When Oregairu first aired in the spring season of 2013, I don’t think anyone was expecting too much out of it. A light novel adaptation with a stupidly long title that translates to “My Youth Romantic Comedy is Wrong as Expected”? What sparkling originality. I was looking forward to the show as soon as it was announced because of my partiality towards bullshit otaku romcoms, but I wasn’t expecting anything deep or profound.
I certainly wasn’t expecting this to be the story that would most perfectly criticise my outlook on life. It challenged my snobbishness, my elitism, my cynicism about teenagers. Oregairu is the story that made me respect teen lit.
An Autobiographical Aside
I was always a straight-laced student in high school – and I still am very diligent to this day. I have never smoked or taken illegal drugs. I have never gotten drunk. I have never been to a nightclub. To me, those things were distractions.
The one thing I always prided myself on since I was very young was my intelligence. I believed that, since my parents were not university educated and that I grew up in a suburb widely regarded as being populated by bogans (the Australian word for “idiots”), that I had taken my education into my own hands. I fancied myself superior to my less-educated peers, intellectually and morally. While they were getting drunk and rebelling against authority with no real purpose, I was focusing on the important things in life: education and family. I thought I had realised the life lessons that many only seem to learn in their twenties and even later.
As a teenager, I hated teenagers. I could never get into teen lit. I couldn’t relate to (what I perceived as) whiny protagonists and melodramatic love stories. My taste in literature consists primarily of works from the Western canon. I was reading Dickens and Hemingway before I was even a teenager.
This might come as a surprise to some readers of my blog. “Froggy? An elitist?” I know I’m known mostly for my passion for light novels these days, a form of literature that isn’t exactly high art.
But the thing is, a lot of my blogging is a deliberate attempt to move away from the snobbery that defined who I was for so many years. The biggest motivating factor behind this was going to university and realising I was never as clever as I thought I was, but it’s hard to move past that mentality. I acknowledge that my writing has undertones of smug, self-conscious wit, even as I preach so-called open-mindedness. It’s something I still struggle with to this day.
Oregairu understands teenagers
The great thing about Oregairu is that it understands the pretentious teenager, but neither condemns nor endorses their worldview. It understands that people are people and that there is no moral high ground. Rather than preaching condescendingly that “understanding the complexities of people” is the way to become a better person, Oregairu shows people as they are – we are always works in progress.
The conversation between Hachiman and Yukino in the first episode gets to the heart of this dilemma with devastating honesty. Hachiman argues that being self-aware is better than trying to lie to yourself about who you want to be, while Yukino, the idealist, argues that we should always be striving for improvement.
This overall conflict is much stronger than any of the individual conflicts the characters deal with because it’s so understated. The choice between “self-acceptance” and “self-rejection” is something that appears in many stories with various degrees of high drama. But Oregairu deals with that question the same way ordinary people deal with it – by not dealing with the question. There’s a motif in the ending of each light novel volume about Hachiman repeatedly returning to his original path. The character development in this story is “one step forward, two steps back”. While the characters do noticeably change, it’s never game-changing.
I can understand why some people complain that not enough events of substance occur in Oregairu and that it wastes its time on frivolous banter (a criticism I agree with, by the way), but Oregairu’s evasiveness when it comes to important issues is something I relate to very strongly. I wouldn’t have it any differently.
Oregairu is a generic romcom
Another common complaint about Oregairu is its reliance on anime tropes. As human as the core of the story is, it’s coated with smug, superficial elements. For a plot that so seemingly sets out to subvert anime romcom cliches, it embraces the generic romcom genre at heart. It’s very kitsch in that sense.
I personally think that Oregairu embracing its inherent shallowness is a sign of its own maturity, if that makes sense. Rather than trying to prop itself up as high art and claiming special insight, it tries to play to its audience. It tries to understand them.
This is part of the reason why Oregairu really resonated with me. It pandered to my inner otaku, so I enjoyed it as shallow entertainment, but moments like Hachiman’s “Nice Girls” monologue in episode 5 were strongly reminiscent of the narrative style in The Catcher in the Rye. I can vividly recall that moment as the first time I sat up and took notice of the message this anime was trying to tell me. Oregairu tore apart my perceptions of high and low art with one clean blow.
The insufferable teenage voices, the overly simplistic prose, the endless pop culture references – these aren’t necessarily things that make light novels (and teen lit in general) trash that readers of literature must outgrow in order to truly appreciate literary craft. Now that I’m translating the Oregairu light novels, I realise that it displays many of the aspects I would normally find irritating in this brand of literature. But rather than being turned off, I find it quaint and charming. I find it true, even. (I’ll do a proper post of my experience translating the novel when I’m finished with volume 2.)
Thanks to Oregairu, I’ve gotten much more tolerant of teen lit. I read it quite voraciously now, in fact, and I find that I get a lot more out of it when I approach it with an open mind. Not all English teen lit novels are paranormal romances, and neither are all Japanese light novels about little sisters lusting over their brothers. I’ve found a new appreciation for the genre. Teenagers don’t suck. And generic romcoms don’t necessarily suck either.
I rewatched Oregairu as I was translating the novel, mostly for the sake of having a visual reference. I found myself appreciating the visuals much more this time around, especially the symbolism used to express the emotional distance between the characters. The anime elevated the source material in many regards.
Funnily enough, I think this is a series that resonates most strongly with viewers who are no longer teenagers. Like most teen lit, Oregairu attempts to capture the immediate experience of being a teenager rather than looking back on it with hindsight, but its criticisms and insights are a bit too deft and nuanced to notice when you’re too close to it.
For example, I’ve come across a number of people on MAL who claim that Hachiman’s insights about people are correct, or even that Hachiman isn’t cynical enough… which is pretty lol. I mean, in a sense Hachiman is right about human nature, but I think the reason why he resonates with audiences is because everyone is prone to immature cynicism to at least some degree. And we all try to convince ourselves that we’re not wrong, despite our insecurities. Hachiman knows his philosophy isn’t a happy one and the show knows it too.
I’ve changed a lot as a person since I first watched Oregairu a little over a year ago. I never actually identified with Hachiman since I’ve always had friends, despite my introverted nature. But now, watching the series when I’m no longer a teenager, I realise that I was always more of a Hachiman than I care to admit.
That’s not a bad thing, you know. I think, maybe, I’m finally becoming a bit more honest with myself. For that, if nothing else, I’m grateful for having watched Oregairu and I’m proud to call it one of my favourite anime series ever.