As we enter the classroom to discuss the thirteenth book in our light novel club, I see a solitary girl sitting on the far side of the room. Chairs and desks are stacked behind her, forming a shadowy backdrop, but she sits in the most lighted portion of the room, next to a window overlooking the athletic club member participating in their activities. The window is slightly open, bringing in a gentle breeze that wafts in cherry blossoms and lightly sways her long, dark hair. She pays no attention to the three young men that entered, not because she’s lost in her book, but with an aire that says…you’re not even worthy of my attention.
Welcome to the thirteenth meeting of our Beneath the Tangles Light Novel Club! This time around, we decided to take on one of the most popular light novels of recent years, My Youth Romantic Comedy Is Wrong as I Expected, otherwise known as Oregairu. The series of novels is nearing an end, but we’re diving into volume one, released by Yen Press. Here’s a quick summary of the series from the Yen Press website for those unfamiliar:
Hachiman Hikigaya is a cynic. “Youth” is a crock, he believes–a sucker’s game, an illusion woven from failure and hypocrisy. But when he turns in an essay for a school assignment espousing this view, he’s sentenced to work in the Service Club, an organization dedicated to helping students with problems in their lives! How will Hachiman the Cynic cope with a job that requires–gasp!–optimism?
Our club prez, stardf29, led our group through a discussion of the volume as usual. Check out the questions below (expanded further in our comments) and please give your answers if you’ve read the volume, and then check our responses below that!
What do you think of the novel overall?
Twwk: I should probably note right from the start here that I’m a superfan of the series, so of course, my overall thoughts are that it’s off the charts. The light novel series is well-regarded in Japan for good reason—it hits a lot of the right buttons for light novel / anime fans, while doing so in a really smart way. This is the third time I’ve read volume one, and I like it best this time, though I enjoyed it thoroughly the first time I read it as well.
stardf29: Overall, it was as enjoyable as I remember the anime being. There’s a great cast of characters and I liked how the story itself was a twist on the usual high-school rom-com, subverting some of the usual tropes but not going full-on deconstruction.
What is your opinion of Hachiman as a character/protagonist?
Jeskai Angel: Hikigundam was a fascinatingly unreliable narrator. The fact that he repeatedly felt a need to tell us, the readers, that he’s not lying raised a red flag. How many habitually honest people feel a need to go around insisting they don’t lie? “Hachiman tells no lies!” he says at one point. After the trick with the cookies, he insists, “I’d never said I was the one who made them, so I’d never lied.” And then he says “No, I didn’t know him. Nope. I was unacquainted with Yoshiteru Zaimokuza”—right before grudgingly conceding they are more than acquainted. Finally, there’s this transparently untrue declaration: “Though I am indeed a loner, it wasn’t like I was jealous of crowds who were friendly with one another. It wasn’t like I was praying for their misfortune… I’m not lying, okay? Really.” The protagonist doth protest too much, methinks. He caps it off, though, with the ironic admission, “Oh, I know. The only liars here are them and me.” I had flashbacks to Dr. Sheppard of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, a famously unreliable narrator (it’s not a spoiler if the book is 90 years old, right?).
But his unreliability didn’t just stop as the suspicion that he was being willfully dishonest! I also constantly wondered if he misinterpreted other characters. Hikigalaxy is constantly describing the tone of voice, facial expressions, and intentions of other characters, but he evinces so much envy, bitterness, and pride that I couldn’t help but suspect that at least some of the time, he was totally misreading them. I’d read each interaction wondering what Yukino or Yui or Hiratsuka-sensei REALLY meant, sans the cynicism-filter. At one point, he says “guys are depressingly simple,” yet his own characterization ironically proves how untrue that is.
Overall, then, Hikigoomba’s untrustworthiness as a narrator made the light novel an exceptionally dynamic and thought-provoking experience. I kept wondering “Why is he like this?” How did this character come to be this way? The anime never explained, and neither did this volume. Hikigoron spews a lot of pseudo-intellectual, vaguely postmodern jibber-jabber, but none of it tells me what he truly thinks. His various stories of bad memories from middle school all felt like excuses, never like the actual cause of his disaffection with life. If something could draw me to continue reading the series, it might be the hope that his character will be more fully explained.
As for Jeskai’s desire to know about what made Hiki this way, I personally don’t need to know. Or rather, I’m willing to buy that his home situation as he presents it, his middle school experiences, and just his chemical makeup, have led him to become the way he is. And thus even in volume one, I’m more interested in knowing who he will become—I can already accept the beginning point of the journey, and look forward to where he goes from here.
stardf29: I do like the point that he’s somewhat unreliable as a narrator, insisting he feels a particular way about things when his actual feelings may be different. It does make for an interesting experience, and combined with his wry commentary on the world makes him an amusing protagonist.
If you’ve seen the anime, how did reading the novel compare to your anime experience
Jeskai Angel: It seems, at least based on this volume, that the anime stuck extremely close to the light novels. One of the major points of difference is, as noted above, that I didn’t have to filter everything in the anime through the lens of an unreliable narrator. The other major difference is that reading Hikigondor’s inner monologues revealed him to be much more of a crude jerk than he came across as being in the anime.
Twwk: The series dies stick very closely to the novel, but what makes both worthwhile in my opinion are the differences. The Hiki in the book is funnier, while anime’s Hiki, voiced by Takuya Eguchi and his deep tones, comes across as more hard-edged. The characters as a whole, I think, are generally more enjoyable on the screen, especially Komachi, who is treated far more like a real sister (and is far more intelligent) in the anime. Additionally, season two, produced by Studio Feel, is absolutely gorgeous, while I would say Ponkan8’s illustrations are much prettier than season one’s shoddy animation . But the book series continues to be good material for a few extra scenes contained within and because it’s just easier to handle the MOUNDS of dialogue in this series in written form than on screen.
stardf29: I agree that the anime was overall very faithful and for the most part, reading the novel was basically like reliving the anime. I do appreciate the extra text to get even more insights into Hachiman’s thoughts, though.
What do you think of the light novel’s (well, the protagonist’s) take on youth?
Jeskai Angel: Hikigungan’s derisive view of youth naturally draws us to consider the common positive view of youth that he disdains. Based on anime, it seems the Japanese really idealize “youth,” and especially the high school years, even more so than we do in America, and Hikigengar’s cynicism is at least partly a reaction against that idealization. Personally, I suspect the human tendency to idolize youth and to cling to it desperately through exercise or makeup or surgery or whatever, is a result of the fall. Death entered the world because of sin. As God created the world, he didn’t intend for us to the die. That being true, I find it highly unlikely he intended for us to grow old and decrepit, either; aging is just pre-death decay of the body, after all. I suspect that somewhere in young adulthood (late teens / early twenties?) when we reach our “prime” is, in a strictly physical sense, the closest we come in this life to what God originally intended us to be (and what we will be in heaven). In later years, we can still mature spiritually, but our bodies have passed the zenith of their strength and beauty. Perhaps this is why so many old folks describe still feeling young on the inside despite their outward age. We experience a disjuncture between our spirit and our aging body precisely because those bodies weren’t meant to age. All this is speculative, of course, but it leads me to the conclusion youth is legitimately something to treasure, but not to idolize to the extent that we refuse to age gracefully. I suppose this might put me at odds with both Hikiguava and the culture he’s rejecting.
Twwk: I once wrote about this for Area of Effect magazine, but instead taking Harry Potter as an example of how many look back at their school days with the kind nostalgia which that book series induces. Because I’m one who loves nostalgia, I place a high value on the feeling of youth that Hiki hates (though it should of course be noted that he might feel differently if he had developed the relationships he once longed for), but there is danger in getting lost in such feelings, both through idolization, as Jeskai describes, and in being dishonest to oneself. Too much love of “youth” can result in an inability to move forward, something I feel I experienced a bit of in my young adult years, so the old man in me feels like he needs to advise, “Nostalgia it up, but do so with care.”
stardf29: Personally, I kind of share Hachiman’s disillusionment with youth; I never felt like my high school years were particularly amazing or anything, nor do I feel any desire to return back to those years. Though I do have fond memories of that time, but they are just that: memories. There is something to be said about the opportunities youths have to pursue a variety of opportunities they might not have as adults… except I think that’s where my issues with “youth” lie: the idea that once you grow up, your life suddenly becomes dull and meaningless. In that sense, I think there’s a greater need for stories that show adults making the most of life… but as for Oregairu, I think there’s something to be said that there’s no one particular way someone must spend their youth. Even if it’s lacking in romance or huge events or wild hangouts with friends, that doesn’t necessarily make someone’s youth “wrong.”
Why exactly do others think this light novel / anime is so amazing? What am I missing about its charms?
Jeskai Angel: I mean, I thought it was good, but not exceptional.
I feel like I’m missing something.
Twwk: You might not be missing anything. I’m the cheerleader for Oregairu on our blog and haven’t heard much else from our staff regarding the show. But it’s true that it’s well-loved in Japan, and I think that’s because of what I alluded to earlier: you get all the romcom stuff that we’re here to read, along with lovely girls and characters that fall right in line with the medium’s archetypes, but it’s done so 1) with a great character in Hikigaya and 2) in a way that’s unusually well-written. Hikigaya thinks a MILE a minute, so the light novel is so wordy, and yet everything translates so well into English. I can follow his line of thought, as much as there is, and it’s also so, wait for it…GENUINE. Hiki, and it’s the same with the rest, fall into these archetypes but also resist them. Hikigaya is smart, maybe really, really smart, but he does dumb things and thinks in ways that matches the experience of a teen loner. He messes up a lot, and that speaks to me. Yukino is an ice queen who is good at everything, apparently, but has deep flaws that she can’t overcome. And then there’s the latter volumes that take us into unexpected dramatic material that remains entertaining but shows us that we shouldn’t, we can’t stay in one place—even the most damaged of us must move somewhere, and if we have a community, a real community, that somewhere we move can be a really good place for us, no matter how challenging the change may be.
stardf29: Honestly, I’m not sure I’d call the novel “great” as of volume one. It’s definitely “different” with its sardonic protagonist, but otherwise all I can say for it is that it’s very entertaining, with Hachiman’s pessimistic views and how they clash with the more standard rom-com events happening around him. That said, it does hint towards what I think made the anime, at least, great: the characters show more nuance and become quite well-developed, and they have to actually face challenges to their worldviews and consider if they should be changed.
Do you relate particularly well to any of the three main characters (and I’ll throw in a fourth who plays a larger role in later volumes) and their personal challenges—Yukino and the jealousy she stirs in others because of her talents and skill; Yui and her desire to fit in; Hiki and his social awkwardness; or Hayato and his obsession with keeping the peace and keeping relationships afloat?
Jeskai Angel: I strugle to relate to Hayato at all; no one’s ever accused me of being popular, attractive, and athletic. I do relate in varying degrees to the other three. For Yui, I’ve spent much of my life feeling like a weirdo and at times really wished I could fit in better. For Hiki, I’ve struggled greatly with interacting with other human beings. For the longest time, I harbored this suspicion that there was some kind of trick to socializing and making friends that everyone else knew, but I had somehow missed learning it and was now locked out of the loop. I’m often still anxious and less than adept in social settings. And while I’ve never had the confidence (or is it just bluster?) of Yukino, one part of my aforementioned sense of being weird is that I’m just smarter than most people. I didn’t actually know that when I was growing up, mind you—I spent years sincerely convinced I was stupid, ignoring all evidence to the contrary—but in hindsight I do believe some of the distance between my peers and me was that I was on a different level intellectually. (And yes, I realize that saying this makes me sound a lot like Yukino, LOL.)
stardf29: As I mentioned, I most relate to Hachiman: his social awkwardness and how he doesn’t care much for “typical” youthfulness definitely resonates with me, even if I never got as extreme as he did.
Do you think the teacher, Ms. Hiratsuka, was justified in getting Hachiman involved with the Service Club?
Jeskai Angel: I….guess? Over the course of the novel, it becomes quite clear that he’s an embittered, troubled individual with a twisted worldview. He needs help. What’s less clear is the merit of Hiratsuka-sensei’s solution. Is making him join the Service Club really going to help him grow into a healthier perspective on life? As of the end of this volume, the jury’s still out on that one.
stardf29: Yeah, I don’t think there’s inherently anything wrong with her motive of wanting to help out a student, so the question is really more whether her method of helping is actually helping or not…
Twwk: I’m going to take a more pragmatic view of that question—the semirealism of Oregairu is basically only thrown off by Hitatsuka-sensei. She gets away with very non-teacher things, even physically punishing Hikigaya. But it plays into the show. She’s not only a wise mentor, but there’s a little magic there…things happen that maybe don’t entirely make sense and they started with her bringing Yukino and Hiki together. But in volume one, it hasn’t yet come together. It just seems like an unusual punishment to make Hiki join the club.
I should also not that I don’t think Hiki’s as troubled as Jeskai does! Or maybe he is and I’m just trying to go light on myself, because comparing 16-year-old Twwk to 16-year-old Hiki, the latter doesn’t come out so bad…I feel like we’re at least on equal footing!
Are you shipping Hachiman with anyone yet?
Twwk: I ship Hiki a bit with Yui in this volume, only because I think it’s cute that she seems to harbor a crush on him!
stardf29: I do think it’s cute that, for all that Yui comes from the “normie” group, she seems to be interested in Hachiman. While the reason for that isn’t fully revealed in this volume, it is hinted at, but otherwise I like how she’s something of a bridge between the loners of the Service Club and the “normies”, especially given how she doesn’t completely get along with them. That said, it’s very early in the game (so to speak) so who knows how things will change as the story develops. Of course, the true best ship of the volume is Hachiman x Saika… but let’s not get too serious about that.
Jeskai Angel: No, not especially. Yui and Yukino are both possibilities, but the series’ title is just cynical enough that I can’t help but suspect the entire series will end with Hiki still alone.
Twwk: That feels like an appropriate way to end a discussion on a book titled, My Youth Romantic Comedy Is Wrong as I Expected!
That’s it for us! Please let us know your answers to our questions in the comments below, or anything else regarding this volume of Oregairu. And stayed tuned as we give our next selection of the light novel club sometime over the next couple of weeks!
Featured art by Hfp～Kubiao (reprinted w/permission)
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