Oregairu, or My Youth Romantic Comedy is Wrong, as I Expected, is one of the biggest franchises in recent romcom anime and light novels. It made waves with its subversive take on the genre and its well-developed characters, and how they navigate treacherous social standing and interpersonal dynamics. Despite the near universal acclaim it has garnered, when I watched the first season some time ago, I hated it.
Well, hate is a strong word, but I certainly didn’t see the appeal. I have a lot of complaints about the first season, but my biggest beef lies with that it fails to deliver on its premise meaningfully. Most of my displeasure is my own fault, as I watched Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai before Oregairu, and absolutely loved it. Looking back, Bunny Girl Senpai reads largely as a riff off of Oregairu, and this essay started its life as “Bunny Girl Senpai: Oregairu but Good”.
In retrospect, that wasn’t fair of me, but I wouldn’t know that until I decided it was at least worth watching the second season, and eventually finishing it, as the third and final season only finished airing last fall. And the strangest thing happened as I finished the first arc of the second season; I loved it, and the rest of the show. How did that happen? Well, it lies in how the series’ writing and narrative shifted between seasons, and improved their execution of its premise.
[Below will contain spoilers for the first two seasons of Oregairu. I could include the third season in my analysis, but it only recently finished airing, and I don’t need to do so to make my point]
Oregairu follows Hachiman Hikkigaya, a misanthropic high school student forced to join his school’s service club after a clash with his well-meaning teacher. There he meets and cooperates with cold and aloof Yukino Yukinoshita, and upbeat genki girl Yui Yuigihama, working to solve their classmates’ personal and academic problems. They mostly struggle with Hikkigaya’s poor social standing, and how he solves most problems by playing the bad guy and giving his peers the opportunity to play the good guys. And for the first season…it’s unbearable.
Hikkigaya and Yukinoshita are some of the most self-aggrandizing and unlikable characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction. Hachiman is so smugly confident in his antisocial worldview that I have a hard time believing this was written nearly a decade before the term ‘incel’ was coined. Despite this, he’s mostly tolerable if you can’t hear his inner monologue like the audience can, which is where Yukinoshita comes in and acts like one of the most aggressively rude people I’ve ever seen. She doesn’t need to be happy-go-lucky, that’s Yui’s job, but her inability to go five minutes without taking a (usually) undeserved jab at Hikkigaya wears thin very quickly.
The series takes an interest in how rude, vapid, and all-around awful people can be, so it’s really no wonder that even besides the main trio, their classmates are pieces of work. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but I can’t think of a main character I like other than Yui and best ~~girl~~ boy Totsuka. Characters don’t have to be nice or virtuous to make for a good show, but the bare minimum is that I enjoy watching them, and that rarely appears in the first season. And the less said about Hachiman’s solitary friend Zaimokuza, the better, because I can believe that this series was written a year after the term ‘neckbeard’ was coined.
The story is kind of meandering, and it never really manages to get a point across other than ‘people bad, high school bad’. Hachiman makes some meaningful progress in the summer camp arc where he uses his antisocial brand of problem solving to break up a clique of younger students bullying their classmate, and has to work together with his more popular classmates. However, the culture festival at the end of the season basically reduces that progress to nothing, so it doesn’t bear mentioning.
And the presentation is just…not good. I don’t have super high standards, and I can forgive some stiff movement and off-model moments here and there, but this is consistently mediocre. The first season is eight years old at this point, but you could have told me it came out ten years before that and I’d believe it. The proportions change wildly between scenes, the features on faces never look quite right, and Hachiman’s hair is this ugly puke-shade of green, as opposed to the much more pleasant blue-black of later seasons. Your animation for a romcom slice-of-life sort of show doesn’t need to be groundbreaking, but it’s just one more unnecessary barrier to entry for the show.
Over all, Oregairu season one does not feel like a deconstruction of romantic comedy anime. It comes across as a story that is trying to relentlessly mock romcom and SOL anime while lifting all of its character archetypes and plot devices from them. It’s just cynical and not in any meaningful way.
With season two only a short couple of years later, the most immediate change was in its aesthetic. The first season was produced by Brain’s Base, while the second season moved to Studio Feel and stayed there for the third, and this radically altered the art style. The line art became a lot softer, the character models more consistent and anatomically cohesive, while the lighting and color palette was easier on the eyes. It’s actually pretty rare for an anime’s art to change this much for the better, and it works.
But the changes weren’t just skin deep, they were felt throughout the entire show. The dialogue was a particular high point of the first season, and that carries over to the second, but with the change of pure charisma. The character interactions now come charged with chemistry they lacked before, and while the service club members might not have changed personalities, the change is still palpable.
Yukinoshita and Hikkigaya’s interactions still maintain some of that coldness and cynicism, but it becomes clear that these characters are verbally sparring, not being jerks. They both have sharp tongues and minds at the best of times, but it doesn’t come across as two people being vicious for no reason. One could make the argument that they needed time for their relationship to develop and smooth over those rough edges, but looking back at the first season, that’s a level of acidity that is downright brutal for someone you’re not familiar with.
I make the argument in my essay The Slow Start: Anime’s Great Strength, that series like Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju make use of a slow pace to build their world and characters. I’m going to double back a little bit by saying that a show having one worse part that sets up for the next part to do well is not good writing. When a series is setting up for the long run, it has to make that feeling of escalation tangible, the audience has to be conscious that you are building to something. Rakugo Shinju does this by showing you the modern day in its first episode, and then flashing back to the past for the rest of its first season. There is a clear end goal, and we are seeing how it came to this point.
The themes of Oregairu are carefully constructed to build in a harmonious central theme discussing the ways that people interact with one another, particularly how we will mistreat others for social gain. It’s the core of Hachiman’s problem solving; he is a social outcast who does not want to move up that ladder, so it hurts him the least when he makes himself into a martyr for his peers. He rejects the nature of that power structure, but however cold and above it all he might appear, he’s a teenager with the same craving for emotional intimacy that every human possesses. Despite his insistence, social isolation is not an improvement on teen melodrama, it’s a different kind of terrible.
Hachiman’s martyr complex is unhealthy and hurts him far more than he lets on or even knows himself at first. The show doesn’t properly frame it as this toxic behavior until the second season, when Yukinoshita refuses to allow him to do it any more. Their ‘client’ doesn’t want to become student council president despite being signed up against her will, so Hachiman wants to give her endorsement speech personally. His social pariah status, he thinks, will sink any chance of her winning, but Yukino refuses to let him throw himself under yet another bus.
Oregairu is all about how awful people can be, especially when it’s inconvenient or not socially advantageous for us to be kind, but it’s more about finding connections in spite of that. Despite Hikkigaya’s best efforts, by the end of the second season, he has a wide friend group and strong connections with each person in it. When he stands in front of Yui and Yukino and declares that he wants something genuine, actually displaying sincerity for once in his life, it marks his most definitive step forward so far. Putting on that cynical mask means you don’t have to feel the sting of rejection, but it closes you off from any hope of genuine connection.
There’s been this general criticism towards anime in the community for a long time, that it’s always set in high school. I’d agree that too many anime are, and often to the detriment of their stories, but every once in awhile comes an anime that thrives specifically because of that cliched setting. Series like Bunny Girl Senpai or Kaguya-Sama, or indeed, Oregairu, could not be set in an office or even in college, because the vast majority of people over the age of eighteen possess the tiniest bit of emotional maturity (which makes most of these plots basically impossible). Oregairu doesn’t make full use of its immature characters being kids trying to figure out who they are and how they want to go about friendship and dating, at least not until season two.
I am extraordinarily glad I pushed through that shaky start, because Oregairu is a treat that gets sweetest right in the center. The first season was a hit with its smart and edgy genre writing, but the second finally made good on the promise the series made at its inception. I don’t think the first season was a waste of time, and there’s obviously a lot of people who enjoyed it regardless of my reasons to the contrary, but if you struggled with those first episodes, it helps a lot to know that pushing through is rewarding.
So no, Oregairu is not ‘Bunny Girl Senpai but worse’, it is a remarkable light novel series and anime that inspired an equally remarkable competitor. I don’t like to be too critical, believe it or not, so I’m pleased to say that My Youth Romantic Comedy has gone surprisingly well, even if I didn’t expect it.
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