How Seiren re-engineers galge stock characters

Seiren is not among the most popular shows this season (with a MAL score of 6.4/10, an AP score of 3/5, and an IMDB score of 7.3/10), and it is not among the best shows this season, but it does something interesting and unique that I think is worth a closer look. Specifically, it appears to be an exercise in rediscovery and re-engineering.

Anime has a well-deserved reputation for relying upon stock character types and plot structure. This is not necessarily a bad thing: most of what anime does differently from western productions is about cleverly saving effort and resources without sacrificing story quality, and stock characters can be used to this end. However, stock characters have become over-fitted, to the point that shows that hew too closely to type become predictable and boring (for instance, see this season’s Gabriel Dropout, a show that despite incredible animation and voice acting, was consistently done better beat for beat twenty years ago).

One way to combat this is to draw attention to it (as last years Saekano did). This works fine a couple of times, but by itself quickly becomes boring: the character who is aware that she is a shallow cliche becomes another shallow cliche. Another way is to engage in a dialogue with the type, adding nuances that make categorization fuzzier and possibly bringing in self-awareness but still engaging in the same attributes and behaviors that are associated with the type (which, as Digibro explains in several videos, is part of what NisioisiN does in the Monogatari franchise, and which I think this season’s Masamune-kun’s Revenge does reasonably well). It’s also possible to simply play the types straight, if character study isn’t a major goal: Konosuba doesn’t really try to engage critically with Megumin’s chuunibyo status or Darkness’s masochism, and instead simply uses those cliches exceptionally well in service of the comedy.

Seiren does something different, and (being an anime original instead of an adaptation) I think it does it intentionally. I take as Seiren’s thesis that the stock personality types are themselves dramatically interesting, but the cliche behaviors and attributes associated with those types are unnecessary and can obstruct connection. To this end, it tries to show these character types in a realistic and naturalistic environment, with non-core traits removed — as though an alien had read a description of these character types and written characters adhering to those descriptions without having ever seen an anime.

Seiren’s structure is, on its face, absolutely typical of the basic galge format: a protagonist gets to know several girls, and depending upon his actions he can develop a relationship with one of them. This format is so old that by the 90s attempts to shake it up by injecting time travel and supernatural elements had already themselves become cliche (and Seiren has none of those attributes); School Days, itself ten years old by now, tried to shake this format up by adapting only the bad ends. However, right off the bat, we have some big differences in how this is handled structurally, tonally, and in terms of shared characterization. Our characters are all high schoolers, with most of them in tenth grade; where a typical galge would polarize their maturity levels (particularly by making some characters sexually active to the point of deviance for comedic effect while making others almost absurdly innocent), Seiren portrays all its characters as within the typical range for upper middle class high school students: interested in sexuality but naive about it, with insecurities about their naivete, and with a mix of mature and childish hobbies. Where a typical galge raises the emotional stakes to a fever pitch and creates conflict based on major (often ridiculous) misunderstandings, Seiren shows characters floating in and out of an ambiguous zone between friendship and romance without much fuss, portraying every character as fundamentally wanting to understand and be understood. This is a pervasive thematic and stylistic element: we’re looking at a consciously & conspicuously iiyashi-kei love-comedy, where the stakes are low and even the arguments are calming. This naturalism extends to the art: the character designs are much more realistic than even a Kyo-Ani style, and characters are rarely off-model (which normally is a bad thing since it limits the expressive range, but emotions in this show are pretty muted so instead it adds to the appeal); nobody has an unnatural hair color, and few people even have a hair color that would be unusual among Japanese students.

Moving on to characters, Kamita is absolutely a protagonist-kun: he is physically average, has no strong feelings or preferences, and has no particularly notable personality attributes. However, he still differs from a typical character of this type. His aimlessness is lampshaded in the (widely hated) opening scene of the show, where he is being chided for writing in “stag beetle” on his career survey: while aimlessness is normal for this kind of character, the kind of childish surreal aimlessness you might see in actual tenth graders is rare. Kamita has interests that are normal in people his age but rarely shown or mentioned in anime of this type: he plays casual / nuturing games, acts out professional wrestling moves with his friends, and hangs out with a group of similarly awkward guys. The way his sexual interests are portrayed is also interesting, but sexuality in this show will be discussed at length later.

Tsuneki, the first heroine, is absolutely a tsundere: she puts on a harsh front in order to hide her insecurities, particularly with people she likes. Unlike the other characters, her design consciously references the database: she wears her hair in the same style as Asuka from Evangelion and Rin from the Fate franchise. However, most tsundere behaviors have been removed or modulated: she is never extremely harsh (she never hits anyone or becomes explicitly insulting), and while her emotional reactions are stronger than those of other characters in the show, they are never outside the range of typical or acceptable behavior. As the first heroine (and one who continues to appear in every route), she gets the most characterization, and the origin of her attitudes and habits is made clear: her conflict is a desire to be more mature than she really is, and in addition to going out of her way to act like her idea of an adult (getting a part-time job despite not needing the money and despite school rules against it, attempting to spend a week at a beach house with friends against her parents’ wishes), she attempts to present herself as worldly (particularly in terms of sexual experience) — a ruse that fools her peers but not the audience. While putting on airs and attempting to seem more adult is a common tsundere trait (Rin & Asuka both do it, and it’s extremely common in ‘palmtop tiger’ characters such as those in Toradora and Familiar of Zero), the mechanism here is very different: Tsuneki attempts to be an adult not due to parental neglect (Rin & Asuka are orphans, and Taiga and Louise’s parents are absent) but instead despite active intervention by caring and present parents. Even the way she is introduced flies in the face of every other major tsundere depiction: where tsundere characters are typically either the protagonist’s childhood friend or complete strangers, at the time of Tsuneki’s introduction she and Kamita are on the friendly side of casual acquaintances. Tsuneki’s interest in Kamita is immediately obvious to the audience (though not to Kamita) because of her constant minor sexual teasing, and this interest continues throughout the other routes: she’s the most sexualized character, but she is also consistently depicted as being mostly interested in Kamita (we don’t see her tease anyone else) and having only a pretty minor interest in him (while we see her act somewhat jealously in Miyamae’s route, this is partially because of shared history and differences in philosophy — basically, Tsuneki seems to accept whoever Kamita ends up with). In other words, Tsuneki is a tsundere but neatly avoids nearly all of the non-core tsundere traits, down to even very subtle ones whose universality is invisible until they are missing. Kamita makes sense as a match for her because he is so non-judgemental that she can be honest with him.

Miyamae is a slightly less clear-cut case. Gamer girls are newer as a fixture in anime, and their traits are less well-defined. However, Miyamae subverts many of them. One element here is the way gamer girl characters typically deal with femininity and with respectable behavior: they are often depicted as slovenly — uninterested in looks, grades, and athletics. (For an extreme example of this, look at Gabriel from Gabriel Dropout.) When such a character needs to seem initially attractive, they are instead shown as a secret otaku — someone with a fake ‘ideal student’ personality and a real ‘gross nerd’ personality they only show to family and close friends (see Himouto Umaru-Chan, Saekano, and even to a lesser extent this season’s Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid). Miyamae avoids or subverts all of this: she is a serious student with good grades, good at athletics and pretty enough to be known for her looks by second year students; she is open about her interest in video games, and her interest is initially unknown to Kamita only because he knows her mostly by reputation. She has social problems stemming from her dysfunctional relationship to video games, but her basic underlying problem is that she applies the same kind of contentiousness and seriousness to games as she does to everything else, without prioritization and without an awareness of how her competitiveness might affect others who lack her skills. She is lonely not because she flouts convention but because she doesn’t know how to turn off her drive to improve herself: she’s better than everyone around her at everything, to the degree that even her basic humbleness doesn’t help. Kamita has a weak enough ego that he’s willing to keep her company even though he can never hope to catch up to her, which makes them a good match.

Kyoko, the third heroine, is absolutely an imouto character. While her route hasn’t finished airing, she’s still a pretty interesting subversion of tropes. Having childhood friends belatedly recognize each other as sexual beings is a pretty common trope in western sit-coms (and in h manga), but it’s not terribly common in galge, and it’s done differently here. Usually, the childhood friend character is part of a long-standing one-sided crush (or a two-sided crush where each side is unaware of the other), but here, we explicitly see Kamita and Kyoko discovering new dimensions of interest in each other simultaneously, as part of the general project of both of them coming to terms with a shift away from their childish habits and behaviors. Major dimensions of the typical imouto trope are missing: the age gap is only one year, and Kyoko is neither blood-sister nor step-sister but instead a neighbour; there’s no long period where they are away from each other (they didn’t see each other in school during Kamita’s first year, but being a year apart they wouldn’t necessarily see each other without planning to anyhow, and it’s made clear that she is a frequent presence in Kamita’s life because of her friendship with his sister). Kamita and Kyoko’s relationship is not merely already close but actually still close, which distinguishes this from pretty much every other imouto character relationship I’m aware of.

The depiction of sexuality in this show is strange and interesting. Lots of galge and harem shows have over the top depictions of sexuality, but those depictions tend to be easily classified — essentially another kind of boring cliche. The protagonist who suddenly transitions into a fugue state of sexual deviance used to be pretty common (see Golden Boy, Sora no Oshimoto, and the Monogatari series) and is thankfully fading in popularity. Protagonists who are afraid of their own sexuality are still pretty common, particularly when over the top tsundere characters are in the mix (see The Asterisk War, Love Hina, and this season’s Interviews with Monster Girls). Characters who have a fixation on some particular attribute but are otherwise not terribly sexual are also floating around (see Kyokai no Kanata), and are perhaps even less realistic than the other two. Seiren breaks the trend with a pretty naturalistic depiction of polymorphous sexuality: the things that turn Kamita on are never cliches (he’s not ogling breasts or asses, or even thighs) nor are they depicted as strangely deviant, but instead they’re the kind of minor detail one might fixate on with an actual lover (the slightly damp spot where Tsuneki once sat, the nape of Miyamae’s neck). When Tsuneki flaunts her sexuality, she does it with awareness of this: she sits on Kamita’s desk and then teases him about his discomfort, or she uses overly familiar body language in order to fluster him, rather than wearing a fetish outfit or shoving her breasts in her face (as even otherwise well-developed tsundere characters like Asuka do). With regard to fetish outfits, when Miyamae wears a bunny costume, the costume itself isn’t depicted as highly sexualized by Kamita (although it’s shown that other convention-goers see it this way), and instead the show focuses on Kamita and Miyamae bonding over shared the shared fear of pissing themselves in public. (Two shows this season go to Comiket and cosplay, and both engage in interesting dialogues about sexuality; but, nobody needs an excuse to talk about Dragon Maid.) Outside of the sexualization of characters, we have two animals thematically and symbolically associated with sex: rabbits and deer. Rabbits aren’t terribly unusual as a symbol of sexuality, but I’ve never seen deer used in this way. Kamita’s friend Araki is described as a furry, and it’s explained that he has a sexual fixation on rabbits — to the point where he doesn’t seem capable of being interested in someone without a rabbit theme being present; deer, on the other hand, are never shown to be anyone’s sexual fixation but are consistently present in sexual situations: Tsuneki ends up in Kamita’s room because her attempt to escape the cram school was aborted due to deer chasing her (leading to her appearing wet and half-naked, vulnerable in front of him for the first time); Miyamae and Kamita originally bond over a deer-raising game (which Kamita says has some sexual-seeming sound effects), and they mate their deer; Miyamae goes to Comiket to sell her hand-made deer plushies, whose killer feature is the ability to swap gender using velcro antlers (and while flustered, Kamita makes a big deal about the sexual equality of deer society, driving away customers). On the other hand, when Miyamae starts playing as a bunny girl she goes back to her old bad habits from middle school, frequenting the arcade and skipping school to play video games online; Tsuneki is originally (casually) interested in Araki and after being sent to the cram school one of her friends steals him away, leading to a confrontation in the rabbit pen. From these circumstances, I would say that rabbits symbolize a kind of immature approach to sexuality (and an immature approach in general), while deer represent stable and loving relationships. This explains why Araki’s fetish is never emphasized as deviant but is instead frequently depicted as something he is slowing working through, and why Tsuneki (who both desires and fears adult sexuality) is both obsessed with and morbidly afraid of deer for the entirety of the series.

Another angle to Seiren that’s interesting is the way that it’s very clearly positioned as a coming of age story. Most shows of this type are set in high school as a matter of course: this is the only time when regular people have enough independence to pursue romance but enough resources not to need to spend all day working; while events associated with this period and with coming-of-age themes are often referenced in other shows (the obligatory test of courage episode, summer vacation, beach episode), they rarely actually function well as coming-of-age stories. Seiren broadcasts its intent with that first scene: where most shows use the career survey as a gag (with a character filling in “superhero” or “king of the world” or “famous actress”), Seiren subverts this by making it a gag that doesn’t make sense: there is no stock character we would expect to want to grow up to be a stag beetle (or who would even want to say that as a joke), and so we’re immediately set adrift, being unable to clearly place this character. This character is also adrift (the stag beetle is, along with the cicada, a kei-go for summer: if we want to interpret this decision symbolically, Kamita is saying that he would like his future to be similar to the summer of his life that the series depicts — a pretty abstract and aesthetic position, and one that Kamita might agree with but would never actually be able to explain). With any other show, the career survey answer would tell us which stock character Kamita aligns with; in this show, we need to understand who Kamita is before we can understand his answer. And, fundamentally, this is a childish response: one that befits someone like Kamita, who is simultaneously more childish and more mature than all his classmates. Each of the heroines have a different specific, plot-significant relationship with maturity: Tsuneki wants to be an adult but knows she’s not really emotionally ready; Miyamae, adrift in her own way, has an internal battle between a competitive and nurturing instinct and a tendency to return to habits of her childhood as a video game prodigy when stressed; Kyoko has a childish nature and is completely oblivious about how her behavior seems to outsiders, and her arc will have to involve coming to terms with her own transition to adulthood. In this show, maturity is connected strongly with a nurturing instinct, and for both heroines whose routes have been completed, they chose nurturing professions.

Seiren is also in dialogue with femininity. Not only are all the heroines specifically positioned as an ambiguous mixture of masculine and feminine traits (with Tsuneki being aggressive and sexually intimidating without ever seeming like a tomboy, Miyamae combining mastery over a traditionally masculine hobby with a traditionally masculine competitive instinct and a set of highly feminized skills, and Kyoko’s lack of awareness of her own femininity being emphasized in her route despite the twin themes of professional wrestling and magical girls), but Kamita is also portrayed as having traditionally feminine traits (being more concerned with caring for people’s feelings, protecting existing social groups, nurturing and repairing relationships, and communicating clearly about feelings than any of the heroines, along with being generally passive as a character — something highly feminized in galge-type shows). More overtly, Kamita cross-dresses as a magical girl in the first scene of the first episode of Kyoko’s arc, and he’s consistently shown as more interested in feminine-coded versions of things than masculine ones (for instance, during the Miyamae arc, he prefers the deer game and another schoolbus-driving game — i.e., nurturing games — to the violence-oriented fare Miyamae plays). No characters have traditional male roles here, in part because typically feminine-coded nurturing behavior is treated as a sign of maturity regardless of gender. It’s also important to note that, in the completed arcs, Kamita is shown to have chosen his profession to complement that of his mate: Tsuneki becomes a chef (conquering her fear of deer by becoming an expert in cooking venison) and Kamita becomes a waiter in the same restaurant; Miyamae becomes a school teacher and Kamita becomes a bus driver.

There’s a lot to pull out of this show: subtext, symbolism, and a complex dialogue with the state of the genre. But, does it succeed? I think it largely doesn’t.

It’s not a poorly made show, but because it avoids lampshading the tropes it subverts, it’s easy to take it at face value as a cliche rom com/galge adaptation made by someone who doesn’t understand how to properly use the genre tropes, rather than a conscious attempt to subvert them. By keeping the core elements of the types intact, it can be seen as less subversive than it really is; by dropping the auxiliary elements, it can seem less competent than it really is.

The way sexuality is depicted, while strictly realistic, seems alien because of how divorced it is from the normal depiction in this genre, and the casual pace and low emotional stakes can easily be seen by genre aficionados as a failure to achieve the kind of frenetic energy and melodrama typical of romance comedy anime.

It fares particularly poorly this season, since it’s airing alongside Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, which covers a lot of the same thematic ground and plays similar games with tone and pacing while being a far better-executed show, and Masamune-kun’s Revenge, which has a similar setting but sticks to pretty standard tropes while being more consistently enjoyable; had it aired this time last year, against Saekano and Nisekoi, it probably would have a better reputation.

Another problem is that, without attempting analysis, the characters feel underdeveloped. All the necessary information exists in the text to consider them fully realized, but because it attempts to cram three whole routes into twelve episodes, none of this characterization is given breathing room. The general subtletly and the explicit avoidance of character-building tropes makes it even harder to quickly model the characters, resulting in difficulting even telling supporting characters apart during the middle of the show. Having Tsuneki’s arc exist primarily in the more limited environment of the cram school, where there are fewer supporting characters, makes sense, but we then bear the full brunt of a large cast of realistically-drawn brown-haired minor characters immediately at the beginning of Miyamae’s arc. Seiren doesn’t take advantage of any of anime’s many very important techniques for minimizing the number of frames necessary to show characterization — in other words, this show could have been live action with very few changes — and it suffers for it.

Seiren is, from what I understand, a kind of stealth sequel to Amagami SS. I haven’t seen Amagami SS, and Seiren doesn’t advertise its connection very well, but it’s possible that for viewers of that show it holds up better in the characterization department. However, Seiren reviews that directly compare it to Amagami SS are largely negative and seem to imply that Amagami is much closer to a standard galge show, indulging in the practices Seiren avoids.

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Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software.

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