong. Yet the conclusion with Kotoura forgiving her mother for what she did to her rubs me the wrong way. As Kumiko’s distaste for Kotoura’s powers grew, losing her husband along the line, she became cruel and bitter towards her child, eventually leaving entirely, disowning her and telling Kotoura she wished she had never given birth to her. Kotoura runs into her a couple more times throughout the show’s twelve episodes, and each time Kumiko is still bitter and angry and only has mean things to say to her daughter. During the final episode, Kumiko visits Kotoura at her apartment, and they do have a cathartic argument where Kotoura finally lets go of all the anger and hurt Kumiko inflicted on her life. But there isn’t really a resolution. Instead, there’s a scene where Kotoura watches a dream Kumiko is having after drunkenly falling asleep. In the dream, Kumiko is reliving the moment she abandoned Kotoura, the moment she told her daughter that she regretted giving birth to her. This time, though, Kotoura hears Kumiko’s inner thoughts: she’s regretful and expresses an apology that she wasn’t a strong enough mother. This seems to immediately make Kotoura forgive everything because she didn’t understand the full story.
This makes sense in character because Kotoura is extremely empathetic, hates conflict, and is willing to blame herself for everything. Yet where this is usually where the narrative or other characters step in to tell Kotoura that she doesn’t need to blame herself for everything because it’s not her fault, there’s nothing like that in this instance. The narrative–not just Kotoura–is endorsing that Kumiko should be forgiven because Kotoura didn’t understand the pain that her mother was going through, and that she still loves her. Seeing as the previous episode and the part literally just before this confrontation was all about how some things need to, and should be said out loud rather than just expecting someone to get it, it’s unfortunate that Kumiko never apologize for being such a shitty person and a shitty mother simply because Kotoura now knows that Kumiko never hated her completely. While this is a very much a cultural mindset for many East Asian countries–that a child should accept the shortcomings of their parents while striving to be better and not cause them any other worries–it still feels jarring and counterproductive to the overall message of growing past your weaknesses and fears into a better person. The knowledge Kotoura gained about her mother shouldn’t nullify or invalidate the pain Kotoura was forced to go through, after all. And without even a mid or post credits scene showing Kotoura and Kumiko getting along and trying to be a family, that’s kind of what it feels like the writers did.
All in all, I was surprised I ended up liking Kotoura-san as much as I did. The series has some very clear, annoying problems that were on the verge of ruining the whole of it for me several times. Still, the strength of Kotoura’s character arc and the ultimate message of supporting and growing as people made me push through, and I can’t say that I regret it all that much. If you’re looking for a cute, painful series about love and friendship, and don’t mind a bunch of unnecessary perverted shit, then I’d recommend you give this a try!