I remember coming across this blog post a while back calling Fumiaki Maruto “the romance specialist you’ve (never) heard about”. White Album 2 appears to be his most critically acclaimed work, and I can see why. It’s a coming-of-age drama that deals with the darker sides of teenage insecurity. The VN even depicts the characters in their adult years, still struggling to make difficult choices. The anime adaptation only tells the first part of the story, but it’s still gut-wrenching stuff. While I remain conflicted about the ultimate purpose behind all that suffering, I can’t deny that the emotions and relationships between the characters felt very real to me.
As a general rule, English-speaking anime fans (including me) aren’t terribly knowledgeable about visual novel writers, so it’s a shame Maruto has been going under the radar for all these years. Recently, though, he has been steadily carving out a name for himself in the anime world. Earlier this year, he helped adapt his light novel series Saekano into an anime, and this season he worked on the script for Classroom Crisis, an anime-original series. So now is a fitting time to remind you all that Maruto is indeed a great romance writer, maybe among the most talented working in the otaku industry right now.
First, some background info about Maruto. According to the Japanese Wikipedia page, Maruto first got into the VN scene by participating in the Kuon no Kizuna fandom. Through the community, he came into contact with one of the scenario writers, Katsunori Kobayashi, who invited him to work for the VN group “Kikakuya”. The rest, as they say, is history. (There’s a list of his VN works here.)
It’s probably safe to say that Maruto understands as well as anyone how it feels to be a creative amateur and to work on a team with extremely talented people. I haven’t played his visual novels (yet), but creative collaboration is a recurring theme in his anime works. The size of the group and the scale of the project may vary, but all of Maruto’s protagonists are driven by an incessant need to express themselves through art. Romance often blossoms as a direct result of shared creativity and struggle. It’s beautiful when it comes to fruition.
Indeed, the romantic drama in Maruto’s work can be so genuine and inspired I find that there’s something distinctly… non-anime-ish about them. Whether it’s the heartbreaking ending of the White Album 2 anime, the dramatic later volumes of the Saekano light novel or episode 11 in Classroom Crisis, there’s something refreshing about the way Maruto handles relationships. This might have something to do with Maruto’s literary influences (including Seishi Yokomizo, Shinichi Hoshi and Takashi Atoda), who are all rather unconventional writers. None of them are romance novelists, so perhaps Maruto learned from them to craft love stories that go far beyond “Will they or won’t they?” as a driving conflict.
Art and love always exist within a broader context. Maruto’s characters find themselves constrained by their lack of ability, their difficult relationships with their fellow creators and by time/resource constraints. Aki and Kitahara struggle to keep up with their more talented group members while Kaito has the raw skills to make a rocket but lacks the resources and budget. In order to overcome these obstacles, our protagonists are forced to find something in themselves – and in each other. Their eventual creation is far greater than the sum of its parts.
As great as all of this sounds, there are certain aspects where I feel Maruto kinda misses the point. Considering Maruto’s background as a fan creator, it makes sense for him to romanticise otaku culture in Saekano while being extremely critical of the cold, unfeeling corporations in Classroom Crisis. Honestly, it’s hard to blame him. CC’s depiction of corporate politics makes complete sense, especially as a commentary on the Japanese system. But I have to agree with Draggle that being overly cynical about the political system can be naive in its own way, especially when creators imagine their work to be “above” politics.
The Comiket arc in Saekano also displayed some of this attitude. Iori is portrayed as a shallow guy because he’s opportunistic and eager to make connections with the more talented artists. If you get into the otaku industries just for the money, you’re not a true otaku.
Let’s be real, however. If anyone is guaranteed to come out on top because of Comiket, it would be the printing companies, especially those that specialise in doujinshi printings. And let’s not even get started on the anime industry. Despite its strong roots in fan activity, the otaku industries aren’t exempt from corporatism. (Alas.)
On some level, Saekano does seem to be aware of that, because Aki vows to bring more exposure to Izumi’s doujinshi in spite of her insistence that she’s only drawing it for fun. Izumi gets her happy ending, but in the larger scheme of things, the tension between idealism and commercialism is never entirely resolved. I’m quite sure that Maruto is aware that artists are never as free as they would like to be, but as far as he’s concerned, the good parts of fandom must outweigh the bad. And that’s probably a good enough answer for him.
Love is like that as well. Relating to others is difficult, but these difficulties make intimacy worthwhile. Or something. I’m just talking out of my ass here.
Anyway, I’m writing this post after finishing episode 11 of Classroom Crisis, and damn, that payoff was great. It was great because all these themes came together: romance, art and politics. Realising that he has lost the game of thrones, Nagisa shows vulnerability in front of others for the first time. This is also the episode where he becomes fully invested in A-TEC’s vision and hooks up with sensei’s sister and gets punched for it. It’s awesome.
This show had so many disparate elements that I wasn’t sure it would gel together, but somehow it did and I am very, very glad about this. This is probably because Maruto had a very focused vision about what sort of story he wanted to tell, right from the very beginning. I’m reminded of what he said in an interview:
I’ve already written a trendy drama (WA2) and a situational comedy (Saekano), so I wanted to try my hand at a human drama. I love all these genres – they’re my lifeblood.
The director of the anime Kenji Nagasaki had this to say:
This is a story set in the near future about high school salarymen. The story depicts the tragedy of being a student and a salaryman with a light touch. The theme of “creative work” plays a large role in the story, as per Maruto-san’s scenario, so we set the story in an academy that builds rockets. We thought this would be a good fit for anime. From there, we worked backwards and decided on the near future setting. The most interesting parts of the story are the dramatic parts, so we added some sci-fi elements to make it interesting to watch. That’s about the gist of it.
Sirs, I salute you. I also salute the OreImo character designer and whoever decided to make Nagisa a tsundere.
And if that wasn’t enough, somehow this show includes the OTP of the season. Romance might not be the primary genre of Classroom Crisis, but it complements the themes of the story well and plays to Maruto’s strengths as a writer. It’s no surprise that the strongest parts of the story revolve around interpersonal relationships and subtle character development.
What’s more, Maruto gets art. Even if the political parts of the story might lack nuance, I can certainly sympathise with Maruto’s vision of art, and it comes across very strongly here. I root for these characters, not simply because they’re defying the corporate elites, but because they’re standing up for their own artistic vision. This is the part of the story I find most inspiring.
Sometimes, I wonder if Maruto ever feels the same way I do, that the highs of creative work feel like love itself.