Utopia: a Perfect Society/World
It does not exist, except as an ideal, a fantasy. It is a fiction. For the purpose of this post I will treat it in a broader sense: a fantasized, or desired world to observe or inhabit.
Gakuen Utopia Manabi Straight is a meditation on this. It’s quite a complex thing, since the narrative setting isn’t quite perfect in that problems and disappointments exist. Take Seioh High School itself. I presume that in a perfect world it would carry on being itself, following its own ideals. Instead it succumbs to the pressures of lower birth-rates and therefore an ever decreasing student population.
The ultimate result is that it was merged with Aikoh High School. Despite the apparent recency of this crisis, it has been happening for a long time. We know that 30 years ago, Seioh had just stopped being a boarding school and the dormitory had been shut down precisely due to a falling student population.
Its current superintendent figured prominently in a vain effort to keep the dorm in use. Through this character of the superintendent we also learn that the ideology of Seioh is to honor tradition, to keep doing things that seem to lack practicality, and (more prominently) relevance in the current milieu (2035) wherein students get to do many other things besides study exclusively.
This ideology is amusing for me indeed. Here we have an aged superintendent determined to remember love for her own time in high school, which to contemporary viewers of the show, is the present. We have a near-futurist science fiction show waxing nostalgic for our present condition.
The show is like a love letter to high school slice of life narratives, as if Nodoka Manabe from K-ON!(!) grew up to be this school superintendent, keeping the memories of an all-girls’ school kind of life, with all its codes, tropes, and familiarity, living and breathing.
It is a fantasy the way Aragorn son of Arathorn was the last Great King of the Free Peoples of the Middle-Earth, the last embodiment of the Third Age. That time of glory, elves, and magic is past, and the time of men and the mundane follows. Manabi is the last great Student Council President. There will be another one, but the moment of her reign is a eulogy of an age that has passed away.
It is a fantasy, fantasizing about another fantasy. If we are to model these acts of fantasy as levels, it could look something like this:
Viewers experience a sense of calmness, relaxation, and other mild pleasantness while watching or after watching episodes of these shows. So much so, that they would actually call it a ‘healing’ effect, as if reality inflicts wounds on them, or makes them sick.
Part of this effect is due to the atmosphere that the shows create. I identify the cause as whatever thing in the show that presents the world as alien but not strange. Unfamiliar but not threatening, threat and unease are the last thing that a viewer feels in the atmosphere that these shows makes them breathe.
In the case of Aria, we are taken to a different planet, with longer and slower seasons. The pace of life is incredibly slow. And while there are goals to be met, and work to be done, nothing seems so difficult that the characters need to worry too much that they’ll run out of work and a livelihood. It is only in Aria The Origination wherein the strife involved in being a professional Undine is underscored and given dramatic weight. The first two shows did not emphasize this at all, and concentrated on exploring the setting.
In both Manabi Straight, and K-ON!!, we see a world of schoolgirls without boys. Boys are largely invisible, both in thought and in presence. Mu-chi has three brothers, but they are pretty much generic family members. The males are either older or younger brothers, or a teacher. There are no males on the level of the protagonists.
This is so, that any romantic subtext in the shows are pretty much eliminated (save for those who indulge yuri or lesbian fanservice). In K-ON!! the characters sometimes tease each other about boyfriends (specifically the lack thereof), but there was no eligible male ever rendered in animation ever. The males are in all cases, older service staff.
In Manabi Straight there is an adult romantic relationship: Manabi’s brother and an older woman, the superintendent of Aikoh High School. Otherwise, the show is utterly free of heterosexual romantic elements, simply because the males do not exist – they never appear on the screen. The School Fair featured some delinquents who harass the schoolgirls, but they are easily dispatched.
This, I think is part of what makes these show fantasies. The girls in these shows are very, very, very nice to each other and in general. They can do no real evil, compared say, to similarly aged female characters in robot shows like Gundam SEED or Star Driver, nor do they approach anywhere near the malice of the schoolgirls in Great Teacher Onizuka.
The world they live in is so benign, despite the challenges and conflicts they face (none of which are born out of evil or malice), and yet the shows put the character through the paces make these girls ‘come of age.’ I sometimes imagine a heaven so perfect, that there is really nothing to do; that there is no further point to anything because every second to infinity is perfect the way it is. In the film The Matrix: Reloaded, the Architect of the facsimile reality called the Matrix told Neo that the earlier incarnations of the Matrix program was designed to make people permanently happy (i.e. no conflict and no problems). He then said that whole crops failed when they rejected the program.
Thus, the utopia of high school in these shows (in the case of Aria, trade school) is still filled with problems, though problems that aren’t concerned with immediate survival, danger to life and health, and conflict with malicious people.
There is also this thing about some male viewers who would find real women intimidating and threatening. They would find their real and imagined wounds (suffered from interactions with, or and acute lack of interactions with, women) healed in the experience of watching these shows, where the women are girls. Girls, who are by and large child-like, “pure,” asexual (although sexualized), and possess traits that would be considered weaknesses (clumsiness, ignorance, etc.) in adults (in males) but are instead charming for such traits.
It’s a world wherein women are not threats, but also a world wherein men are not threats! Without such threats and dangers, the viewer can indulge in thinking of himself as someone who not only can care for females, but take care of them: albeit just being there to cheer them on, pat them on the head, give reassurances.
While there can be (and there is) sexual gratification going on, this is not the primary experience – at least in these three shows I reference (unless one manifestly approaches these shows with that purpose). This kind of fantasy is indulged in material one degree removed from the source (doujin work), which is then not so different with how many other works (including mainstream anime) are subjects of sexual fantasy.
Going Deeper into the Bones of It
Utopia is where Manabi Straight takes place. It’s a world without that perspective, or I should say, it actually realizes a set of fears many people in Japan should have: that when people graduate, they won’t have jobs; when people graduate, they’ll find themselves holding a depreciated piece of paper because everyone has one; when people graduate, they’ll do the same things people who are younger are doing a better job with, thanks to the future curve; when people graduate, they won’t find a more fulfilling life than before they graduate.
So what does schooling offer them? Why are we spending time milling away when we could be starting our careers today? Just because some people pay you more later on? Perhaps that is counter to the harsh reality of today, but the stress won’t end.
At the end of it all, I guess, the point is that anime is entertainment, but the healing nature of Manabi Straight comes across as the background theme behind all the commotion that we talk about. It’s a calculated effort; a show for freeters and salarymen and just those people struggling with their grinds from one period of their life to the next.
omonomono, Exam Hell – Examining a Perspective Bias
Here omo presents another way Manabi Straight is a fantasy world — as I broadly interpret Thomas More’s concept of Utopia. Take away the lolimoé elements and you still find a world where things work, and threats are managed. Another interesting thing is how the characters’ goals are stressed less, compared to Aria or even K-ON!! — the latter having a goal that isn’t even plausible given the talent level of the characters.
One interesting thing I find is that all three shows do underscore the transience of the fantasy. This is important. In Aria we witness the passing of the great Undine, the age of the three great Water Fairies. Alicia Florence and Athena Glory both retire. But more importantly, the time spent as a tight-knit group of young girls learning to progress is over. After all, this was the primary catalyst for the good feelings in the show, and its passing is what’s eulogized at the end of Aria The Origination.
I’ve mentioned the passing of, and nostalgia for, carefree school life in Manabi Straight, so I’ll then talk about K-ON!! which is, perhaps the most fanciful of all the shows. The fancy is centered on their Manabi figure: Hirasawa Yui — who is far more clueless, and far less positive than Manabi. Also, far less capable — as demonstrated by her utter dependence on her younger sister Ui. However, the charm of the show (for those who care to be charmed) is how Yui is so good at being good company with the group as a whole. She is their emotional linchpin. She is the one that says whatever thing that truly brings them together.
A good example would be at the eve of their first night at the Summer Music Festival, when Yui with all the conviction she is capable of, declared that they are or will be good enough to play in the festival, and that they will rock. There is hardly any basis in reality in this statement, but I daresay this is unimportant. It’s the feeling that this is possible. It’s the possibility that is cherished by these young girls that is the value here – that thing that is being worth capturing in this fleeting moment.
The sense of profound loss that Yui brought forward after their concert in the school festival is mitigated by the fact that they will go to the same college together. It won’t be the same, but the tragedy is not terrible at all. The interesting thing here, opposite to Manabi Straight is that the profound loss is felt by the younger, the ones left behind: Jun the Mio fan, Ui the devoted sister, and really Azusa, the last club-member.
While these three will continue the club, Azusa’s feelings are delicate: she felt the outsider, being a year younger, and yet for the four she had so much love. We can’t call it admiration, because even Mio weirds her out, but rather just the sorority born of so much hanging out and the youthful non-pursuit of supposedly deep desires.
There’s the misdirection in K-ON!!, obvious to experienced anime viewers, but can be confounding or dismaying for some. It’s not about achieving one’s musical dreams, but rather how the light, fluffy, and meaningless days of high school is made meaningful. Meaningful how? In that they could very well be the best days of their lives and now they are gone. We can bring into this whatever our own experiences were, and it’s interesting because I am certainly was never a girl in a unisex high school. It is a fantasy – but I get it enough that I do have some similar silly experiences. I did go to band club and had a band. We never had tea time, but there was silly enough things that are analogous to the antics in the show.
They really won’t be big enough to play the Budokan, but that’s ok. Their fantasy world isn’t the fantasy world that the viewers are immersed in, or are interested in.