Scum's Wish: Tainted Teenage Love

by James Beckett,

Nearly 20 years ago, director Hideaki Anno released The End of Evangelion, a feature length capstone to his landmark science fiction mecha anime, Neon Genesis Evangelion. Though the series and its finale film were notorious for mashing up giant robot action with intentionally obtuse religious imagery, Evangelion's strengths were rooted in its exploration of human psychology, framed through the perspective of its angst-ridden and puberty-addled protagonist, Shinji Ikari. Underneath its genre trappings and attempts at allegory, Evangelion was first and foremost a visceral, messy, and often antagonistic look at the emotional trauma of young adulthood.

Hideaki Anno used his personal struggles with depression and his distaste for modern otaku culture to fuel the fire of his critical gaze, examining how adolescent obsessions with sex and the difficulties of forming healthy relationships set the stage for a recursive loop of self-loathing and personal sabotage. Holding up this fractured and deeply critical mirror to an audience of unsuspecting young adults resulted in a notoriously incendiary response upon the film's release. Evangelion was eager to embrace its own descent into navel-gazing chaos, choosing to end a saga of giant robots and space monsters with one of the most quietly devastating scenes in anime history, as a young boy lashes out violently, desperate for any form of meaningful human connection.

A decade and a half later, Hiroshi Nagahama released his anime adaptation of Shūzō Oshimi's coming-of-age manga, The Flowers of Evil. The story focuses on a lonely boy named Takao Kasuga, whose own experiences with youthful ennui and sexual frustration lead him to cross paths with the intriguing (and dangerous) Sawa Nakamura. Like Evangelion, Flowers of Evil uses the perspective of a young teen boy to examine the effects of burgeoning sexuality and self-loathing on adolescent psychology. Unlike Anno's series, Flowers of Evil drops the bells and whistles of genre and allegory to mire us in a contemporary setting with more grounded characters. With no giant robots or pseudo-religious digressions to be found, we're left with nothing but an uncomfortably candid look at the dysfunctional lives of disenfranchised, horny teenagers.

But even in this shift to less abstract characterization compared to Evangelion, there is still a distance to be felt in Flowers of Evil, a barrier separating the audience from the observed. The show's most controversial choice was its use of a rotoscoped, highly detailed style of animation that made the characters and the world unsettling, appearing almost-but-not-quite real. This uncanny valley effect was clearly intentional, as the staff wanted to highlight the shocking and difficult choices these damaged teens make on a weekly basis. The viewers are meant to see these years of teenage transgression as something difficult, but also strange and unfamiliar, almost alien to a more matured eye. These incomprehensible creatures we call teenagers are almost recognizable as people we once were, but not quite.

Now here we are with Scum's Wish, a series that continues in the footsteps of Evangelion and Flowers of Evil by offering a brutally honest and unflinching look at the sexual and psychological difficulties many teenagers experience, albeit with some key differences that make the experience more intimate than ever before. First of all, manga author Mengo Yokoyari gives the familiar narrative a much-needed female perspective. Secondly, quite unlike its predecessors, Scum's Wish never tries to push its audience away. It doesn't actively lecture or antagonize its audience like Evangelion might occasionally, nor does use a harsh aesthetic sensibility to create a sense of alienation, like Flowers of Evil does deliberately. If Evangelion is a broad analysis of adolescent feelings, and Flowers of Evil is a bristling illustration of them, then Scum's Wish is something much more empathetic and personal. Scum's Wish is a confession.

Protagonists Hanabi Yasuraoka and Mugi Awaya are deeply conflicted characters from the moment we meet them. Both of them are high school students in love with teachers they cannot have, leading them to use each other for sex while denying themselves the self-acceptance needed to make their relationship anything other than deeply unhealthy. These are teenagers who have fallen into the trap of equating their self-worth with being sexually desired, and instead of trying to find a way to navigate the source of these feelings, they exploit one another for sexual gratification while further indulging their own self-loathing. This is a self-destructive psychology that afflicts young people from all walks of life, and Scum's Wish understands this.

The series doesn't forget the struggles of queer teens, either. Sanae is Hanabi's one real female friend, and she also happens to be desperately in love with Hanabi. Sanae's need to be loved and accepted by Hanabi is similarly twisted into her growing sexual desires, made all the worse by the fact that Hanabi doesn't love Sanae in the same way. As the two young women grow increasingly intimate, their relationship is fractured in equal measure.

Scum's Wish portrays how fraught life can be when your sense of personal worth seems so inextricably tied to your sense of physical security. Due to the stigma placed on talking about sex, especially for teenagers, these feelings and emotions won't even begin to be properly processed until adulthood for many people. Scum's Wish depicts a high school experience that seems intentionally at odds with so many other anime, which either operate as hypersexualized comedies or purely emotional romances, with few shades of gray in-between.

This is what makes Scum's Wish so special. It understands, in the same way that Evangelion and Flowers of Evil did, that adolescence is nothing but shades of gray. For many, their teenage identity was a messy soup made of endless questions, failed relationships, and a lot of sexual confusion. Scum's Wish explores the awkward, embarrassing reality of the teenage emotional and sexual experience with an honesty and care I haven't seen in a long time.

Most importantly, Scum's Wish is not out to criticize. It doesn't intend to coldly analyze its characters, to indict or humiliate them, or to study them as nostalgic artifacts from the writer's bygone history. Hanabi, Mugi, and Sanae are actively trying to navigate the stormy waters of young adulthood, and Scum's Wish invites its audience to take that journey with them in the present tense. It's a messy and uncomfortable experience, filled with mistakes and regrets and all of the tiny bad decisions that make up teenage life, but Scum's Wish invites the audience to empathize with its characters' faults, to fully understand the collective confession of so many confused and misguided children. If nothing else, this empathy is what makes Scum's Wish an absolutely invaluable work of art.

So what do you think of this controversial anime? Let us know how you feel about Scum's Wish in the forums!


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