The Winter 2017 Anime Preview Guide Scum's Wish
Jan 12th 2017
How would you rate episode 1 of
Scum's Wish ?
What is this?
Hana Yasuraoka has a secret. On the surface, she appears to have a normal teenage relationship with her classmate Mugi - they hold hands, they share secrets, they make out in the alley behind the school. But in truth, Hana has no feelings for Mugi, and Mugi feels nothing for her. They are each other's substitutes, replacements for the lovers each of them want but can't have. Mugi is in love with the music teacher, Akane Minagawa. Hana is in love with her homeroom teacher, who she's known since she was a child. Together, Hana and Mugi stave off the loneliness of their unrequited loves, while hoping to one day make their forbidden wishes come true. Scum's Wish is based on a manga and can be found streaming on Amazon's Anime Strike on Thursdays.
How was the first episode?
Everyone knows that some shows are compelling just by virtue of being "so bad it's good," but I want to posit another type of trainwreck-viewing in light of Scum's Wish: "so wrong it's right."
If "so bad it's good" means that a story is so badly told that the fallout becomes wildly entertaining, "so wrong it's right" is that rare story that hits you full in the face with something forbidden or problematic, but manages to justify itself by bringing out unexpected depths of the viewer's repressed id in a healthy way. Usually, these kinds of stories are built around extreme violence, because glorifying nihilistic hyperviolence is more easy to dismiss for its relative lack of application to everyday life in our cushy modern society. Watching ridiculously savage anime like Hellsing Ultimate can scratch an itch for people that almost certainly isn't going to make them think of being violent in real life. But Scum's Wish? Scum's Wish is about cringe-worthy and totally unhealthy sex, in a way that unexpectedly just works, drawing out potentially shameful desires and feelings but trying to find the beauty in that honest exposure.
Let me explain. Since storytelling as an art form covers a giant rainbow of different tones and styles, I definitely wouldn't say there are only two ways to romanticize "bad things," but for the sake of an argument here, I'm going to compare two primary methods of turning unhealthy or verboten subject matter into something beautiful or enticing. Let's call them "ignoring the problem" and "flaunting the problem."
SUPER LOVERS 2, another anime that aired today, is a pretty classic example of "ignoring the problem." It romanticizes a relationship built on a giant power-gap, age-gap, and partial incest-problem by turning a blind eye to the emotions and issues that its participants might face entirely. The couple's relatives and friends are either willfully ignorant or pseudo-supportive of the whole thing in ways that further reinforce the "blind eye" approach, and the show also treats sexual assault as just an advanced form of seduction that will ultimately bring the two boys closer together. The goal is to trivialize the show's wrongness to such an extent that it can work as a purely escapist romantic fantasy for viewers, and while that may work for some viewers on a pornographic level, it pretty much only works in that bubble because in ignoring its problematic elements completely, it also tacitly endorses them.
There's nothing particularly sexy about Scum's Wish, but it is erotic and emotionally affecting in a very different sense, choosing to "flaunt the problem" of loving someone you aren't supposed to love and using someone else for sex to compensate for that void. The story doesn't endorse the placeholder relationship between its teenage leads, but it isn't interested in shaming them for their foolish choices or painting the whole experience as a horror premise either. Instead, Scum's Wish treads a thin line, empathizing with the hopeless feelings these pubescent kids feel for the mentors in their lives and the sexual gratification that they hate themselves for receiving from someone they don't actually like instead. Painting this relationship in a more negative light would force the audience to pity these characters and see their liaison as just another scandalous cautionary tale. By trying to find the beauty in their romantic and sexual mistakes, Scum's Wish dares us to think back on our early tween crushes and sexual mishaps and forgive ourselves for them, acknowledging that the pain they caused us is nothing to be ashamed of, but just part of growing up. It's trying to find the good in bad decisions, and I can appreciate that.
Anyway, if you're sexually squeamish or not into exploring these deeply uncomfortable emotions in your entertainment, Scum's Wish is not going to be your bag, but for those curious, the show is also unusually well-directed, overflowing with sharp choices that keep the show between the lines of too glowing or too damning of the situation, so we can just stay focused on the main duo's emotions. So far, it's an unusually careful and heartfelt exploration of raw adolescent feelings with beautiful production values and a ton of gorgeous-yet-eerie vaginal imagery in the end credits. I'd definitely give it a shot!
Anime practically has a reputation for crazy-sounding titles, but there are only a handful that I've ever encountered that I would truly call provocative. Scum's Wish is one of them. The title did its job, as it called my attention to a type of series that probably wouldn't normally be my thing, and the premise about a pair of high school students who are using a relationship with each other to compensate for forbidden loves got me intrigued enough that I would have checked this title out even without Preview Guide duties involved. In fact, this was one of my most-anticipated titles for the season, and the first episode doesn't disappoint. It's an astoundingly good production which excels in just about every aspect.
That being said, it's absolutely not going to be a series for everyone, and I can definitely see how certain aspects of it could be major turn-offs. This is a wholly serious treatment with only the faintest bits of levity so far, and that combined with a subdued color scheme and light, very restrained musical score lends a very somber, even depressing tone to the episode. Furthering that is a central relationship that is unhealthy on multiple levels, and doubling-down on the “I'm using you as a substitute for the person I can't have” gimmick can seem like a little much.
Frankly, though, I found all of those factors to be strengths which perfectly complemented each other. Anime has an annoying tendency to not understand that trying to lighten the mood in fully-serious content can be a distraction, so I greatly appreciated that director Masaomi Andō (who also directed the wonderful School-Live!) understood the material well enough to minimize such moments. A story like this should be somber and depressing because there's really nothing to celebrate about the central relationship; after all, it's built on fakery and convenience, a use of each other as replacements for unrequited crushes, and both of them are exactly well aware of that. They are also both very well aware (or at least Hana is anyway) that their true hearts are repulsive. The way Hana almost immediately recognizes that the reasons she gave in a harsh rejection of a potential suitor are hypocritical shows that she has no illusions about who she is, even if she does have wishes about what she wants.
And that's what makes the scene where they come to the brink of having sex with each other both terribly sad and damning. Hana's comments about not seeing his face and not letting him see hers so they can both maintain the illusion of who they're doing it with are heartbreaking, as it's an acknowledgement that there is no love in play, only need. I was mightily impressed with how far the scene was allowed to go and how sensitively it was handled, and especially with Mugi recognizing quickly that they were done when they got interrupted by Narumi's text.
Putting the episode over-the-top for me are the outstanding production values. Content like this doesn't have to look great for the story to sell, but this is a beautifully-animated effort loaded with carefully-framed and chosen shots and character designs which somehow stand out even though they aren't that different from the norm. I'd even say that it's one of the best-looking series of the season despite (or perhaps because of?) its lack of gloss and glitz.
Whether or not the series can maintain at this level is a bit of a concern, and I dearly hope that it takes the Kare Kano approach and lets us see the story from the viewpoints of both leads as it progresses. For now, though, it's made the strongest first impression of any series this season, and damn it all, it's going to get me to break down and purchase that new Amazon Strike subscription.
There are questionable relationships, and then there are unhealthy relationships. Scum's Wish is deeply invested in the latter while running the very real risk of romanticizing it for its audience. The story of two teenagers who are in love (or so they think) with untouchable people – Mugi with his tutor-turned-music-teacher and Hana with her childhood friend who is now her homeroom teacher – and seek physical solace in each other is both deeply uncomfortable and at the same time somehow alluring. It's the kind of relationship that could almost be called forbidden in ethical terms, even though both participants are willing victims.
Basically this series has all of the train wreck potential of an over-wrought 18th century novel, such as Dangerous Liaisons. With both Mugi and Hana in love with other people, who appear to be in love with each other, putting on a show for the rest of the world, the emotional dangers are very high. What's interesting here is that both teens seem to feel that they are acting on unrequited emotions, while their actions might suggest that they are instead being driven by both opportunity and hormones; the way that Mugi initiates their physical relationship certainly seems motivated in that way. (If I'm remembering correctly, he's also slightly more aggressive than in the original manga, where he's much clearer about them never having sex.) Psychologically both seem to be treading on dangerous ground, and unless they do end up falling in love with each other, which I somehow doubt, though I'm not sure why, this has all the makings of a terrible tragedy just getting started.
That juxtaposes a bit oddly with the beautiful art and animation, as well as the techniques employed. There are scenes played like a silent film, with text cards, while others use multiple panels that float gently around the screen. Flashbacks are done in watercolors while the entire show uses pastels that give it a deceptively romantic air. A part of me worries that the show wants to present itself as romantic. (At which point I would suggest that its creators read both Peggy Orenstein's Girls & Sex and Moira J. Moore's The CEO Can Go to Hell: A That's Not Romance Novel.) The mythologization of unhealthy relationships actually feels more prevalent here than in Super Lovers 2, where at least the characters are honest.
Scum's Wish is really not for me, even though I may keep reading the manga out of morbid curiosity. Art historians will probably get a real kick out of the ludicrously suggestive imagery for the ending theme and people who enjoy a doomed or unhealthy romance in fiction will doubtless find things to like. But if you're not a fan of that feeling of impending tragedy hanging over your fiction, this may not be a series you'll want to pursue.
The premise of Scum's Wish is both its biggest hook and biggest sticking point for potential fans. Does a story about forbidden romance interest you? Scum's Wish doesn't really seem interested in exploring the power dynamics that would make such a relationship naturally predatory, so if a story of age-gap-and-power-gap longing counts as a minus in your book, Scum's Wish probably isn't your scene.
That kind of drama isn't really my scene either, but as far as stories in that genre space go, Scum's Wish presents a fairly compelling premiere. The most noticeable distinctive element in this show's production is its embracing of manga paneling as a dramatic device. In a move somewhat similar to Ping Pong the Animation, Scum's Wish will often frame new cuts as panels within the larger screen, evoking the sense of distance and consequence that comes naturally to manga. It's a clever trick and it's used well here.
Outside of those attention-grabbing panel tricks, Scum's Wish is visually subdued. The show sticks to cool blues and greens for its color palette, along with heavy shadow and a great deal of light filtering. The overall effect is somber, and that's echoed by this episode's storytelling - Hana retells the story of her relationship with Mugi with a sense of fatigue and quiet despair. The show is a self-consciously tragic romance, but the lack of any sense of fun here ultimately made it more difficult to invest in Hana's already distant feelings. Watching teenagers mope about their crushes on adults while the music and color design hammer in the profundity of their feelings actually made me long for the kind of goofy side characters that often ruin dramas like this.
That said, most of my issues with Scum's Wish come down to its distancing premise making its melancholy, self-serious tone hard to take. The show's character writing actually seems quite strong so far (Hana and Mugi already have a solid rapport), and it's already established a distinctive visual personality. If you're in the mood for some very doomed adolescent love, Scum's Wish seems like a fine pick.
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