John Taylor Gatto – Dumbing Us Down

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Parents love to be scared. The news industry feeds on parents who want to be scared and then ‘protect’ their children. News is full of stories about things that could harm your children, like hot dogs or Marilyn Manson. If Stranger Danger was a band, it’d be the best-selling artist. It was a shock that no one told us we should stop going to rock concerts after the Eagles of Death Metal.

For some reason, no one started a moral panic around schools. No news media ever tried to scare parents about what goes on in schools and how terrible they are. I think it’s because parents love schools. Schools make raising children very easy. Let a bunch of strangers raise your child and grade them. They even do the job of telling you how good your kid is.

Although this book is pretty well-known, it hadn’t started a moral panic. Why? Could it be that parents don’t mind that their children are taught confusion, antisocial behavior, that their brains are being ruined by the confining environment of schools?

Gatto later says that the essay about the seven lessons isn’t the central essay. It is. It’s perhaps the definitive text about the wrongs of schooling. It lays down what schools actually teach, and asks us whether we want it or not.

He sometimes slides into conspiracy thinking. One of the introductions name-drops Cuckoo’s Nest and the Combine. Besides missing the point of the novel (It’s about how we must subjugate women), Gatto is never as paranoiac. He doesn’t talk about a huge organization controlling everything behind the scenes. Rather, our society is moving towards this.

It’s not because people are just power hungry, like a cliched villain. Our society moves towards this centralized structure because we think it’s efficient and will give us what we want.

What makes Gatto’s position worthwhile is because he’s not talking just about schools, but the worldview that gave birth to them. This comes to light in the last essay, the one that strays most from Gatto’s criticism of schools.

It’s one that’s destined to failure. Gatto waxes nostalgia about some past when we all lived in a small town and were a ‘community’. While he doesn’t go deep enough into describing the differences between networks and communities, his view isn’t black and white.

In fact, he addresses the flaws of these small towns. They cast out people. They caused great harm to those they deemed unfit. But, according to him, they did not have that much power. A person could have chosen to join that community to leave it.

In reality, it’s harder than it seems since we’re forced into existence, and born into a community that might not fit us. If it doesn’t, how do we know there’s something beyond it? Tolerance that people reach on their own is better, but I’d rather enforce tolerance than risk the damage the Quakers suffer. Even if it will slow the process a little, I’d rather illegalize these acts than wait until people decide to be tolerant.

While it may seem like he’s a religion apologist, he’s not. What he takes from religion is the sense of community. This is one of the most important ideas in this book. He demonstrates that the church was an environment where everyone took part – the old, the young and the in-between. Yes, they had roles but they were more connected than we are right now.

The problem with secular living, especially in big cities is how segregated we are. We are put into classes or schools or companies, all of which have a cause none of us agree with. He’s also wrong about the military. The military is intense. It creates an emotional experience that connects people. These networks don’t offer that.

He doesn’t view networks as completely useless. His problem with networks is that they serve a specific purpose, and can’t do more than that. The military can defend the country, but it’s not enough to bring meaning to a person’s life. We need networks to accomplish some objectives, but they must never be our whole lives.

The best part is Gatto’s criticism of schools. He uses the good old method of analyzing the form. Schools must, first of all, have a structure that encourages learning. Some may criticize Gatto’s anecdotes, but he describes in detail the type of ‘psychopathic school’. If your school functioned differently, then you’re lucky.

Humans are curious by nature. The reason parents have to scare us all the time is because we’re curious about what the fire feels like. Everything in the school structure goes against it. Standardized test limit what you can learn. You’re trapped with the same people in a setting where you’re punished for socializing.

The idea that we need schools to teach ‘basic skills’ is moronic. Reading and arithmetic don’t take too much time, and schools don’t teach basic skills anyway. How many schools teach cooking or fixing or building things?

It’s such a focused attack on the school structure that I’m surprised it didn’t make more of a splash. Sure, Gatto’s tone is often bitter and he sometimes repeats himself. It would have been helpful if there was more research involved, but then again these are speeches. He’s successful at explaining the exact problem and offering solutions. He never descends into black-and-white thinking, although he’s close to it. The idea of demolishig schools may seem radical, but some radical ideas have basis.

It’s not a perfect book. It’s a collection of speeches so it often slides into bitterness. Gatto’s dissection of the school structure is a brilliant one, even if Postman had better solutions. People often tell me that we can’t do anything about schools or that there aren’t any alternatives. Well, here they are. Even if it’s not the definitive text about education, it’s full of worthwhile ideas.

3.5 psychopathic schools out of 5

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High School DXD

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There’s an art to the ecchi genre. Sexual appeal may not require brains to react to, but it requires skill. Not everyone can be a stripper or a sexy dancer even if you have the right body. A good ecchi show would know symbolism and psychology aren’t part of the genre. It would know that it uses sexuality and energy to tell a fun, ridiculous story. High School DXD knows this, but doesn’t work on it.

The characters embodies the strengths and the weaknesses. Rias is worth all the hype and posters they made. You need more than big breasts to make a sexy character. Rias is sexy and not just because of her figure (which isn’t easy to design. See also: Divergence Eve). It’s also little touches like the hair, which is deliberately red. Red is both the color that attracts the most attention. Rias isn’t just meant to be pretty but she symbolizes sexuality.

Her posture, behavior and personality also help express this idea. She’s not a caricature nymphoniac who’ll be a sex slave for our main character. Rather, she’s comfortable in her sexuality. She doesn’t mind being seen naked. She’s in a position of authority that gives her a lot of power but she’s not drunk with it. Power is sexy, but being able to control it is harder and sexier.

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She’s a charismatic, powerful presence that holds the series despite the fact everyone around her is barely half as interesting. What’s weird is that all the failures are females. They’re supposed to be just as attractive as Rias, but they’re dull.

It’s hard to see something in them beyond archetypes. Rias was an embodiment of an idea. Everyone else is a dull archetype. Asia is the complete opposite of Rias, which is something. It’s not used to its advantage. The contrast between the two never appears. We know she’s a nice girl but we only know it. We rarely see it happen. Akeno has no personality whatsoever and Koneco is a quiet loli, which was always a terrible idea and doesn’t improve here.

The designers do have talent. Later in the series a rival group is introduced, and they all have more imaginative designs than the main characters’. It’s almost as if they had two different designers, and the less creative one punished the other. Things in the rivalry team include spiral twintails, X-shaped twintails, a bikini armor and a masked figure. Even at their worst, there’s more spark to their design. Why do the main characters get the generic long hair of Akeno?

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The male characters are actually more entertaining this time. They’re often mindless perverts or boring good guys in such shows. Issei is a combination of both, but it’s one that works. He has these attributes not because it’s convenient to the story but because they can create a personality out of it. Issei becomes both an overblown moral hero who’s just as selfish and horny as the person he goes against.

There’s irony there. It flips the story where two people beat up each other because they disagree and somehow their strength proves their idea right. I wish the irony was more developed though. Issei knows he’d like to be that asshole he’s fighting, the guy with the harem. The anime doesn’t take a step back to laugh at this, at least not enough.

The problem is that it’s not enough to just know you’re making an ecchi series. You still need direction, you need to aim somewhere. What prevents the series from becoming really enjoyable is its lack of direction. Is this about how stupid but kind of cute we are in high school when hormones drive us crazy? Or is this about a hero that’s going to push himself over the edge for a girl because he’s hungry for sex?

If the series would’ve chosen to alternate between the two, it would’ve been fine. Instead, it jumps back and forth between the two. It only gets focused at the end, where it sticks to the epic fight and nothing else. At least it’s victorious there. The fight is well-animated and has a pretty enough scenery to make it exciting. The exaggeration of the characters is also believable enough to make the final conflict feel epic enough.
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The fantasy element is one of the good parts. It’s a cute spin on the Devil/Angel dichotomy that doesn’t pretend to be profound. The idea of devils doing services for people is rife for potential comedy. They play around with it a little and then abandon it. The epic battle was fine, but it was more fun to see Issei trying to do things and being a loser. It’s an opportunity to create odd side-characters who can have their ideas summed up in one episode. There are more seasons and I hope they play around with this more.

Now comes the fatal part, where humiliation is passed off for sexiness. I don’t mind the camera finding its way to changing rooms or how clothes get ripped off during battles in sexy ways. What I don’t understand is, is it necessary to have the characters strip others naked against their will for our enjoyment? It’s not sexy and it’s not humorous.

High School DXD knows what it isn’t, but it also doesn’t know what it is. There is heart here. These people really wanted to make an anime that will capture the fun spirit Ecchi can have, but they didn’t know how. Maybe the next seasons have more focus. I hope so. Rias is too much of a fun character and Issei is a rare Harem protagonist who actually contributes to the story. It’s a fun show, but as crazy as it sounds I think we can do more with Ecchi.

2.5 devils out of 5

 

 

 

 

 

Danganronpa: The Animation

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I could’ve written this review without watching the anime. For all its twists and turns, Danganropa works like you’d expect it to. Even the claim that it’s not as in-depth as the game doesn’t feel relevant. It’s a darkly humorous anime filled with hilarious characters. There isn’t much psychological depth, but everyone is memorable and no one gets demonized.

Danganronpa understands why Death Game scenarios work, and what are its strengths and weaknesses. These scenarios rely on a fairly unpredictable out come. We know the main character wins, but not always who will be his final match. The most important part is the characters. Their personality modify their interactions, the methods they use and how the ‘matches’ go.

By abandoning any characterization, you’re left with emptiness. All you will have is a show of violence, which can only be entertaining for so long. Thankfully this isn’t BTOOOM!. You can tell by just looking at the brilliant character design.

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Every character has a distinct look. No character is allowed to look like another. I haven’t seen a cast with this much effort put into the design. Everyone sports different hairstyles, outfits and even shapes of the eyes. The differences are more than just to tell apart the character. Each detail helps to point to the personality of the character. This is how character design should be – expressing the character using the visuals.

They are not psychological portraits. They are a collection of quirks, but these quirks never point to some realistic personality. The characters are, after all, chosen more for their skills rather than their personality. Normally this would lead to perfect, boring characters. In this guys, the talent points more towards some personality that’s exaggerated and made to feel alive, if not realistic.

It’s not that these are shallow without hope. There is hope for some depth and the show occasionally taps into it, but that’s not how we get to know the characters. We know them like we know our classmates – we know their patterns and learn to laugh about it. Even without the psychological aspect, it’s a vivid, entertaining cast.

They’re so entertaining that even the dullest characters (Who are for some reason the main ones. Someone was taking crazy pills) are entertaining. Neagi and Kirigiri are archetypes without much blood in them. The former is normal and means well. The other is a cold girl who always runs off to the writers, who tell her how to solve the mysteries. They never reach the heights of Fukawa or Junko or pretty much anyone, but they’re a cut above characters in the same style.

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The best of them all is Monokuma. He’s the embodiment of the series and why it works. If the premise and the characters don’t look weird enough, we also get a talking teddy bear that runs the school. He treats the violence and absurdity flippantly, as if it’s normal.

Isn’t this how comedy works? It presents an absurd situation where no one recognizes the absurdity. Although Danganronpa‘s story is a mystery, all the techniques are comic. It puts more emphasis on weird situations than a coherent puzzle. The mysteries aren’t exactly cleverly built. They’re messy and require some leap of faith, especially as the series goes on. The final twist is pure comedy.

Good mysteries are more than just predictable. They have an interesting structure and don’t rely just on the outcome. Absurdity is one way to do it. Even if Danganronpa‘s structure is fuzzy, it’s never boring. Every mystery is unique and memorable.

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The comedy also works because of its darkness. This is another case where darkness isn’t used to minimize the horror but amplify it. The bear is cute and the academy looks pretty, but it’s a cruel way of life. There seems to be no other solution than dying or killing, and yet the series knows this isn’t a good reason to sacrifice absurdity or characters. Just because a situation is harsh doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a funny side to it.

There is almost something meta about Monokuma. That route is never explored, which is a shame. It could’ve lifted the anime a little higher. Monokuma keeps telling the students to kill each other so he won’t get bored watching them. Isn’t this why you watch the anime? You watch it to see them kill each other. Wouldn’t be boring if the students decided not to kill each other, but just to kill time with each other?

The anime explores this question a bit, but not enough. Extending the time where the characters just being themselves could’ve put these two next to each other – School Life and Mystery – and we’ll have to ask ourselves what we prefer and why.

It doesn’t suffer from the over-abundance of ideas like its sister anime, Future Diary. In that one, ideas came and went. There were a lot of hints they could be explored but then they were dropped. While Danganronpa has these routes, it knows it can’t explore all of them in 12 episodes.

 

The few themes that appear – despair, violence, friendship – are used to spice up the story. The story is slightly shallower, but it’s also more organized and better paced. I’m sure the visual novel has more ideas, but in 12 Danganronpa manages to tell a hilarious mystery and not get sidetracked.

It’s in no way just advertisement for the visual novel. It’s a very entertaining anime filled with vivid characters, weird situations and a funny mystery. The approach to the genre is different, but better than the common one. It may lack substance, but it makes up for it in being entertaining. You don’t need a lot of episodes and fights that last for hours to be entertaining. You just need characters and situations that are odd enough to be memorable. You don’t need punchlines to be funny, you just to find the funny in already existing situations/characters.

3.5 upupupupupu out of 5 upupupupupupu

WataMote: No Matter How I Look At It, It’s You Guys’ Fault I’m Not Popular!

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If you live under a rock, you’re probably impressed by Family Guy‘s and South Park‘s ‘dark’ humor. They show you people suffering, dying and cursing. They expect you to laugh because people are dying, suffering and cursing. You’re supposed to be shocked that the creators don’t mind putting these characters though such a pain, but that’s not a major achievement. Terrorists do it all the time, but it doesn’t make them comedians.

A truly dark comedy is not that one avoids that darkness. It’s one that forces us to confront the darkness of it and still laugh. Even Borderlands, where the whole joke is that everyone thinks dying is a joke has insight into violence and how we perceive it. It’s an exaggeration of the flippant treatment most video games have for violence. Likewise, WataMote is an anime that stares into the eyes of the abyss that is being socially retarded

WataMote is a dark comedy. It’s far darker than any so-called ‘for adult’ cartoons from the West. It doesn’t create a bunch of punchlines and try to make the premise fit the jokes. It’s aware of the how crippling Tomoko’s situation is, and it tries to find humor among all the darkness. It uses humor not to downplay the darkness, but as a means of coping.

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Shyness is cute when you look at it from the outside, but so is a panda bear caged in a zoo. Tomoko has the privileges of the Western world, such as running water and food. How much of a consolation is it when you have no way to relate to the world?

Human beings are social creatures. Isolation is one of the worst type of punishment you can bring on one. That’s where solitary confinement comes from. Without feedback from others to keep us in reality, it can feel like it’s slipping away from us. A similar process can happen with sensory deprivation.

This is what happens to Tomoko. There is a gross contrast between how she views herself and the world, and how it really is. The world outside is not very hostile. In high school, the popular kids are too busy having fun to bully you. People will talk to you if you initiate. At worst, they’ll be indifferent.

Indifference isn’t harmful in and of itself. It doesn’t target you. When that’s the only feedback you get, it becomes scary. Tomoko barely spends any time in the real world. We spend most of the episodes inside her head. In her inner monologues, she talks fast, with a steady pace and a hard voice. She’s full of energy and life.

Then she opens her mouth and barely a word comes out. The people often react in confusion. You can’t expect them to react in any other way to a person who can barely utter a phrase. Since it’s not complete approval, Tomoko’s dualistic worldview sees it as negative and she runs away.

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That dualistic worldview is another aspect of being a social retard. Tomoko sees things in black and white. There are popular kids, and losers like her. In her eyes, Yuu turned from a loser geek to a ‘popular slut’, although all we see is that Yuu developed breasts and dyed her hair. Tomoko tries a little to fit in, and when it doesn’t work she throws the bathwater with the baby.

The absurdity of social anxiety is that it makes you fail in basic, day-to-day interactions. Tomoko’s failures wouldn’t bother and otherwise well-adjusted person. People say embarassing shit all the time. Most of them say so many things that one failure doesn’t bother them. Tomoko always bets all her money on one single moment.

The comedy comes from the darkness itself, from how absurd it is. We’re talking about a barrier that doesn’t exist physically. Nothing prevents Tomoko from talking with people but herself. She’s fighting a shadow. Seeing a person fight something invisible is both sad and funny at the same time.

Sometimes the comedy is just from Tomoko’s failures. Thankfully, the creators are imaginative enough. They make these realistic failures, rather than inserting a poop joke or a sex joke like a lot of Western comedy does. There is also a powerful use of silence. It’s another way of pointing out the joke, but it lets the situation stand on its own. Besides, it’s a more realistic reaction to absurdity. Something absurd is something we don’t know how to react to. We may need time to think it over.

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Tomoko would’ve nothing without her voice actress. It’s a brilliant performance. She has to play different characters. Tomoko is a megalomaniac world-dominator in her monologues but a coward when she speaks. Her voice actress doesn’t just capture this World Dominator in her speech, but she performs it with chinks in the armor. She exaggerates the confidence so much that it’s clear Tomoko tries hard to convince herself. As for how she does Tomoko’s stuttering, I doubt any person can replicate it so well. The fact a dub was even attempted is a brave, but probably an Icarian feat.

The character design fares a little worse. Tomoko isn’t really ugly. She looks odd and a distortion of the Moe design. Her eyes are huge, but have a darkness in them that looks frightening. Her figure or facial features aren’t special enough to cause any shock. She looks likes she’d rather listen to My Chemical Romance and Avenged Sevenfold rather than look for a boyfriend.

The state of comedy is a poor one. Too many comedies are references to sex and shit in-between random words. It’s hard to find a comedy that understands comedy’s purpose – finding humor in the absurdity of life. If it can find humor in the darker parts, then all the better. Whatever you think of anime in general, WataMote is a great work of comedy.

4 anxiety fits out of 5

Green Green

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Green Green is the most important ecchi anime, for all the wrong reasons. Don’t be fooled by the pictures that promise you fun times with the occasional peak at tits. Green Green is cruel and mean-spirited. It doesn’t want to, but this is the side-effect of taking sexual shenanigans to their extreme. This is what happens when you’re making a sex comedy and enjoy the limitlessness of animation.

Despite what I and many reviewers write, anime is a really just a lot of lines and colors moving around. The stories are in our heads. It’s like how a novel is just some ink painted in different shapes upon (recycled?) paper. No real people are involved, but it’s surprising how legal action hasn’t taken against the creators. Surely, such sexual harassment shouldn’t be presented in such a care-free and comic way, even if it targets animated characters, right? If not, then the viewer himself was sexually harassed and the viewer is a real person.

This is how watching Green Green feels like for most of its length. Panty shots and the camera finding its way to the girls’ bathroom aren’t its defining feature. Very early in the first episode the fat guy gets off on rubbing his man-boobs. This is what the series revolves around. Everything else is just a side dish.

It’s amusing, but only because it’s hard to take your eyes off it. The show pushes things to the extreme, doing things in the real world would land the idiots in jail if not in a hospital. Key scenes include ‘fishing’ a shirt in front of other boys, basically stripping her and a fat guy jumping on the teacher screaming ‘here we go’. In the real world, we call this an attempted rape.

There is a light-hearted tone to all of this, but it doesn’t fit the events. It gives the impression that it takes what’s going on lightly, which only makes things worse. The three idiots are not bumbling buffons, but creeps. It’s hard to feel anything but contempt and hatred for them. The fat guy sees women as literally a stick with tits on. Tenjin is a pedophile who gets off on eating rice while Sanae is asleep. Metalhead-looking guy is sometimes better. He sometimes serves as an amusing satire of a desperate horny teenager. Mostly, he’s a stalker who goes on and on about love but tries to use brute force.

The creators try sometimes to give them what they deserve, but its at the expense of the viewer. We may not feel very sorry for them when they get humiliated, but here the punishment includes a rape from a bear. Worse, it’s not an implied one. A bush volunteers to prevent it from becoming full-blown porn, but there are enough sounds and moaning so you’ll have a clear image enough in your head.

The characters have nothing resembling depth, but that’s not the problem. They’re comic relief characters, but it’s hard to be funny when all you do is harass. What else can you call peeking at the girls while they bath and sending them questionnaires about their bra size? There are even homoerotic and cross-dressing moments. This is when their assault shifts again target to the viewer. I don’t know what is worse, but if I had to choose between seeing Futaba humiliated again or watching Bacchi-Gu rubs his breasts again, I’d choose the latter. Call me a white knight, but it’s not like I’m catching a bullet.

No girl leaves this show unharassed. Sanae and Futaba are the main victims, but only Wakaba kind of avoids this. She only falls victim to them whenever their harassment schemes target all the girls, instead of their girl of choice. The fact Wakaba is the luckiest girl, and she’s still getting harassed thanks to scheme that are the equivalent of sexual genocide should tell you how unpleasant this feels.

The creators hit a fun, energetic, sex-driven high school vibe that makes me feel nostalgic for the days when I was too young to see that girls were just as confused as I. The decision to have more than one male character and have them do stuff makes this stand out. Most high school anime tend to have a comic relief who pops once or twice, a gay dude or a trap.

Still, in such a sexually-predatory environment it’s hard to find friends. Almost everyone here is a creep, not just the idiots. Midori has her happy-go-lucky charm, but what she does to Yusuke is only a little better than what the three idiots do to the girls. Chigusa remains AWOL for most of the show, appearing occasionally to let us know reality can’t compete with those breasts. Sanae is boring and does nothing, and Arisa is a pathetic attempt to make us feel awkward with a horny ugly girl. Too bad for her she can’t compete with the three idiots.

Speaking of Yusuke, he’s a little less boring than your typical do-gooder. His occasional aggressive behavior with Midori is surprising. It’s good to see a male character this active, but all he does is add more to the mean-spiritedness. Midori and Yusuke, instead of being the emotional core and safe haven just add to the unplesantness of it all. Adding Futaba to the love triangle doesn’t help. She’s fun at first, but then quickly becomes a tsundere. You’re always sure these tsunderes are bit more interesting than they are.

Reika and Wakaba are the only ones who lighten the atmosphere a little, and even the former isn’t good enough. Reika doesn’t fit any archetype at first, and she adds some genuine appeal. For a show so obsessed with sexuality, she’s the only one with actual sex appeal and it’s not just because she has breasts. Too many times though, she’s given a cruel edge whose reason is very unsatisactory. She also get a single moment of harassment that might be worse than anything else. You’d think the creators would let us enjoy the sex appeal without seeing the girl humiliated. As for Wakaba, her role is to stand around and talk to the cactus. It’s the only joke here that works, and it’s those little details that make characters feel alive. She’s the only one who’s not an empty archetype or a creep. She deserved a much better show, maybe something like Bamboo Blade where everyone is weird like her.

Maybe it’s the story that makes everyone comes off like creeps. All this envelope-pushing at least makes them feel alive, and not just archetypes. The premise is also great and has a lot of room for satirizing the sexual confusion. There’s even a great atmosphere that makes it easy to forget how terrible everyone they are. They just don’t do anything with it.

High school boys can be silly, and sometimes creepy with their sexuality. They’re never like this. This is criminal behavior. It’s like a satire of bullying where the bully is the killer. They’re both violent, but the satire is way off-target. It doesn’t deal with the confusion or the pressure or the excitement of being sexual. All it does is present sexual harassment with a light tone, hoping we’d forgive because ‘it’s just comedy’. Sexuality can be a pain, but it shouldn’t be this depressive.

The romance is also shaky. It was about to say something interesting about fate and destiny, but then it decided to take the easy road of manipulative sentimentality. A big emotional climax was very uncalled for, but the supernatural elements made the whole thing look like they came up with it ad hoc. It gains a little impact because the characters feel alive, even though they’re shallow. It’s a romance whose obstacle isn’t inner but outer. Instead of exploring how the two lovers deal with challenges, it just throws a silly reason that doesn’t let them be together with hopes it’ll capture some tears.

Yet, this is somehow not a total trainwreck. It would’ve been easier if it this was just a string of terrible ideas after another. There’s focus here. There’s more life in this anime than others in the genre. The story is actually concerned with themes, and teenage sexuality can be a lot of fun to watch. Is focusing on a terrible idea better than not focusing on a good idea? I’m not sure. Green Green has a few things to teach other shows, but I’m afraid people will borrow the size of Reika’s breasts instead of her sex appeal or the fun atmosphere.

The fact that I spent so much time writing about women’s breasts should tell you enough about this anime. I wish I could’ve used it as a starting point to talk about how messy but fun high school, but here I am, writing about the fourth paragraph where women’s breasts appear. I hang my head.

1.5 horny idiots out of 5