[Be thou warned — some few Negima! spoilers lurk in the underbrush.]
I believe it was Socrates (the Plato version) who suggested that true knowledge begins with acceptance of one’s ignorance.
No, no, scratch that. This isn’t one of those posts. Let me start over.
As a fledgling practitioner of romance (as opposed to the *ahem* seasoned veteran I am now), I moved through three distinct attitudes. As a young teenager, I deemed things like soul mates improbable at best, but figured, given the sheer number of people in the world, that there must have existed at least a few girls above the mundane concerns of most, paragons of purity the likes of which KyoAni could only dream of mass-producing. Some years later, as the relationship of my late teenage life died its slow death, I settled upon the idea that human beings were, on the whole, frivolous creatures, given to base desires and whimsy, lacking in that union of motivation and inclination I called “vision” and utterly unconcerned with what romance could be. This second phase did not last long; as I transitioned, perhaps against my will, into adulthood, I realized that we humans are necessarily…human. We can try to follow some code of morality or righteousness or enlightenment or whatever you want to call it, but at the beginning and the end of the day we are human.
We dream. We create art and meaning. We succumb to temptation, are powerless to resist bodily needs. We’re strong and weak, but never one or the other in isolation. There’s nothing we can do about it. And — lo and behold! — if we try, we can even appreciate humanity for what it is.
Accordingly, I’ve come to like reading about characters who feel human, characters whose virtues, vices, and unavoidable physicality more or less balance out, and this goes double (nay, treble) for romance. Perfection is tedious at best, and at worst intolerable; the characters I respect most are those able to keep themselves together through human quandaries, so I’m sure you can imagine how the absence or scarcity of human quandaries (or, alternately, the absence or scarcity of humanity in characters faced with vaguely human quandaries) might pose a bit of a problem for me. I must admit that I did not, upon beginning Negima!, expect the exemplars of humanity I prefer to show up with any frequency in a manga that begins as vaguely shotacon harem and moves quickly into shounen fantasy action.
I’ve doubted Ken Akamatsu before. I’ll doubt him again, surely. But I should know better by now.
If there’s anything unfortunate about all this, it’s that I can’t properly handle enough characters in a single post. Negima! boasts one of the largest and most fleshed-out harems I’ve ever seen; that both qualifiers manage to apply to the same story is a testament to Akamatsu’s fighting spirit. Though I may manage to sneak in references to a number of relevant characters, I’ll have to stick with my absolute favorites for the time being — which is fine, I suppose, given that these two have become two of my favorite haremettes in general.
And how could it be otherwise? Nodoka is quiet, bookish, and moetacularly shy, Yue fancies herself a philosopher and seems engaged in a continual struggle with her inner tsundere (she’s tsundere for tsundere, maybe, which would fit right in with the manga’s deconstruction of pretty much everything), and both belong to an organization called the Library Adventure Club. The Library Adventure Club.
Yes, this. It’s easy for me to love this on a purely visceral level. I want friends like these girls. I want to go on magical library adventures!
But where, you may wonder, do they show a bit of character, exactly? Well, all along, but since brevity is the soul of wit, let’s jump ahead to that unending school festival arc. Between bursts of shounen excellence (and you’ll rarely see me use that phrase as anything other than an oxymoron, as I am both jaded and a bastard, but it’s absolutely literal here), the romantic dynamics are in full swing. One by one, characters realize and promptly deny their feelings for Negi. Or so it goes for most of them — Nodoka, the evidently timid one (and the first to fall for Negi in an obvious way), somehow manages to be the only character who can deal with her feelings, and so handily does she deal with them that she ends up on a date with that slightly-younger wizard-teacher-gladiator-genius.
Well, that’s sort of odd, isn’t it? If only we could see what was going on in her head…if only she would use that mind-reading book of hers while waiting for Negi to show up…
That’s maybe a little unexpected. Nodoka is supposed to be demure, right? But, really, it makes a lot of sense — that’s the kind of thing healthy teenagers think about. Hell, that’s pretty tame in comparison to what most healthy teenagers think about, but the point is that Nodoka thinks about physical things, and I like that. It’s one step out of moeblob-land, one step into real people world. Who knows what we’d see if more anime and manga made us privy to the thoughts of characters who start out acting like stereotypes? More than some readers would care to see, probably (remember that Kannagi virginity debacle?), but Akamatsu has the right of it, as far as I’m concerned.
At any rate, Nodoka’s hard-earned date continues, and — actually, let’s pause for a minute for some Yue foreshadowing.
Everyone has bad intentions? Alright, noted.
Moving right along, we see that Nodoka continues to experience those youthful inclinations throughout the day. They’re mostly consistent, but the repetition seems to indicate that the early pages of chapter 83 aren’t just a throwaway gimmick for the sake of humor. Nodoka’s animal tendencies aren’t going anywhere, which is good, since I’d like to think she’s an animal like the rest of us.
Lest I’ve led you to believe otherwise, I’m not trying to brand Nodoka a nymphomaniac or a champion of sexual expression here. All I’m saying is that, for all her shame and self-control, she thinks about the kinds of things we all do. Her feelings for Negi don’t simply manifest as bishounen sparkles and the like; they’re multifaceted, multileveled. And that, says I, is a good thing.
Despite a few complications (we’re skipping a couple chapters ahead, in fact), Nodoka’s day goes well. Rather well indeed. In fact…
And that’s not all — Nodoka initiates it! It’s Nodoka, the sort-of-dojikko, renowned far and wide for her reticence, who kicks the rules of One True Pairing to the curb and does what she wants. Remember, it’s not about the kiss itself (she’s a provisional ministra magus, after all, so it isn’t even the first time), but the implications thereof. In a moment of epic irony, it’s Nodoka who gets the first intentionally romantic kiss with Negi, and not because of some convenient turn of events, but because of her own actions, her own guts and effort.
But where does it come from? Nodoka clearly has a Buster Machine in her heart, but how’d it get there? I ask you this: would I really have mentioned Plato for no reason?
(Well, yes, but I didn’t.)
While her classmates deny their failings outright (and/or suffer from the failing that is denial) or cripplingly attribute themselves with failings they don’t or needn’t really have, Nodoka recognizes her hurdles — and, what’s more, she jumps them. She credits Negi above, but, really, his role is passive. It’s Nodoka who must accept those things about herself that stand between her and what she wants (i.e. Negi), and Nodoka who must use that acceptance as the first step of a process of growth. Her personality may make her seem meek, a reprisal of Love Hina’s Shinobu, but her accomplishments are arguably among the most impressive we’ve seen in Negima! so far. As of yet, few characters have proven so able to manage internal quandaries (which are, after all, often the worst sort of quandaries); even Negi isn’t very good at it.
Hopefully I’ve demonstrated sufficiently by now that bits of character are present in Negima!, scattered with surprising density throughout the best chapters. I realize, however, that I have yet to justify this post’s title. How might one pick up and throw a bit of character? It’s so easy, in fact, that those involved often don’t realize it’s happened until much later, until it’s far too late to call the whole thing off, which is what makes bits of character such deadly projectiles.
Let’s skip a few more chapters ahead. Through some combination of magic, technology, and coincidence, Negi runs into Yue even while a past iteration of himself spends the day with Nodoka. Understandably perturbed by the date’s outcome (he’s both ten years old and a teacher, after all), Negi consults Yue for advice, thinking she might offer some insight as Nodoka’s friend.
That sounds reasonable. It might even be reasonable. But reason isn’t the issue here — the sensible solution isn’t what Nodoka would want, and Yue realizes it moments too late to do anything about it.
“…am now a member of Negi’s obscenely large harem,” is more or less how it plays out.
Should we believe that she didn’t realize what she was doing all along? I don’t see why not; it really is hard to pin those feelings down sometimes, especially when you’re young and they’re relatively new, and, accordingly, actions that seem reasonable could become sources of lasting regret. Perhaps at some point, while engaged in long hours of magic study, Yue wondered if she wasn’t going through all the effort to get closer to Negi; no doubt she would’ve dismissed the notion as ridiculous. It’s difficult to consider what you might be capable of doing to a friend under the right circumstances.
But Yue (previously a not-so-important character) comes to consider it at last, which, in light of recent events, might be a hopeful notion. After all, when Nodoka allowed herself some self-reflection, she figured out how to take steps toward her goals. It’s a bit of a different situation, though, considering that Yue’s goals — helping her friend, getting closer to Negi — run perpendicular to one another, and disastrously so. Whatever happens, someone gets hurt, and the human mind seems especially good at improvising all sorts of logic to support self-interest. Maybe Yue was aware of the situation, but, being a fairly logical sort, successfully convinced herself otherwise, a tactic similar to the denial we see in other characters, but not precisely the same (insofar as it reminds me unsettlingly of myself).
This is, I realized as I read, a more complicated variation on the love rivals who become friends from having their rivalry in common. Nodoka and Yue are friends who become love rivals without realizing it. Had they been the former, they would have at least gotten a friendship out of the whole ordeal; as it is, every “good” outcome is fairly cringe-worthy. One gets Negi, the other doesn’t, there’s plenty of depression to go around, the friendship suffers, life’s unfair, deal with it, the end. And, hell, since neither Nodoka nor Yue is OTP’d with Negi, the more likely outcome is that they both fail. I’m reminded of that scene from the first season of Clannad in which Kyou and Ryou both realize they’ve been rejected in favor of that other one. Man, that was rough.
It’d be one thing if Yue managed to keep her feelings hidden for a while, but it’s hard not to wonder, perhaps morbidly, what would happen if Nodoka found out. Some forty chapters later (still in the school festival arc), Akamatsu clears up that line of inquiry by throwing a volatile bunch of characters in that Indiana Jones-worthy library.
It’s possible that this post should deal with Haruna in greater depth, given her role in these chapters. As a genre-savvy trickster character (she’s a manga-ka herself), it’s her job to dig up and expose information that might be better off in the open.
The context here is that Yue and Konoka have just discussed the possibility that Nodoka is practically incapable of jealousy (or that she simply respects and admires Negi more than she feels for him romantically; it seems likely that both are true, to some degree). This may be another testament to Nodoka’s character, insofar as it’s damn hard to avoid jealousy (unless you’re Mike Smith, I guess), but it doesn’t do much for Yue’s crisis; if anything, she feels more guilty.
Long story short, though, Haruna elicits a confession from Yue, and (as you may expect) Nodoka overhears. Which brings us to the next chapter…
Some readers really dislike awkward moments like this. For my part, I think they’re great. It may also be noted with some degree of aptness that I just like to see characters suffer, but moments of suffering are when people become themselves, isn’t it?
Eh, maybe, but it’s easy to be annoyed with Haruna regardless. It’s basically her fault that Nodoka knows the truth, and she doesn’t let up, citing examples of tragic literary love triangles to Negi and pushing Nodoka and Yue together more or less to see what happens. Then again, she doesn’t blame Yue, nor does she think Yue’s advice to Negi was anything more serious than good advice. And perhaps she figures all along that a secret would be more harmful than the truth, that Nodoka and Yue are strong enough to handle the truth — which is, as it turns out, the case.
This is, in a word, hard. I couldn’t do it when I was their age; I know that for certain. I like to think I could do it now, but who knows? People do strange, unreasonable things in those situations.
And one might argue for that reason that Nodoka and Yue’s accomplishment, their very friendship, renders them unrealistic, even superhuman. But I don’t think that what they do is impossible or even unreasonable, that we couldn’t strive to do the same. They aren’t throwing magic at some external threat; they’ve just won a victory over human pettiness — and they’re fourteen! If we try, shouldn’t we be able to do the same?
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