Scum’s Wish is Actually a Masterpiece

I don’t know if this is a hot take. I asked on Twitter, and the mixed results I received leave me just as confused as when I started. I generally pride myself for keeping a finger on the pulse of anime discourse, but I’ve heard surprisingly little about Scum’s Wish. I don’t usually refer to MAL as the end-all of an anime’s quality, but 7.20 is pretty low for the same site that gave Vivy: Fluorite Eye’s Song, a heap of trash if ever there was one, an 8.48.

If you’re wondering how I spent my Valentine’s Day weekend (even though this is publishing much later), I watched perhaps the least romantic anime I’ve ever seen. Scum’s Wish is not so much satirizing the high school romance genre of anime as it is taking that genre out back and shooting it. I’ve seen a fair amount of criticism towards that particular approach, too. Frequent descriptors include edgy, trashy, and downright gross, and yeah, I get that.

But the problem is that I don’t believe that any of those things are inherently negative. I wrote recently that Bokurano is a deeply-affecting triumph of the medium, and it kept my skin crawling consistently for over twenty episodes. Edgy is a word we’ve appropriated to mean a story that takes itself seriously; it’s only an insult if the audience fails to take that story seriously as well.

Trashy? I don’t know about that. It handles taboo subjects with as little tact as possible, but it doesn’t need to. Bokurano addresses similarly uncomfortable subjects gracefully, but I won’t deny there’s merit in ripping the Band-Aid off and forcing us to look at the ugly side of people. And gross…yeah, even as an ardent defender of the show, I won’t deny it’s gross.

But rather than break down what other people think about Scum’s Wish, I’d like to look at what I took away from the series, and why it’s actually kind of a masterpiece. Spoilers for Scum’s Wish.

High school romance is often difficult and contradictory, but never more so in the cases of Hanabi and Mugi, two students in love with their teachers. Hanabi’s crush began on the boy next door, but Narumi-sensei only sees her as a little sister, while Mugi fell for Akane, his tutor, before she took a job at his high school. The two acknowledge that their love is unrequited, and strike up a pseudo-relationship to substitute each other for the person they desire.

That comes with its own sorts of issues. Hanabi’s close friend, Ebato, really wishes they were more than friends, and doesn’t see why she can’t be a better placeholder than Mugi. Mugi’s childhood friend, Moriko, has always viewed them as natural complements and hasn’t quite wrapped her head around the fact that he isn’t the Prince Charming she believes him to be…or that childhood friends never win in romance anime.

Those complications expand as Narumi grows closer to Akane, while our fake couple struggles with their feelings towards one another, the girls in their orbit, and their teachers. Hanabi begins to spiral as she learns that Akane isn’t the sweet music teacher she appears to be, rather she’s a manipulative sociopath who only derives pleasure from seducing men who are spoken for. Hanabi is revulsed by the idea, but as she watches both Narumi and Mugi slip from her grasp, she really stops caring.

Mugi, for his part, knows that Akane doesn’t care for him, and he knows she’s juggling relationships with other men, including other students of hers. It’s just that he fell in love with the Machiavellian succubus, not her pristine outer persona. I was reminded of a quote from The Witcher, “It’s almost as though you thought a scorpion were prettier than a spider, because it’s got such a lovely tail.”

Scum’s Wish is a mess of romantic entanglements, each formed by the complex inner workings of its characters and how they interact with one another. The way it goes about its story is by deftly weaving and then unraveling each strand, before we’re only left with Hanabi and Mugi, as we began, and with this last knot, they simply slice it in two.

This essay has accidentally become a two-parter, now that I think of it. I had a great chance to explore how two very different romance anime who have a complex web of relationships. Believe it or not, I was writing this with the idea that Scum’s Wish and Fruits Basket were two peas in a pod, or rather, two ends of a spectrum. The comparison is mostly there because I can’t think of two more different anime, but the comparison isn’t that far off.

Last week, I wrote Is Fruits Basket Overrated?, and while I won’t answer that question here, I peeled back at how that story handles its ensemble cast. Scum’s Wish has only a fifth of Fruits Basket’s total runtime, so its cast is smaller, though both series have the same basic formula; we meet new characters because of their pre-existing relationships to established characters. Fruits Basket is like a spider web, though Scum’s Wish is cyclical in nature.

Once Hanabi and Mugi have been established as our leads, we see Narumi and Akane as Hanabi sees them; painful that their blossoming romance hurts her, but innocent. We then meet Moriko through Hanabi’s eyes, before her relationship with Mugi is expanded upon. We don’t actually learn that much about Narumi from Hanabi’s perspective other than he’s a swell guy, so it isn’t until we bounce from Mugi’s tryst with Akane to her relationship with Narumi that we see the scope of his character.

If you haven’t read it already, I recommend that Fruits Basket essay, because I go into a lot greater depth on that style of writing and how effective it can be. For now, though, let me touch base with our synopsis, because you were probably thinking, “wow, everyone here sounds awful.” You’re not exactly wrong.

We love writing stories about terrible people. It’s Always Sunny in Philedelphia has been running for seventeen years, while Konosuba managed to climb to the top of the most oversaturated genre in anime, both of them focusing on some absolutely awful people. I suppose Scum’s Wish is different in that it’s not a comedy; we aren’t meant to find it funny how these characters are flawed and routinely hurt the people they care about. Until the last third where everyone kind of gets their crap together, it’s severely depressing.

It’s a careful balance, though, because terrible people making terrible decisions isn’t compelling fiction. The way the story balances out is that Akane is just cartoonishly evil, so even when the other characters act selfishly or downright maliciously, we’re still inclined to root for them. The fact that this monstrous person exists and continues to draw the more nuanced characters into her depravity means that the story continues to develop in interesting and usually upsetting ways without feeling forced.

For context, compare Scum’s Wish to Rent-a-Girlfriend, which I once lovingly referred to as my favorite dumpster fire. The characters there suck, but in an over-the-top manga way. It works because the story is a comedy, so its readers don’t care that Kazuya acts like a horny idiot for the eighteenth time, or that some plot beats feel a little artificial. Scum’s Wish takes itself very seriously, though, so the story runs the risk of forcing these characters to become parodies of themselves if their mistakes are inorganic or out of character.

In fact, none of these characters grows as people until one of them breaks away from Akane’s influence, and sets the other events into motion. Hanabi removes herself as the jealous lover that compelled Akane to pursue Narumi and Mugi, and works up the nerve to cut off her toxic relationship with Ebato shortly after. Narumi is the only character of moral substance since the beginning of the story, so once Akane can’t pursue him to make Hanabi jealous, he’s allowed to make his case to Akane, that love can be unconditional, she begins to change for the better.

Mugi, though, takes the longest to change. His perceptions of relationships and sex were warped in a relationship in middle school, so while he’s aware his pursuit of Akane is wrong and unhealthy, he doesn’t care. It isn’t until she dumps him that he’s forced to reevaluate the decisions he’s made and confronts Hanabi later on. Despite the feelings they felt for one another and perhaps still do, they aren’t the people they were when they agreed to use one another as a substitute. The two part ways and continue searching for something real.

I’m a little mixed on that ending, actually. A lot of romance stories wind up with the leads not getting together, and if used correctly, it can communicate the story’s themes far more effectively. It says a lot about the journeys they took to get to this moment, especially because the vast majority of people do not find their future spouse in high school (I count myself as a lucky exception to that rule). Sometimes, it isn’t the first, second, or third person, but you should take strides to be the right person for when you do meet them. Except…I don’t think it works here.

I wasn’t under the impression that Hanabi and Mugi’s relationship was unhealthy. If anything, it was exceptionally mature, especially considering the circumstances. You usually don’t get this level of communication and respect for boundaries with teenagers. Mugi and Hanabi have gone through character arcs since then, but they plainly express themselves, possess personal and physical chemistry, and are usually thoughtful and forgiving to the other. I hate to say it, but that’s better than a lot of adults.

If a romance ends without the leads getting together, the burden is on the author to prove they weren’t good for each other. Typically, that means showing that they’ve grown apart over the course of the story, but Mugi and Hanabi don’t lose interest in each other until the end of the last episode. Mugi preferred Akane to Hanabi, but he’s moved on, and she isn’t even upset about that; they agreed to confess to Narumi and Akane based on the assumption they would get rejected, but that didn’t happen, and Hanabi took it in stride. They were going to start dating sincerely after they got that closure.

But now that Mugi and Hanabi are more mature and have a better perspective, they decide they’re not going to. It’s not a bad ending, per se, but the series fails to communicate that they’ve grown apart. Hanabi’s growth took place independently of this story thread, while both expressed an interest in each other romantically. If they’d made it out to be that Mugi was struggling to find what he wants in a partner after Akane dumps him, that’d be something, but their separation is mutual and feels improperly developed.

It’s not the end of the world that a 10/10 anime for eleven episodes had an 8/10 ending. It’s just that the story could have had a cathartic ending by either having the leads wind up together, or by conveying that they no longer need that relationship. I’m a little disappointed, but hey, that’s still a 9/10.

Scum’s Wish is what I wished Domestic Girlfriend was. Domestic Girlfriend is supposed to be the poster child for a dramatic dumpster fire anime, but it rarely lives up to that. Less of a melodrama tackling taboo subjects and more trashy shock value moments and cut out the character development that contextualizes those moments in the manga.

Scum’s Wish has that same trashy appeal, like watching a soap opera, but I was surprised to slowly realize that it was really well-written. The premise made me think I was in for an anime I could make fun of, but it was just a really compelling watch. I mean, any anime where teenagers want to date their teachers makes me cringe on pure instinct, but Scum’s Wish never indulges in fantasy. Mugi isn’t a self-insert for the audience, so when he begins a relationship with Akane, it’s not the kind of blatant wish fulfillment you’d get from lesser anime.

So, while I’m still not sure if this is a hot take, Scum’s Wish is actually a masterpiece. Like Bokurano, I won’t say that everyone should watch it, but it has a rather wide appeal. If you like sleazy soap operas or engaging character-driven melodramas, there’s plenty to like here.

So go ahead and let me know if you think Scum’s Wish is a masterpiece, or if this take is piping hot or ice cold. You can do that in the comments, or over on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku where I teased this essay months ago, so you’ll get insider information on what’s coming up next. Until next time, thanks for reading.

3 responses to “Scum’s Wish is Actually a Masterpiece”

  1. If I disagree with this take, I’ll never know it, because I’ll never watch this series. It was interesting to read about, and I agree that stories like this can be good as long as they handle their subject well. But my feeling about series like Scum’s Wish is: I already know society is a massive shitpile and I don’t need to confirm it, especially since I’m in a constant state of depression as it is. It’s a funny thing — I can watch series full of tragedy and death and even betrayal, but I can’t watch the kind of intimate betrayal you get in trash fire romances.

    That said, I wouldn’t dump on the series just for that, first because I haven’t seen it myself, but even then it just doesn’t seem to be made for me. Though that ending you bring up does sound like it might have soured a lot of viewers on the show.

    Liked by 1 person

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