Ookami-san Episode 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10, 11 & 12 – Howling at Your Feet
There’s a certain genre in anime that I’ve never been able to properly define. It’s a vague thing: a combination of the typical collection of premises, aesthetics, settings and character archetypes that make up most genres, but there’s something else to this that defies description.
Let’s start with the superficial elements, because they’re necessary, but not sufficient, to explain what this is. These series nearly always take place in high school, and typically stars a not-particularly exceptional male and his social circle. There are nearly always more female members of that circle, and at least some of these are typically (but not always) attracted to the male, for reasons that are rarely satisfactorily explained.
Wacky adventures ensue, which typically fit the desires of the author and/or publisher to make this series run for as long as possible and make as much money more than they fit any conventional plot arc. The main plot, if it exists as such, usually concerns the relationship between the protagonist and a predesignated (and usually clearly telegraphed) female, who invariably ends up being one of the girls attracted to him eventually.
The show usually tries to be funny and fails, although it usually succeeds at not taking itself seriously (not taking your creation seriously is one of the easiest things for creators to do, and often the most dangerous), but it probably tries to be serious, at least in moments, in a way that, Seinfeld, to name a show, does not.
It is, in short, the kind of twenty-genre pileup that makes Asian entertainment endlessly rewarding to fans of genre shows and film (and Asians, ostensibly), and a bewildering pop culture mindscrew to nearly everyone else. But it also has something which makes it unavoidably anime. Or manga or light novel.
This genre, whatever it is, is multi-media, and, in fact, these works usually appear in more than one format. Ookami-san, which I will talk about eventually, is originally based on a light novel, a short, illustrated book aimed at pre-teens, teenagers and young adults (like most manga and anime). But it never appears outside of what otaku manga/anime Genshiken calls the “visual culture”, which is manga, anime, (illustrated) novels and games all aimed at otaku (or fujoshi, a kind of female counterpart to the mostly-male otaku). Watching these shows, you get the feeling that they would look extremely strange if someone ever made them in live action, and make no sense if they had to capture their energy in a traditional, long-form novel (this is why the series that start as light novels tend to be the best of the bunch: they have to have interesting plots or characters to grab the reader).
They are, in short, cartoons. Or comics, in either the Sunday funnies or comic book sense of the word, but—crucially—not the nose-upturned “graphic novel” sense. These are stories that do not purport to capture the real world in any sense: they’re creating a fantasy world, with its own logic and rules. Instead of the patient gravity, anthropomorphic animals and loose mortality of Western cartoons, these shows have shorter skirts (and more opportunities to raise them), rich orphans with infinite wealth and usually some kind of magic or superpowers.
Suspension of disbelief is necessary in most fiction, but in most fiction, even if there are superpowers or magic or something, we typically expect the characters to act like normal human beings, but there are exceptions in every genre: the oafish idiot husband in Western situation comedy, the hero who succeeds despite improbable odds through sheer luck or the contrivance of the writer. However, writers use these exceptions at their peril, because the more reliant they are on them, the less human the characters are and the flatter the drama is. These kinds of shows (or manga or books—hopefully you get the point by now) tend to rely on more of these than your typical story, even your typical genre story.
Now, if you’ve had a very unfortunate experience with anime thus far, you’re probably pretty annoyed right now. “You’re just describing all anime”, you’re saying. Admittedly, from most of the shows I’ve written about so far, you might get that impression. But the truth is, there are anime with other premises, with other art styles. There are shows that take themselves seriously, or take place in other genres that have their own conventions.
Those other shows make up about half of all anime released. Unfortunately, most of these are aimed at children, long-running action shows aimed at preteen boys or long-running sports shows aimed at preteen boys, which are like the long-running action shows in every way except that they revolve around sports rather fighting dudes.
Neither I nor my partner-in-crime have much love for any of the above genres, so we’re left with action shows aimed at adults, the truly exceptional shows which defy classification at all, and this as-yet-unnamed genre, which is probably around 35-40% of the total animation output of Japan.
From my (admittedly brief) exposure to other people who write about anime, I think the commonly accepted description for this nebulous genre is “romantic comedy”. I can’t accept or use this description for two reasons: first, when I hear the words I think of Western chick flicks, which have their own set of conventions and contrivances, but are completely and utterly different.
The second reason is that every part of the description is misleading. For one thing, these shows are rarely funny enough to warrant being called comedies. Here, if you get a show that has one funny moment every episode, it’s in the top 10% of these kinds of shows. Multiple moments per episode, and you have a genre-defining classic.
Next, for me to call a show “romantic”, it would have to have some actual romance. Romance would necessitate intimacy or some relationship developing between two characters, and that would require a recognition of mutual attraction. In most shows of this genre, that never happens. It would be an earth-shattering development if one of the parties in the alleged relationship admitted their attraction, especially to the other.
This perpetually-delayed relationship is crucial to understanding the genre. A lot of these shows exist to exist as long as possible, giving their creators steady work and letting the publisher or producer make money. Resolving the unresolved tension in the romance would force the show to end. This is bad to the point that I consider a show that actually has a narrative conclusion to be moderately successful, at least in one respect.
So, lacking a better definition, I’m just going to name the genre Anime. It’s something of a default state for all anime; even shows that don’t hew closely enough to convention to be an Anime anime typically have at least some element of it. Bleach, for example, is a straight up boys’ action show, but it takes place in a high school (initially), stars Ichigo’s friends who have wacky adventures and had mad unresolved romantic tension when I stopped watching it. Durarara!!’s reality is cartoonishly unbelievable in different ways and it aims for a more serious tone than Anime anime, but it still has high schoolers who won’t admit their feelings to each other. Indeed, it’s a rare and special show that doesn’t.
Ookami-san is a highly unusual Anime anime in that it actually takes the romantic relationship at its core seriously. As I mentioned in my review of the first episode, the shy main character asks out the intimidatingly violent tsundere before he’s even met her. Ryoushi is never anything less than hopelessly in love with Ookami, and each episode is a chance for the show to develop that relationship, without fail. There may be wacky hijinks, but Ryoushi always finds a way to bring it back to his feelings for Ookami and his quest to become the kind of man that she’ll fall for.
That’s not just convention-breaking romantic development, it’s also better writing than we normally see. A major problem in Anime anime, even the better examples, is that the viewpoint character usually lacks any motivation (or, in bad shows, characterization). They just exist: trying their best to survive the hijinks. It’s a move that typically drains anything interesting from the show. If there’s not an actual plot present, there’s essentially no reason to watch the show, in my mind. With a romantic plot that is delayed for as long as possible and no dramatic reason to drive the action, you’re left with a increasingly despairing series of endless distractions: the long, dark beach episode of the soul.
Ookami also succeeds at being moderately funny. The running gag of philandering Tarou and his love Otohime, who responds to his flagrant flirting with other girls by taking him into secluded areas and doing shocking but unmentioned things to him was used sparingly enough to keep being funny; the unambiguously evil shadow leader of the Otogi Bank made me smile; even the sarcastic narrator had her moments.
There are some good sitcom plots, too, although they’re still pretty hit or miss. Most of them play off the tension between Ryoushi’s feelings for Ookami and her inability to be honest enough with herself to reciprocate, which is part of the focus on their relationship I mentioned earlier.
The downside is, it still doesn’t go any further than most such shows. Ookami’s reasons for being so emotionally closed off may be be thoroughly explained, but she still isn’t able to be honest with herself. The last episode deals with this almost exclusively, teasing that something is going to happen, but it never does. We’re told that it’s basically inevitable, but that’s it. End of the series.
The series may be complete, but the narrative isn’t. Maybe they’re angling for a second season if the first goes well, but even if they get it, it’s still unlikely to resolve this. Because then they’ll be shooting for a third, and on and on until the show is no longer profitable to produce.
This is the tension with any serialized story created for profit: the tension between the desire to create a work of art (with a complete narrative arc) and the desire to continue to profit from your work. The best writers and creators can manage this tricky balancing act but, as I’ve said many times before, very few people making anime are this good.
It’s funny, because one of the main reasons I got into anime in the first place was that the finite length of shows often meant that there was at least some closure at the end, unlike the interminable American TV shows I grew up watching.
However, American television shows like Lost and Mad Men have shown a resolve to completing a narrative arc and bringing things to a close, despite their continuing popularity. And anime seems to be getting worse and worse about this every year (and with every sequel). Maybe it’s time to start looking for a new hobby.
You can watch the series here.