by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 1 of
How would you rate episode 2 of
How would you rate episode 3 of
If you read my Preview Guide coverage of Higehiro's first episode, you might remember that I was a bit shocked that I enjoyed it as much as I did. A big part of that was definitely because I was still reeling from Koikimo's first episode, which also deals with the “romantic” entanglement of a twenty-seven-year-old salaryman and a teenage girl, and is one of the most tone-deaf disasters I've seen in all my years of reviewing anime. Plus, I am a high school teacher in addition to being a writer, and I work with teenagers literally every day, so the very notion of being an adult pursuing some kind of relationship with a girl that is still in high school makes me deeply uncomfortable. All of this is to say that, while I genuinely enjoyed these first few episodes of Higehiro quite a bit, I think it's important for me to establish some ground rules of where I'm coming at this show from:
- Yoshida and Sayu's relationship is an inherently unbalanced and dangerous one, despite Yoshida's honest intentions. That doesn't mean that the show is bad — plenty of great stories have been told about problematic relationship dynamics — but it has to be acknowledged up-front.
- It's fairly impossible at this point to not read Higehiro as (primarily) a kind of emotional power-fantasy aimed at an audience primarily composed of heterosexual men. Like I mentioned in my review of Episode 1, there's definitely something to be said about the appeal that many viewers will find in the idea of a handsome, competent adult man that will be a sexy father figure to you without exploiting your body and whatnot, but let's all be honest here: Despite the high quality of the show's writing, the camera spends a disproportionate amount of time leering at the boobs and butts of its many female cast members (one of whom is underage), and Yoshida is clearly our perspective character. Male power fantasies are also not inherently bad, but they come with a lot of baggage that will need to be unpacked.
- There's nothing wrong with a show that simply wants to serve as taboo-breaking smut, but Higehiro is clearly trying to tell a dramatically affecting story about likeable, believable characters who all have their own issues to work out. In short, I don't think it's possible for Higehiro to have its cake and jerk off to it, too — this isn't Domestic Girlfriend, after all. If Yoshida and Sayu ever did consummate a romantic relationship, it would poison the well of the entire story. I like Yoshida as a protagonist a lot, but any sympathy I might have for him would fly out the window the minute he becomes a sex criminal.
Now, there's a good reason I just spent six hundred words outlining all of the baggage that Higehiro is working with in just these first three episodes, and it's actually the biggest secret to the show's overall success so far. These aren't just issues that are circling my mind all of the time as a viewer; they're the primary themes that Higehiro is concerned with too. (Well, except maybe for the excessive fanservice…I think it's fair to say that the series is just unfortunately horny, in that respect).
The only reason that I can take Higehiro seriously as a narrative is because the show takes itself seriously. Its characters are written as intelligent, nuanced, real people, and they all take the time to discuss their feelings and the reality of their situation, especially by the time Episode 3 rolls around. “Cell Phone” is cute enough, but it mostly spends time fleshing out Yoshida's social and work dynamic. We get the distinct vibe that Gotou, Yoshida's busty senior at the office, has more complicated interests in Yoshida than she let on with her initial rejection. We also meet Yuzuha, a bubbly coworker that is so obviously into Yoshida that she may as well have a giant neon sign affixed to her forehead that reads: “LAY ME DOWN BY THE METAPHORICAL FIRE ON A SYMBOLIC BEARSKIN RUG, AND THEN LITERALLY RAVAGE ME, BOTH EMOTIONALLY AND WITH YOUR JUNK”.
That's all well and good, but the real meat of these three episodes comes in “Living Together”. This is around the point where I was wondering when Sayu was going to get a little more character development, and whether the show was going to solidify the nature of her dynamic with Yoshida, lest she live in perpetual limbo as his sexy stay-at-home Tamagotchi. I definitely got what I was asking for, in a manner of speaking, since the episode starts with a surprisingly explicit flashback to one of Sayu's earlier sexual encounters, which can best be described as incredibly depressing, though it goes a long way toward explaining her current angst over Yoshida's refusal to sleep with her, and it ends up being the catalyst for her most aggressive attempt to seduce him yet.
If you've seen BEASTARS, Sayu's dilemma is similar to Haru's from that series, though tinged with much more adolescent confusion and self-loathing. Sayu cannot imagine a version of herself that has anything to offer men beyond sex, and Yoshida's rejection of her advances is therefore a rejection of herself as a person entirely. To her mind, since all she is good for is being exploited by horny losers, there's no reason that anyone like Yoshida would be nice to her if they didn't want to sleep with her. He will eventually get bored, she fears, and kick her out. A last-minute date with Yuzuha only confirms this suspicion, and it eventually leads to Sayu standing in her form-fitting black undies, begging Yoshida to let her repay his kindness in the only way she knows how.
This review is already getting long, and though I could easily spend another thousand words unpacking the complex nuances of Yoshida's response to Sayu, I will simply say that the show makes the absolute right call in having him shut her down with enough force to hopefully put the issue to rest for good. Yes, he admits that he is attracted to her, but he could also never be in love with her, because she's still a child, and he doesn't want to simply repeat the abusive pattern of exploitation that Sayu has suffered with already. The uncomfortable confrontation that Yoshida shared with Sayu and Yuzuha earlier in the night also makes it clear that the show isn't going to entirely gloss over the fundamental strangeness of the pair's arrangement, and it seems to be another indicator that Higehiro also knows how much depends on keeping Sayu and Yoshida's relationship a mutually constructive one.
I'm not at all interested in a version of Higehiro that ends with Sayu and Yoshida in bed together, or married, or whatever. Hell, Higehiro's constant attempts to sexualize her and its other women simply for the sake of eye-candy is easily its worst feature. The writing across these three episodes is incredibly sharp and empathetic, though, providing us with two protagonists who might still have been fated to “be together”, though not as lovers, but rather as a kind of found family that might make both of them better people, in the long run. If Higehiro can stick to that focus, and keep on delivering the goods so far as its character development goes, it might end up being one of this season's most pleasant surprises.
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