Tanaka-kun is Always Listless (Japanese: Tanaka-kun wa Itsumo Kedaruge) might be the first slice-of-life anime that I’ve chosen to watch without the recommendation of others. I generally seek excitement to keep my attention. But I’ve had plenty of excitement in my life lately. This season, I wanted more of that soothing vibe I picked up from Grimgar last season. So I started Tanaka-kun is Always Listless, a show about an extremely lethargic high school kid.
Multiple characters in Tanaka-kun is Always Listless are learning the same lesson: they shouldn’t try to be someone they aren’t. It’s a common theme in entertainment, although it’s presented differently in anime than in Western stories. But I’d like to slow down, examine how the theme is presented in a recent episode, and seriously consider what it means, especially from a Christian point of view.
In Episode 4, “Shiraishi-san’s Secret,” we get to know the class idol, Shiraishi-san. She’s beautiful and kind, and she’s even the class representative… but she wasn’t always like this.
Shiraishi was not popular in middle school. She dressed for comfort, not for style, and she had no confidence to initiate friendships. But in high school, she wears contacts instead of glasses. She wears her skirt shorter, and she does her hair like a celebrity. It’s exhausting and uncomfortable, but at least people flock to her.
Yet she’s still worried that people might find out about the “real” her. When Ohta and Tanaka accidentally walk in on her after she’s adjusted her clothes and hair for comfort, she’s terrified that they’ll tell others about how she looks—and that people will think about her differently.
It is absurd thinking, really. No girl wakes up with her hair and makeup done, let alone with clothes adjusted properly. Those who sacrifice comfort for fashion during the day change as soon as they think the coast is clear, usually at home when they don’t expect visitors. It’s not worth gossiping about.
Besides, Ohta doesn’t recognize her, and Tanaka is half asleep when they see her like that.
When Shiraishi finds out that Ohta doesn’t know her, and she can walk around school in her comfortable clothes without people recognizing her, she’s relieved. Her ideal self has become exhausting to maintain and to worry about. If she can spend time at school in comfort, without ruining her idol image, then maybe she can keep up the act.
Then Tanaka sees right through her changed clothing.
Shiraishi is horrified, although Tanaka and Ohta don’t care much. They move to a more secluded room where she can explain herself:
The popular Shiraishi-san you see in class every day is the ideal version of me, which I worked very hard to create. The real me is plain, dull, and has no friends. Just look at how pathetic I am. But, even if it was exhausting, I wanted to shine. I struggled so hard to enjoy everyday like everyone else. Stupid, right? Go ahead and laugh if you want.
There’s a lot of twisted thinking in this section. Shiraishi is trying to create a new version of herself, an “ideal version” based on what she thinks everyone is drawn to. It’s not an uncommon goal. But trying to force yourself into a mold that hides your weaknesses and rejects your personal strengths in favor of other strengths is counterproductive, arrogant, and ultimately unsustainable. It’s obvious from a practical perspective: If Shiraishi didn’t spend so much energy on trying to appear perfect, she’d have more energy to employ her natural leadership skills. Similarly, if she didn’t work so hard to conceal her perceived weaknesses, she could concentrate on addresses her more debilitating weaknesses: lack of confidence in herself and shyness when it comes to initiating conversation.
From a Christian perspective, trying to create an ideal version of yourself isn’t just impractical: it’s arrogant and sinful. Personal growth isn’t an individual endeavor, but rather a process that requires faith, work, and reliance on the grace of God. It starts with learning about God and who you are in relation to him: acknowledging your weaknesses and sin next to his strength and righteousness, but also seeing yourself as his beautiful, beloved creation, endowed with unique gifts to nurture and use for his glory. Those gifts include not only spiritual gifts or physical talents, but also many of your interests, passions, and opportunities. You confess your sins and the Lordship of Christ Jesus when you first become a Christian, and then again on a regular basis. There is new birth initially, and there a line between your old self and new self, but it’s also an ongoing process (2 Cor 5:17, Eph 4:20–32). While our own efforts are expected, we shouldn’t expect credit for it. Growth is not about our own strength or vision, but God’s, as he works through the good and the bad to mold us (Rom 8:28–30).
Personal growth isn’t an individual endeavor, but rather a process that requires faith, work, and reliance on the grace of God.
I think about it this way: Any physical beauty I might have, whether or not I always recognize that beauty, is clearly God’s work, not mine, since I did not craft my DNA. Even when I try to enhance it through makeup or clothing choices, I’m only using the creativity and tools God has given me as a way to enjoy his creation, show my enjoyment to others, and communicate messages about myself. (Unfortunately, I often do have my own glory in mind when I’m in front of the mirror, rather than just enjoyment of creative expression. That’s something I need to confront in myself, examine, and confess.) The same approach applies to how I act around others and to my spiritual and mental growth: this is God’s work. I am his creation, inside and out. He’s invited me to be a part of the creative process, given me the tools to participate, and even allows me to make creative decisions—much like he invites the human race to cultivate the earth and to craft art and architecture—but as soon as I depart from his guidance and seek my own vision and glory, things go downhill.
Focusing on God’s glory as we grow is important because when we become more like God, we become more ourselves. It’s a fascinating paradox. We become like other Christians in many ways, yes, but we’re also better able to see and use our unique set of gifts and experiences. It’s so much better than trying to become your own “ideal version” of yourself based on cultural expectations.
It’s more peaceful, too. I can’t say that I’ve arrived at the perfect combination of joy in how God’s made me so far, excitement for what he has in store for me, and discipline to obey and continue to change. I’m secure with who I am in Christ (an identity that includes who I am becoming as well as who I am now), but I must not let that lead to complacency like Tanaka’s. There’s a tension to maintain. Life as a God-follower is described as both resting in him and a long race. Both metaphors apply at the same time.
But perhaps my explanation has become too spiritual, and you no longer see the practical application. What about Shiraishi’s very real worries that others will see her as plain and dull? Or her desire for friends, and her wish to enjoy every day like others do?
First, she’s confused her looks with who she really is. Her personality doesn’t seem to change much between when she’s dressed up and when she’s comfortable. She is not plain and dull inside. And, as she learns, fashion isn’t an all-or-nothing thing. She can display her interest in society (and boost her confidence!) by fixing elements of her clothes or hair in a fashionable way—but she can also wear glasses or wear her hair in a simple style.
Second, not everyone is enjoying each day the way they appear to. Many are faking it, just like she is. And many—including Tanaka, as he reveals—would be relieved to learn that she’s not always “sparkly.” Like Shiraishi, others need permission to be themselves—to show their weaknesses or less popular strengths. But once they have permission, there’s room for deeper friendship—and for real growth.
There is more to be gleaned from this episode, and more dialogue I’d like to examine and challenge. Understanding who we are, who we’re meant to be, and how that effects our interactions with others isn’t simple. It doesn’t help that we’re constantly growing and changing. It’s no wonder so many of us can relate to Shiraishi, unhappy with who we are and anxious someone will see beneath our carefully maintained masks. Even if I had more time, I could never fully examine this topic in just one blog post. I only hope to encourage my readers a small bit, because most of us know from experience that it’s exhausting and counterproductive to try to be someone you’re not meant to be. We’re called to something more satisfying and realistic than crafting ourselves into the type of “ideal self” Shiraishi reaches for.