by Jacob Chapman,
How would you rate episode 1 of
Scum's Wish ?
How would you rate episode 2 of
Scum's Wish ?
I'll be blunt: I already really love Scum's Wish so far, but if you're a fan of high school anime romances, I might not recommend it to you. That's because I'm not usually a fan of high school anime romances. They're mostly concerned with emotions and situations I can't relate to, whereas Scum's Wish was relatable to an almost painful degree. In any case, this is not a romance you'd go to for escapism, not because it's ludicrously melodramatic, but because it gets a little "too real."
While there are definitely excellent exceptions (Fruits Basket being a personal favorite of mine), most anime romances tend to follow a predictable pattern of squeaky-clean sexual awakening and happy endings that put me right to sleep. The perfectly handsome guy and the perfectly beautiful girl (who of course only consider themselves "normal" and "average" because humility will make them more attractive and obliviousness will keep the plot going) tiptoe around their feelings for twenty episodes while going on dates to waterparks and hotsprings and freaking out about maybe accidentally sharing a molecule of saliva when they take a sip from the same drink. There's inevitably some drama over a side character having feelings for them and confessing first to force Perfect Guy or Perfect Girl to realize their true feelings for one another instead, so that side character can slip back out of the spotlight with an odd degree of calmness about the whole thing. By the end, maybe Perfect Guy and Perfect Girl share a perfect kiss before flashing forward to their lives as a perfect married couple with perfect children, ignoring all that icky complicated drama that comes from having to actually work on a relationship.
That may be a perfectly lovely fantasy for people who either didn't encounter (or understandably want to forget) humiliation, dysfunction, and woe in their sexual development as teenagers, but for the rest of us, sometimes a little honesty can be incredibly cathartic. Scum's Wish is the antithesis of all the clean and tidy feelings that most anime romcoms tell you to expect from high school, and I found it immediately and powerfully relatable, so maybe you will too! But this definitely isn't a romance about loving others. This is a romance about hating yourself, which may ring more true to the reality of teenage sexuality, even if it's not as pleasant to sit through.
Only two episodes into Scum's Wish, I feel like I know these characters on a deeper level than most anime achieve in their entire runs. (I already discussed the engrossing production values and masterful tone tightrope the show walks in my preview guide review, so unless that stuff changes in some major way, I won't repeat myself on that level.) Since this emotional deep-dive seems to be the entire point of the show, most of my writeups will be devoted to exploring where these emotions come from and why they cause us to make crazy decisions just like Hanabi and Mugi, for anyone whose heart is also tugged by this material but might have trouble articulating why. To all the wishful scum out there, this show and this reviewer want you to know that you're not alone. This tale of sexual awakening isn't a graceful blooming of longing, it's a violent explosion of lust, and it'll take a while to pick through all the fallout and piece together the beautiful thing these two (or is it four?) characters believe that they don't deserve.
As anyone who's been one should know, teenagers are wildly self-obsessed bags of confused hormones, so pretending that adolescent love is a beautiful or pure thing always seemed pretty silly to me. Our protagonists Hanabi and Mugi don't feel the exact same way about their unrequited objects of affection, but they seem to be equally horrified by the complete lack of control they have over these feelings. Since they have no experience and no one to turn to for answers in a world that likes to pretend these ugly emotions don't exist (like feeling sexually possessive over someone who's way too old for you, when you're really only allowed to like people at the same awkward confused level that you're already trying to escape by "dating up"), they think that processing these emotions would leave them pathetic and alone. Since they can't be honest about themselves, all they can do is project their fears onto other people. Hanabi rejects another boy who confesses his feelings to her by saying "There's nothing more revolting than the affection of someone you're completely disinterested in." She isn't thinking about him at all, but if she could do anything to stop thinking about herself, she'd have done it already, so all she can do is project.
At the same time, our central pair is refreshingly self-aware about how false these deflections are, giving these two much more realistic complexities than most teen melodramas usually grant their cast. I'll save talking about Mugi until we get an episode that's actually told from his perspective though. As for Hanabi, the moment she drops that bomb on her poor suitor and walks off, she mutters, "Damn it. Boomerang." Unlike most anime romances where the audience is way ahead of every stray feeling and hypocritical impulse the heroine chases, Hanabi already knows that she's projecting insults to hurt others because she hates her own feelings. She also knows that starting a physical relationship with Mugi could compromise her feelings for her teacher. She definitely knows that every self-deprecating joke she makes about her "Scum's Wish" is just putting a happy face on a deep well of true self-loathing that only keeps getting deeper with each new denial. But what else can she do? Hanabi can't choose how she feels, but she can choose what she does and says, so she chooses whatever words and actions give her the illusion of control, and then punishes herself for being "dishonest." Hanabi is so judgmental of her inability to change her own feelings that she blames herself for being unable to relate to a girl who isn't in love with either of the boys she's two-timing! When self-awareness is focused too deeply inward, it can blind you to an honest view of the world outside your own mind, and it will probably take a long time for Hanabi to realize that she isn't any more screwed-up than the irrational world around her.
The reason for their actions is clear now, but why do these two default to such harsh words, even in moments of intimacy, when they should be the only two people around who can understand each other? Well, vindictive cynicism is the only safe way to express yourself if you don't trust your lover (and have never had one before, to make things even worse). Outwardly, they're both just so over how much being in love sucks; needing validation and sex so badly that it hurts is annoying. Of course, they're not going to each other for sympathy, they're going to each other to vent and bitch about it in just the right way to keep themselves from looking uncool or vulnerable. "You're the one who wanted this, so do it right" they say in criticism of each other's foreplay before losing themselves to the counterfeit pleasure, stopping only when the danger of their unfiltered emotions leaking out becomes too great. (When Mugi insists that they stop in episode one, Hanabi blames herself for her phone ringing and bringing up the specter of her actual crush, but I think Mugi wanted to quit then because it was getting "too real" for him as well.)
Poor Hanabi (and Mugi) aren't just caught in that awful place between the age of sexual ignorance and sexual accountability. They're also caught between the adult knowledge that these feelings are irrational or even arbitrary and the childish assumption that they have no power over them. It's a maddening place where they can't stop thinking about themselves as they realize new things about their true natures for the first time, but with no experience or ability to process or change those raging ids. They know that using each other for sexual gratification isn't a good choice or even remotely smart, but it's something they can do; weaving elaborate webs of excuses for every awful new feeling just keeps their anxious minds busy. When people often dismiss teenagers for being "rebellious," I think they're refusing to empathize with these not-quite-adults' very real need to make some choice, even if it's wrong, to try and stem a tide of painful knowledge and emotions accompanying puberty that will only become stronger with time.
Of course, Hanabi and Mugi aren't the only lovestruck teenagers in this story, and not all people are so self-aware, even when they also have "scum's wishes" of their own. For the two counterpoints to Hanabi and Mugi's self-hatred, we have two girls who are more blissfully openhearted but no less prepared for heartbreak: Noriko (Moca) and Sanae (Ecchan).
While Hanabi and Mugi's enemy is their own insanely harsh judgment of themselves for "abnormal" emotions that many people experience (but nobody talks about), Moca and Ecchan are haunted by their own assumptions about adolescent feelings that everyone tells you are "normal." Moca never saw herself as special before. She was a shrimpy girl who liked getting dirty and playing with the boys. But when she imagines herself as the princess to Mugi's prince, everything becomes clear. If Mugi was her prince, she could be a special girl, not Noriko, but Moca, a cute princess who everyone loves. Riding public transportation by herself and awkwardly smacking her head against the subway pole at every bump, she briefly acknowledges that she may be tweaking Mugi in her head to suit her needs, but she still can't stop from projecting her own Scum's Wish onto Hanabi when she sees them together. "You're just using him to make yourself look cool!" she shouts. Every little girl gets sold the princess fantasy, but she's growing up now, and she can't keep trying to turn ordinary boys into princes under the impression that this spell will turn Noriko into Moca too.
Meanwhile, Hanabi's only female friend Sanae has the opposite problem, as a rare teen who seems remarkably perceptive about the feelings and needs of others while completely ignoring her own. She assumes that her role as Hanabi's best friend keeps her safe from her own repressed feelings. Sanae is just jealous of Hanabi walking home with Mugi all the time because they're friends, and she can offer romantic advice from a place of friendly concern like normal girls do. All those other weird feelings— the overwhelming desire to kiss Hanabi and hold her close in bed—well, nobody talks about that stuff. Those feelings aren't important or relevant to her "normal" life, so she can just ignore them! Unfortunately, her first sleepover alone in Hanabi's apartment proves otherwise, and Sanae's forceful denial of her feelings leaves her completely unprepared when she ends up on top of her best friend in a flurry of hormones. When she thinks "I just want to die!" at the end of the episode, it might be the first time she's ever felt such disgust and regret, which could be disastrous for her unprepared heart.
So far, Scum's Wish has painted an incredibly empathetic portrait of four teenagers harboring such strong feelings of unrequited love that those emotions begin to distort their own self-images. In their own ways (though Mugi remains the biggest mystery so far), these totally normal adolescents have come to see themselves as "scum" that can only be redeemed if their wish is somehow granted. "If you fall for someone, it just has to be them, right?" Hanabi says. Well no, it doesn't, but you wouldn't expect a bunch of powerless pubescent kids to understand that. Scum's Wish understands that it's important to validate these early stages of horniness and heartbreak, no matter how painful or embarrassing they are, so the real "redemption," the healing process of acceptance, can happen for the characters and the audience. Will Hanabi and her friends ever reach this stage by reaching out honestly to one another? I can't wait to find out.
Scum's Wish is currently streaming on Amazon's Anime Strike.
Jacob's first boyfriend was four years older than him, and he cemented his scum-ness by never dating 'em any younger since then. You can follow Jake here on Twitter.
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