Looking Back on School Days

As I write this, we’re only a day or so away from the conclusion of a most marvelously memorable deconstruction of an anime genre. As such, I thought it might be interesting to look back on another such memorable deconstruction, that being the anime School Days.

But wait, you may be saying, School Days was a deconstruction?

Perhaps not intentionally, good reader, but I definitely think that one can interpret School Days as a deconstruction of harem anime, and here in this blog post, I will explain why.

I would argue that while Madoka Magica achieves its deconstructive aims by turning the magical girl familiar into an astoundingly antagonistic character, School Days achieves its deconstructive ends by making one key change to the harem male lead. And that change is making him a young man driven almost purely by lust, in sharp contrast to the much more shy and reserved Tenchi Masaki and Keitaro Urashima of older, famous harem anime.

With this in mind, there’s a somewhat common viewpoint you will frequently see promoted by some harem anime fans and critics alike. That viewpoint is that the harem male lead should take “full advantage” of his harem by having sex with each member thereof.

The School Days anime very effectively addresses this viewpoint by having it held by its male lead. In so doing, School Days demonstrates just how horribly hurtful, and ultimately destructive, such an approach can easily prove to be. That is but one of the many themes that can be gleaned from what I think is a somewhat underappreciated anime.

School Days is certainly not a masterpiece, in my opinion. It has its share of plot contrivances, of characters that are difficult to make sense of, and of sensationalistic dross.

However, I think that by deftly discarding that dross, and by focusing in on the core narrative of School Days, one can arrive at an absolutely compelling drama that speaks directly to the frailties of the human heart, and the dangers inherent in failing to consider them.

Beyond that, I think that to fully understand and appreciate School Days, it’s important to dig down deeply into the characters and psyches of Makoto Itou, Sekai Saionji, and Kotonoha Katsura. To make sense of these three characters, I find it helpful to take note of how each of them respond to the changing challenging circumstances that is foisted upon them by the plot of this anime. I believe that these three characters do not change who they are so much as the situations surrounding them change, leading to them making the decisions that they do.

To fully explain what I mean by this, I will now take some time to focus on each of these three central characters. I will pay specific attention to how they come across differently in each of the three distinct sections of School Days. If you don’t yet know what I mean by “the three distinct sections of School Days”, I think that you soon will.

 

First we begin with our male lead, Makoto Ito.

Of the three main characters of School Days, Makoto is the one that is perhaps the hardest to find clear characterization coherency with. For many viewers, his dramatically dark descent into hellaciously heartless hedonism may seem difficult to swallow. But I think that this hedonism was always a core element of Makoto Ito’s character, but it took those changing circumstances that I mentioned before in order to fully draw it out of him. Let me explain further by charting the course of Makoto’s character over the three sections of this anime.

 

Section 1 (Episodes 1 to 4): Here we see Makoto at his most innocent, beguiled by the beauty of Kotonoha, but initially being too shy to ask her out. It is here that Makoto is most similar to the other male leads of harem anime. Sekai, for various reasons that I’ll explore later, perceives Makoto’s approach towards Kotonoha as evidence of him having sincere affection and longing for her. For this reason, and others, Sekai takes it upon herself to help Makoto achieve a successful romance with Kotonoha.

However, the first sign that not all is how Sekai perceives it to be comes at the end of Episode 3, where Makoto says “Being around Kotonoha is tiring”.

You see, I think that Makoto had a misconception about what having a girlfriend truly entails. He thought it would be all fun and games, being almost effortless in nature, and providing simple sexual satisfaction. But the reality of romance is, of course, different. Relationships, real relationships, take considerable effort to develop and maintain. You have to be responsive to the needs, wants, and interests, of your romantic partner, and the sexual side of this is only a small part of a much larger picture.

But Makoto is not really interested in that larger picture. While considering how Makoto comes across in later episodes, I think that his initial interest in Kotonoha is entirely due to what I would call low-level lust.

What do I mean exactly by low-level lust?

Well, to a young teenage man who has never so much as kissed a girl, a certain degree of sensuous pleasure may arise simply from gazing upon the fully clothed body of a gorgeous girl, while being only a few feet away from her. This low-level lust will inevitably escalate into higher and more obvious sorts, but in the earliest stage of Makoto’s relationship with Kotonoha, he is content to simply have a gorgeous girl be his girlfriend, and to be able to look upon her often.

But as Kotonoha does not keep pace with Makoto’s rapidly rising lust during the first third of this anime, Makoto grows impatient with her, and desires more immediate sexual gratification. That brings us into the second third of this anime.

 

Section 2 (Episodes 5 through 8 ): Here we see Makoto turn away from Kotonoha, and towards Sekai. Watching these episodes before knowing how this anime ends, one may conclude that Makoto simply finds Sekai much more compatible with him than Kotonoha is.

Truth be told, I do think that Makoto and Sekai are much more compatible with one another than Makoto and Kotonoha are, but that’s not the real reason why Makoto turns away from Kotonoha and towards Sekai.

Through stealing a kiss from Makoto as a way of taking thanks from him at the end of episode 1, and through engaging in the ill-advised sexual “practice” with Makoto, Sekai strongly stirs Makoto’s libido, making him want her.

It also causes a sharp contrast between Kotonoha and Sekai to take hold in Makoto’s mind. Kotonoha is bashful, and is generally unresponsive to Makoto’s more amorous touches. Sekai is relatively playful, and displays sexual assertiveness and an earnest willingness for frequent physical intimacy.

So, between the two of them, Makoto prefers Sekai, simply since she is much more able and willing to give him what he wants.

In fairness, Makoto himself likely confuses his overwhelming lust for love, as he does tell Sekai that he loves her. But Makoto does not love Sekai so much as he loves what she does for him. In other words, Makoto does not particularly care for Sekai’s general well-being, or desire a romantic bond with her, so much as he simply loves the sexual satisfaction that she provides him with.

However, Makoto is leery of cutting things off definitively with Kotonoha. I don’t think that this is because he’s afraid of hurting her feelings, but rather because he doesn’t want to completely close off future potential avenues for sex. To put it crudely, he wants to keep Kotonoha for a “booty call”.

Neither Sekai or Kotonoha realizes this though, and hence misinterprets what’s really going on here. Which helps pave the way to the final third of this anime.

 

Section 3 (Episodes 9 through 12): Here we finally see the true nature of Makoto put on complete unrestrained display. This is due to how Makoto, in his own mind, is greatly empowered by the changing circumstances of this anime.

The “Lounge” event, how Kato uses it as a pretext for seducing Makoto, and Setsuna offering Makoto sex, all combine (along with Sekai’s “practice”) to give Makoto a certain impression about girls in general.

What Makoto takes from all of this is that girls are easy, so to speak. That it’s child’s play for him to achieve, on a constant daily basis, the sexual satisfaction that he so stridently seeks.

And so when Sekai pleads for Makoto to be faithful to her, Makoto turns his back on her as well, as he sees greener pastures in a more lascivious lifestyle.

Makoto becomes something of a monster, as such. The worst side of his nature is greatly empowered, enabling him, for a time, to get everything that he wants with no strings attached. Makoto clearly hates the concept of personal responsibility, and hence refuses to be held accountable for anything that he does, or that ultimately results from what he does. Here he is the opposite of Peter Parker. He is also the antithesis of Tomoya Okazaki of Clannad.

Whereas Tomoya truly cares about each of his female friends, and is driven by selfless romance in his relationship with Nagisa (as it is only after they’re married, and Nagisa states a desire to have a baby, that Tomoya has sex with her), Makoto does not truly care about any of his female “friends”, and is driven by lust.

However, because of how he once treated girls very nicely, he fools many girls (including Kato) into thinking that he’s a genuinely nice guy who would make an ideal gentle lover. This is where almost all of his popularity with the female cast comes from, in my opinion, and hence why it is not necessarily as unbelievable as one may think.

When Makoto’s lust was satisfied simply by seeing a warm smile from a cute girl, Makoto took actions in order to see that warm smile displayed towards him. Hence his kindness to Setsuna, and his earlier very good reputation with Kato and Sekai.

But once the grossly negligent and irresponsible and self-centered nature of Makoto becomes apparent to all, most of the female cast turn against him, blocking his incoming cell phone calls, and cutting ties with him. They realize, albeit too late, who Makoto really is.

It is that same realization, on the part of Sekai, that results in Makoto being ran through with a knife, and killed.

I don’t think that Makoto deserved a fate that grim, but I do appreciate the vaguely Shakespearean quality to it. Makoto is like Macbeth, in that he wrongly interprets the signs given to him, and is driven purely by selfish aims (lust in Makoto’s case, sheer power in Macbeth’s case). Makoto dying at the hands of his moral opposite Sekai hence has a dramatic and thematic impact not unlike Macbeath dying at the hands of his moral opposite Macduff.

Now I will look into Sekai Saionji’s character, and explain why she is, in fact, Makoto’s moral opposite.

 

Sekai Saionji is, by far, my favorite character in this anime. That is not to say that she isn’t deeply flawed, or hasn’t made some critically bad mistakes in this anime. But I think that much unlike Makoto, her actions arise from a sincerely sweet heart, which is what makes her character so tremendously tragic. Let’s evaluate her actions through the three sections of this anime to see why this is so.

Section 1 (Episodes 1 through 4): Here we see Sekai, the playful Matchmaker. It was here that her character won me over.

As Makoto himself would later say in Episode 5, Sekai is someone who is “bursting with energy”, and that is most evident at this point in the anime, as she bubbles with an exquisitely eager enthusiasm in almost everything that she does.

However, beneath the genki girl exterior lies a deeply insecure heart.

I think that Sekai quickly fell in love with Makoto, especially when we consider two very important flashbacks/reveals made in later episodes (those being two involving Setsuna). I think that Sekai was very moved by Makoto standing up for her friend Setsuna, and that this combined with Makoto’s passable physical appearance, made her fall in love with him.

But Sekai’s insecurity (essentially her fear of rejection) stops her from confessing her feelings to Makoto, and so she instead decides to try to live vicariously through Kotonoha. Sekai does this by playing matchmaker, but while doing so, her own romantic desires prove overwhelming, and she takes advantage of the situation in order to steal a kiss from Makoto, and engage in sensuous “practice” with him. Sekai likely convinces herself that she has acceptable reasons for this – receiving proper thanks from Makoto for helping him gain Kotonoha as a girlfriend, and teaching Makoto how best to approach the shy Kotonoha in his attempts to grow closer to her – but the truth of the matter is that she does want Makoto for herself.

For Sekai, I believe that love and lust are inherently inseparably intermingled. This is what leads her to misjudge Makoto so badly, as Makoto’s viewpoints are diametrically opposed to Sekai’s.

That misjudgment unfortunately becomes the foundation of sand upon which the relationship between Sekai and Makoto is built in the second third of this anime.

 

Section 2 (Episodes 5 through 8): Here we see Sekai finally give in to her feelings for Makoto, as Makoto’s penultimately passionate pursuit of her overcomes her initial refusals (due to her entirely appropriate concern for Kotonoha).

Sekai proves to be a very responsive lover for Makoto, keeping with how romance and sex are inseparable from one another in her mind. So Makoto takes full advantage of Sekai’s responsiveness, having sex with her daily it seems, and lustfully kissing her frequently. If Makoto was the man that Sekai thought that he was, then their relationship would have been the stuff that romantic legends are made of, an erotically exhilarating eloping between them being inevitable. But alas, Makoto is not that man.

It also does not help, of course, that Sekai feels weighted down by massive guilt. This is where Sekai’s caring heart comes through clearly. She does indeed feel terribly about how unfaithful a friend she has been towards Kotonoha, and hence tries to get Makoto to tell Kotonoha about their relationship now, before the situation grows worse.

However, Makoto convinces Sekai to keep their sexual relationship secret from Kotonoha, eventually leading to Kotonoha finding out about it in perhaps the worst way possible.

In spite of all of this, though, I think that Sekai becomes enraptured by Makoto’s persistent love-making (as Sekai experiences it, I think) with her. Makoto, likely unwittingly, makes Sekai feel very good about herself. Her insecurities melt under the intense heat of Makoto’s lustful passions for her, and Sekai gains a deeper sense of self-actualization due to her relationship with him.

This results in her proclaiming to Makoto, “Even if you’re dating someone else, I love you!”

Much like Sayaka Miki of Madoka Magica, Sekai Saionji is a character that would have shined brightly and joyously in a more conventional anime of the genre that she is in. But also like Sayaka Miki, Sekai Saionji is thoroughly victimized by a deconstructive plot…

 

Section 3 (Episodes 9 through 12): Here we see Sekai at her happiest, but also at her most tragic.

Her happiest moment came when she danced with Makoto during the folk dance festival.

Her most tragic period is what follows in Episodes 11 and 12, though.

While Sekai’s involvement in two death scenes are what people tend to remember most about her, I think that the definitive moment for Sekai’s character actually comes earlier during Episode 11, when she confronts Makoto about his “Lounge” encounter with Kato.

“Am I not good enough for you? You’re all I have left, Makoto. Setsuna is gone now. You’re all I have left. Please, Makoto!”

The pain, fear, and anguish in Sekai’s voice while she speaks these lines are pronouncedly palpable. As she says them, she holds herself as though she were freezing, and leans in towards Makoto’s taller frame and torso, practically begging him to embrace her and comfort her. Tears stream out of her eyes. It is a very emotional scene, during which my heart goes out to Sekai.

Here we see Sekai’s insecurities, viewpoints, and loneliness laid bare.

“Am I not good enough for you?”

This question is made less out of anger, than out of a deep sense of personal failure and lack of self-worth.

After seeing the video footage of Makoto having sex with Kato, Sekai is left feeling that she is an inadequate lover and romantic partner. She feels this way because she has not yet learned that Makoto is not the man that she initially thought he was, and thus she can see no reason for why Makoto would be unfaithful towards her other than her own self-perceived inadequacies.

Sekai is a person that desperately wants to feel needed, wanted, and valued. And that’s why she pleads to Makoto as she does.

This hence becomes Makoto’s definitive moment as well.

Here is a girl that has been his friend, his lover, his most trusted confidant. Here is a girl that has consistently gone to great lengths to help him, and satisfy him. Here is a girl that has been caring and responsive to him, and has consistently provided him with exactly what he wanted, even as his wants changed.

And now she emotionally needs him in turn. If Makoto was merely a decent human being, he would have hugged Sekai in this moment, apologized profusely to her, and reassured her as much as possible. But alas, a “decent human being” is not what Makoto is…

Sekai eventually comes to this realization herself, but I don’t think this alone is why she chooses to kill Makoto. I think that a darker realization causes her to take that action.

There is an “inner psyche” scene for Sekai during which she realizes that all of the horrible things that Makoto has done to her, and to Kotonoha, may have been due to Sekai asking Setsuna to switch seats with her so that Sekai could sit next to Makoto. Sekai realizes that she may have played a central role in Makoto turning out the way that he has. At the very least, she may have been the catalyst that fully brought forth the monstrously harmful person that lay within him. In that moment, Sekai feels personally responsible for the great emotional and psychological harm that Makoto has done. And hence she feels a need to destroy the evil that she herself helped to create, as she sees it. And so she chooses to kill him.

Some may say that this action seems overly drastic and severe for a character like Sekai to take. Part of me agrees with that.

And yet, I can see how Sekai, using logic twisted by her emotional scars and insecurities, could arrive at a decision to kill Makoto.

That in turn would lead to her own tragic end. Now I will look at the person who caused that death.

 

Kotonoha Katsura makes for an intriguing psychological case study. Unlike Makoto and Sekai, Kotonoha descends into genuine madness. She becomes downright delusional to a degree where she appears severely drug-addled.

How can this be? How can we make sense out of a character that seemed so perfectly sane in the first section of this anime being so utterly divorced from reality by the end of the anime?

I think we can arrive at the answer to that by following Kotonoha’s development through the three sections of this anime.

 

Section 1 (Episodes 1 through 4): Here we see Kotonoha at her most reasonable state, and very grounded in reality. We see a beautiful girl of refined character and style, who carries herself with a certain class and dignity, no doubt drawing unwelcome contrasts between herself and some of her bullying classmates as far as those classmates are concerned.

But while Kotonoha’s personal sense of class and dignity are in many ways admirable, I think that she extends them to perhaps unhealthy extremes. While Makoto’s sexual advances towards her are sometimes a bit impulsive and rushed, it is also true that Kotonoha is overly reserved and stiff in turn. She suffers from cold feet, and I think that she is too concerned with maintaining a certain public image of herself.

Hence when Makoto embraces Kotonoha on a train, she dislikes it. When he rubs her breasts through her clothes during an embrace on school grounds, she tenses up and pulls away from him. To Makoto, she no doubt comes across as overly frigid. Here is one area where I can’t really fault Makoto for feeling as he does.

However, I do think she sincerely likes Makoto well enough, and develops a certain sense of pride over having him as her boyfriend. This is greatly reinforced by Kotonoha’s little sister Kokoro gushing over Makoto, and obviously delighting in the fact that her big sister has a boyfriend.

And so in Kotonoha we see an interesting “third way” approach to boyfriend/girlfriend relationships. For Makoto, it’s all about the sex (but not about love). For Sekai, it’s all about the love (which is inseparable from the sex). For Kotonoha, it’s mainly about something entirely different. It’s mainly about personal and public image, and social status.

It’s about bringing pride to one’s family (Kotonoha’s younger sister in this case), and holding enhanced social status. Now, I don’t doubt that Kotonoha mostly enjoys the time she spends with Makoto, but I do think that her primary motivation is neither romantic love or lust, but rather social affirmation. And it is this overriding need for social affirmation that eventually drives Kotonoha insane. Mind you, as the middle section of this anime clearly demonstrates, Makoto doesn’t help matters…

 

Section 2 (Episodes 5 through 8): Here we see the first signs of Kotonoha’s descent into madness, as the painfully obvious hints of Makoto breaking things off with her do not get through.

In fairness to Kotonoha, though, her self-deceptions are supported by a kernel of truth, giving greater weight and a touch of credibility to them. This truth is that Makoto takes a very long time to formally break things off with Kotonoha, providing her with the sort of plausible deniability that politicians crave.

As such, Kotonoha is, in one sense, technically correct in saying that she is still Makoto’s girlfriend. She is correct based on the idea that status changes need to be formalized before becoming definitive. Kotonoha takes a very clerical approach to her relationship with Makoto, within which no agreed-upon association is over until it is explicitly stated to be over by all the parties involved in that agreement.

In short, Setsuna is correct: Makoto is not properly ending his romantic relationship with Kotonoha, enabling Kotonoha to deceive herself into believing it is continuing on.

By the time that Makoto finally does this, Kotonoha is already deeply invested in her status as “Makoto’s girlfriend” and simply refuses to let go of it.

I think that this investment is, for Kotonoha, a coping mechanism to help her deal with the vicious bullies that sadistically tease and torment her.

But it is also this deep emotional investment in her status as “Makoto’s girlfriend” that drives Kotonoha to the point of complete insanity during the final third of this anime…

 

Section 3 (Episodes 9 through 12): Emotionally unable to accept Makoto’s statement of “I don’t love you any more” to her, Kotonoha exists in a state of supreme delusion, acting as if nothing has changed from the very first episode of this anime.

In order to maintain this delusion, Kotonoha effectively divorces herself from reality, becoming psychologically disturbed to a creepy degree.

But then, a scene of incredible poetic irony arrives. And that’s the scene where Makoto, now rejected by his harem, is forced to turn back to Kotonoha in order to satisfy his immense libido. And so Kotonoha’s delusions soon turn back into reality. In a twisted sort of way, Kotonoha is vindicated for holding steady to her refusal to accept Makoto’s earlier rejections. Humorously so, as even Makoto himself is creeped out by Kotonoha, but not enough to stop him from taking advantage of her.

While Sekai is my favorite character in this anime, and the one that my heart goes out to the most, I can’t help but to also feel a bit sorry for Kotonoha. She is deplorably mistreated by most of the rest of the cast. She understandably feels betrayed by Sekai. And just when the tide turns in Kotonoha’s favor, and just when Kotonoha starts to show the slightest shred of sanity, Sekai’s decision to kill Makoto plunges Kotonoha back into madness.

Kotonoha is the sole surviving member of these three main characters, as she kills Sekai who had killed Makoto. But she survives as a demented shell of her former self, lovingly clutching the decapitated head of Makoto while sailing upon a nice boat…

 

So School Days definitely has a “bad end”. An infamous one at that. But I do think that it weaves a credibly cool compelling tapestry of drama, love, lust, and romance. While much of the supporting cast are lacking as characters (I was very disappointed by the inconsistencies of Hikari’s character in particular) , the three main characters all work marvelously in telling this sad sordid story.

And while this story does end bitterly, there was plenty of fun and enjoyment in the earlier parts of the work, and the sad ending is at least emotionally impressive. A dark inversion of a Jun Maeda work, you could argue.

As brief asides, I also liked how this anime dealt with relevant topics faced by many modern teenagers, such as dating, social acceptance, peer pressure, how best to approach sex and sexual desire, contraceptives, and even abortion. I also felt that, for a 2007 anime, this one did a good job in displaying how big a role cell phones now play in modern life. You could even say this anime has an element of social satire in how Sekai actually took the time to text “goodbye” to Makoto’s cellphone before killing him. ^_^;;

 

This anime is not without its flaws, but it does work well both as a mirror upon the sort of issues that plague modern teenage life, and as a deconstruction of harem anime.

On the whole, I do think that School Days is a worthwhile watch for anybody interested in seeing how a harem anime (or a VN) would turn out if the male lead was as lustful as many viewers would want him to be…

My thanks to everyone who took the time to read this lengthy review. I look forward to hearing what people think of it.  :)