When Stories Leave Us Behind – Empathy and The Narratives of Adaptations (In OreGairu)

In case you’ve missed it, FLCL (pronounced ‘Fooly cooly’), which originally aired in 2000-2001 is getting a direct sequel, which will air in 2017. Most people’s response has been “Why?” I sought to calm these people down by reminding them that no matter how bad the FLCL continuation is, they’ll still have the original, untouched. But is that really true? One of the reasons Tolkien’s estate had been so reluctant to allow for movies to be made off of his work is the knowledge that the total mindscape of a franchise is indeed affected by all that it contains. Then again, look at Psycho-Pass’s 2nd season, or Batman versus Superman: Dawn of Justice, where the argument is that the new people in charge of the franchise don’t really understand what made it good to begin with, and don’t understand its core messages. So we use this argument to do away with dissenting evidence. Then again, we also see this argument with reboots such as female Thor, or black Spiderman, etc.

OreGairu S2 episode 5 anime - Yukinoshita Yukino thought Hikigaya Hachiman would understand her

And this is what it really comes down to; just as we dismiss the latest creation as outside “canon”, for not getting the original, we fear that somehow, we’ll be the ones left behind, where the newest creation will reflect on what the original has said and ruin it for us – not just our memory of it, but what it even said to us. And this is one of the reasons fans of source material are so often unhappy with adaptations: There are as many narratives on what the material really says as there are people who consumed it. This is unsurprising, because we filter the material through our own understanding of the world, and our own media preferences, until the effect of the media on us, through us, is as unique as the experience of having consumed it (and might be different should we revisit the material later on).

(This post will have very light OreGairu (My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU in English) seasons 1-2 spoilers, mostly of a meta-nature, discussing where the story went rather than its details.)

Take the director of an anime adaptation, or Peter Jackson who directed the Lord of the Ring films, and the script authors they hired. They all read the works, and thought certain things are important in it. They can cut out a segment, or put more emphasis on jokes, or more on drama, than we would, because they think those things are the true core of the show. So when a show or a film gives “too much” attention to one thing, and “not enough” to “the most important scene in the story!” it just means the story as we remembered it, as we fabricated it in our minds, is different from their version. Many fans wish for a “faithful adaptation” that omits nothing, because that way everything they want would be there. Except it doesn’t work like that, because there’d still be too much of stuff they didn’t find important and just forgot about, and not enough of the material they cared for – seeing as how the show needs to cover everything else as well. Usually “I want a faithful adaptation!” just means “I want more attention given to the scenes I cared for,” rather than a true call for “All Scenes Matter.”

So, what do we do when it’s still the original creator controlling things? We look with a mixture of hope and fear, because what if the read we’ve nurtured all along of the show is irrefutably shaken? While, “The author lost sight of what his work was saying all along!” can be used now and then (and some people did make that argument with regards to Madoka Magica: Rebellion, choosing to believe that the writers didn’t understand what made Madoka great, or went actively against it for the sake of commercial success), often we’re left with the realization that the show we’ve enjoyed all along never really existed outside our minds, and certainly wasn’t anything the author intended. Well, “author didn’t mean to, but his work carried his implicit worldview anyway” is a common refrain in today’s literary analysis (and I make use of it as well in some instances), but sometimes we find out the author clearly did think about what they were saying, and actually meant the opposite of what we thought all along.

OreGairu S2 episode 12 anime - Hikigaya Hachiman on image versus reality

OreGairu (Full Japanese name: “Yahari Ore no Seishun Love Comedy wa Machigatteiru.”, localized into English as “My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU”) is fascinating because it presents to us exactly such a case. The first season of the show, as far as I’m concerned, wasn’t anything special. But we’re not really here to talk about my read of the show, and certainly not for my evaluation of it. What the show presented to us was a very lonely and unhappy teenage boy, who “solves” other people’s problems by berating them and taking on the burden of their hate. The show had some drama and altercations, but much of its run was taken up by fluffy interactions, and comedy that while at times heavily reliant on offensive tropes, flowed well and was quite funny. It was just another show about an unhappy boy in highschool and the hijinks of a larger cast.

Except, there was something different (or was it different? That’s another question) in the show, where protagonist Hikigaya Hachiman would every so often give us some of his understandings about the world, in speeches such as “I hate nice girls,” or where he talks about the herd-like nature of the rest of humanity. This isn’t altogether too rare in media for teenagers, but a lot of the show’s watchers had placed Hachiman (nicknamed “8-man” and thus “Batman”, amongst the show’s fans) on a pedestal. They found grains of truth in the observations Hachiman has made, they have found places where his experiences and thoughts reflected theirs. That’s good, because as Nick wrote over at ANN, Hachiman is a loner-figure many viewers could find themselves in, because many viewers had been in his position, and it’s the sign of a good piece of media that it can capture an experience so well.

Where it got “weird” for me personally (but shouldn’t have, had I reflected upon it), was that these viewers took the “Hachiman is correct” viewpoint and transformed it into “Hachiman is (morally) right!” and then they went another step further, which, well, is what most of us do when we analyze a piece of media, and said that the show is saying Hachiman is right, and celebrating his character, his nature, and his observations. The reason I found all of this weird is because to me, the show has made it pretty clear that Hachiman was bloody miserable. He hated his life, and all of his observations weren’t the reason he was not only lonely but happy about it, but the reverse – a shield birthed out of his misery to try and tell himself that he’s not as miserable as he really is. They have grains of truth to them, but overall, they’re a lie. But who’s to say “my read” was any more correct than theirs?

OreGairu S2 episode 12 anime - Hiratsuka Shizuka sensei on understanding others

Then OreGairu’s second season came along, and unsurprisingly my write-up for the first episode more or less explained to those who missed it how the show had never sided with Hachiman’s opinions. It spoke about how Yukino had never been strong, and Yui never happy. I spoke, in other words, about how so many of the show’s watchers picked up on the lies the characters presented as truth in order to hide their weaknesses and hurt, presented to one another, and presented to themselves. And the second season cut down on most of the Light Novel-esque jokes, and it cut on the fluffy fun times. Instead, it had focused on the drama, and the anger, and the fear and the pain. All of these elements had existed in the first season as well, but the second season only shifted its focus, its balance of elements, to create a very different experience.

All these elements excised or reduced in import in the second season also remained in the books, as loyal Light Novel fans were quick to reassure us. But the director wanted to tell a certain story, and that story and its progress required the characters to face these truths they were unwilling to admit to themselves and to one another, so they could grow up. This need to grow up was born exactly from the fact that they were so miserable throughout the first season of the show, and only admitting it would let them go forward.

There are multiple reports of how involved the books’ author, Watari Wataru, has been with the making of the anime, going as far as to make specific requests for the ending song’s lyrics and composition. It feels to me as if the show hadn’t gone so heavily for drama in its second season just because it thought it’d make for a better story. I suspect that Wataru had seen the discussions springing up about his story, at the beast he has given birth to, the OreGairu fandom, and he felt the need to shake them, and shake them hard. Wataru wanted to tell his fans, “You don’t get it! This is not the story you’ve constructed! That story, those people? They never existed! And just as they need to grow up, so do you, you who hold onto these messages against contrary evidence, while trying to put a brave face onto your own misery.”

OreGairu S2 episode 2 anime - Hayato Hayama fears change

Except, is it? And is it always bad?

The second season of OreGairu forced Hachiman and the other characters to face their true selves and the costs of their actions, rather than letting them sidestep the issues through a sarcastic comment or a funny aside. The second season has made the same demand of its watchers. It would not let them think that Hachiman is happy, as he admits, crying, to the audience as well as the other characters that he’s miserable. He admits in a monologue to himself that he’s never been cool, and it was all an image he put up so he could hide from his jealousy of others. The show could’ve downplayed the drama, and the tears, and focused on the side characters and all the silly asides, and ye olde “people wish to confess their love but get turned down” as it has done in the first season. But it didn’t.

Wataru has empathy for Hachiman and for the people who identified with him in the first season. He could hardly have penned the story and characters without understanding where they come from. To say that OreGairu is a story about empathy is to state the obvious. But that it is a story about empathy with the characters around Hachiman, and for Hachiman by the characters who surround him is only the smallest part of it. OreGairu is a show about having empathy for ourselves. To understand and forgive ourselves for our limited understanding and love of others and ourselves, as we try to come to terms with the world.

Adaptations and the discussions surrounding them are about empathy as well. An empathy from the writer and director for the characters, and the empathy necessary to try and understand both the mind of the original author as that of the intended audience. When we watch an adaptation of material we’ve already encountered before, which tests our own understanding of the material, we’re also asked for empathy on behalf of the new adaptation team. To understand where they are coming from as they focus on different aspects of the show than we would is to understand that they’re different people, with different life experiences, and that they, like us, construct the stories they encounter through the filters of these different lives.

And should we think that they are wrong in how they perceive the story, that it is not a valid alternate read (and these instances are relatively rare)? Then empathy rather than ridicule. Likewise, when we find a story has never been what we thought it was about, we’re asked to put away the loner mien that Hachiman adopts, and accept that we might have been wrong, that just as the story’s characters change and grow, so can our understanding of them, and our understanding of ourselves.

To engage a story fully means to not only bend it to shift ourselves, but to allow it to subtly alter our own natures. To engage a story fully means to allow ourselves to be empathetic to ourselves, to forgive our unbending nature, and embrace change. In a good story, we see ourselves. In a great story, we see ways for us to change. Good adaptations take a story and add layers to it, while not changing it. Great adaptations change our perceptions, of stories, and ourselves.

12 comments on “When Stories Leave Us Behind – Empathy and The Narratives of Adaptations (In OreGairu)

  1. fgfdfh says:

    Great write up. You definitely hit the nail on the head.

    I want to give you an interesting case: Doctor Who. This show is special because it can be about everything. There is no true “canon”: every plot point can be rewritten, every actor can be replaced. Theme, style, emphasis vary depend on writers. And what did it create? The most infamous fanbase in pop culture. There are lots of great fans, but they can’t stop the cancerous part. No two Whovians can agree on what is good, what is bad, what should Doctor Who be. Every DW discussion is full of insult and anger. A show without a simple core identity doesn’t stop fanbase from the “you don’t get it” discussion. In fact, it makes the problem worse.

    Fiction is about empathy. I wish this was the first thing taught in school. Lower level school teachers often try to force the illusion of “objective” analysis. I would argue that this mindset brings more harm than good. I’m not happy about Star Trek reboot, but I always try to avoid insulting new fans.

    • Guy says:

      Star Trek in some ways is very good for reboots, because it exists in a more benign form of Doctor Who, as it has so many series and sub-series, that each focuses on something else. Heck, many often ran concurrently, so people didn’t feel as if one replaced the other.

      And I feel this is indeed why Dr. Who fandoms behave like this (and there are other reasons that are related to its demographic make-up, not just real-life, but in terms of what sort of audience is often involved in those discussions): A new Doctor replaces an old one. It’s like a parent divorcing, moving out, and a new step-parent coming in. Even if step-parent is awesome, you begin from a point of resentment due to them replacing something you loved.

      How do you avoid it with, say, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure? I think it comes down to three points: First, the core identity remains, and some characters carry over to give it a sense of continuity. It’s not “replacement” as much as it is continuation. Second, most fans come into JoJo late. They know it’d happen. I doubt the Whovians would act this way about the first 7 doctors, if they went back and watched all the episodes from the start, because they’d know it’s coming, and won’t feel as if it’s “their” show, which they can influence/argue about as it goes on. Third, I actually forgot what the third point was, hue.

      But honestly, those discussions are more a manifestation of the fandom. They’d find what to argue about even if it didn’t have The Doctor replacing. It’s about lack of empathy, indeed.

  2. Frog-kun says:

    Wataru wanted to tell his fans, “You don’t get it! This is not the story you’ve constructed! That story, those people? They never existed! And just as they need to grow up, so do you, you who hold onto these messages against contrary evidence, while trying to put a brave face onto your own misery.”

    Watari is remarkably tight-lipped when it comes to explaining his authorial choices for Oregairu. But I remember reading an interview that seems to affirm what you’ve said here. When asked which character he found easiest to empathise with, he said that it was Hachiman at first, but as the years went by he found himself relating more with Hiratsuka-sensei. Also, when asked why he thought Oregairu is popular, he said something along the lines of “because people live in an era where they feel unsatisfied with how they communicate each other, they can see something appealing in a story about a protagonist who makes choices while being aware of all the problems.”

    But honestly I can’t tell how much the evolving direction of Oregairu is due to Watari responding to reader feedback (as you’ve suggested) or just simply maturing as a writer and coming to understand his characters better. Maybe a little of both?

    • Guy says:

      But honestly I can’t tell how much the evolving direction of Oregairu is due to Watari responding to reader feedback (as you’ve suggested) or just simply maturing as a writer and coming to understand his characters better. Maybe a little of both?

      There’s also the other answer, which some would say is obvious: This is the arc he planned all along. It’s just taken some time to get there, after we’ve grown to understand the characters and they grew to understand one another (and themselves).

      But a lot of it is specifically about the anime, where the shift in direction is undeniable. LN readers after all were happy to tell me how wrong I am to say that Hachiman is jealous of Hayato, and said future episodes will reveal that. Then again, what people expect to read often turns out to be what they do read, which is certainly the case for me, even as I argue my read is “more correct” based on the material. I mean, would the same person not have said the same thing after watching the entirety of the second season? I wonder.

  3. Sephyxer says:

    While fans may lament the badness of an adaptation after it has come out, sometimes it can also happen when it just gets announced.

    An argument made when the trailer of Final Fantasy VII’ remake was shown at E3 was that new gamers would prefer playing the remake instead of the original (given its novelty and easier approach), but since most of the fans agree on how this remake is sure to be inferior -and whether their guess is right or not-, they also fear that the people who play this new version would perceive the “FFVII experience” as a much duller one than what the old fans had in their time. Just like this, an adaptation -which has the power to reach a much wider audience in the case of anime- may “corrupt” the original and give a dumbed down version of what it was. After all when a work gets “translated” between two different mediums, it’s a given that we won’t get the same product, the same experience, but mostly it’s also because it could be seen not as the “anime experience” of the series, but “THE experience” of the series.

    Of course, this is a very optimistic reading of the concern some fans may have when a new adaptation occurs, but I also think (maybe cynically) that the main reason behind such concern isn’t that noble, but a little more self-centered. Most anime fans (and this could also be applied to other kinds on fans) are always in need of validation and, more specifically in this case, they need others to know that they have good taste, that what they like is great. That’s because, more than anything, a favorite series feels intimate with oneself, and having it criticized by other people who had the different experience may feel like a personal affront.

    Basically, everything ends on what you said: seeing a work adapted may ruin what it means to us, because it has the danger of becoming something different to what we see in it.

    Anyway, that was a pretty interesting read, and also an enjoyable one since you talked about Oregairu, which is a great show that I like to be reminded about. I rate this not as a good, but as a great write-up!

    • Guy says:

      I changed your spaces to double-spaces to ease readability.

      While I think fandoms are about validation, I don’t actually think it’s about validating someone’s “taste”, it’s more that people feel so strongly about a franchise, especially if it “gets” them (as people felt reflected by OreGairu’s first season, and it’s often like that even if it’s not as clear-cut with “This work literally says what I think”), that any attack on the franchise is seen as an attack on their person. And mistranslation is an affront and misunderstanding of their person. And no one likes being misrepresented, or being presented in a lesser form. They feel so strongly at times that they want to make sure everyone gets the same experience as they have. That sometimes comes from a good place, but it’s still both impossible and likely harmful.

      It’s an interesting question about Final Fantasy 7, because there is this thing we call “Remaster”, which usually is merely about graphical upgrade, but Final Fantasy 7 is going to change both the mechanics and the story. It’s not really Final Fantasy 7 remade, as much as it is “inspired by Final Fantasy 7.” And yes, the knee-jerk is to ask, “So why not just give it another name?” But it’s the same as an adaptation, or a reboot. It’s just that it’s in the same medium. Then again, reboots happen in television and comics all the time, especially in superhero media. Video games just usually solve that by different names, as “re-iterations”. It’s more about feel, and it’s mostly more of the same.

      I think that in this case though, maybe something could be said about Square Enix as well, because they’re very clearly marketing it as “Final Fantasy 7”, and then the question becomes, “What does keeping the name signify?” I agree some changes are to be accepted, but how many before you feel they should’ve called it something else? And yes, in the end, all of it revolves around emotions. But since Square Enix is banking on the same emotional attachment, I think it might actually be warranted.

      And thank you for the kind words! I sure did write a lot of words about OreGairu, but wasn’t exactly feeling the need to write a show that is about the show and nothing else, since I’ve already said so much about it. So anything I said would’ve had to be a bit more meta.

  4. YahariBento says:

    I agree about Watari-sensei gave empathy for characters in Oregairu but I can’t describe about my opinion very well in this topic. However, after read LN many times, I am sure I found Watari’s hard work and empathy in every books, and found more in anime and manga as well.

    In anime, I feel someone or team gave empathy in every detail for ss2. It’s like… everything were provided carefully.
    In manga monologue, I want to click like button for mangaka who drew character’s expression very well (maybe Watari-sensei involved this too.)
    In LN, I feel Watari-sensei wrote images of each characters spread in every books very extremely carefully and he’s waiting patiently that someday some readers will find them, will understand them. (…or maybe WW is long term stock investor?)

    Example in LN vol 3-4, I am the one who read them and the story/characters are interesting but didn’t notice the hidden clues in these volumes at all. After read until vol 10, I found I don’t understand why characters did that or said that (Haruno and Hayato). However, return to starting point (read LN again) is the way I can do. So I did, finally that’s why I realize WW placed clues for a long time, that’s why I respect his carefulness. He is very extremely super gigantic serious in Oregairu.

    That’s why after I think over and decided to write Oregairu analysis focus on characters.

  5. Lorpius Prime says:

    Does writing about empathy and expressions of empathy ever get old?

    I like this. I like it very much. Thank you for writing it.

    • Guy says:

      Well, I do try not to repeat myself too much, you know? I do feel I’m sometimes getting there with my last three write-ups on Concrete Revolutio (cour 1, episodes 14-15) and now this. But you know, in the end, all stories are about humanity, so all write-ups about stories are too.

      I do try to offer variations though, or to make the main thrust different.

      And thanks! Glad to hear you liked it.

      • Lorpius Prime says:

        Oh no, I didn’t want you to think you were getting repetitive! I meant it as a somewhat wistful, rhetorical question to which the answer was “no”. As you say, it speaks to a fundamental part of humanity and the stories we tell, so it’s always present. And I, at least, still always find it interesting.

        • Guy says:

          Ha! No, don’t worry, it’s more that I used your comment to share a feeling I’ve been having lately, and am sometimes consciously thinking of.

          The answer is indeed no, it’s just trying to make sure each write-up is still distinct enough.

  6. […] What can I say, author Guy Shalev is a great guy. Not just for how he treats his audience in his comment sections, but for the treasure he provides in his work. Like the previous blogs, Guy offers editorials and […]

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