Sing "Yesterday" for Me
by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 1 of
Sing "Yesterday" for Me ?
Community score: 4.3
How would you rate episode 2 of
Sing "Yesterday" for Me ?
Community score: 4.5
How would you rate episode 3 of
Sing "Yesterday" for Me ?
Community score: 4.5
It's easy to think you know what you're getting into with the first episode of Sing "Yesterday" for Me. Based on a manga from the late 90's, we follow focal character Rikuo as he slogs through his mid-twenties in a haze, shrugging off ambitions with excuses that he's fully aware are excuses, but prefers to the existential exhaustion of actually trying. It's an all-too-familiar slump of formative failure that, if you've already passed that point in your life, might be rather uninteresting to watch. Fresh-adulthood coming-of-age stories like this have probably been compelling to a lot of us as we found ourselves in similar shoes to Rikuo, but for me personally it was the kind of retread I didn't find terribly compelling, a more seemingly-toothless version of the points I'd enjoyed from around the same period in stories like Welcome to the NHK . Sure this would be important to some people, anchored as it seemed to be to a fixation on the flailings of Rikuo's love-life between the safe-but-unavailable former schoolmate Shinako and the manic energy of Haru, who just might teach him to Live Again.
The thing is, it was easy to shrug off those misgivings about the expected alleys the story of Sing Yesterday seemed to be going down simply because of how strong that story's presentation was. Doga Kobo is a studio whom I've kept an eye on ever since Engaged to the Unidentified, whose stable has consistently displayed a remarkable talent for characterization in animation, as well as communicating things like tone and a sense of place. Sing Yesterday represents their talents being turned to a project with decidedly more dramatic ambitions than some of the recent works they've become more known for, and that effort absolutely shows. The first episode especially is a stellar example of those skills with character: Rikuo's shambling moodiness or Haru's cultivated bubbly appeal aren't new types, but the business they're depicted performing and the acting present in their portrayals are astonishing in the level of detail put into them. The studio apparently worked for years producing this first episode to kick off the series, and the result is a near-movie-level anime production that, even if you feel like you're watching an angsty media student's memoir, still pulls you in just because of how pretty a picture it presents.
The look of things does level off a bit in the subsequent episodes, but Sing Yesterday's visuals continue to be an extremely nice selling point of it. There's distinctive linework, effective backgrounds, and character animation continuing to crop up in noticeable quality when the story especially demands it, places like the Haru's climactic declaration at the end of the third episode. But the animation on all those characters underscores the asset the cast themselves become as the series goes on. The focus notably decentralizes from Rikuo after the first episode, opening things up into more of an ensemble approach as we get to know Shinako and Haru more on their own terms, as well as being introduced to Shinako's younger friend Rou. It presents a polygon of potential relationships that the story could use to explore how these people deal with being in different stages of growing up. Granted, in practice this manifests, particularly in the second episode, as watching a bunch of young adults with the emotional intelligence of rutabagas vocalize their conflicted feelings at one another; They grapple with such compelling questions as “Is it possible for men and women to be friends?”
However, seemingly simplistic hang-ups like that don't frustrate the way the impressions of the first episode did because by this point I do think Sing Yesterday has made clear that these characters are on a journey to understanding these elements in their lives. By just the third episode Rikuo is coming to understand that connections with both women in his life are valuable from a sociological perspective apart from any perceived need for romantic fulfillment. And the wallowing in his sad-boy ennui is simply one corner of the issues outlined for the others: Shinako's ‘unattainable old friend’ status is qualified as her being aware she's emotionally unavailable on account of a personal loss she's stuck perpetually recovering from. As well, the pedestal that Rikuo puts her on due to the perception of her having her life together is clearly only by comparison, and the storytelling opening up in that second episode to present her as a character in her own right helps quantify that. We can all find ourselves stuck in our own heads to some degree, and getting to know other people and their own situations can recenter us there with some sense of perspective.
The more worldly ambitions of Sing Yesterday become especially clear by the third episode as it digs deep in detailing its portrayal of Haru. After that first episode, it's incredibly easy for a cynical critic like myself to write her off as the well-worn ‘manic pixie dream girl’ archetype: A flavorful accessory not meant as a person unto herself but as appealing motivation for a schlub like Rikuo to Get His Shit Together. What's remarkable is that even as a story originating from 23 years ago, Sing Yesterday is acutely aware of the tropes Haru embodies, deftly depicting her as someone in her own regard as it goes on. The most keen element is naturally Haru admitting that she's acting out a character for the benefit of her own appeal, being a ‘liar’ who does so out of fear of connecting with others, the same way Rikuo was afraid of taking the next step with his confession to Shinako. These fears are qualified as we've learned more about her already, that she was forced to drop out of high school, that she apparently lost her father and has struggled in accepting her mom's later replacement relationships. It's nothing overtly tragic from a storytelling perspective, but it informs her worldview with a lack of self-worth that leads to her framing all relationships as generally ‘selfish’. She thus carries her infatuation with Rikuo as a simple driving fixation, a denial of complexity out of fear as much as his own delaying of confessing to Shinako was. And compared to Rikuo's too-familiar early-adulthood wavering, Haru's exhausted arm's-length approach to human interaction is the character trait in this show I am finding resonance with.
And that's how Sing "Yesterday" for Me has come into its own by the third episode: In recognizing that these kinds of slow-burn real-life lessons work even better when there are perspectives that people from all walks in the audience can glom onto for relatability. More than personal appeal, it breathes more breadth into the story, making it feel less self-centered as eschewing that focus is about its characters doing the same. The relationships we have and why we get into them are complicated, and the series has demonstrated now that it understands that. And it acknowledges that actual efforts at growth are important in getting past that, as beautifully demonstrated with Haru actually telling Rikuo about herself at the end of the third episode. That's a compelling scene of character articulation that shows how Haru has already been defined as a person by the narrative, brought to life with gorgeous, effective animation and direction, a perfect encapsulation of what's worked about this anime thus far.
Sing "Yesterday" for Me is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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