Classroom of the Elite
Episodes 1-2

by Nick Creamer,

How would you rate episode 1 of
Classroom of the Elite ?

How would you rate episode 2 of
Classroom of the Elite ?

Classroom of the Elite's first two episodes present a fascinating theoretical situation, blessed with clear potential to soar and even more potential to stumble. Though its first two episodes have introduced us to loner Ayanokoji, ice queen Horikita, and upbeat Kushida, the true central character so far is their school: Tokyo Koudo Ikusei Senior High School. The nature of their school and how it reflects larger social and economic institutions is Classroom of the Elite's great hook. And so far, these two episodes have given us plenty to dig into there.

Ikusei is known for its glamorous student life and sterling advancement rate. Basically every student who graduates from Ikusei goes on to college or immediate professional opportunities, and on top of that, it's an all-inclusive campus supported by government funds. Students are actually afforded a monthly salary to take care of their necessities, meaning they can fully dedicate themselves to studying up and growing into productive members of society.

Of course, things aren't exactly that rosy. The end of the first episode reveals that all of Ikusei's students are evaluated monthly, and classes that fail to meet standards can have their funding cut entirely. Our fatigued outcast Ayanokoji's class, 1-D, is the very worst of the worst, and their disappointing performance leaves them with no monthly stipend at all after the first month. And so the students must rally to prove their worth, or risk poverty, failure, and expulsion.

On an immediate narrative level, Ikusei's predatory nature provides an inherently compelling, almost Battle Royale-style conflict. The fact that classes are graded as a whole means all the students have an incentive to make sure they all succeed, so they can't afford to be nice about poor rankings. Of course, people who actually fail any exams are forced to drop out, so there's also the reasonable strategy of letting your individual failures just fail to raise your class average. On top of that, classes can jump over other classes if their ratings improve, meaning the school as a whole is one big competition.

On a thematic level, it's impossible to ignore the fact that Ikusei's institutions match the predatory nature of society as a whole. When one student asks how they're evaluated, 1-D's homeroom teacher responds “just as in the real world, I cannot reveal the details of your performance evaluations.” Ikusei's students are competing in a rigged game, but that game is framed in such a way that their opponents are their fellow students, not their overarching oppressors. Everything about Ikusei's system mirrors the unequal power balances of the real professional world.

Some elements of Ikusei's metaphor aren't even metaphor, they're just cynical fact. As it turns out, Ikusei's high post-graduate placement rate is built on a lie - the school simply fails and expels any students likely to tarnish its record, and thus an artificial reputation is maintained. It's a pretty one-to-one parallel with the ways schools are forced to fight for their own funding on the basis of arbitrary standardized student evaluations. When results according to a single simplistic evaluation are your only metric of value, monstrous measures become common sense.

Classroom of the Elite's metaphor extends beyond education and employment. Its method of pitting each class's students against each other echoes harmony-based societies in a larger way, where those who stick out in any way are ultimately punished for their personalities. Its method of judging these students echoes both utilitarian and meritocratic ideals, instilling specific, proudly amoral values in its students. Ayanokoji's first friend Horikita turns isolation into a shield and sees friendships largely as transactional - an obvious choice in a school where value is tied to a number. In one particularly barbed conversation with Ayanokoji, she acknowledges that no matter what they do, “some people are going to fail.” Though Ikusei's setup theoretically corrects for relative opportunity, the ultimate failing of meritocracy is that it's a system designed to decide who deserves to be happy in life and who is not worthy. Even at its best, a system designed to give everyone “equal opportunity” but harshly judge them on the results is a monstrous and inhumane thing.

When it comes to that thematic stuff, Classroom of the Elite has been landing haymaker after haymaker, raging at the ills of educational hierarchies and modern meritocracies in vivid, passionate terms. Unfortunately, the actual show surrounding those ideas definitely isn't as strong. Ayanokoji is still pretty much a cipher as a character, and while Horikita is a bit better, she's still mostly just an archetype. Genki girl Kushida could theoretically pass as this show's moral center, given her consistent espousing of open-handed, transaction-free friendship - but the show's fanservice-laden framing of her character is so predatory that it makes it hard to believe the show actually cares about her. Classroom of the Elite has also been visually conservative so far, though that's not necessarily a big flaw - after all, this is a very talking-heavy production. Outside of the invasive fanservice, my one big aesthetic complaint would be the musical cues, which consistently oversell sequences that really don't need the help.

That said, the over-the-top musical motifs actually fit with some of Classroom of the Elite's sillier moments. Scenes like the second episode's finale, where Ayanokoji demonstrates sudden and unexpected martial arts skills to rescue Horikita from her brother, feel silly in a way that actually endears me to the show. If Classroom of the Elite can navigate the intersection of melodramatic school drama and incisive cultural commentary, it could be a pretty great show. If not, well, we know what happens to the failures here.

Overall: A-

Classroom of the Elite is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

Nick writes about anime, storytelling, and the meaning of life at Wrong Every Time.

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