Hikigaya Hachiman is an antisocial high schooler with no girlfriend, no regular friends, and no real desire for either one. He wallows away his youth laughing to himself as his classmates live out their high school lives in ignorant bliss. But Hachiman knows the truth: that chasing after the fabled springtime of youth is nothing but a fool’s errand. Hachiman is determined to live out his youth in comforting isolation, but an enterprising young teacher is equally determined to sabotage all of his efforts. She forcefully enlists Hachiman into the “Service Club” alongside its sole member, the beautiful and intelligent Yukinoshita Yukino. Can Hachiman maintain his composure in the presence of this ice-cold beauty, or will his time in the Service Club finally break him out of his own self-inflicted downward-spiral?
Despite the overwhelmingly positive impression of this show from the vast majority of fans and critics alike, it was really hard not to be skeptical about this. A romantic comedy LN adaptation with an overly long title? C’mon. That’s not exactly the realm of timeless literature. A show with “Teen Romantic Comedy” right in the title can’t possibly be good, right? Well, I’m willing to admit that I was wrong and that this show completely shattered every one of my expectations. OreGairu is the real deal, folks. I’ve seen this show referred to as “Anime Catcher in the Rye”, and while I do think that’s a slightly unfair comparison, it is definitely the affectation that OreGairu is trying to capture. I mean, Hachiman never outright calls anyone “phony”, but he speaks to that same temperament. And the show reflects that in nearly every one of its base elements.
It’s apparent right from the opening monologue that this show really gets its characters, and empathizes with them, but it doesn’t make excuses for them. And that is quite impressive considering the actual nature of the characters. Our hero Hachiman is a cynical and abrasive black hole of smug indifference. He’s internalized his own isolation and built a fortress out of it, but hell if he isn’t still a likable character! Not even in the sad or pitiable way that misanthropic loner nerd characters tend to be in anime. Hachiman has a certain charm and charisma all his own. It doesn’t really surprise me at all to see younger fans latch on to his various “Hachimanisms” as some kind of gospel. His worldview is the distillation of the introverted intellectual teenager experience. I can definitely remember feeling like the only sane man in an insane world when I was his age. I think everyone probably has a little bit of Hachiman inside them, and that makes him a broadly relatable character despite how much of a huge pompous jerkass he is.
Our main heroine is similarly despicable, though in very different ways. Yukino barricades herself in a perfectionist facade. Her willingness to help others and her drive to succeed are as much a crutch as her frigidly standoffish personality. Her biting sarcasm and massive superiority complex belies what may be an even more fundamentally broken person than Hachiman. Hachiman’s problems are clearly nothing but demons of his own design, while Yukino’s seem to be related to more external factors. Her home situation is never explored in-depth, but is hinted at being a major source of her anxieties. Their interactions(or non-interactions) are the backbone of this whole show, and would be more than enough to carry the entire show just on their own.
The characters aren’t the only things keeping the show afloat, though. This is a romantic comedy after all, and OreGairu has a pretty great sense of humor and a sharp wit. The jokes flow freely from the characters’ base personalities, and the show avoids most of the silly reaction faces and manzai gag set-ups that plague the host of its contemporaries. The music and animation are mostly just serviceable and don’t have many stand-out moments to make either of them particularly memorable. Thankfully, the cinematography is generally quite good. The shot framing easily evokes the sense of loneliness and mistrust that the characters wallow in, but also gracefully illustrates the cracking of their proverbial shells over the course of the series. Though it doesn’t ever look or sound bad, OreGairu’s technical merits are definitely taking a backseat to the script.
OreGairu’s one big stumbling point is that in order to continually punch holes in Hachiman’s defenses, it has to keep forcing him into situations that challenge them. And “force” is kinda the key word there. As smart as this show is, there’s really no avoiding how wish-fulfillmenty the base foundation is. An awkward loner kid is unwillingly thrown into a club with two beautiful, and comparatively lonely girls by his equally young and attractive female teacher? Geez show, there had to be a better way to make that setup work. Making the principle protagonist an ineffectual harem lead is still treading the grounds of low-brow nerd fantasy, no matter how incredibly bad at it he is.
This means that regardless of how well-written these characters are, and they are fantastic characters, the show ultimately struggles to rise above the tropes it constantly seems to be sneering at. And that’s incredibly unfortunate. This show has so many smart things to say and wonderfully articulated characters, but it just can’t escape its own inherent ~anime~ness. Characters like Saika just bog down the story and serve as blatant reminders that, oh yeah, this is an anime romcom(I was actually somewhat fond of Saika, though). He was still a pretty endearing character in his own right, and I think he actually had decent chemistry with Hachiman. But yeah, he mostly exists just to make hurr-durr cutesy feminine guy jokes. And he’s not alone in the one-joke supporting character department. Oregairu is certainly better at fleshing out its side-characters than your average School Comedy Anime, but the characters that seem to exist solely to earn the show that “comedy” tag end up feeling a little out-of-place in the show’s more dramatic moments.
The lack of actual romance in this “romantic” comedy might be another possible sticking-point. I understand that issue is supposed to be the whole joke; Let’s throw the Hapless Anime Dude into Harem 101 and have hijinks not ensue because everyone is an emotionally-stunted jerk-face cloistered within their own defensive facades, clever! But that doesn’t necessarily make it any less excruciating to sit through. A show that is frustrating on purpose is still frustrating. While the show never stops being entertaining or clever, at points it does seem to be spinning its wheels. The show is carefully trying to balance what it wants to say about its characters with having their relationships actually move forward. I’m not sure it quite succeeds, at least not in this first stretch of material.
Still, it is undeniably fun just to see these characters faffing about. They’re all just so well-constructed that it’s fascinating to simply watch them bounce off each other. However, this show’s greatest feat is probably just being such a breezy watch. As weighty and melancholy as the character-drama is, I still blew through this show in what felt like no time at all. I’m not sure I’d call OreGairu a timeless masterpiece, but I’m absolutely glad that it exists. And simultaneously angry that so few shows ever actually strive quite as hard to elevate themselves.