Thursday, April 21, 2016

Bringing Yandere Down to Earth with "Koharu no Hibi"

The perfect mask of sanity here

A year back, I did a review for an interesting little romantic comedy manga called Koharu no Hibi.  You’re free to swing by and revisit that if you want, but it goes without saying that this queer story of an abominable suitor and the unlucky target of her affections was quite the pleasant surprise, despite the premise initially reeking of a rather stale plotline all-too familiar in the anime world.  Let's be honest - we all know who yandere is; she (and it's almost always a she) is the blank-eyed weirdo creeping outside the window of her unsuspecting target, keeping tabs on his every action and interaction.  Undeniably cute, she's as likely to be a "benign" stalker, as to start every sentence with "If I can't have you...!"  She's also, to be frank, a cheap character type, whose luster had long since worn off due to overuse.  But Koharu was different; what saved it from the bog-standard refuse bin stuffers was the way it sculpted its eponymous female lead. Though the “yandere in love” trope is practically a staple in many features, Koharu departed from the usual script in a number of ways - all of which chipped away at the walls around the archetype that serve to obscure and mystify it, bringing it a little closer to home.

Keeping it “Real”
For one, the series setting is kept low-key and firmly in the real world.  Harem comedies and pessimistic Sci-Fi thrillers are a yandere’s natural habitats - environments that don’t exactly gel with most people’s lived experiences.  Seeing a psycho love freak fire off a giant laser cannon, or dive head-first into a suitor dogpile, is clearly awesome to behold, but hardly stirs fond connections with everyday life.  But Koharu no Hibi’s blasé, after school groove convinced me that, despite its endemic situational weirdness, all of this really could happen; these people, exaggerated and fictionalized as they are, just might exist in some place, though the outcome of such a toxic relationship might pan out in a very different way.  The real clincher is how keeping the setting grounded helped narrow our focus on the characters, making Koharu's antics - humdrum compared to most anime yanderes - look more disturbing as a result.

Maybe Autism - Maybe Just Crazy
But it’s not just the setting - Koharu’s “condition” itself is treated in a rather banal fashion.  To really appreciate this, you have to examine how the anime yandere is usually approached.  Depending on the angle, she could be perfectly reasonable in the right contexts, or totally bat-guano insane at all times; her craziness can be understated and focused only on immediate challenges to her “love,” or blare out at full blast indiscriminately in every direction.  But rarely is the character played with any hint to an underlying disorder - a little reality injected in the psychosis.  True, her off-the-wall lunacy makes her a lot more bearable to the audience - just try to count all the fans who claim they’d “love” to have a yandere girlfriend.  But this suspension of disbelief can easily veer into the absurd, losing all connection to a real human being and morphing into a stock type of the most obnoxious variety.  Koharu largely avoids that; while the possible psychosis underlying her personality isn’t explored in depth, her generally obsessive behavior, among other traits, seem to place her somewhere along “the spectrum.”  That might be reaching beyond what the story’s giving us, but I don’t think it’s too farfetched, and even then, her lack of empathy and “handicapped” ability to connect with others is refreshingly down-to-earth.  

Wait - She Did WHAT!?
But the best thing about Koharu’s particular case of muted madness is the reaction it draws from everyone around her - especially her hapless “bae,” Akira.  I already sung (or hummed, in either case) this guy’s praises in the review for departing from the standard setting protagonist on a number of counts, but most relevant here is how he does NOT take Koharu’s shit lying down.  I don’t mean in the constantly scared-shitless way, like certain other characters around their demented love interests.  Akira isn’t afraid to confront Koharu on her weirdness when she gets out of hand, and constantly evaluates both the depth and extent of her possible threat to others.  Not that he doesn’t get a little terrified of her, mind you; any normal man in that situation should be checking over his shoulder every hour or so, just in case she decides to surprise him with another expression of her “love.”  But that’s exactly the point.  Akira is a normal man, in a relatively normal setting, dealing with a girl whom, while obviously one crow short of a murder, isn’t gaudy or exceptional in any way.  I still have a hard time joining this wonderfully mundane interpretation of the yandere romance with its hurried conclusion, but overall it presents a nice model for anyone trying to deconstruct the ”my crazy girlfriend” handle in a sane manner.

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