Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jul 29th 2013
My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU
Episodes 1-13 Streaming
Life has not treated Hachiman Hikigaya well. A long history of rejection and social failure has left him twisted and cynical—isolated and bitterly pessimistic and happy to stay that way. Disgusted by a particularly antisocial essay, Hikigaya's outspoken homeroom teacher decides he needs some rectifying. So she makes him join the Service Club. The Service Club helps other students with their problems. Unfortunately it has only one member: blunt-spoken, cuttingly smart Yukino Yukinoshita. Yukino is basically perfect, but also frosty and overly honest—a combination that has left her with even fewer friends than Hikigaya. With continuing help from their first client—normal girly-girl Yui Yuigahama—the pair must solve any problem brought to them. With an ice queen and a social pariah producing them, though, their solutions can be pretty dysfunctional.
Given its job-a-week plot and dispiritingly familiar premise, not to mention it's long and fairly dumb name, it can be a bit hard to explain to outsiders why My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU is such a sneaky charmer. Maybe the best way to do it is this: Remember that guy you knew in high school who was totally cool because he was never trying to be cool? Or that person whose inborn fashion sense allows them to look especially awesome because they never seem to be trying to look awesome? That's our friend SNAFU. It's a romantic comedy that's great because it isn't pushing itself to be great. It doesn't try to sell big emotions. It doesn't feel any pressure to be goopily romantic nor any need to force dramatic plots on its characters. It isn't concerned with having the most colorful or the moe-est cast or with dreaming up some sure-fire gimmick to hook its audience. It lives by a simple code: be honest, be funny, and trust your cast. More shows should try it; it works great.
SNAFU is really very simple in its construction. Each episode—and later, each multi-episode arc—brings a new customer to the Service Club with a new problem to solve. The members mull over the ways they might be able to help, go through a little trial and error, and eventually hit upon a solution that works. Simple. But into that simplicity the series slips a lot of thornily real relationships (social and personal), a lot of brutally honest observations, and a lot of strong, flawed, painfully recognizable characters.
Binding the show's various tales together is the nascent friendship between Hikigaya, Yukino, and Yui. Hikigaya is the defensive cynic; the boy with a self-serving theory for every human behavior, an excuse for every cowardly social dodge, and a vendetta against anything that might raise his hopes high enough that they could get dashed down. Yukino is the icy beauty: smart, honest, strong as steel; a superior specimen with no patience for the inferiorities of others. In short, the natural enemy of a self-justifying loser like Hikigaya. Yui is the sunshine in the Service Club. She's a little over-concerned with fitting in at school, and more easily hurt than her armored clubmates, but is bright and sweet and unshakably fond of her antisocial new friends.
The three of them are great together. When Hikigaya and Yukino spar like Olympic fencers—a verbal blood sport they both seem to secretly enjoy—or Yukino tries clumsily to nurture her friendship with Yui or Yui opens the smallest of cracks in Hikigaya's cynical defenses, the series is deeply, unaccountably warming. When their fledgling friendship is endangered—usually because of Hikigaya and his psychological issues—the show comes as close as it ever does to being downright heartbreaking (especially where Yui is involved).
The trio carries their short arcs with able support from a sizeable cast of surprisingly strong supporting players. There's Hayama, a good guy who really is good and who understands that Hikigaya's warped methods do work, but who cannot find it in himself to actually like Hikigaya. There's Hiratsuka-sensei, whose abusive meddling is fueled by sincere affection for her damaged charges. There's Sagami, a bully whose insecurities eventually shatter her. There's Yukino's sister Haruno, who despite being bubblier than a coke fountain still scares the hell out of everyone.
As for the arcs themselves, they begin small—initially as one-offs about club assignments—but as the show adds characters and relationships they get more ambitious, both emotionally and structurally. The one-offs have their charms: they're easy and funny and reveal slivers of Hikigaya's eccentric problem-solving prowess. But it's when the show stretches out that it tells the best stories. The relationships involved are allowed to get thornier, the problems more complex, the solutions more extreme. There's a definite thrill to watching Hikigaya at work: he's insanely good at what he does, but he always takes the lowest, vilest, most destructive route to success.
You may have noticed that we're two-thirds of the way through a romantic comedy review and haven't mentioned romance. That would be because there's precious little of it. Hikigaya's nature just doesn't lend itself to romance. It's one of the things he's repudiated—way too much past pain—so he refuses to read any romantic signals sent his way. He gets cute a couple of times with Yui, who clearly has an innocent but serious crush on him, but we know that nothing can happen.
Comedy, on the other hand, is plentiful. The bulk of it is in the dialogue: in the marvelous sophistic acrobatics of Hikigaya's delusional rationalizations; in the drily self-deprecating wit of his internal monologues; in the casual poison of Yukino's everyday conversation. The rest is in the black fun the show has with Hikigaya's awful past and in its truckloads of character humor. All of which the series takes pains not to overplay: using its recurring jokes (about Hikigaya's dead-fish eyes, say) with laconic carelessness, and coolly underplaying the signature quirks (and occasional taglines) of its cast.
It's a strategy that the show uses for virtually everything: Never work too hard to get the effect you want. Everything mentioned above, from the character complexities to the anti-heroics of Hikigaya's screwed-up problem-solving, is left to you to spot. Catching the ruthlessness in the way Haruno blithely plays Sagami off of Yukino and then discards her when she's no longer useful; digging out the uncomfortable truths at the heart of some of Hikigaya's bitter screeds—they're like little discoveries: surprising and somehow personally gratifying.
Ai Yoshimura applies the same principle to her direction. There are no big displays of emotion (though there are some intense feelings), no showy flourishes; nothing excessive. Why have someone weeping on the toilet when a simple, off-center tilt of the camera says everything that needs saying? Why break out the manipulative music when it's obvious from the context and the looks on the characters' faces what the mood is? Better just to let the music touch down lightly in the background, supporting but never intruding. Why load Hikigaya's internal monologue with his every thought when a little bit of body language will do the job? Why slop on the cheesecake pans and close-up fan-service when you can appreciate the sharp beauty of Yukino, the megawatt cuteness of Yui, or even the wonderful dead-eyed slackerishness of Hikigaya in pretty much any context? Why indeed? The series' visuals won't leap out and lick your eyeballs, but it looks good and does what it needs to, and all without losing the casual unconcern that makes the show so appealing.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B
+ Delivers great characters, fun dialogue, a few real touching moments, and even a measure of antihero coolness, all without ever seeming to try; surprisingly honest portrayal of school life.
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