Among the myriad romantic comedies inundating the medium with their formulaic reliance on will-they-or-won’t-they nail-biters and divisive love triangles, almost twenty years on GAINAX’s Kareshi Kanojo no Jijou (KareKano/His and Her Circumstances) has stood the test of time through instead turning its gaze inwards. Broadly speculating on the fraught identity politics Yukino and Arima endure in the midst of social and familial turmoil, it proves to be a remarkably introspective character study arguably on par with Neon Genesis Evangelion – both of which have director Hideaki Anno on board. Through their relationship the pair grapple with the intricacies of learning to live for themselves, a thematic strand deftly weaved into the narrative from the anime’s first frame. Consisting of a white backdrop emblazoned with a suggestive question, it asks “how do people see me?”.
One’s awareness of their own individuality stems from an interrogative exploration of the social world they inhabit and the manner in which it interacts with them, providing fundamental context for the self. Through this relational process it is possible to solidify the identity known as ‘I’ offset against the collective ‘we’, social interpretations reflected through what Charles Horton Cooley dubbed ‘the looking-glass self’. That KareKano’s first frame alludes to such a profoundly crucial social construction is certainly suggestive, positing a distinctly ontological precedent for the material which ensues through Yukino exploring four unique approaches, accounting for the cavernous gulf in social stability threatened with the arrival of Arima. The first involves the student body coded as this collective one, Yukino’s name complemented by an iridescent triple take; surrounded by tulips. Through the adoring eyes of her peers their admiration is established within seconds, cinematography likewise emphasising a reoccurring shot of them skittishly running after her, hands flailing; a prized flower standing tall above the flowerbed. Graciously receiving compliments regarding immaculate note-taking abilities while asking about someone’s health in the same breath, Yukino is presented as an ideal to strive towards. With the phrase ‘public opinion’ suggestively hanging above her head, in the style of a documentary Yukino is praised for a number of traits, devotees each eagerly offering their own interpretations followed by a shot of the group as a whole nodding in sync. While only a few students are depicted during KareKano’s introductory sequence, they nevertheless are coded as representatives of the school in its entirety, drawing attention to the upper echelons of the social pillar upon which Yukino proudly rests.
A key constituent of the looking-glass self is that public opinion reflects how others perceive themselves, Yukino’s individual schema elevated by her peers’ adoration. The second approach involves the Miyazawa family, establishing triple take instead portraying Yukino donning a worn sweatshirt and glasses. Distanced from the group-orientated façade of ‘tatemae’ spinning alongside the gears of social necessitation, she is able to unwind at home sans restraint within the refuge of ‘honne’ (本音と建前). Yukino candidly addresses the cavernous gulf between both images via frenetic imagery accentuating the desire to be revered by those around her, elevated high into the sky and beyond – quite literally looking down on her peers. When openly berated by her siblings regarding hidden exertions, negative traits listed a far cry from earlier’s positive accolades, Yukino explicitly alludes to the 本音と建前 distinction stating “if I don’t drop my guard at home, I get tired”. Her behaviour is reminiscent of traditionalist teenage behavioural patterns regarding scholastic competence – cool dismissal is preferred, striving to conceal the level of effort exhibited inside in order to succeed outside. Unrecognizable outside her home’s comforting confines, Yukino’s parents provide further evidential strains through neighbours praising amiability and alluding to façades pristinely maintained since infancy. Such an approach is enhanced through imagery of rivers reflecting hidden depths, crossing fences alongside densely tangled electrical wires suggesting burgeoning pressures with an intruder whose existence hints at destabilization.
Once Arima is instead chosen to be the class representative, Yukino’s fragile schema built upon the fraught conceits of social necessity quite literally shatters, represented through cracks visually spreading across her ideal. While the introductory sequence portrays how Yukino as an individual is thought of by the student body, the third approach dovetails in how she perceives Arima, and how Arima perceives her. Personable and intelligent, he is championed for similar reasons with peers gravitating towards him generating an initial source of friction on Yukino’s behalf despite surface pleasantries exchanged. The celebrated comedic stylings of KareKano’s earlier stages soar alongside her unbridled vitriol, 本音と建前 schism deepening amidst strained interactions; social affectations enhanced through alternate frames revealing exaggerated expressions counted among Imaishi Hiroyuki’s more iconic. Arima compliments Yukino’s maturity while she privately disparages him, pleasantly responding that she listens to acclaimed classical pieces while secretly pouting about actually preferring television stars. Jovial pieces strewn likewise strewn amidst Neon Genesis Evangelion’s more slapstick moments orchestrate her frustration, all frenzied movements with GAINAX’s penchant for the cartoonish and flamboyant on display. Through Yukino’s perception Arima is evidentially painted as a nuisance to be quashed.
Blossoming in the midst of cloying frivolities however is Arima’s affection, enthusiastically praising Yukino’s meticulously fashioned artifices facilitating an expansion of his own world. That the only sequence which exists outside of Yukino’s narrative breadth occurs when he offers to escort her home is telling, cinematography delicately drawing attention to a moment snatched in eternity and swathed in secrecy. While gazing at her, soft piano tinkling blooms alongside the blush on Arima’s face, a comparatively solemn affair to the bombastic horns of earlier orchestrating Yukino’s frenzied revenge-driven contempt. Exaggerated expressions are notably absent with an emphasis on soft sketches, snapshots eliciting a form of sentimental intensity beyond the façade’s understanding. When Arima’s grand academic defeat doesn’t go as planned, the same piano piece once again highlights his emotions in tandem alongside similar sketches, thoughts clear even before the words come out – and it’s followed by a glimmer of lights, passing of clouds, a whole new world for Yukino.
In the space of a single twenty-odd minute run KareKano excels at painting a convincing portrait of how the world at large perceives the individual named Miyazawa Yukino; the three approaches consisting of peers, family, and Arima facilitating a close speculation regarding the minutiae of her fixation, turning her gaze inwards to address that which drives her for the fourth. Constructing that social looking-glass upon which she can assess her own individuality. In contrast to scrupulous artifices and platitudes delicately fashioned, Yukino believes that Arima is inherently better for being “the real thing”. A single white frame emblazoned with the term ‘hypocrite’ follows, reminiscent of the manner in which she initially posited her ontological concern, leading to gaze beyond the artifices of the looking-glass constructed by the world at large. In dredging up the source Yukino inwardly regresses to a child with a spotlight cast over her, reminiscent of Ikari Shinji’s breakdown during the profoundly experimental stages of Neon Genesis Evangelion with platitudes resounding across the dark stage of her own imagining. How she wishes to be praised more, to be admired – yet as mentioned earlier during the second approach, this quest to please the apparition of perfection shadowing her every move is exhausting. As if to acknowledge the disintegration of frailties, the earlier triple take is intentionally inverted as her image is called into question; traffic light an ominous red.
Acknowledging is the first step on Yukino’s journey to find out who she really is, with immaculate sentiments forever dispelled by the episode’s closing leading Arima (along with the world) to take a look at Miyazawa Yukino for the first time. Shattering that looking glass in order to construct a self of her very own free from external constraints.