The Controversial Politics of Classroom of the Eliteby Gabriella Ekens,
What's the best way to organize society? How much power should be vested in the general population versus an elite leadership? And how should people be educated as to their best interests and true capabilities? Political philosophers have been mulling over these questions for millennia, but they've only recently found expression in humankind's most intellectually refined medium – anime.
Seriously though, there's a longstanding (if fairly limited) tradition of anime turning their eyes toward issues of social organization. This list includes classics like Legend of the Galactic Heroes (the saga of a war between two decaying states and the individuals trying to rejuvenate them) as well as modern fare like Psycho-Pass (an examination of what society could look like under the sway of predictive analytics) and even the infamously irreverent Danganronpa franchise (which contains a surprisingly extensive critique of what elitism does to people). It's uncommon, but there is precedent for Japanese cartoons citing all those old writers you might have heard about in history class – albeit more often in terms of their ideas rather than by name.
This brings us to Classroom of the Elite. On the surface, this show looks like just another one of those anime where bizarrely Machiavellian teenagers conduct ludicrous schemes against one another at the world's most luxurious high school. And it is, but it's also a little more than that. Despite having an ambiguous first episode and the aesthetics of an Oregairu knockoff, Classroom of the Elite is also a surprisingly intelligent look at the values that underlie competitive elitism in schooling and whose precise interests they serve. Since the original novels are still far from their conclusion, this story doesn't seem to have hammered out its ultimate thematic trajectory yet, but what's already there is promising and worthy of examination.
The opening scene is a good microcosm of the show's overall themes. Our main character, Kiyotaka Ayanokoji, watches an encounter between several of his soon-to-be classmates on the bus ride to school. A boy named Koenji launches into a defense of his own self-interest when a girl, Kushida, requests that he give up his seat to an old woman. When Koenji stands firm in his refusal, Kushida asks for someone else to give up theirs. An awkward moment passes as everyone on the bus, invested in their own comfort, attempts to ignore her. Eventually, someone stands up for the woman – but it's too late. The damage has been done, as this unpleasant social situation has revealed something about their own basic selfishness. Koenji continues to hold his seat proudly throughout this atmosphere of shame. The show's other heroine – Horikita – is also unaffected, either unaware of or uncaring about the social/moral pressure. Through all this, Ayanokoji plays the role of an aloof observer, pondering a quote from political theorist Yukichi Fukuzawa on the nature of inequality, which states that there's no difference between individuals at birth and all distinction is produced by “education.” He then bemoans how difficult it is for people to accept the existence of inequality.
So right away, this scene raised a bunch of red flags for me. I think it's pretty easy to come away from it with the impression that this show is advocating for something quite nasty, like making inequalities out as “natural” in a way that justifies the mistreatment of “lesser” people. However, upon closer examination, I believe that this impression is a false positive, and Classroom of the Elite is actually doing something fairly nuanced with its ideas. This scene is actually supposed to make you uncomfortable and question the characters' reactions. While the selfish Koenji technically “wins” this encounter, he comes off as unsympathetic to the viewer, and he'll be held in a negative light for the rest of the show. Horikita's unwillingness to even socialize with other people will soon be framed as her biggest weakness, the thing that keeps foiling her lofty ambitions. Even Ayanokoji's desire to remain a bystander will soon be challenged.
This bit also sets up the show's preoccupation with altruism, as future episodes revolve around seeking a positive justification for selflessness in the face of intense intellectual arguments for self-interest. Are the mechanisms that society uses to inculcate self-sacrifice simply coercive, like the shame that Kushida foists upon her fellow passengers? If humans were put in a state of total freedom from reprisal, would they ever been kind to one another?
From here, we proceed to the show's basic premise. The Japanese government has set up an experimental academy – the Tokyo Metropolitan Advanced Nurturing School – for promising high schoolers. The students here are isolated from the rest of the world, but they're given a remarkable amount of freedom on the campus itself, which is a luxurious city center. All transactions at this school are made using a unique virtual currency, which is awarded regularly to students based on whether they meet certain behavioral goals. However, these goals are also kept secret at first, so students can only guess at what the administration wants from them, while also disciplining themselves against anything suspected to be a infraction.
On top of this, point totals are also collective, meaning that they're awarded by class, not individually. A single problem student can sink the entire class's point total, so classmates are incentivized to either help each other or come up with more brutal solutions. Either way, each class is made to compete with the others. Ranked from best (A) to worst (D), classes can switch places with one another if one overtakes the other's point total. Of course, higher ranks come with special privileges. The result of this system is vicious competition between the four classes, but a class's strength in this fight is largely dependent on its unity, and thus the students' power to support one another in service of a collective goal.
In the episodes that follow, Ayanokoji gets out of scrapes by putting himself out there, encouraging his classmates to cooperate with one another, and taking risks for them at his own expense. This suggests that Classroom of the Elite is actually pro-altruism, even though its overall conflict is still developing. Other classes are much more ruthless in their methods, under autocratic leaders. By contrast, Ayanokoji and Hirokita seem to solve problems by becoming more like their apparently less talented peers. They're still our exceptional anime protagonists, but the show frames their talents as best used in service of the group's needs. This is evident throughout the ongoing “island survival” arc, where more emotionally driven students like Kushida and Hirata are the ones to take leadership roles in the class's democratic consensus. Ayanokoji and Hirokita are still highly respected for their acumen, but not to the point where they overshadow everyone else. They're not all powerful ubermensches singlehandedly steering their class to glory. Or at least Hirokita isn't – Ayanokoji clearly has something deeper going on, although the show has been tight-lipped about it so far.
Ayanokoji's backstory is still mysterious, but based on what we've seen of it, my bet is that he's an escapee from some sort of project to make the world's best most super awesome person. He has lots of mysterious abilities that he's trying to hide, but he seems genuinely disillusioned with the drive for achievement, unlike most other “too good for this world” anime protagonists, whose host seriess constantly slathers with the very praise that they claim not to want. There's still an element of audience-surrogate wish fulfillment in Ayanokoji's character, and I'm not saying that the show won't go in that direction later, but so far he reads as pretty sincere in his desire for a quiet life.
Unfortunately, It doesn't look like he's going to get that any time soon – his homeroom teacher has caught on to his skills and is forcing him to aim for the top, or else be thrown back to whatever life he came from before. While the Tokyo Metropolitan Advanced Learning School is less toxic than it could be in that it rewards some of the better aspects of human nature, I doubt that the show will come out totally cool with its seemingly sinister system. They talk a big game about freedom there, but the one thing students are consistently denied is the freedom to not participate – the one thing Ayanokoji seems to desire. It makes me wonder why he enrolled in the first place. Could the alternative really be worse for him?
Classroom of the Elite could go in a number of directions beyond this point. One thing I can say for certain is that it does seem to be informed about the history of the ideas that it's engaging with. It's use of literary citations – which make up its episode titles – have been consistently on point. The first one “What is evil? Whatever springs from weakness,” comes from the infamous philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche was a radical individualist who attempted to encourage human flourishing via his work. His writings have often been misconstrued as advocating for humanity to be ruled by an authoritarian elite, when really he decried that sort of tyranny. (Classroom of the Elite seems to be playing a similarly dangerous game.)
Later episodes take their titles from the works of Nietzsche's primary influence, philosopher Alfred Schopenhauer. Other names include Adam Smith, the premiere theorist of capitalism (you could make the case that the Tokyo Metropolitan Advanced Learning School is specifically grooming its students to participate in this economic system), Jean-Paul Sartre, a philosopher whose work argued for both the difficulty and necessity of human freedom, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a French writer whose ideas helped usher in the current era of democracy. Interestingly, they cite more specifically from Rousseau's Emile, or an Education, his treatise on how to raise children into the proper citizens of his ideal society. I think you could describe Classroom of the Elite as a satire of this sort of thing, seeing as it's about young people who struggle to navigate a system built for this exact purpose.
As you might be able to tell, I like shows that get me thinking. Classroom of the Elite may be lacking on other fronts (the visuals are generic, the fanservice is lazy, and the characters still skew too close to basic anime archetypes despite their recent development), but the intellectual content has been enough to keep me entertained throughout. It's pretty unlikely that we'll get much of a conclusion, considering how close we are to the end of its one-cour run, but even if this is it for Classroom of the Elite, I won't regret my time with it. With any luck, the original light novels will be translated into English, and we can go from there. Art always has the freedom to be interesting, so all I can say to artists is that I hope they “use thy freedom well.”
So what do you think of Classroom of the Elite's philosophies? Share your take with us in the forums!
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