The turning point of Kotoura-san and Manabe-kun.
I watched the first episode of Kotoura-san on Thursday, and since then have been thinking about the show, more than any other show that I’ve seen since. Before the season, this was one of those shows that wasn’t really talked about, everyone said “Oh, it’s from a 4-koma, so it’s a comedy series” but that was about it. But watching the anime was one of the most interesting experiences that I’ve had in watching anime.
This show presents the story of Haruka Kotoura, a girl who was born with the ability to read other people’s minds, specifically their current thoughts. A power she’s had since birth, it’s been coupled with seemingly a complete inability for her to filter what she says. As a result, she’s lost her friends, driven her family apart, alienated everyone who’s come in contact with her, and is now resigned to go through life pushing people away.
Establishing the specialness of Haruka.
The presentation of the anime adaptation is what makes it really stand out. In a cold open, we start with an establishing shot of children walking to school, we see a large circle around one girl, a zone where nobody wants to be, with Haruka at the center. The show then moves to a flashback sequence of Haruka’s life. Birth, as a toddler, continuing through early school, elementary school, and middle school. What starts with bright warm colors, hope and excitement for a new life, starts to fade as Haruka runs into trouble with her classmates for things like always winning at Rock Paper Scissors and giving away the secrets of the crushes. The other children not willing to face the fact that other people can understand what they are thinking, Haruka is given the label of a compulsive liar, starting an endless trek by her mother from doctor to doctor to try to find out what’s wrong with her child, when nothing is. And as frustration mounts, her parents marriage falls apart, with father spending more and more time “at the office” and mother taking solace from the bottle. Her new middle school friends shun her after she makes them uncomfortable, and she’s continually taunted with catcalls and teasing, calling her a monster.
Making up excuses before they both turn on Haruka
Finally, both her parents start having affairs, only to have them exposed by Haruka. The last straw, her mother abandons her with her grandfather, with the parting shot “I should never have given birth to you.” Further fueling the taunts at school, Haruka is now completely alone, and her eyes show it. And just to finish her off, she befriends a stray kitten, left in the park, and brings food to it, happy that she can’t read it’s mind, but a grumpy obaa-san calls the authorities and has it sent to a shelter, taking away Haruka’s last friend. This breaks her, and she stands alone in the rain, screaming her despair and loneliness to a world where everyone has shunned her. Transferring to another school, living on her own now, she’s resolved to never get close to anyone else, because as much as it hurts to have no friends, it hurts much more to have friends who leave you. And as she introduces herself at her new school, she has the same worn reaction, people thinking she’s weird, that she’ll be a troublemaker, until she sees the boy she’s sitting next to, looking out the window and reads his thoughts, which are… bizarre. Finally he looks at her, and asks who she is. And the screen crazes like broken glass and the dark and somber coloring smashes away, leaving again the bright colors of the beginning.
Manabe stealing Haruka’s food, and changing her life.
All of that was before the OP song, at the very beginning of the series. A bold move, we almost never see the actions that Break the Cutie right at the beginning of a series. Usually, the cheerful character is broken down through multiple episodes, or we start with the broken character, and only find out why they are like that throughout the show. Here we’re clearly shown that she goes from a cheerful kid to a lonely outsider to a broken tragic figure. And then the show begins the process of building her back up. It’s not an easy process, and it’s certainly going to be trying throughout the show, but to start from such depth of despair, the show has established a lot of emotional depth to play with. It’s almost the opposite of another of my favorite shows, Nazo no Kanojo X. In that one, Mikoto’s, and even Akira’s, reactions were tempered and reasonable at the beginning of the series, not the wacky reactions that we’re used to in anime, which left the bigger reactions for more impact later in the show.
From the depths of despair to the return of her spark.
But with Kotoura-san, they’ve taken the opposite tactic. They’ve shown us, basically, the deepest trough right at the beginning. This is the start of life getting better for Haruka. The return of her laugh, the return of her hope, and most importantly, the return of that light, that spark in her eyes. Throughout this episode, Haruka’s eyes are an indicator of her feelings, from bright and sparkling to clouded and muted, to dead and lifeless. And in the pit of despair they disappearing completely, the whites fully filling her exaggeratedly large eyes. It’s an excellent device used by the show, and one that’s fun to keep an eye on, and helps the audience know how to react, even if they don’t pick up on it overtly.
And now, finally, I can get to Manabe. He’s important enough that the title of this episode is “Kotoura-san and Manabe-kun”. He really seems to be someone the likes of whom Haruka has never met. His thoughts aren’t about her (yet), they’re just kooky stuff, and almost always misreading what’s going on. When another girl asks him to come visit her house, he assumes it must be because it’s a karate dojo, and they want his awesome skills, not that the girl is trying to ask him out. He thinks Haruka’s mind reading is a ‘trick’, and dismisses it as harmless fun. And as he gets closer to Haruka, he starts with more personal things: eating parts of her lunch, asking if she’s got friends, how she does her ‘mind-reading trick’. And this last gets him yelled at, that he doesn’t know what it is, and how horrible it is. Yet, he still seeks Haruka out, and his mind finally goes to the last stage: imagining Haruka in bed, naked. This shocks her so much that she forgets running away, and yet confirms to him that she can read minds. But instead of running away or treating her like a monster, his response is that she’ll think he’s a big pervert! Woe is Manabe!
Saved from certain death
But in the thing that really clinches it, he’s helping her carry her things home from the store, and she reads the mind of a truck driver who is intent on ignoring the red light. She pushes Manabe out of the way, saving them both. When they go to her house to patch up her cut knee, she finally confronts him as to why he is being nice to her. She needs to keep everyone away so they don’t get hurt. Manabe points out that she’s the one who is hurt, and those other people would leave if they want to leave, whether she can read minds or not. But he won’t leave, and he’ll stay her friend.
Talking about other aspects of the show besides the characters and plot, the music is something that really shines. The sequence of Haruka, broken, her kitten friend taken away, screaming at the world, full of despair, has no voice work. It’s just the soundtrack carrying the emotional load, and it does a tremendous job. Rather than crying or screaming, which can easily turn ‘narm-y’, it’s just the visual and evocative music. The same thing applies to the scene where Haruka’s mom abandons her. Great soundtrack work so far. Usually I don’t notice it unless it’s really wrong or really right, and in this show, it was really right.
The other thing to note is the art shift. From bright and cheerful at Haruka’s birth, the colors fade out, and darkness seeps in as we go through her past. And the first time watching through it, I really didn’t notice it, because it’s so gradual, and the steps are masked by other happenings, like an evening shot with the drapes closed, then a dark hallway, closeups in shadows. When we get to the scene where she meets Manabe, used in the featured image for this post, it’s completely dark and gloomy. And then – in an instant – it shatters, and becomes bright. The first time through it was just so surprising, because the darkness seemed just so natural.
The relationship between Manabe and Haruka will be great to see. A friend is what Haruka seems to need, but I wonder if something else she needs to see, to become more human, and more of a girl, is that there’s a boy who actually thinks of her as a girl. Not as a monster, not as a bad person (although maybe as a ‘bad girl’). Just as a girl. And it’s Manabe’s thoughts of naked Haruka (with way more up top than she seems to really have, what a flatterer) that actually do break her shell, and get her to confront him, rather than just run away. I really look forward to more of their interactions.
It’s kind of an easy promise to make – “I won’t leave you”. I think Manabe can pull it off, but it seems a bit rash to start out with.
There’s also a bit of bad to be attributed to Haruka: She never learns or is able to keep her mouth shut. It’s a little hard to believe that she’d never figure out that it’s her blurting out the things that she reads in other people’s minds that’s the biggest problem. She does kind of lampshade this problem in her first speaking to Manabe, saying “You thought that and I just blurted it out, sorry.” And she later says that she can’t control her mind reading. I hope we get more explanation about why she can’t put a muzzle on saying things.
The ugly is the way the other children treated her. She is literally turned into a monster in their eyes, even though everything she says is the truth. She is accused of being a compulsive liar, is ostracized by others, accused of reading their minds just to laugh at them. All because the other children (and adults!) are too chicken to face their own thoughts, and be honest people.