Mild spoilers for Azumanga Daioh and Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai.
My recent list of anime that got me all teary-eyed made me realize just how good anime is at getting me emotionally invested in its characters and storylines. Animation is already a great medium for presenting emotions, but audiences have also repeatedly proven receptive to such stories in mainstream numbers. Drama, tragedy, slice-of-life, coming-of-age, romance, anime fans devour shows within these genres and they tend to be some of the most beloved and timeless shows in the medium.
Coins always have two sides, though. Anime is still a creative medium and for every show with a fantastic storyline that leaves you quietly sobbing when the credits finally roll, there are bound to be amateurs trying to recreate that experience without the skill or resources to pull it off. And, even if an author has good intentions, production committees that fund and oversee the creation of anime may look at the success other shows had and figure they got something to gain by dabbling in this business.
For an example of this done poorly, we need not look further than this week’s Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai and, for an example of not being a screw-up, I’d like to compare it to Azumanga Daioh, which just barely missed out on making the list last time.
Azumanga Daioh is not exactly a “sad” show. It’s a comedy slice-of-life from 2002 based on the manga series by Yotsuba&! author Kiyohiko Azuma. It ran for 26 episodes and became an all-time favorite of mine thanks to it’s lovable characters and the fun antics they get involved in. While the overall tone of the anime was pleasant and light-hearted, it did do a lot of character development and made it feel like you were really watching the protagonists grow up over the course of a story that spanned 3 years. Azuma wrote fantastic characters that captured the hearts of his audience and, when the time came to end the series, an emotional graduation episode became the perfect conclusion. A real, hard-earned tearjerker.
What I see a lot of shows like Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai do is put a lot of effort into the presentation around the emotional peak of an anime with none of this build-up. By now I am fully convinced that any anime studio can pull off a scene of a crying anime girl and make that look impactful. This show does that in its second arc, when Tomoe expresses her true feelings and is promptly rejected.
Nao Touyama cries convincingly and a picture of a weeping anime girl is always going to be at least somewhat touching, but Tomoe is not a very engaging character and the entire storyline leading up to her rejection is mediocre. It never sells you on the idea that this romance could work or that the characters truly care for each other. Most damning of all, the show immediately moves on as if it never happened, betraying the passionless nature of the scene. Tomoe becomes a side-character that keeps hanging out with the other characters and never again shows any sign of this entire ordeal having had any impact on her.
The greatest offender I have ever witnessed was Sword Art Online‘s Mother Rosario arc, which handled a very sensitive subject matter with none of the grace this would require. It carves out a painfully awkward storyline and concludes this with a scene that is technically fantastic. Swelling music, some of the best animation of the show, fantastic direction work, sad anime characters, it has all the makings of a legendary scene, and I absolutely resent it for that. All that beautiful presentation squandered on a side-story of a Reki Kawahara light novel adaptation.
It looks touching because it wants to trick you into thinking you care, rather than being touching because you care. When time passes and details of the show grow vague, it hopes you remember that scene and misremember everything around it.
While good presentation can certainly elevate an emotional peak to greatness, it is not a requirement. Great characters that audiences fall in love with, well-written story arcs, and giving these moments lasting impact is the true recipe for success.
A scene like Hajime and Kaoru embracing each other after receiving life-changing news is infinitely more touching because they are such great characters, even though I Can’t Understand What My Husband is Saying was made with a fraction of the resources and talent behind Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai and Sword Art Online.
I am going to forget Tomoe and her confession scene in less than a month, but there is no way I am going to forget the very similar scene with Hanekawa in Nekomonogatari White unless some brain-damage inducing calamity is involved.
And no scene like the one from Mother Rosario arc is ever worth the effort if every character just moves on with the status quo right after. Compare that to Madoka Magica, where the death of a main character with about as many episodes of build-up and development completely changes the life and personality of every character related to her thereafter.
Any writer, studio, or producer trying to mask their laziness or incompetence with these (cheap) tricks should vilified by fans and reviewers alike.