The Spring 2020 Anime Preview Guide
Sing "Yesterday" For Me
How would you rate episode 1 of
Sing "Yesterday" for Me ?
Community score: 4.3
What is this?
Rikuo Uozumi graduated from college six months ago and not much has changed since then. He's still working part-time at a convenience store, living in his messy student apartment, and drifting through life in a way that isn't making him happy. When Shinako, his crush who moved away to become a teacher, returns to town, he begins to think about changing things, but a girl named Haru keeps getting in the way. Rikuo doesn't know much about Haru, but she seems very attached to him, citing a day five years ago as the start of her obsession. Can Haru help Rikuo change, or will he decide that the rut he's in is fine after all?
How was the first episode?
Doga Kobo's productions tend to be renowned for their beautiful character acting, as well as their strong sense of atmosphere, but their strengths are generally applied to slice of life narratives that don't really appeal to me. The prospect of seeing their talented animators working on a story about genuine young adults helped Sing “Yesterday” For Me catch my interest leading into this season, and when you coupled that with the show's gorgeous, atmospheric promotional videos, you ended up with one of my most highly anticipated spring properties. Having watched this premiere, I'm happy to say the show seems to be following through on its promise, and is so far standing as the most compelling character drama of the spring season.
Yesterday's strengths begin with its strong sense of atmosphere. While most Doga Kobo shows evoke a strong sense of place, their tonal cues are generally pointed towards creating a sense of warm shelter and belonging. In Yesterday, the opposite is true; this word feels cold and alienating, from the cool blue shades of the larger world to the often claustrophobic layouts, and the chill of winter is clear in the cast's body language at all times. It's easy to sink into Yesterday's drama, because its production always crafts an immaculate sense of place.
This production's beautiful layouts and expressive character acting are coupled with the best script of the season so far, detailing a relatable story of post-graduation malaise in the modern world. The two central characters so far are Rikuo Uozumi, a recent college graduate working part-time at a convenience store, and Haru, a girl without a family who recently dropped out of high school. The two of them are both adrift in the world, but bring profoundly different perspectives to their situations. Rikuo is absolutely paralyzed by the fear of deciding on a stable “adult self” to embody, and thus sticks to part-time labor - a choice he understands as an act of cowardice, and thus consistently hates himself for choosing. In contrast with Rikuo's fear of adulthood, Haru actually seems far too eager to grow up, and affects a whimsical but clearly performed persona of what she thinks a “cool adult woman” might be like. The two are already demonstrating deep insecurities and familiar defense mechanisms, wounds based in past experiences, and a variety of faces to meet the world - you know, all the things that elevate fictional characters into knowable, lovable people.
Yesterday's premiere is brimming with sharp reflections on early adulthood, as young people from high school through the end of college and beyond begin to grapple with their independent identities. Rikuo, Haru, and all of their companions feel real, and though I was initially concerned Haru might have been designed as a sort of “savior” for Rikuo, it's already clear that she's just a distinct mess in her own right. The show's expressive designs and carefully observed character acting make every scene feel intimate and tangible, and mesh naturally with the production's carefully chosen layouts and beautiful background art. And the narrative's larger perspective helps keep things from ever feeling too gloomy; it's clear the author of this story understands that both Rikuo and Haru are too young to feel so old, and thus makes sure to maintain a sense of humor about their malaise. In basically all aesthetic and narrative respects, Sing “Yesterday” For Me's premiere is a roaring success, and my own favorite premiere of the season so far.
It seems like every year we get at least one understated and lush drama about the ennui of thos tenuous first steps into adulthood, and Sing “Yesterday” For Me fills that role quite nicely in its first episode. Our protagonist, Rikuo, comes across disaffected and quietly frustrated in a genuine way, without feeling like a machine engineered avatar of Literary Male Depression that some of his counterparts seem like. The moment in his story that sold me on the show in general was when he was self-reflective and motivated enough to work up the guts to confession his long-harbored crush on Shinako, who has recently moved back to town to become a high-school teacher. Yeah, the gesture blows up in his face, and he quickly retreats back into his shell of apathetic self-loathing, but the fact that he made the attempt so soon in the story gave me hope that this wouldn't just be the story of an angsty young man who meets a cute weirdo who Teaches Him How To Live Again™ before he inevitably matures enough to finally nab the more mature and put-together woman whose been there all along.
Given how wonderfully directed and subtly animated this entire episode was, I struggled with the score I ended up giving it, because this is the kind of material I usually devour. Haru, the aforementioned quirky weirdo, is the chief reason for that, I think. She's the character that feels the most abstracted, an anime love interest dropped right into the middle of a story occupied by otherwise grounded and realistic adults. This is partly by design, I'm sure — the glimpse of her we see in the flashback that shows her innocuous meeting with Rikuo shows a much less exaggerated character, and you get the idea that her whole “quirky dropout who's best friend is a crow” routine is a very manufactured persona. There's a long history of these types of girls popping up in the lives of guys like Rikuo, and they almost always serve more as plot devices than fully rounded characters in their own right. I'm just saying that I am fully bracing myself for Haru to contract some kind of sad and vague disease, or to just get hit by a truck. It's only the first episode though, so it's very possible that Haru's story will have the depth and artful touch it needs to elevate the whole story, and what we get here is certainly good enough to get me invested in watching more (though I do wonder if anyone is going to point out how sketchy it is for Rikuo, a college graduate, to have an obviously troubled teenager pining after him, and everyone around him just kind of accepts it). If I were evaluating Sing “Yesterday” For Me based purely on visual polish alone, it'd have gotten at least a four from me. As it is, I approach this series with a wary (but hopeful) eye.
To a certain extent I can understand where Rikuo is and is coming from, as I was in a somewhat similar situation to him for a time in the mid-'90s: a recent college graduate who was getting by on assorted part-time jobs and not feeling good at all about the direction his life was going. The break point between him and me is that, unlike Rikuo, I knew exactly what I wanted to do in life; it was just a matter of finally landing a job despite a tough job market for my profession at that time. Rikuo, on the other hand, already seems to have fully succumbed to a sense of ennui. Shinako can, I think, sense that, and that may be why she's so reluctant to get emotionally involved with a guy that she seems to like well enough otherwise. (Or maybe, as she vaguely implies, Rikuo just brings out her mothering instincts and she knows that's not what he needs right now.) Frankly, she made the right call keeping their relationship at a “just friends” level, because until Rikuo gets himself sorted out, he's no good for anyone. Of course, that isn't stopping Haru from trying.
Theoretically this should make for an interesting character study, and I have seen this kind of thing work before in anime. However, the first episode doesn't do enough to offset how depressing this is. Yeah, Rikuo's life sucks, but his situation is all of his own doing, and watching people wallow in shallow self-pity like this isn't all that interesting. The writing attempts to use Haru as the offset here, and just enough comments by and about her have been dropped to suggest that she has some major issues as well, but her character feels a little too artificial. If the story turns out to make them both so wholly dysfunctional that they end up needing each other (a la Welcome to the NHK) then that might make things more interesting, but I already doubt that I will be around long enough to find out if that bears out or not.
The one potential saving grace here is that director Yoshiyuki Fujiawara has done some previous heavily emotional work that I have very much liked (Plastic Memories), so there is at least hope for the drama working out in the end. The technical merits also aren't bad, though even on the character design front Haru seems a little too artificial compared to the others. Overall it's not a bad first episode but nothing I can get very excited about, either.
Even if I didn't know that Sing “Yesterday” for Me was based on a manga published in 1999, it would be easy to figure that out. This first episode is steeped in the sort of late-nineties grunge hopelessness that I remember, and upon watching this episode, I realized that I'd read the first volume of this series in French back in the day. I never read beyond it for much the same reason that I don't feel particularly entranced by the story's introduction now: the weight of protagonist Rikuo's lack of direction is stifling.
Not that there's anything all that surprising about him or how directionless he feels. In many ways Rikuo is the ultimate manga everyman of the Inio Asano school – he's his own worst enemy, unable to get out of his own way and stuck on the idea that he should probably “make something” of himself without actually understanding, or wanting to understand, what that entails. Rikuo conflates this with his long standing crush on his college friend Shinako, who six months ago moved away and has just returned to a local teaching job. Shinako seems like she's always known what she wants to do with her life, and that may be what attracted Rikuo to her in the first place; he sees in her what he feels he lacks. Unfortunately for him, Shinako doesn't return the romantic sentiments – in fact it seems like maybe she was aware of them all along and hoping she was wrong – and when he gets rejected, it's almost like another physical blow to Rikuo. Showing him crashing his bike and ending up in a pile of trash bags is a bit on-the-nose, but it definitely sums up where he feels his life is heading.
But much as Rikuo feels about Shinako, Haru feels about Rikuo. She's actually the piece of the story that gives me the most pause – she runs the risk of being a walking stereotype, the darkly quirky girl lying about her past and present while she floats through Rikuo's life with an injured crow on her shoulder, popping up to shake him out of his daze. The fact that Shinako lets us know that Haru was ill-served by the school system (suspended for working at a bar) does hint that there's more going on than Haru wants anyone to know, and that may the character's saving grace. But she's definitely treading close to manic pixie dream girl territory, and that is concerning from a story standpoint.
All in all, this feels like a very bleak first episode. The colors are dreary, the protagonist is gloomy, and while there's a chance that his life will turn around in the episodes to come, it's a little hard to want to wait out his dark period to get there. It feels like melancholy hopelessness right now, and that isn't something I'm in the mood to sit through.
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