It’s easy to associate Hideaki Anno’s name with the legendary action franchises that the man fathered. Neon Genesis Evangelion, Gunbuster, the 2004 remake for Cutie Honey, all of them explosive and much-beloved anime. However, in 1998 the man would take the lead in directing Kare Kano, a 26-episode anime adaptation of Masami Tsuda’s long-running shoujo manga series.
It’s a far cry from the kind of anime frequently linked to Anno, but once I started watching the show, I kind of understood how it fit into his repertoire.
Kare Kano, also known as His and Her Circumstances, is a romance anime about two model students who are both dishonest towards their classmates. Yukino Miyazawa is the self-proclaimed “Queen of Vanity”, a title she gave herself because she takes great pride in others looking up to her and depending on her for help. She studies and exercises hard to make sure she is always the top of her class. Her only real competitor in this is Soichiro Arima who has been gaining popularity as of late, particularly among their female peers. Yukino resents him for this and strives to outdo Soichiro at every turn.
However, Yukino does let her guard down while at home, where she dons a tracksuit, leaves her hair messy, and acts like more of a lazy goofball. This backfires when Soichiro drops by to make a quick delivery one day and she mistakenly reveals her true self to him. Soichiro promises to keep her secret… at a cost.
The two of them start hanging out with each other at school. This then gradually develops into an interesting romance as these two teenagers begin to understand each other better and, also, learn to understand themselves. Characterization and introspection take center stage throughout the anime and the two leads were fascinating characters.
Soichiro is soon revealed to be the black sheep of his family; abused throughout his childhood and neglected by his relatives, safe for an uncle and aunt who took him in when everybody else had abandoned him. Even though they do love him, their relationship is not exactly parental and appears stiff and overly formal. He struggles with seeing Yukino’s lively family and he frequently loses his self-confidence as he begins to doubt his value in this relationship.
Yukino herself soon comes face-to-face with the results of her actions, as classmates begin to witness her transformation. She is unused to romance and, like her boyfriend, frequently has doubts about the direction their lives are taking. She agonizes over the awkward moments between them, her clingy behavior, and her inability to express herself when she has to.
Backed up by a nice supporting cast, some of which undergoes similar development, I have to say that the character arcs of the anime really were its highlight. There are a lot of nicely-directed, introspective moments and scenes of characters discussing the backstories and personalities of their friends, set to artsy visuals and a neat soundtrack. This and the deeply-troubled characters, Soichiro in particular, reminded me of Evangelion and how it too explored themes of depression, self-actualization, and anxiety. It just does so through the medium of high school romcom instead of through giant robot battles.
While these emotional development forms the peak of Kare Kano, it stitches such moments together with fun storylines and comedy. Gainax actually wanted to focus on comedy even more and make the romance between the two leads more of a background element, which led to a dispute with the original author. Surprisingly for a studio renowned for shounen action series, they managed to nail the tone of the comedy for a shoujo series just fine. It was a bit rough in the first few episodes, but it picked up fast and I ended up genuinely enjoying the sense of humor.
Kare Kano is certainly not the prettiest show in Gainax’ library, though. Character designs are pretty, but don’t look their best in every scene and are backed by some mediocre backgrounds. A lot of the show feels static in its animation, not helped by its over-reliance on using production sketches as a visual gimmick during key scenes.
It also runs on for a little too long. The story reaches its high point by episode 18, but then continues on for 8 more episodes with storylines that are significantly less-interesting or focus on minor characters. This comes on top of several recap episodes, which themselves are made redundant by how many episodes already start with recaps. After episode 18, it also brings in the ever-familiar storyline about the mysterious, new transfer student who becomes a rival for Soichiro, which the first portion of the show actually avoided and even subverted. I am not angry, I am just disappointed.
Still, even if you only watch those first 18 episodes, Kare Kano is a worthy investment of your time. It’s great to see one of the most renowned studios of the time take on a high-profile shoujo series and truly make it their own. The series and character development were fascinating, even for some of the side-characters, and it gave me a few good laughs. Those looking for more spectacle and visual flair may be left disappointed, however, and this is by no means a full adaptation of the manga’s 21 volumes.