[While there is no discussion of aquatic vessels in this post, spoilers are in these waters]
Watching School Days was awful. It’s not one of those shows that is gripping despite the cringe-inducing events being narrated. I thought Kaiji was tough to watch, but that show had a lot going for it in terms of the the drama and excitement of gambling. School Days only has romance and sex to keep the excitement levels up. As a romance, it’s awful (more like the failure of romance), and as sexual content is concerned, there’s a lot of it but it’s by no means anything more than a visual tease, and not that exciting anyway.
Having said all that, I think School Days is important. I think it’s remarkable and provocative. It’s suggested to me that it is a parody of the tradition of Ecchi and eroge specifically (the more gratuitous sexual harem tradition of harem shows). I have very little experience with this tradition, so I will limit my speculation regarding this particular aspect of this analysis.
But yes, there is parody perhaps by way of deconstruction in that School Days takes the tropes of the tradition apart and puts it back together in unexpected or at the very least non-traditional ways. Like how SDS put it, it answers the question “what would happen if a harem lead actually went after all the girls?” (sexually). Well, there will be consequences. I will look into those, but specifically in the light of the idea of the rake, or the sexually successful young male.
The Dangerous Young Man
There is a difference between Makoto and the concept of the rake. The rake is what would be commonly thought of as a playboy, but the tradition of rakes is an English one.
The long heyday of the English rake lasted roughly from 1660, when Charles II returned from exile, until the death of George IV in 1830. There was a brief revival of some aspects of rakish behaviour among the cronies of Edward, Prince of Wales, in the second half of the nineteenth century. After that, what later became known as Victorian values made such behaviour largely unacceptable.
The first attribute of the rake was cold hedonism rather than grand romantic passion. He was usually a cynical exploiter of woemen, often a reckless gambler, sometime a touchy egoist quick to take offence and to seek redress in duels. He could be a good friend and a bad enemy. He was often aristocratic and sometimes rich.
There were of course womanisers and bullies in other countries, but there was widespread acceptance that the English rake was the most cynical, heartless and brutal of the type.
— Fergus Linnane, “The Lives of the English Rakes”
John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester: one incredibly degenerate douchebag
In anime, such characters would appear in the shojo tradition, either perhaps as a character to be redeemed by women (Ichinose Takumi and Okazaki Shinichi from Nana, Mori Ranmaru from Yamato Nadeshiko Shichihenge, The Red King from Basara), or as tragic villains (Kiryuu Toga and Ohtori Akio from Revolutionary Girl Utena). These characters can range from mischievous to degenerate, but are otherwise very tame compared to the rakes of (English) history.
What’s important here, is that all of them are Alpha Males, competing or banding together with other alpha males. School Days’ Makoto, is no alpha male.
Makoto is, weak, lacking in self-confidence, naive, and very much the template self-insert character in the harem tradition. However, he is also regarded as “zeitgeist of worthless male leads.” He ends up doing pretty terrible things, all related to sex and relationships with the women he interacts with (some of them are dear friends to each other, some are his friends). He is awful and irredeemable, and he was murdered spectacularly by the one he corrupted the most – actively, and through his irresponsible negligence.
To get to that end however, School Days relies on contrivance to sexually pair Makoto with so many girls. At the onset, Makoto is an Omega Male, that is the opposite of the kind of confident and capable male that attracts women. Sekai is the one who, by lavishing attention to him and showing her own (then) unlikely attraction for him enabled him to “climb the steps of adulthood,” that is, have sex and have the (unwarranted) confidence to get sexual favors from women.
It is remarkable, that with all Sekai’s attempts to make Makoto fit for romantic relationships, he makes no progress at all. He has truly nothing to offer women except a willing penis to indulge their sexual curiosity, and (quite sadly,) their romantic insecurities.
But how is the contrivance executed? Episode after episode Makoto becomes worse and worse, but his stock among women rises higher and higher. Back story and flashbacks reveal Makoto to be an upstanding young man, considerate and “princely” (in the Utena sense) to young girls. Sekai does a background check and reveals Makoto to be enjoy a concord of approval from school society. Makoto has always been a catch, the school’s best-kept secret. He’s not an omega, he is at least an Omicron Male, or maybe even higher in the Greek alphabet.
In the tradition of American high school love stories, there are always alpha males, and the omicron males are portrayed as outliers even within their omega society. These omicrons are ugly ducklings who clean up nice but often compete directly with the alpha males who are portrayed as insensitive jerks, or as villainous rakes. In Japanese harem anime tradition, the alpha males are non-existent. There is no threatening male competition for our omegas and omicrons. There is no such competition for Makoto.
Sawanaga would have been, and it’s part of Kotonoha’s terrible irony that she let that guy deflower her. But it was the first time wherein the male was not in power – he had no power and posed no threat to anyone despite himself (openly lecherous and obviously attracted to Kotonoha that way). Kotonoha let him have sex with her, she was a gatekeeper who did not participate in the act emotionally, thereby retaining all romantic and sexual power when it was time for her to reckon with him (to dismiss him). This guy is not competition for Makoto.
The Triangle and the Female Protagonists
With all this focus on Makoto, School Days actually has multiple protagonists. The female characters have a lot of agency and have distinct narratives as characters even if they all point toward Makoto. School Days passes the Bechdel Test of Feminist criticism. No one is going to argue however, that this show positively portrays females. To be fair, this show doesn’t portray human beings as inspirations to follow.
Kotonoha and Sekai are protagonists just as Makoto is, and form the points in the primary triangle within the harem. The difference is the levels of cowardice in both. Kotonoha was a coward to face the reality that Makoto is wholly undeserving of her affections and persisted with her delusions. She is a coward in how she lets herself be bullied by her peers. Otherwise, she is a moral center in the show up until the end. But this is a kind of moral center that is passive and victimized. Her morality is straight from the Beatitudes (“Blessed are the meek… Blessed are the clean of heart…”). She is what is pure besieged by corruption. She succumbs to it in the worst way at the worst time, and her recourse to all of this is her spectacular revenge.
Sekai too, was a moral center of the show up until she gave in to the Makoto who she spoiled. Sure, as Setsuna notes she’s inauthentic the whole time, but I submit that there are good intentions there. She would have suffered losing to Kotonoha if Makoto did make his girlfriend happy the way Sekai trained him to, and if he became happy for it. But no, there are suppressed desires among sexes and Sekai had stronger dosages of both repression and desire.
The important thing to consider is how Sekai is the catalyst. She is the active facilitator of the romantic and sexual devolution of their corner of their high school society. The Basketball Club’s antics with the sex tapes indicate a pretty degenerate sexual youth culture, but for the initially “pure” members of the triangle, Sekai initiated the action.
I am fond of emperorj’s description of this show as a descent into hell. Hell in this case is a world of deceitful humans with no accountability, where one’s heart’s wishes are given no consideration. I think it’s also remarkable how sex is an end that is not particularly given thematic or symbolic weight. It is treated as an end for males to arrive to, and as a means for females to arrive to something else.
Females are portrayed as sexually attractive, but there is no portrayal of any actual pleasure from sex, except that when the males get some of it, they want more of it. The females, nothing. We can make the conjecture that they must like it at some level for them to persist in it, but this is wholly ignored and it is very interesting how it’s all ignored. This too, is hell.
A Personal Note
Why do we hate Makoto? Since the tradition of harem literature provides for self-insert characters, I will relate to Makoto as well as shamelessly speak for other male viewers. Of course I will be often wrong in many cases, but I suspect that I will represent quite a few viewers too.
We hate Makoto because we wanted some of what he got. We don’t think he deserved any of the attention he got, but more importantly the sexual action he got. I was no rake in high school, but I was no wallflower either. I was an honor-student-turned-bancho and for years I enjoyed notoriety and attention. Could I have gotten away with some of what Makoto did? Maybe I could have. I didn’t, and I tell myself it’s because I’m a better man than Makoto. (Which is true but…)
Even if I weren’t getting the attention that I did, I would’ve been (as most of us would) a better human being than him, though perhaps most of us can relate to his lack of confidence. In hindsight I didn’t quite lack it as bad as harem leads – I got turned down by my one pure crush after all, year after year. Part of that devotion to the attainable is cowardice too (to fail where I’m supposed to be able to score) – but yes the antipathy towards Makoto is also guilt and regret for missed opportunities in youth.
The important thing here is, we may strongly disapprove of (alpha male) rakes, but a lot of this is Nietzchean slave morality. We hate Makoto because he shares many of our traits, but instead becomes successful like the rakes, in un-rakish fashion: without overarching villainy, without determination and making a project or lifestyle out of things, by being a leaf in the wind of high school sex and romance, and wholly without a chance of, or with such disinterest in, actually being with women and relating with them as human beings.
When we see the Kiryuu Togas and the Ohtori Akios fall, we take satisfaction in their comeuppance but somehow enjoy it with a different kind of schadenfreude. We don’t relish their fall, more than we delight in the triumph of the protagonists that best them. Makoto we can or are invited to relish in his fall, his grisly death. We are asked to look at the dark characters in the looking glass (Sekai too), and enjoy their terrible murders.
Me, I’m numbed by it all. I think Kotonoha is the tragic heroine of the show, and there is no redemption, no solace, and no future for her.
The evil in School Days is cowardice, lust, avarice, and irresponsibility. These are all very relatable failings, things we see in ourselves past and present. It is present among almost all characters in the show the same way it is present in different degrees in all of us. Makoto makes it easy for us to relate to all of this, superbly performing his function as a self-insert character in the Japanese harem narrative tradition.