Kare Kano – 1-3

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I hope I never become too old to appreciate Kare Kano‘s boundless energy.

I barely watched Kare Kano for the first time back in January and am now re-watching it with some friends. After graduating college and suddenly having a lot of free time, I didn’t know what to do with it all, so I consumed a crapload of anime in a short space of time. So while I loved Kare Kano on first viewing, I don’t think I appreciated it as much as I could have — this thought is reinforced by how much the show’s style barreled through me a few days ago and settled straight into my heart. I hope I never forget this feeling.

The characters, the romance and the story of Kare Kano are all wonderful, but what I appreciate most about the series is that the visual style just exudes passion. You can almost feel the heat emanate from the screen while you watch each episode. From the very beginning, you know you are getting something special — I am wracking my brain to think of many character introductions that are better than Yukino Miyazawa’s. She’s initially quite vain, shallow, vindictive and she denies her true self . . . and she makes you fall in love with her from the moment you see her. How could anyone dislike a character who has so much life to her? Whether she is proclaiming herself the Queen of Vanity, or grousing about Soichirou Arima scoring higher than her on a test, or knocking some sense into Arima, or whatever, Miyazawa has that quality that effortlessly draws attention to herself. Just in those first few minutes of ep1, even though you can tell there will be more layers to peel back, you know exactly who Miyazawa is. That is the pure sense of life she projects.

Arima is tougher to get a handle on at first because he is much more stringent than Miyazawa about burying his true self, and because there is not that much of the story told from his point of view in the early goings. We see Arima from Miyazawa’s eyes — how he excels at everything, how popular he is, and the little hints about how he sees Miyazawa. The visuals consistently step up to the plate and knock it out of the park when portraying the inner workings of the characters. While Miyazawa puts up a front on the outside, on the inside she is clear, honest and, above all, passionate. There isn’t a moment of introspection, whether it is Miyazawa ripping apart a cardboard cut-out of Arima or Miyazawa reflecting on her fears under a street light, where you cannot sense the strength of her feelings. And why shouldn’t we feel that strength? Isn’t it when we are this young that we feel strongest about everything around us — for better or worse? Miyazawa is not pounded down by cynicism, nor is she plagued by ignorance. She is an intelligent young woman who tries to find her way and live her life with the greatest gusto imaginable.

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Man, I don’t want to gush over the visuals too much — Lord knows enough people before me, and enough people after me, will heap enough praise upon them whenever the subject of Kare Kano is brought up — but watching this series is a rare thrill. There are lots of average looking shows in anime, there are some good looking shows and there are even fewer great looking shows. Kare Kano is in a category all its own. You could watch Kare Kano without knowing a lick of Japanese and without subs, and while you would not know everything, you would still have a solid of what is going on, what the relationships between characters are and so on. The visuals mesh perfectly with the story and raise it to a level it could not have achieved on its own. Every image, from the simplicity of Arima standing on stairs in the dark spotlight of his mind to the grandeur of Miyazawa’s “Queen of Vanity” proclamation, is just perfect. I don’t know how people though Hideaki Anno would approach a romantic-comedy, of all things, before Gainax started Kare Kano (even now, the thought is slightly perplexing), but I could not imagine this series any other way.

Getting off my hard-on for the visuals and back to the characters . . . that feeling of life that permeates Miyazawa is not just limited to her, of course. Her family may be one of the best, most fun in all of anime. They are made up of pretty solid archetypes — the (over)protective father, the encouraging mother, the teasing little sisters — but they all have this soul to them and such a natural way of engaging Miyazawa that they feel absolutely real. The little sisters are especially charming. They are not obnoxious or annoying in the way they tease their big sister. Actually, they are very encouraging and often go out of their way to push Miyazawa to be the person she really is instead of the trumped-up attention hog she displays to the world. All their fourth wall breaking is quite fun, too. Pulling out the Kare Kano manga to illustrate Miyazawa’s Arima complex is fantastic. All the insane recapping that will happen down the road would probably be that much worse if Kano and Tsukino Miyazawa were not narrating it, too.

And Arima . . . as I wrote earlier, he is tough to get a handle on in these early episodes, and is also a bit tough sympathize with. Part of this is because, again, he is viewed through Miyazawa’s biased point of view, and part of it is because Arima acts in a way that will not force him to reveal the true self he is afraid of. But the way he acts is sort of counterintuitive, since he acts like a big douche to Miyazawa, anyway, dumping all of his extra work on her, later making the lame excuse that he thought she liked the work because she does so much of it herself. However, I cannot completely hate on Arima. Although he is a rather extreme character with a pretty screwed-up past, in practice, he is much like any other dumb high school kid with a crush on an amazing girl. All he knows is that he has these feelings for Miyazawa and these other feelings that scare the hell out of them, so they clash and he inevitably acts like a doofus. Damned if that does not sound like most of my high school experiences! So while I cannot sympathize with the road he takes to get there, the end result hits home for me.

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I bet there are not too many among us who could not have used one of those at one point or another! When the girl feels comfortable enough to wallop the shit out of the guy, you know you have a relationship that works.

More seriously, though, regarding the story of these first three episodes . . . there is a simplicity there that allows the relationship between Miyazawa and Arima to be strengthened and really move to the forefront right from the start. I mean, what exactly happens? Miyazawa gets grumpy about Arima stealing her spotlight, they get to know each other a bit, Arima sees her true self at home and blackmails her to get closer to her (only a guy would do something that dumb!), Miyazawa reflects on herself and decides to discard the facade she has built for herself, and Arima starts confronting his feelings for Miyazawa and the buried feelings he is afraid exist within himself. But, like with many good romantic comedies, heavy plotting is not really the point. Kare Kano lives and dies by Miyazawa and Arima’s relationship and all its little and huge bumps and flourishes.

Love — particularly young love — is difficult to capture, because it is so easy to screw up. How easy is it for an author to be too forceful with a pairing and suffer the wrath of fans who think the relationship is too lovey-dovey and obnoxious? Or for an author to be maybe a bit too restrained with the pairing and confuse audiences who do not see why those characters have any reason to love each other at all? Visually, it is even tougher than that, I think. How many people have resorted to trite clichés like hearts, or having people stare lovingly into each other’s eyes, or whatever else? Not saying Kare Kano does not fall victim to that sort of thing on occasion (it is pretty tough to avoid, especially some clichés can be meaningful when used properly), but as far as both story and visual cues are concerned, Kare Kano does about as good a job as anything I have seen (anime or otherwise) in portraying the pure affection of a relationship complicated by the feelings of two different, yet similar, people.

It’s easy to see why Miyazawa and Arima are drawn to each other — they’re not just intelligent, responsible people, but they also have the shared experience of shielding their true selves from others and each having the other as the first person to see what is underneath the mask. Kare Kano also has the wisdom to understand that nobody is a completely perfect match for anyone else. Everyone has their flaws, their idiosyncrasies and their passions that come into conflict with others. It’s inevitable. When Miyazawa and Arima freak out on the inside about having potentially alienated the other, it doesn’t feel like some conflict manufactured so that something will happen in the plot. With both, there’s a vivid sense of, “Oh shit, did I really do something wrong? Does he/she hate me now? AH WHAT DO I DO”

Like with love, angst is also something difficult to portray seriously, just because so many people see it as empty whining. And it is empty whining much of the time, especially when characters lack the ability to look within themselves and move forward. The angsting in Kare Kano works because Miyazawa does not hesitate for very long to move forward and confront her problems head on. If Arima is being a jerk to her, she is going to worry about it and be afraid of what he thinks of her, but ultimately, grousing about it is just not enough for her — she has to know what the hell the problem is and try to solve it. That’s just who she is. Arima is initially more content to let things fly, just because he has fallen into that autopilot mode with his entire life, but Miyazawa pushes him to do more than just empty angsting about how shitty his life has been. (Even though it has been pretty crappy.) They’re trying to build something that works, and that is what makes Kare Kano‘s love truly organic. It’s about how they are making and maintaining that relationship rather than the both of them being lovesick dorks.

But, man, does that building make moments like this totally worth it.

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That is a Moment, through and through. The end of ep3 — with Miyazawa blushing at Arima’s declaration that he will love her no matter what, and her image fades away, leaving only the intense blush set against the white background — is simply a brilliant physical representation of pure love. My heart leaps with joy whenever I see it.

I imagine my heart will leap more and more as I make my way through the rest of Kare Kano.

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