My Teenage Romantic Comedy SNAFU elevates itself beyond its contemporaries with surprising thematic depth, natural and consistent character development and a clever take on archetypes to explore the social system of the high school setting.
Plot: Hikigaya Hachiman has always been a loner, and believes that all around him are acting out their youth in well defined archetypes with ignorant bliss. However, when ice queen Yukino Yukinoshita and bubbly Yui Yuigahama form a club with him, his ideologies are challenged.
SNAFU doesn’t quite stand out as an emotionally and thematically charged series from the very beginning, with the first few episodes showcasing much of the catty meanness that other high school comedies like Haganai are known for. However, the thoughtful dialogue between Yukinoshita and Hachiman served as fairly entertaining banter, as their similarities and differences are revealed through their mannerisms and word choice, rather than clumsy observations or bombastic acting. Yuigahama was unfortunately initially unable to keep up at first with these two eloquent, anti-social heavy weights, and acted more as the one to receive exposition for the sake of the audience than a fully-fledged character. This isn’t helped by the series’s use of tropes which made it feel initially more derivative than satirical, though the strengths of Yukinoshita and Hachiman shine through, and it becomes apparent not much later that the characters, though archetypal, are far from stereotypical.
As the series continues along the reasoning behind these characters’ actions and their motivations are revealed, and it retroactively made the earlier parts feel more substantial and even lends them a level of rewatchability. Hachiman’s animosity to the high school world and general disinterest in social intercourse is a result of his previous experiences with school and how he defines others by their archetypes. Yukinoshita is a physically and intellectually gifted young lady who’s also rich in beauty and experience, and yet her short comings have given her a sort of deep seated inferiority complex. The reasons for this are revealed over time, ranging from her (comparatively) small breasts, to her older sister already trailing a path that Yukinoshita can’t possibly surpass, to her growing awareness of how her coldness is hurting those around her. By the mid-point, even Yui has proven to be more than meets the eye, and the theme of the foundation of friendship is laid with minimal dialogue. Is one’s friendship still genuine if it’s build on a foundation of guilt and selective omissions so long as the actual development of said relationship is genuine?
Another area worthy of praise is how sympathetic the anime makes each of its characters. Hachiman isn’t someone who goes out of his way to be social, but he doesn’t pin point Yukinoshita’s weaknesses or show any strong inclination to harming her. He gets home before his sister so she doesn’t get lonely, he eats the (carcinogenic) food Yui makes for him to spare her feelings and grumbles at those who label him “Hikitani” without lashing out at them. Yukinoshita is also deceptively considerate, responding to Hachiman’s comment about how he thinks he’s fairly attractive with “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, and despite how she can hurt those around her with her bluntness, she never does such with the intention to cause harm. For Yui, she seems much like she’s initially presumed to be for much of the first season; a kind conformist who just wants to fit in and live happily. However, she does have a level of emotional understanding that Hachiman and Yukinoshita lack, through no fault of their own, though her ability to articulate such isn’t quite up to par with the other two.
The second half of the first season focuses heavily on the school fair, and the relatable and compellingly presented theme of teamwork. Instead of going for the stereotypical path of having everyone learn together to work and set aside their differences, it instead points out how having a control freak in the group can hurt multiple parties, but the multifaceted story telling allows many sides of this conflict to be sympathetically presented. The students suffer from stress and often don’t properly communicate with those around them, causing the other members to feel underutilized at best, and like dead weight at worst, and the room for error is left to expand without any concrete group consensus.
Beyond that, this creates a context for Hachiman to show just how simultaneously aware and narrow minded he is to those who run away from responsibility. He knew that the actual organizer, at least the one with the position, only wanted to fill that position to attain the same reputation that Yukinoshita had. This itself was an interesting argument; people often take influential or pivotal positions with the intention of having improved credibility, despite not caring about the actual work. Closing out with a killer musical number and stirring consequences, this particular arc is the most poignant of the first season by a great margin, finishing season one as a surprisingly sophisticated emotional and thematic experience (unless you count the final filler episode, which might as well not exist).
Season two blows away the first in close to every single regard, capitalising on its strengths, namely the dynamics of its core cast, and shelving the less inspired comedy and supporting characters. Focusing this time on Hachiman’s tendency to make himself the villain to prevent complications, Yui finally brings herself to the level of the other two with her emotional awareness and untapped potential to determine psychological difficulties beyond the superficial. Between having the cast decide their future areas of study, going all around Japan, dealing with the student board and Hayato’s seemingly unquenchable fascination with Hachiman, the second season is more of a juggling act than an obstacle course like the first season was.
The tone is much heavier and more intimate this time around, in large part due to both series have the same skilled person on series composition (Shoutarou Suga), the tonal shift feels very natural. The character work so hard, using all of their (substantial) wit and words to try and make changes, but they just aren’t able to change the grand schemes around them. However, all of the main cast undergo some great evolution in their personalities and develope more intimate bonds with each other, so no time ever feels wasted. Actually, the sense of progression in spite of little actually being accomplished far exceeds what it would have been had they changed the situation for the better; if how they are and what they do works, why would they need change? This outlook allows the series to have a particularly powerful emotional climax in the middle that no explosions or yelling matches could hope to match in terms of impact.
The way in which the series utilised its supporting cast throughout deserves mention, because their initially stereotypical behaviour is broken down by Hachiman and Yukinoshita to determine why they act the way they do. There is some back and forth here; Yukinoshita really hurts some people with her untouchable grace and unmatchable prowess at seemingly everything, but she shows genuine regret for how mean she can be, and Hachiman is shown by Hayato how dangerous defining people by their archetype exclusively can be. Yui grows sick of watching Hachiman and Yukinoshita get hurt by what they don’t understand, and endeavors to “save” them with all that she has.This leads to progressive character development, which SNAFU does by not having the characters do complete flips in personality, but rather by having their views of those around them slowly change as a result of how the execution of actions in contrast to preconceptions plays out. In Yukinoshita’s case, she hurts those closest to her in the first season through her workaholic tendencies and singular focus and winds up causing more harm than good for the entire student body, who seem to feel greatly in debt to her and frustrated by how little she seems to trust them.
Iroha and Hayato in the second season are the strongest of the supporting cast, with the former showing Hachiman a warmth than few other than his sister and Yui do, and in a time when neither of them could help him. She’s surprisingly aware of what goes on around her, ditsy manner aside (Hachiman himself points this out) and might be SNAFU’s most outright likable character. Hayato’s intentions are somewhat ambiguously phrased as “Wanting to prove he’s not the nice guy everyone thinks he is”, though it appears that he really wants Hachiman’s attention after the events of season one, and given how he also influences Hachiman this dynamic creates a fascinating, and layered, relationship. From introducing him to his old friends to constantly telling him that he’s more than meets the eye, Hayato certainly has an impact on several characters. Yukinoshita’s sister, Haruno, is very precise and sharp in her dialogue, though what seems to be well-intended dialogue often comes of as harsh, even sadistic at times, making her very nearly seem antagonistic on some occasions. She’s a well defined character, serving as foil for both Yukinoshita and Hachiman and a strong presence on her own, though she seems too much like a storm cloud at times.
To add to the unfortunate ambiguity, the dialogue in some of the more contemplative and philosophical scenes is so dense and circumstantial that its sometimes difficult to appreciate everything that Hachiman is trying to say. This occurs only on a few occasions, but in such instances finding someone who has read the novels to clue you in might be your best option. To add to that, the subtlety regarding some events, mainly those pretaining to Yukinoshita’s family, can sometimes border on cryptically complex, though attentive viewers are always rewarded with satisfying characterisation.
In spite of how repetitive and disorganized comedy tends to be within a high school setting, SNAFU manages to bypass this by having the comedy not only grounded within the archetypes of its cast, but reflective of their character development at several points. Yukinoshita in particular deserves note in this regard, as she goes from destroying the ambitions of an aspiring light novel author at the beginning (to great hilarity) to making cat puns at the end, with neither feeling forced or unnatural. Yui also expresses this, confusing the acronym USB with USA at the beginning, but later proving that she’s more than capable of holding her own with Hachiman and Yukinoshita. However, the comedy isn’t quite as fresh with the supporting cast; the teacher’s gruffness and surprisingly violent outlook usually delivers, as does Ebina’s fujoshi fetish, but Yoshiteru’s otaku attitude is essentially the defining point of his character, leaving him as a dead end. He isn’t a terrible character, due in large part to his appropriately scarce appearances that diminish over time, but he often seems like a comic relief character in a cast that doesn’t need him. In the case of the former two, both of them display much more than their odd tendencies, with Ebina in particular having some very peculiar dialogue in the second season.
Visually, the first season doesn’t rank among Brains Base’s best work, though it isn’t bad by any stretch. The character designs are distinctive and true to the original novel’s artwork, the facial expressions are sufficiently diverse and the characters’ builds and eye colour all match up well with their personalities. However, there are some rough patches, such as Hachiman’s occasionally acid green hair and the uncomfortably sharp corners of most characters’ eyes. The fluidity of the characters is also inconsistent, which is concerning given the relatively limited amount of movement in SNAFU; by the final episodes, speed lines and stills dominate, providing one of the least engaging sporting events imaginable.
However, the directing for the first season was relatively on point, with its deliberate use of minimalism serving the grounded drama much better than any amount of loud screaming or facial crushing would. SNAFU knew from the very beginning that it was more impactful for a character to be shown softening their face, clenching their fists, when they’d gone too far than to have them scream with despair. The way in which shots are composed, showing a distance between Hachiman and the others when he feels that they have cheated him, carries with it a nuanced impact that few other entries in its teenage drama category have pulled off. However, due to the more limited facial movements, the series isn’t quite able to catch to subtlety of series with higher production values, like Hyouka, but it gets as close as it can with fewer resources.
Another reason why the production values on the first season are difficult to consider impressive is just how beautiful the second season looks. Having switched Studios from Brains Base to Feel, the animation and art quality get a major upgrade in multiple areas, while still retaining the quiet directorial merit of the first season (and with a different director, no less). The characters‘ facial expressions and builds went from jagged and occasionally awkward to lankier, more rounded and more human (fitting with the significantly less gimmicky second half). Though many details stay the same, such as the general hair style for Yukinoshita and the comparatively disproportionately small pupils for Hachiman, they feel more natural and less like Light Novel designs. This change in character designs also gives confrontations a different vibe; before, the sharper eye lashes made even the likes of Yui seem threatening, while the second season’s models makes characters seem more reserved and emotionally aware. The most noticeable change is in the depth of lighting; where Yukinoshita’s eyes could previously be described as blue, they now contain a delicate mixture of aqua, azure, milky white with traces of vulnerability and softness, but also intelligence and harshness. The characters even look different in different settings, with nuanced gradients and fine-tuned shading. To put it bluntly, the second season’s character designs are what the characters should have looked like from the start.
But the aesthetic face lift extends beyond just character designs, as the backgrounds have more layered lighting, are more detailed and there are far more locations depicted. From Kyoto’s famous Kiyomizu-dera to bamboo forests and even (what looks to be) Disney Land, SNAFU provides a free travel guide along with its compelling coming of age story. Character animation, beyond lighting, increased in fluidity and expression, with Yui’s most vibrant attitude and Yukinoshita’s stillness contrasting each other more than ever before. To add to that, specific key animators were brought on for the biggest scenes, and it shows. Key animator Tetsuya Takeuchi’s high impact, primal style works wonders on the most emotionally raw scenes, the decrease in smoothness mirroring the emotional roughness of the cast’s complex emotions. SNAFU’s second season, beyond exceeding that of the first by a considerable margin, was one of the most consistently good looking TV anime of 2015, even if it could never hope to match the heights of more action heavy series. It even has the little touches to make it better, like completely reanimating flashbacks with the new style to prevent the shattering of immersion. When combined with the improved depth of field, more deft character animation and precise framing, SNAFU Second Season is what slice of life drama should strive to be like.
The audio aspect for SNAFU is similar to the visual component; it’s understated, but very well implemented and only improves over time. The OST doesn’t quite scream at the audience, instead letting the voice acting and natural sounds set the tone, so there aren’t many bombastic pieces. The strongest tracks come in the form of the OPs, EDs, insert songs and their instrumental renditions. Both openings were handled by Nagi Yanagi, whose voice plays out like a warm ray of sunshine over the often dour cast of SNAFU as they go about their daily lives. Lyrically, both openings are relevant to the series, though the second is much more upfront about it, some lines being literally the same as those uttered by the characters. The first opening is much more airy, and sometimes it seems to be too much for Yanagi (as is evidence by the occasional sharp intake of breathe) but the second is much more smooth, upbeat and natural sounding, perhaps as a result of Yanagi’s impressive development as a singer or the song’s composition being more favorable to her style. The visual metaphors and effects work well in both, with the latter of course having the upper hand in the category of animation, but it’s the little changes in minor details from episode to episode that make the second OP something of a puzzle.
Both EDs were sung by Yukinoshita and Yuigahama’s voice actresses, Saori Hayami and Nao Touyama, respectively, and like Yanagi they drastically improve over time. The first ED starts out as a horrifically lazily pop song to stills of the characters over stills of live action footage (really?), even with a chorus that it actually very pleasant. The change in visuals at the half way point doesn’t really help, with the girls now being oddly sexualised in white dressing and what appears to be Yuri baiting (probably to boost body pillow sales). However, the second ED boasts much stronger harmonisation, a sweet and simple pan over the characters playing out their lives and subtly powerful colour choices. However, the ballad editions for both of these are better, with both Hayami and Touyama proving their singing talents are worth listening to, though Saori’s calmer, deeper voice is slightly more genuine, while Touyama seems to be whispering a bit like she doesn’t want to be heard. Their insert song, “Bitter Bitter Sweet”, plays in both seasons, and shows of their harmonisation the best. It could even be argued that this reflects their strengthening relationship.
No dub has been produced for SNAFU at this point, and strong arguments could be made that this is for the best, because the individual performances and chemistry between these characters would be very difficult to do justice in localisation. Saori Hayami embodies Yukinoshita’s blend of calculated coolness and icy beauty alongside her deceptively potent inferiority complex and social problems, with the latter taking charge as the series rolls along. Nao Touyama brings Yui’s airy optimism to the mix, but her acting chops are really visible in the more emotional scenes, and with her character progressions comes greater confidence and more specific enunciation, her ascent mirroring Yukinoshita’s descent and reflecting Yui’s transition from weakest link to arguably the most important one. This trinity is brought together by lead Takuya Eguchi, whose unusually gruff voice fits in both his everyday indulgences in cynical behaviour and defeatism and makes him both entertaining in his own right and a strong character for the others to play off. Also, the relatively flat lined voice of his allows the moments when he crumples, or speaks that little bit more quickly, to be really effective, much like with the other cast members.
The supporting cast fill their archetypes serviceably, with Iroha’s Ayane Sakura and the teacher occasionally giving thoughtful dialogue and their voice actresses change their tones to reflect this. The otaku nerd, queen B and sociopathic antagonist all do their part, but the real meat of SNAFU’s acting credentials lies in its central cast. Like the visuals and story, the aural component of SNAFU is quietly brilliant.
You can see Oregairu here with a subsequent released in Australia presumed to be soon.