J.C. Staff Knows Friendship

Despite all that happened between them, Ami and Minori still found a way to respect and support each other.

Romance is rife in anime, and why not… it’s a fascinating and ever relevant topic that anime has a decent track record with overall. Friendship, outside of romance (since romance innately implies friendship) isn’t a so frequently explored topic. But, it’s not hard to find examples of wonderful and genuine friendships between two or more people in anime. (This post contains moderate spoilers of the tagged titles.)

HAL Film Maker‘s ARIA very quickly comes to mind. The relationship of trust and support built up between Akari, Aika and Alice over the time in which they practice rowing gondolas together is one that’s incredibly profound and impacting, both on the characters themselves and the sympathetic audience. Particularly in the last series, the show goes to great pains to show how much the girls (Alice in particular) lament the possibility that they may drift apart in the future, just as friends IRL do at the beginning of a new phase of their life. And, throughout all three seasons, there’s a constant reference to the similarities between their friendship and that shared by their three seniors Alicia, Akira and Athena. ARIA is about a lot of things which all fall under a couple of largely overlapping umbrellas: “growing up” and “finding one’s place in life”. It’s about learning each of life’s little lessons and how they’re no less important than anything else you do in life. The importance of friendship in this process isn’t understated. Almost anyone who’s successful and fulfilled is because they had the help of a strong support network of genuine, caring friends who they can rely on and trust.

ARIA is a story with an overarching narrative and interweaved with themes that it persuasively makes relevant. I challenge anyone who’s seen all three seasons to argue otherwise. As well as the analogous friendships between the two sets of three undines that trained together within the story, there’s also an interesting parallel between ARIA and the friendship between its author Amano Kozue and seiyuu Saito Chiwa (known for her role as Bakemonogatari‘s Senjougahara Hitagi, among other things). Amano, apparently based the character of Akari on herself and used Saito as the inspiration for Aika’s characters. The fact that Saito voices Aika in the anime brings everything quite neatly full circle.

ARIA is well entrenched in the list of best anime I’ve seen, so it’s no surprise that it goes an extra mile in fleshing out the relationships so fundamental to its story, and portraying them with a sentimental, but considered sense of earnestness. Most anime don’t. For every Azumanga Daioh and Honey and Clover, there’s a large collection of anime friendships that, for whatever reason, don’t feel right. Anime friendships often feel stiff to me. They feel manufactured and scripted and appear more like acquaintances or alliances of convenience. Friends open up to each other, mutually rely on each other, trust each other and believe in each other. Sometimes friendships go bad, too, obviously. Whatever happens, the emotions between two people that are or were friends are strong. Too many anime friendships lack this sort of feeling. Take the generic harem male lead and the endless Sunohara clones that fill the token “best friend” role from Akane-Iro ni Somaru Saka to Amagami SS.

Even something like Sunrise‘s My-HiME, a mostly good anime, missteps slightly with friendship. Ignoring Natsuki and Mikoto, Mai’s best friends were Chie and Aoi. But who were these two other than classmates who playfully teased and occasionally supported Mai? Their friendship was evident (see the scene in the penultimate episode when they depart ways), but the intense focus on Mai and the other HiMEs came at the expense of developing side characters like Chie and Aoi, who had an important role to play in Mai’s development. They were more waypoints for Mai’s story than characters of their own. The same could probably be said of Nanoha’s friends Suzuka and Alisa in Seven ArcsLyrical Nanoha. There was, from memory, about half an episode worth of development of their friendship in the first season. And that was before they were completely dispatched in the third season (one of a long list of things I didn’t approve of about StrikerS).

There are three interesting portrayals of friendship in anime that have struck me recently, and the thing that ties them is that they all come from J.C. Staff. Ookami-san is the most recent and has been a pleasant surprise, no doubt aided by the fact that the terrible second episode pushed my expectations to rock bottom. Particularly surprising has been the grimness of the subject matter in the more serious moments. Ookami-san is at its best when it focuses on the main three characters, Ryouko, Ryoushi and Ringo and, in each of the cases where one of the three has had to face a tough dilemma, it’s been friendship which has helped them through it (although neither of Ryouko or Ringo’s major problems are anywhere near resolved yet).

Is this the sort of honesty Ringo could show in front of people she wasn't close friends with?

Episode 9, with its meaningful title and inspired take on the Snow White story did a really good job of fleshing out Ringo’s backstory, but it’s been episode 6 which has made for the absolute highlight of the show to date. This episode showed the beginning of Ryouko and Ringo’s friendship and the heartfelt and dramatic moment which defined it. Ryouko, in particular, was lonely, isolating herself from other people and refusing to open up and trust others after the trauma that happened at her previous school (the exact events of which are still clouded, but the hints imply something incredibly sinister). What she needed more than anything else was a friend that wouldn’t betray her, which Ringo promised. Ringo, on the other hand, was inspired by Ryouko’s actions. She spoke about how she was running away from her problems, something which we now understand after episode 9. It’s a friendship formed because it has a deeper meaning to both the characters. It’s a friendship that just makes sense.

Comparisons between Railgun and Index were constant during Railgun‘s run, but I had no doubts about which I thought was superior, and it was Railgun‘s emphasis on friendship that marked the difference. Interesting characters are always a good starting point, and the main four girls, Mikoto, Kuroko, Uihara and Saten, are filled with life and personality. But the state of the relationships between each of the girls were shown often and viewed from many different angles. There was hardly an episode that lacked a moment where the strength and importance of friendship between two or more of the girls didn’t come to the fore, but a couple of scenes in particular stood out in the penultimate episode of the final arc. The first was when Kuroko slapped a distraught Uihara during an incredibly desperate moment for Judgment, in order to get her to put her fear and uncertainty about the situation of her new friend Haruue to one side and focus on the task at hand. The second was towards the end of the episode, Saten’s “What do you see right now?” speech, in which she persuaded Mikoto from unnecessarily risking a confrontation with the arc’s final bad guy by herself, and made her realize the importance of sharing that burden with her friends. There are numerous other examples, but no other two scenes showed the resilience of the bonds between them in a crisis and the importance of having friends around to guide them to do what’s right.

That is, however, a shounen action series, where the concepts of “right” and “wrong” are fairly unambiguous. Toradora!, which came from the same director as Railgun, Nagai Tatsuyuki (who I think might be underrated), also did a good job of portraying friendship, but did so in a more realistic high school setting where social interactions are much more important and the “right” decision is often much more complex and anything but obvious. There’s always so much to discuss about Toradora!, and the nature of the friendships between Ryuuji and Taiga (which developed into romance) and Taiga and Minori (who were best friends from start to end) were critical to the story. But I also found the “not so strong” friendship between Minori and Ami to be equally fascinating, because there was so much tension between them, especially in the final few episodes.

Out of the main group of five, Minori and Ami had the most distance between them (Minori certainly didn’t trust Ami at first), but something Ami recognized was that there was so much similarity between the two of them and their respective feelings for Ryuuji. This really ate her up inside… so many of her own frustrations and shortcomings were reflected by Minori, which meant they were impossible to ignore each time Ami saw Minori avoid or dismiss the issues surrounding her position between Ryuuji and Taiga. So she took it out on Minori and the tension between the two snowballed and exploded during the (beautifully) melodramatic ep 21 ski trip. I’ve always thought that one of the major themes of Toradora! was respect, and the way the two of them reconciled, and came to respect each other was significant of their often tumultuous friendship. The scene in ep 24 where Minori breaks down and cries in front of Ami is the definitive snapshot of the state their relationship ends up at, at the end of the story, but a single gesture half way through the last episode where Ami puts her hand of Minori’s shoulder affirms that, despite their conflicts, and all they’ve been through, they’re still willing to support each other.

8 Responses to “J.C. Staff Knows Friendship”

  1. Well, I won’t deny that ‘friendships’ feel cheap in many series, but…
    “They feel manufactured and scripted and appear more like acquaintances or alliances of convenience.”
    Well, isn’t that the same case as IRL? You’ll have far more ‘close acquaintances’ and ‘allies of convenience’ than ‘true friends’. It’s said that a person’s ‘true friends’ in life can be counted on one hand, and some people never develop them at all. So in some way, this method of storytelling is also perfectly acceptable if not accurate—
    Your college friends might tease each other and have fun together all the time and looks like they’re your best friends as long as everyone is having fun, but can they really be depended upon when stuff hits the gutter? (shrug)

  2. Definitely.. JC Staff does “know friendship”, and that’s about all I watch their anime for (Ookami-san is only bearable to me because of the relationships between the characters).

    JC are still very hit-and-miss with friendship themes, as a lot of shows like Railgun still really don’t do anything meaningful, insightful or intelligent with their friendships. But that’s neither here nor there. Not every show has to be ground-breaking or “deep”.

  3. I think people bash J.C. Staff too much lately. Their shows are never really profound, but just as you point out, they are very good at what they do: using themes of genuine friendship and applying them to slifes or romantic comedies, fit with their distinct set of watercolour backgrounds. J.C. Staff also made Noitamina with its bare hands, producing its two best (and only two-cour) series. Nagai Tatsuyuki underrated? No way.

  4. Addressing Aorii’s comment, I think what Sorrow is trying to say is (pardon me if I’m wrong), most anime aims to portray real friendship but fails in doing so because they feel manufactured, so we don’t sense a bond stronger than mere acquiantances between the characters. Sorrow then goes on to use Mai-hime as an example, where moments that depend on strong friendship connection (and definitely not supposed to portray just acquiantances) don’t impress as much because the bonds we perceive as viewers feels more manufactured than genuine.

    And yea, I never gave it much thought but most great J.C.Staff anime I remember tend to put lot of weight on friendships.

  5. @Aorii
    Yeah, that’s a good point. I’ll address what gaguri said in a sec, but as far as real life is concerned, you’re right about the number of friends most people have. But I wouldn’t define a “friend”, as in a genuine friend, as just someone you can rely on when things go bad for yourself. It’s an icky way to think about it, IMO, as that view kinda implies that a friend is essentially a utility that is most useful in bad situations (something which I kinda tried to dance around in this post). I like to think of a friend more as someone you feel comfortable being completely open and honest with. Then again, I sometimes find myself more inclined to be open with a complete stranger than an acquaintance. I guess it’s easier to face the consequences of spilling all your secrets and insecurities to a stranger if you know you’ll never see them again.

    It makes a difference, though, IMO. If the portrayal of relationships and friendships in a given anime feels genuine, you’re more likely to find the situations engaging. I’ll go back to Index and Railgun and why I preferred the latter. The relationships in Index basically revolved around Touma and the disparate members of a harem that he assembled over a number of arcs. For the most part, the harem members rarely interacted with each other, and would disappear whenever they weren’t immediately relevant to the plot. It’s very manufactured, very contrived in my eyes. Railgun is anything but insightful, but at least the relationships were more genuine. The characters were so much sympathetic to me because of that.

    I almost think J.C. Staff has two faces, one involving shounen fantasies and one involving grounded romance stories, and Railgun is about as close as they’ve come to combining those two faces. The second of those faces has produced some gems: Honey and Clover, Nodame Cantabile, Kimikiss, Aoi Hana, Toradora. I rate J.C. Staff. They’ve made some of my favourite anime. Perhaps they don’t get as much kudos because romance isn’t considered as credible as other genres or something.

    Yeah, I was more talking about the portrayal. I have no doubt that the intent was that Mai shared a genuine friendship with Chie and Aoi (Chie particularly). I just don’t think it was portrayed very well. As far as J.C. Staff is concerned, I think they’ve got a few good directors around their parts. Kasai is a master. I’ve never seen a Kasai anime I didn’t think was good. Nagai is pretty good too. Maybe Iwasaki Yoshiaki is decent as well. As well as Ookami-san currently, he’s done Gokujou Seitokai and Wagaya no Oinari-sama which were enjoyable, as well as the only season of Zero no Tsukaima that I liked.

  6. I can’t divine producers’ intention to portray true friendship or just simple acquaintances, but it’s pretty easy to distinguish between the two types of relationships: true friendship begins with the free expression of vulnerability. When people develop meaningful connections with others, the once secure lines of formality and potential offense get crossed. Characters share with each other their hopes and dreams for the future, their personal insecurities and deeply held beliefs, their honest, incisive opinions of each other, and yet still stick together. Genuine friendship is something where the whole range of emotions is on display and far away from the simple, sanitized, and stagnant relationships generic anime is too often content to sell.

    A good example of frienship in anime is Kare Kano. It’s one of my eternal favorites because it so capably shows the constant evolution of ties the real stakes of close bonds.

  7. Good friends are there during good times; great friends are there even during bad times.

    I won’t say that J.C. Staff knows genuine friendship because there have been examples where it doesn’t realize that it can make a show more worthy of watching (e.g. Maid-sama, Toaru Majutsu no Index, etc.) However, lately it seems to be learning that friendship can add value to a show. The problem I see in J.C. Staff is that it relies on novelty themes and distracting gags for grabbing people’s attention instead of justing investing more in developing genuine friendships (I won’t discuss how true this is, but I’ll try to explain why I think so).

    Toradora is a show I hate simply because Taiga’s extreme bitchiness/tsundere has done more damage for me to come to like her, even when she becomes a better person towards the end. But enough of that; I admit that the show has value because of Ami and Minorin’s development. When I think about it, I wonder if the show could’ve been a lot better if it had gotten rid of Takasu’s whole “killer eyes” gag (which didn’t go anywhere eventually) and Kitamura’s trolling.

    For Ookami-san, my biggest peeves about the show right from the beginning are the unnecessary shenanigans – the kitty gloves, the shallow fairy tale references, Ryoushi’s fear of being stared at, etc. – and the narrator. The sudden change in direction in the middle of the series is welcoming, albeit a little too strong of a change. As for the narrator… she should be ostracized; that’s all. I want to ignore her, but her presence is too strong for me to ignore, so yeah.

    For Toaru Majutsu no Index/Kagaku no Railgun, it’s slightly different. The former is just mediocre shounen sci-fi full of technobabble, angtsy characters and moe archetypes. The latter is a huge improvement: just to add to SK’s compliments on the show, I also like Dr. Kiyama’s background story about her and the kids. It kinda justifies her baggy eyes (albeit not for her perchant to take off her clothes). Her motive to save the kids is another genuine aspect of her character. I just feel cheated at the ending, especially with the whole pink-robot/crazed villain combo.

    I can’t say much about the rest of examples given, since I haven’t watched them. But in this current season, I see another example of genuine friendship: the one shared among Maya, Kozue and Ami in Occult Academy. Sure, the show is about occult and the paranormal but most of the time, I don’t feel like I should care about them. Instead, I’m more interested in the chemistry and relationships among the characters. For instace, rather than be curious about Kozue’s experience with the other world, I’m more interested in their earnest intention to help bring back the real Kozue.

    Just to finish off, I don’t know Occult Academy strives to be. It seemed interesting at first but now, coming close to the end, I still don’t know where this show is heading… and I wonder why.

  8. @gaguri: well, it is, after all, a TV-series. Those delegated to minor characters are simply going to be lacking chunks of the third dimension =\

    @Sorrow-kun: Yeah, it’s a bit icky (if not callous) way to think of it (>.<), but I mainly raised it as that's the common perception of measuring a real friend compared to friends of convenience (shrug).

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