July 02, 2015

Kimi ni Todoke

Japan can best be understood (sociologically and anthropologically) as a country of 128 million introverts living in a country the size of California. Actually, that's 127 million introverts and one million extroverts who fill all the jobs for talk show hosts and politicians.

As a result, even reaching the borderlines of the personality disorder spectrum in Japan—the poster child here being hikikomori—requires diving deep into Asperger syndrome territory, well past the point at which an American helicopter parent would have carted the kid off to a shrink.

To the average introvert, though, Japanese society is pretty much organized the way society ought to be, hence the nerd appeal: it's not some wayward planet Captain Kirk needs to save from itself.

(Though NHK did feel the need to create an online course for elementary school students that explains how to carry on a constructive conversation and communicate with your teacher. It's a pretty good series, frankly.)

Surveys of Japanese high school and college students reveal little interest in abandoning the traditional hierarchical social structure. Despite all the attendant dysfunctions, it's too convenient a way to relate to people without getting too forward or personal all at once (if ever).

A new word had to be invented to describe speaking colloquially with one's peers as equals: tamego (タメ語). Versus using the traditional honorifics: keigo (敬語). Nevertheless, keigo remains the universal default, even among the "younger set."

The great turning point in every Japanese romance is when the main characters start using tamego with each other.

Because of the reversed ratios on this side of the Pacific, the American extrovert's primary (if only) exposure to introverts is television. Principally Aspergery characters like Sheldon on Big Bang Theory, who aren't only introverted but socially maladaptive in a variety of humorous ways.

Granted, it is easier to "show, don't tell" when you're dealing with showy material. By the same token, the extroverted protagonist is easier to write for than somebody comfortable living inside his own head (without relying on copious voice-overs).

Extroverts aren't hard to find on Japanese television for the same reason. They're especially useful for jump-starting conflicts and propelling plots forward (see: tsundere), especially when obvious conflicts go unresolved because of the lack of definitive action or clear communication.

And, yes, the lack of definitive action or clear communication can make Japanese romances way more annoying than American ones. But when the protagonists really are introverts, also more believable (which doesn't always mean more entertaining).

The quintessential showcase is Kimi ni Todoke ("From Me to You"), the hugely popular manga by Karuho Shiina. Serialized since 2006, it's been made in a light novel series, an anime series, and a live-action film (with Mikako Tabe). Here we are presented with a mirror held up to the national teen psyche.

The premise appears entirely predictable at first: Sawako, the quietest girl in class, falls for Shota, the most popular guy.

Except that Shota is not the typical BMOC extrovert (one of those shows up in the second season). If Sawako can be described as far more shy than introverted, Shota is perhaps more introverted but markedly less shy. Shyness and introversion are certainly not synonyms!

The most introverted person in the series is Ryu, Shota's best friend. He's also not shy but has a gregariousness rating of approximately zero. He is the strong, silent type. (In the first season, Chizuru and Ryu are also the more interesting couple, a problem I'll address in a future post.)

Sawako definitely is shy. Worse, she looks like "Sadako," the devilish main character in Koji Suzuki's famous horror trilogy. Everybody calls her "Sadako" and deems her bad luck to be around. Exacerbated by her extremely reserved personality, this pretty much shuts down her social life.

Important point: that isn't something she's wrung her hands over (until now). Introverts don't. They shrug and carry on.

Sawako was comfortably living in her own little world until, like Ken Takakura in The Yellow Handkerchief, she's befriended by a happy-go-lucky pair of extroverts (extroverted according to Japanese standards). Ayane and Chizuru, in turn, connect her to Shota, who, it turns out, already has a thing for her.

(While this reliable plot device is amusing enough in fiction, in real life it often arouses the kind of emotions that would frighten Hannibal Lecter.)

But since Shota is pretty introverted too (though of the more normal sort), he's not going to broach the subject with someone he knows isn't going to broach it either. As I mentioned, this can get annoying fast. And I'll warn you: it drives the plot of practically the entire second season.

This is the underlying flaw in the teen soap opera: you have to keep breaking up the couple so they can get back together. For a long-running series, I would prefer something akin to the timeline of Clannad, that follows the main characters out of their teenage years into their early twenties.

(These problems might also have been mitigated if, as Kate puts it, Sawako and Shota didn't have so much time to "sit and around and get angsty," and got themselves a part-time job or serious hobby.)

A troublesome extrovert.
Predictably, one of the catalysts in making things worse is a brassy ex-pat incapable of minding his own business. It does pay off nicely in the end, but you will suffer for it as much as the characters. (Thirty-eight episodes is suffering enough; the manga is closing on a tortuous one hundred.)

What ultimately saves the series (more in the first season than the second), is that romance is not the constant focus of attention. Rather, the story is about how extending her circle of friends to two or three more people not only expands her world but theirs as well.

Sawako isn't "troubled" or "damaged" or harboring deep psychological secrets. She is only less than fully functional in her inability to "read" people, but even that becomes a kind of superpower. Not reacting predictably to ulterior motives has the comical result of defanging the mean girls.

For an introvert to be an outlier in a Japanese melodrama, she has to be a true outlier. So Sawako is odd even by Japanese standards, but not so odd that millions of Japanese don't identify with her.

If you're looking for a Harlequin plot with extroverts confessing their undying love and making public displays of affection, you're not going to get it (prepare for the exact opposite). What you will get instead is a gentle, goodhearted tale about quiet people becoming better at who they already are.

Related posts

Kimi ni Todoke (Hulu CR)
MacGuffin man
Useful Japanese stereotypes
Understanding Japanese women

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# posted by Blogger Katherine Woodbury
7/04/2015 5:16 PM   
Your post got me thinking: in Austen, who could stand in for a comparatively extroverted (but still introverted) hero like Shota and a far more introverted heroine like Sawako:

Captain Wentworth and Anne from Persuasion!

Yup, if she lived now, Austen would write manga (or at least appreciate it).