Some Reflections on OreGairu (My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU)

I’m new to anime. It was only at the start of this semester that I actually got into it, despite having wanted to for years before that. By chance, building up my list of series to watch, I stumbled upon Oregairu, or My Youth Romantic Comedy. The show is about a cynical high schooler, Hachiman Hikigaya, who is made to join a volunteer club in the hopes that his attitude will be changed in helping his classmates. Over the course of three seasons, we follow his development alongside the other two main characters, Yui Yuigahama and Yukino Yukinoshita, as they become close to one another, learn about themselves, and confront the nature of relationships. One of the show’s main themes is the search for what is genuine or real, which has made the show a favorite for many, including myself, who have felt a personal connection with it. What made me so attached to it (perhaps too much), and the reason why it shall remain with me, is how much it resonated with my own life experiences. With great emotional depth and subtlety, it explores the nature of friendship, love, identity, deception, authenticity, reason, and emotion—subjects upon which I wish to touch here with the aid of philosophy and literature. (*Spoilers ahead.*)


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Self-Deception

In the second part of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, “Apropos of Wet Snow,” the narrator recalls a petty feud he had with an officer he encountered one night in a bar. He informs us that, having blocked the passageway, he was physically moved aside by the man, who, to make matters worse, seemed to pay no heed at all, as if the narrator were but a piece of furniture, an object, in the way. The Underground Man went to the bar looking to pick a fight, but chose not to engage because his cowardice, he attempts to convince us, did not stem from cowardice! At this point in his notes, he utters an offhand comment: “don’t laugh too quickly—there’s an explanation for that; rest assured, I have explanations for everything” (49; emphasis mine). This sentence is straightforward; however, I find it to be one of the most haunting lines in the whole novella: The nakedness with which he says it, and the fact of what he says—that he has stored up an explanation for all things, that everything is explicable to him, that he can provide a reason at every turn, that he always has a justification ready, in short, that he can rationalize whatever, whenever—this is the very sickness from which he tells us he is suffering at the beginning of the novella, namely, the sickness of being “overly conscious” (6). This is a man for whom nothing is what it seems, all things and persons are suspect, every action has an ulterior motive, each surface hides a depth unseen by the eye, a truth must conceal a lie; the Underground Man, confined to his head, self-exiled to the margins of society, knows no outside, has no point of reference except what the violent cauldron of his mind ferments. An outcast, an outsider looking in, he complains about the world from his fortress of solitude, fantasizes about shouldering the soldier for whom he harbors an obsessive resentment, and resentfully watches his old schoolmates at the table and across the room while he paces back and forth in a feverish stupor.

In many respects, I think Hachiman is a lot like the Underground Man. The show opens with a voiceover of him reading a paper he had written for class, in which he argues that “Youth is a lie. It is nothing but evil” (S1E1 00:03). Like his Russian counterpart, Hachiman is a loner, and he is cynical toward society at large. Having been ignored, laughed at, humiliated, mocked, and rejected by his peers throughout elementary and middle school, he has built up a comprehensive and over-simplistic narrative around himself: it is, and always has been, him against the world. He conceives of himself as many existentialist “heroes” do, glorifying his isolation, railing against the superficiality of those around him, looking on furtively with critical eyes, treasuring his unique destiny as the lone individual whose struggles only reinforce his beliefs and justify his mission, and deeming all relationships to be forms of dependence that are false and that detract from the integrity of the self. This last part is something that struck me while watching, because for much of my life, I too felt that seeing myself as a social being who needed others was a kind of admittance of weakness, a betrayal of myself and reality. And yet, in the past couple of years, I learned, as Hachiman eventually would, the truth of the matter: That other people, far from destroying our selfhood and independence, are in fact the conditions that make them possible.

Subjectivity can only exist as intersubjectivity. The existence of others does not threaten me, it makes me. But when, instead of “self-with-others,” we frame the course of our lives as “self vs. others,” it is easy to fall into the same trap as Hachiman, for whom solitude is a positive term; he toils under the illusion that he is self-sufficient and needs no one else. What makes this difficult to realize is that the self is, to be sure, an independent thing that provides us with our personhood, yet “independence” is nonetheless a mode of relationality—in fact, independence defines itself as the deficient mode of dependence, meaning that we are originally with others before we can distinguish ourselves from them in various ways. The tendency, however, is to interpret this dependence as deterministic. Since we need others, we fall down the slippery slope of concluding that we are the products of others. This, too, is true in a sense, for we are products of others, albeit only partially. One is mistaken if one thinks that who one is, is the sole product of others; a commodity can only be produced when a laborer is provided material on which to work. I think it is the case that others provide us with material, but we fashion that material, knowingly or not, into ourselves. Matter without agency cannot be formed, and it is not the case that others are our agents; for otherwise, they themselves would be impossible. Hence, whether he wants to admit it or not, Hachiman’s pride in his independence depends, ironically, on the very people of whom he thinks himself independent.

Many of our deeply held beliefs, as the descriptor says, are sedimented over time. The strata of our identities accumulate over the years so that what goes unchallenged, settles—seemingly for good. Hachiman’s loneliness is the bedrock of his personality; if you were to take it away, then he would no longer be himself, as no longer would there ostensibly be a “him” of which to speak. This is why he spends all of season one solving problems the only way he knows how: Self-sacrifice. Since he is liked by no one, he has nothing to lose; accordingly, whenever a problem arises, he can simply do whatever will cause him the most disgrace, knowing that others will be helped at his own expense. In his eyes, this is a win-win situation. For example, at the end of the first season, the high school is hosting its annual cultural festival, but when the class president bails at the last minute out of stage fright and Hachiman is tasked with bringing her back and saving the event, he viciously points out her incompetency and reduces her to tears in front of her friends. He does this knowing that, in response, their support would ultimately motivate her, that he would destroy his already tarnished reputation in the process, earning his classmates’ anger; and knowing, finally, that this was how he was and always would be. Similarly, in the second season, Tobe, a classmate, asks the service club to help him secure a date with his friend Hina. The club soon realizes that this is impossible, because she is not looking for a relationship. So Hachiman, being who he is and finding the girls’ solution unviable, decides to take matters into his own hands without telling them his plan. Just when Tobe is about to ask Hina out, Hachiman interrupts, asks her out himself, and is rejected, facing the humiliation of Hina, the confusion of Tobe, the embarrassment of the onlookers, and the disappointment of Yui and Yukino, both of whom refuse to forgive him.

Naturally, none of this fazes Hachiman—except for the last two reactions. After all, he not only prevented Tobe from being rejected but also ensured thereby that he, Hina, and the others would remain friends, while only he himself, who risked nothing, suffered. If he was successful, which, considered objectively, he was, then why should Yui and Yukino have felt so strongly about what he did? What was it to them that he threw himself under the bus? He cannot understand why they should have reacted negatively since, from his perspective, he got the job done. He fulfilled his service. He did what was asked of him. A rational thinker, he cares about efficiency above all. His ability to provoke others and so make himself into a scapegoat is perfected from years of experience and observation. And yet, this narrow utilitarianism, this rationalized cost-benefit calculation, leaves one thing out of the equation, something to which the Underground Man himself alludes. To paraphrase what his teacher, Ms. Hiratsuka, tells him after the cultural festival and what Yui criticizes Hachiman for after the rejection: Although you may not care about being hurt, there are people who do hurt at your hurting; and you may know a lot, but for all your knowledge, yet you do not understand others’ feelings.

Of course, the problem is that these things are foreign to Hachiman. The idea that others might—and do—actually care about him or that his actions’ consequences transcend him, does not even cross his mind. Nobody has cared about me, so why, he reasons, should anyone ever possibly care positively about me? And the sad thing is, this makes sense: It is difficult to see otherwise in his position. That anybody should care about his problems, is literally inconceivable to him. Yukino, on the other hand, is annoyed with Hachiman for another, deeper reason. She notices what he has yet to—namely, that his cynicism is nothing more than self-deception. What she sees is not an unlikeable, terrible, no-good person but, on the contrary, a deeply hurt(ing) person with a good heart, who out of a disguised self-hatred creates his own suffering. In short, she believes Hachiman’s loneliness is a self-fulfilling prophecy: Believing himself to be a bad person, he acts in such a way as to confirm this belief in those around him, making it into a reality. He does things that make others hate him in order to prove to himself that he is, in fact, hated. Furthermore, it is a projection: He attributes his own self-hatred to his classmates, on which basis he intensifies his separation from them. This is not to say that his negative self-image is entirely his own construct; for, as I noted earlier, its roots originate from traumatic childhood experiences. His mistake comes from this starting point, which he generalizes and cements, appropriating it for himself and turning it into his destiny.

This positive feedback loop entrenches him in a cycle of self-righteous pessimism, much like the Underground Man. Indeed, Dostoevsky’s anti-hero admits as much: “It’s perfectly clear to me now that it was I who, owing to my boundless vanity, and hence also my exactingness towards myself, very often looked upon myself with furious dissatisfaction, reaching the point of loathing, and therefore mentally attributed it to everyone else” (43). Yet the resulting alienation, the displeasure of being cut off from everyone, the sense of always being out of place, the realization that one is always looked down upon, are avoided in every case through justification, as when Hachiman and the Underground man both reassure themselves that, having no part in the trivial and frivolous affairs of their peers, they are superior to and “more intelligent than everyone around” them (9). Yes, we are looked down upon, they seem to say, yet that is of no importance because I look down upon them in turn; consequently, what is it to me that who I look down upon, looks down upon me? That I look down upon whoever looks down upon me, renders their opinion worthless. I do not care what they think, as their opinions are of no significance to me. Such logic-tight, secure thinking can only strike us as most insecure, however. Here, the dialectic of independence comes into play again: Just as independence presupposes a certain dependence, so the cynic who (appears to) discount the opinions of others actually takes such opinions into account very much, or else such elaborate rationalizations would be unnecessary. Whether he acknowledges it like the Underground Man or not, Hachiman’s isolation, although legitimately rooted, is nonetheless perpetuated by none other than himself. He thinks everyone dislikes him, and so he is disliked because he makes everyone dislike him.


Selfhood and Change

But if this is the case, if Hachiman truly is blind to his own problem, then this has serious implications for his identity. Facing up to this truth—should he choose to do so—would require that he completely overhaul how he thinks of himself as an individual. It is at this point that the show tackles the questions of selfhood and self-deception powerfully. Coincidentally, the series addresses the same questions that just a few weeks ago I posed to myself and discussed with a friend:

  1. Can the self change? And if so, how?

  2. Even if the self can be changed, should we change?

  3. If we should change, then when? Under what conditions? For whom?

These questions are each explored in varying degrees throughout the show. The first time we encounter the theme substantially is in season one episode eight, when the high schoolers become counselors for a summer camp. When Hachiman, Yui, and Yukino are leading a group of kids, they promptly discover that one of the campers, Rumi, is excluded from the group. She always hangs back and sticks to herself with her camera while all the other kids walk, talk, and play together, completely ignoring her. Immediately, the parallel between Rumi and Hachiman is clear: We see her as a younger version of him, and he, noticing this himself, offers her some of his typical cynical advice, as if to teach her his ways. The difficulty is, we have established that Hachiman is partly to blame for his condition, despite his disavowal of responsibility. Meanwhile, the case is less clear with Rumi, for while she, too, is actively ostracized, she is not blameless either. Still, she is young enough that we see how critical this summer camp is for her: How and whether she chooses to address this situation will determine whether she will end up like Hachiman, and we worry that she will. Regarding the first question—whether the self can change—Hachiman answers Yes, because only individuals can change, but not the world (S1E8 09:34).

As to the second question, later on, as the counselors are brainstorming how to help integrate Rumi with the rest of her classmates, he declares the following: “It's not always one's own fault. The world, our society, people around us—there are plenty of times when someone else is to blame. Saying 'I can change myself' is just admitting defeat in order to adapt to this cold, cruel world so that you can be its slave" (S1E8 15:00). In other words, it is a clear No; we are under no obligation to change ourselves, least of all for others, since this is inherently a self-betrayal, a violation of one’s integrity. When we change ourselves, we do so to fit in, to be more like others; but to be more like others is thus to be less like oneself because one is forfeiting what makes one unique in favor of what is conventional. Therefore, one has a duty to remain oneself absolutely—indeed, so much so that, when pressured to conform, one should do the precise opposite and assert one’s individuality even more. Evidently, Hachiman has no intention of ever changing. Whenever he receives pushback, this only goads him on further. If someone—say, his teacher, Yui, or Yukino—requests that he change, not even for their sake but for his own, out of a genuine sense of concern, then no matter what, he will treat this skeptically and be offended, interpreting it not as heartfelt or selfless, but as the selfish demand that he relinquish his identity and be more like them. The only other option—that he change himself of his own accord—seems hopeless. Obviously, though, if this were the case and change were ruled out entirely, then there would be no character development over the next two seasons. But—spoiler alert—he does change, gradually, almost imperceptibly, and much of the show’s greatness consists in just this incredible transformation, which at the beginning certainly appears futile.

So what, then, is the solution? Why does he change his mind? How does it come about that this resolution to which he clings wholeheartedly, this core of his ipseity, weakens to the point that he can willingly desire to become otherwise? Part of the answer lies in what I discussed earlier, viz., the intersubjective nature of the self. All of his life, Hachiman has closed himself off from everyone around him. Nobody had the chance of “reaching” him. Simply put, it is his time with the service club, with Yui and Yukino, which puts into question and so unravels his identity. Several philosophers, notably Hegel and Levinas, have emphasized just this point: That our very self-understanding, in fact, our very Being, is unsettled and upset by the irruption of the Other.[1] It is in the presence of another person, a person who, completely transcendent to me, eludes me and resists my conceptualization, who never ceases to amaze me, who is “large” and “contains multitudes,” who harbors depths unimaginable to me—it is the sudden introduction, or better yet, the imposition of this person into the ordinary, ordered regularity of my solitary existence that turns it upside down and causes me to rethink myself, understand myself anew. This is why, by the end of season two, Hachiman will consider the possibility that “there’s some part of us that’s pre-determined by others,” a part that will never quite be ours (E12 21:18): The Other breaches us in our innermost depths, where we least imagined ourselves vulnerable, and leaves an indelible mark there. Everyone who enters into our lives, whom we let into our lives, leaves a bit of themselves there. And we, likewise, remain a part of them.

But before this truth can be felt in its full force, I will say a few words about a question that must precede the three guiding ones above: What is the nature of the self? I think a brief explanation of French Existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre’s phenomenology, which provides an account of a self capable of self-deception, will help to clarify just what is at stake for Hachiman’s life, and hence for our lives, too. According to Sartre in Being and Nothingness, we conscious beings are nothing. To be precise, we are the act of negating. As conscious, we are not anything; we do not have a fixed essence. We have bodies, we have a past, and we have features, of course—all this Sartre calls our “facticity.” But in addition to this, and perhaps more importantly, we can also overcome, or at least alter in some respects, these aspects of ourselves. We have “transcendence,” meaning that we are radically free. To be human, then, is to be in contradiction, to be a contradiction: Although we are undoubtedly something—I, for example, have dark brown hair, am from California, enjoy reading, and consider myself introverted—it is simultaneously the case that we need not be what we are. Whenever we mistake facticity for transcendence or transcendence for facticity, or when we confuse what we are with what we could be and vice versa, we deceive ourselves. We exist in “bad faith.” This is all very abstract, but its concrete implications are immense—and, I think, haunting. What Sartre is saying is that selfhood is never at ease. We can never be secure in who we are because to be a self in the first place, is to be inherently insecure. Instability lies at the heart of consciousness. By comparing Hachiman and Yukino, I think this will make more sense.

Paradoxically, these two characters are the most similar and, at the same time, the least alike. The reason I can reasonably say this is because both Hachiman and Yukino are similar in that they are reserved, frank, lonely, uncommunicative, and cold; yet as persons they are not alike insofar as their similarities stem from profoundly different—actually, opposite—causes: Whereas Hachiman’s detachment derives from a strong sense of identity, Yukino’s comes from a weak one. From a Sartrean point of view, Hachiman is in bad faith to the extent that he grounds his transcendence in his facticity, while Yukino grounds her facticity in her transcendence. For Hachiman, this means that he essentializes himself with reference, first, to his past, and second, to the illusion that his character is innate and immutable. He assumes that all he will ever be must follow from all he ever was. His lonesome past destines him to a lonesome future, and his unlikeable features, being “who he really is,” can never change for that reason. Yet to think this, is to deny his freedom to change. In other words, it once more becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as his belief in an unchangeable self condemns him to an inescapable self.

Bad faith for Yukino, contrarily, means that she essentializes herself with reference, first, to her future, and second, to the illusion that she will never be anybody in particular. Unlike her older sister Haruno, who was raised with the expectation that she would take over their father’s business, Yukino was given free rein all her life, which is to say, she was left directionless. Because she could do anything, she committed herself to nothing. Compared to her sister, for whom a definite future exists, Yukino’s self is utterly empty. Everything she does has some reference back to Haruno, so her identity is parasitic, borrowing its life force from the older, experienced sibling, whereas her own life is not her own; she feels as if she has never been able to live for herself, for there is precisely no self to which her life could be said to belong! This raises the question of who is better off—Hachiman, who at least has a solid, unyielding sense of self, but one which is self-sabotaging; or Yukino who, without any commitment, is free to be anything, but who is thus no one? Really, this is a deceptive question, at least for Sartre, who would envy neither and pity both of them. The resulting problem, though, is how to get out of bad faith and live authentically. What would that look like? On this, Sartre remains regrettably silent. (Personally, I value Sartre more for the questions he raises than the answers he provides.)

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In this case, given what we have, and focusing back on Hachiman, we can return to the main question: How does he change? First, he must accept that his selfhood is not fixed, but fluid. Second, he must decide to change by himself. Indications of the first occur throughout the show. During the cultural festival, after learning more about Yukino, he reflects, "I like myself. I have never once hated myself [...] My pessimistic, realistic point of view—I don't hate any of it at all. But for the first time, I feel like I could start to hate myself" (S1E9 21:18). It is his intimate interaction with another person that initially prompts his self-doubt. Then, in the next season, after he is purposefully rejected, he attempts to justify his actions to Yui, only to realize, to his horror, that he is rationalizing and always has been. His explanations to others have all along been explanations to himself. The next day, with the girls still mad at him for his stunt, he proposes that they just return things to normal. This irritates Yukino, because what he really means by this, she says, is that he does not want to change, that he wants to keep doing things his way, and that she and Yui should do nothing, let him be, and merely accept him as he is (S2E3 06:32). But why should he, who, as part of the service club, helps others, refuse to help himself, and why should she and Yui also be prohibited therefrom? With this hypocrisy pointed out, he is visibly shaken up.

It is at this point that Iroha, a classmate, comes to the club and asks that the three of them help her lose the upcoming class elections in a way that does not compromise her, considering she was involuntarily entered and does not want to be student council president. Immediately, and unsurprisingly, Hachiman suggests that he could be her running mate, so that, upon giving a bad speech, nobody would want to vote for her, while all the blame would rest on him alone. Obviously, Yukino and Yui both object to this act of self-sacrifice. Urged on by her sister, Yukino decides that she will run for the position; but Yui, knowing her friend’s stubbornness and one-track thinking, and fearing that if she wins she will no longer be able to devote time to the club, leading to its disintegration, decides that she, too, will run. All of this proves too much for Hachiman, however, who, as usual, acts on his own accord, this time with a new plan: He will persuade Iroha to stay in the race and win it, thereby relieving Yukino and Yui of any pressure, but only on the condition that he do this by himself, without involving them—because, according to him, it is easier that way. And it is this move of his which, despite departing from his usual tendency but still highlighting his fundamental self-isolating behavior, and coming after his refusal to change, leads to the crisis point. When Iroha wins and Hachiman has to help with her projects, he discovers that he is not cut out for the work and that, ironically, this strategy of his, meant to preserve the group from falling apart, is what precipitates its demise. His idea was that, in preventing Yukino and Yui from campaigning and thus getting pulled away from the service club, he would ensure its continuity; however, he instead succeeds in removing himself, such that Yukino even tells him that he need not bother coming anymore, which compromises the existence of their collective efforts.


The Heart’s Understanding

All of this culminates in perhaps the most important episode in the entire show: season two, episode eight. The episode consists of two main sequences, the first between Hachiman and Ms. Hiratsuka on a highway, the second between him and the girls in the clubroom, known as the famous “Genuine Scene.” To reiterate, the point of this plot summary is to illustrate precisely how Hachiman comes to decide not just that he can change, nor that he wants to, but that he must, that he needs to, change. It is this idea that I want to emphasize above all: It is not a question of desiring change, which is something with which many of us are agonizingly familiar, but of arriving at, or reaching, the limit of one’s being, when one cannot stand who one is, when one can no longer bear the burden of one’s self, when things have gotten so bad and so unendurable that to be otherwise—to be other than how/who one is—is no longer a possibility but a moral necessity; a decision which, unlike any other, determines the very course of one’s existence. Hachiman’s facticity, to recall the Sartrean term, threatens to smother him completely; the weight of his past, his actions, his painful memories, the prospect of his only relationships being lost, the realization that he is the originator of his destiny—these are the terrifying thoughts which occupy him in his sleep, the kinds of things which keep me, too, awake certain nights.

And so, Hachiman looks out at the ocean from the highway, troubled, his mind in turmoil, as his teacher, leaning against her car, explains his problem: You are smart, too smart for your own good, at the expense of your emotional intelligence. People, she says, are not robots; we are not perfectly rational, calculating machines, but fully formed humans with hearts and emotions, who, acting from the latter, do dumb things a lot of the time, which is to say, irrational things, things that make no sense to the mind because they are not of the mind. We are fundamentally discordant beings, if we hear in the word—“discordance”—its root, cordis, meaning heart: We are beings whose hearts and minds are often in discord. The remainder after calculating, that which is irreducible to calculation as such, Ms. Hiratsuka states, is the heart (kokoro, cœur, cordis, καρδία). According to her analysis, the reason Hachiman did what he did was because, at bottom, whether he knows it or not, or whether he says it or not, he cares about Yukino and Yui. But having never experienced this before, and worrying that he cannot sustain it, Hachiman does everything he can, including rationalization—even, or especially, if it means distancing himself from them—to prevent anything negative from happening. This is a reasonable response—reasonable, but not proper. It is reasonable because it springs from the mind. But what he fails to understand, since it falls outside the domain of comprehension, is that this is not how relationships work: “Caring about someone means being resolved to the fact that you’ll hurt them” (08:19). That is, in relationships, it is not a question of whether one can hurt another; this is an inevitability, something that is inherent to relationships themselves, to being human, which means that the correct course of action is not avoidance, escapism, denial, cynicism, rejection, or anything like that at all; on the contrary, it is acceptance, embrace, being resolved: It is facing up to the fact of another’s hurt or, more simply, facing up to—facing—an Other at all.

And this is why Hachiman comes to the service club and, rather than sitting in his usual spot, to the right of the girls, at a distance, he shocks them by sitting in front of them, face-to-face, not as a club member, but as someone who is in need of help. Their help. He explains that his way of going about things was wrong and that he would like their support. Yukino says no. This begins an argument about who is to blame, whether anyone has a responsibility to help anyone else, and the issue of communication. Yui rebukes Yukino for keeping her feelings to herself, preventing them from being on the same page, to which Hachiman poses a paradox: We speak honestly, and others either understand us, in which case they claim to know more than they could ever hope to since true understanding is impossible, or they misunderstand us, in which case we are misunderstood. This may seem like a false dichotomy, for while one can readily acknowledge the second possibility as being commonplace, the first sounds either exaggerated or flat-out wrong; after all, there are plenty of occasions when, having communicated our intentions, we feel the other has properly heard and interpreted what we said.

Additionally, we may point out that these are not the only two possibilities: For example, one might propose that understanding is not a pure binary, being more nuanced than that. It is not that one either understands or misunderstands completely, but there are degrees of understanding. These are both interesting considerations, but I think what Hachiman is getting at is something more fundamental. I think he is making a radical point similar to that of the French deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida, who in his influential analysis of language identified the phenomenon of différance, in which signification, or what is meant by our words, is always constantly differing and deferring, both verbs being present in the French neologism. Basically, whenever I make a statement, I have the possibility of adding to and subtracting from it infinitely, modifying certain words, elaborating upon an idea, fleshing out an image, correcting myself, etc.; and at every step of the way, in this continuous process of revision, even with the initial utterance, what I say is subject to others’ discretion. In other words, my language, despite being mine—or so I think—takes on a life of its own as soon as I speak it, at which point it enters into a free play of significance.

To put this more concretely, in every conversation, Hachiman has the ability, as well as the tendency, to interpret what those around him say in such a way that the subtext, or what is not explicitly spoken, underwrites and morphs the actual text. In order to get through life, we assume a common vocabulary; yet the fact is that, for many of us, unbeknown, words cultivate, in addition to their conventional sense, their own private meanings for us, accumulating various connotations, images, associations, memories, and the like, the majority of which, being so natural to us, will never be communicated. This is how Hachiman comes to his skeptical conclusion about the impossibility of interpersonal understanding: The very medium of communication, namely, language, is far from transparent, but is rather translucent, if not opaque. If we do not talk, then we will never “get” one another; however, if we do talk, the dilemma says, then we will still never “get” one another. The indeterminacy of language, its inherently unstable core, makes us prone to miscommunication. But if this is true, which one may be hesitant to accept—“How is it, then,” one might reasonably wonder, “that we get by on a daily basis, seemingly without issue?”—that is, if this is truly the conclusion to which Hachiman is led, then why bother staying? Why not leave? To what could his pleading amount, if not more misunderstanding? The three of them have reached a deadlock. They are paralyzed. There is no path ahead, only a patch of quicksand into which each of them individually, privately succumbs, without any solid means of rescuing themselves; it seems as if their only course is to give up and just quietly accept this mute demise.

It is at this apogee of despair, this state of utter immobility, this lack of a way out, aporia, that Hachiman, on the verge of tears, erupts,

But… I… What I want isn’t words […] I don’t want to be understood. I want to understand […] Because not understanding terrifies me […] But if a relationship exists in which we can force [this selfish desire for mutual understanding] upon each other, and accept it… I know there’s no way that can happen. I realize that’s completely out of reach. But still, I want the real thing [alt.: “something genuine”] (17:00; emphasis mine).

For the first time in the series, Hachiman displays his vulnerability in a powerful emotional outburst, in front of a stunned Yukino and Yui. Although it is a moving speech, it seems to solve little, as he completely contradicts what he had just expressed beforehand. Is there a meaningful distinction, that is, between “being understood” and “understanding,” rather than a trivial shift of poles? And even if we grant it as legitimate, this passionate plea founders against the skeptic’s dilemma: The desire to understand is what started this all, having already been placed into question, so nothing is overturned hereby. Or so it seems. Hachiman himself notes his self-objection, saying that “there’s no way” and that it is “completely out of reach” before following up with “But still”—except, is this a valid objection? What he is essentially doing is seeing the problem right in front of his eyes and then waving it away or pretending as if it does not exist, i.e., he simply chooses not to see it. We know this to be ineffectual because it does not change the underlying problem: One cannot drive a car without an engine just because one refuses to let this inconvenient fact get in the way. Whether one likes it or not, the car will not operate. But what is it about Hachiman’s monologue that makes it stand out? Precisely the absence of any rational argumentation. The American philosopher Stanley Cavell, addressing the problem of skepticism, wrote the following in his major work The Claim of Reason:

To live in the face of doubt, eyes happily shut, would be to fall in love with the world. And if you find that you have fallen in love with the world, then you would be ill-advised to offer an argument of its worth by praising its Design. Because you are bound to fall out of love with your argument, and you may thereupon forget that the world is wonder enough, as it stands. Or not.[2]

If we replace “the world” with “others,” then we will have captured the essence of Hachiman’s appeal. Knowing that a perfect understanding is impossible, stating it himself numerous times, Hachiman purposefully “lives in the face of doubt, eyes happily shut”—but again, reason cries out, is this not dishonest, false, hypocritical, shameless, and irrational? Does this not defy the laws of logic? How could we possibly buy this as a solution or dare praise it? Simply put, it is a pragmatic response. This is not to say that it is expedient, convenient, or utilitarian, per se, as if Hachiman or Cavell were merely averting their gaze and dismissing the problem; rather, confronting the aporia, they have found that some things in life, usually the most important ones, cannot be logically figured out the way math problems must be: The critical, vital decisions in life are just that—decisions, existential choices which proceed from our very Being. It was only with the decisive slash of his sword that Alexander the Great undid the Gordian Knot; it was only by resolutely stepping forward that Diogenes could prove, contrary to the Eleatics, that motion was possible. Likewise, it is only because understanding is impossible that Hachiman insists that he, Yukino, and Yui must attempt to understand one another, knowing full well the futility thereof. Later, at the beginning of season three, he will reiterate this point more emphatically: “Even if it's said, it won't be understood. That's why it must be said out loud" (S3E1 00:59; emphasis mine).

The impasse of incommunicability requires not a logical refutation, but a performative one. Yukino finds this idea difficult to accept; and when Yui tries to explain it to her, she finds that, even if she doesn't quite get it, it’s still a worthwhile endeavor. Like Socrates, whose wisdom consisted in knowing that he did not know anything, Yui looks for the bright side in the aporia of communication: Even if we cannot ultimately understand, then we can at least understand that we do not understand—and that is certainly something, which is better than standing around, doing nothing, and getting nowhere. There is a sense, then, in which, just as Anselm wrote that he had to believe so that he could understand—Credo ut intelligam—so understanding is not something ready-made, but must instead be made. Understanding is not found in the same way that a treasure buried beneath the sand is; understanding is rather created in the very act of trying to understand. Understanding is brought into existence by way of understanding.

Looking at language as a violent rapid, one can either refuse to get in for fear of being swept away and so remain safely on the bank or risk the plunge and immerse oneself in the current, embracing the uncertainty, excitement, and, above all, the danger that come therewith. While it is true the first person remains unharmed, they also forfeit language, one of the most tremendous gifts we have, remaining estranged from it, in contrast to the second person who, in endangering themselves, does so alongside others, with the possibility, yes, of misunderstanding, but more fundamentally, of any understanding at all. Whoever remains on the bank can never know or say what it is like to be wet. Communication, understanding, relationships—these require a plunge, require getting wet, even if it means having to gasp for air every now and then, the hope being that someone else will be there to pull one out. So let us look a bit more closely and concretely at what it means to stay on the bank versus jumping in.


Rationalization

In his famous essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” French philosopher Albert Camus describes the ridiculous sight of a man wildly gesticulating in a phone booth, citing this as a demonstration of life’s absurdity.[3] This, he implies, is a representation of the entire human condition: All of us making a big fuss, as if anything meant anything! We are all, each of us, mimes trapped in our own phone booths. The problem with this, of course, is that he stands outside and reports upon the situation “objectively,” as if he were an entomologist observing the comical behavior of an insect. Such is the attitude of the crude behaviorist who records outward gestures and acts and believes either that there is no inside at all or that, from the exterior, the inside can be sufficiently inferred, being secondary. What Camus hereby ignores and minimizes is the lived reality of the caller, his first-person experience, which to him is undeniably a matter of importance. Perhaps the caller is talking with his ailing wife, discussing his job with his boss, or hearing that his child has been hospitalized; however, Camus never considers any of these possibilities—in fact, he discounts them entirely, content instead to view human life from a detached, external perspective, from which he can pronounce a general judgment on existence. This is largely the fault of which Hachiman, too, is guilty, especially throughout the first and second seasons. To give an example, he is always highly critical of his classmate Hayato Hayama’s clique, which he comments on from a distance, sitting at his desk, his head buried in his arms, mocking their falseness, their lack of intimacy, the shallowness of their conversations, the pettiness of their drama, and the weakness of their bonds. All groups, he has decided, are by default fake.

But like Camus, he has the privilege of being an outsider, giving him total discretion. Now, it is true that in many cases Hachiman’s diagnoses are correct—Hayato and his “friends,” Tobe, Hina, Yumiko, Yui, et al., are, in fact, petty, shallow, and not super close—but just because he is correct in a few judgments does not justify his broader claims. An armchair, or rather desk, psychologist, Hachiman has nobody to consult, but remains inside his head; he has never been in a group, so he has no firsthand experience of group dynamics, except what he has seen from afar. His deductions are nothing more than prejudgments. At the beginning of season two, Hachiman tells Hayato to his face that in trying to prevent his group from falling apart, what he is trying to save is probably not worth it if it needs saving. The great irony is that by the end of the same season, he finds himself in the very same position, noting his own falseness in interacting with Yukino and Yui, the first group of which he has been a part and to which he feels an obligation. Therefore, it is only when he is in a group himself, when he has surrounded himself with people who care for him and for whom he cares, when he is finally on the inside and learns what friendship is and can be that Hachiman lives this out for himself internally, and can truly understand what is at stake in relationships. An outsider or a stranger never has stakes in what they are looking at from the safety of the sidelines; whereas someone who commits themselves to something or someone has a stake therein, the effects of which they will feel deeply. Indeed, this is the exact criticism Ms. Hiratsuka directs against Haruno toward the end of the third season, when the latter tells Hachiman that his relationships with Yukino and Yui are not genuine, but merely expressions of co-dependence.

To elaborate, if, upon observing a couple passing by, and having no acquaintance with them, I declare what they have to be false or not “real,” attributing some ulterior motives to either, then I have not made a deduction, but only succeeded in falsifying it. This abstraction at a distance does not disillusion; to decide from the outside that a thing is false is nothing but a falsification. There is something deeply false, in other words, in the very act of falsifying, from which follows the corrosiveness of skepticism and cynicism. There is a subtle difference between the words “mistrust” and “distrust” that I think bears upon this analysis. The two are the same in terms of outcome, namely, not trusting others, but they differ in how they arrive at that conclusion. I would argue that distrust is founded in mistrust, so the former is narrower than the latter. As the prefixes indicate, when I mistrust someone, I mistakenly trust them, usually unintentionally; and if I end up having enough negative experiences, then I may develop the inclination to distrust everyone, in which case, prior to all interactions, I automatically assume they are untrustworthy, self-interested, and disloyal. This is sadly an all-too-common phenomenon; you most likely know someone in your life who may have been generally optimistic or happy but who, having had a bad romantic relationship or friendship, then declares that they will “never love again,” “never open myself up to another,” “never let my guard down,” “never make the mistake of being vulnerable,” etc. Once one has been hurt, one becomes closed off, understandably, and protects oneself from the possibility of it ever happening again. As creatures of custom, we make inductions all the time, generalizing from a few cases, so that if we have been fooled once, five times, ten times—then the whole of humanity is to be distrusted henceforward! This is not to diminish the very real and painful experiences of having been wronged, having one’s trust broken, being manipulated, being abandoned, or anything like that; rather, the point is that from a few incidents, whether isolated or closely connected, we tend to overcompensate, thinking that we are helping ourselves by erecting walls, when in reality, by closing others off from ourselves, concealing or repressing our feelings, and forsaking relationships, we only exacerbate our hurt.

To live in distrust, I propose, is to live a diminished life. Such is the existence Hachiman leads. Watching how he interacts with Hayato and some girls, Haruno observes, "You always try to read what's behind every word and action. It's [...] like you're afraid everyone has evil intentions" (S2E4 13:26). There are two aspects to this. The first is, as I have noted, life history. Due to his negative early experiences, having mistrusted others, Hachiman is generally distrustful in the present. Yet the second is something introduced earlier, i.e., projection. There is an extent to which Hachiman attributes his thinking to others, partly for explanatory value, though partly for self-protection. That is to say, despite being (overly) honest with those he dislikes, Hachiman is far from being open when it comes to his genuine feelings, about which he remains silent, particularly with Yukino and Yui. Thus, his uneasiness or reluctance to believe in sincerity is itself an expression of insincerity on his part. I take it this is the unstated rationale behind his notorious “Nice Girls” speech, in which he doubts the realness of any expression of kindness, seeing it as disingenuous, impersonal, or utilitarian coming from a girl. There is no way, he thinks, that a girl could possibly—and for seemingly no reason at all—want to be nice to him, from which he deduces that there must, in every instance, be some sort of unseen gain or ploy at work.

Notably, the occasion for his monologue comes after a stiff conversation with Yui. Earlier in the school year, he saved her dog from being run over, getting hit in the process and having to skip school for a while until he recovered. Surely, there is no conceivable reason why Yui should pay the slightest attention to him, he calculates, unless it is for the sake of paying him back, as it were; a way of saying “Thanks!”, being, therefore, ulteriorly motivated. He reflects, “If the truth is cruel, then lies must be kind” (S1E5 21:37); and seeing as Yui is kind toward him, then as per the premises, her kindness must be a lie. The truth, correspondingly, is that in reality, beneath the appearances, Yui does not like him, or is indifferent to him. What he does not consider, of course—because, in this mode of thinking, he is incapable of considering it—is the possibility that her kindness is motivated by nothing other than kindness. He cannot comprehend kindness “for no reason,” even though it is arguably the case that kindness “for a reason” is undermined thereby. In other words, kindness is not “for” any reason because it should not be (unless we use a tautology: Being kind for the sake of kindness). Again, kindness, like other acts proceeding from the heart, does not fall under the domain of calculation or logical deduction.

Even the Underground Man, the great rationalist, the ultimate overthinker, realizes, at the end of his reflections, the futility of his way of life: “But reasoning,” he painfully admits, looking back at a shameful incident with a prostitute, “explains nothing, and consequently there’s no point in reasoning” (124).[4] He comes to acknowledge, as Heidegger pointed out, that the demand to render reasons is itself without reason; the compulsion to explain and provide a reason for everything—the ideal of rationalism—is at its heart deeply irrational.[5] Although we think that reasons provide the ground for a thing, it is really the case that rationalizing takes us away from life and ourselves. As soon as we set upon conceiving the rationale behind something a friend said, a gesture a classmate made, or the act of a stranger, as if each were a code to be demystified, we have become detached from them, more attached to the realm of imagination; we are the farthest from them in thought.

There is a secret order to the heart, an ordo amoris, which cannot in the final analysis be comprehended, but which must rather be experienced. Or as Pascal eloquently put it, “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know” (Pensées, §277).[6] Haruno further indicates this in the third season. She tells Hachiman that, like her, he “can’t get drunk” (S3E2 (09:38). I take this to mean that, similarly to the Underground Man, no matter what he does, Hachiman can never turn off his mind—or, more specifically, the restlessly critical, distrustful voice that is constantly operating therein. The idea is that drinking is a way of quieting the inner voice in our heads; we want a little respite from the judgments we are always making, whether about ourselves or others, and a little intoxication takes the edge off. Yet these three characters—the Underground Man, Hachiman, and Haruno—do not find even this adequate. When the Underground Man has dinner with some old schoolmates, he gets maddeningly drunk, which happens not to defuse his thinking, but to fan its sparks into a conflagration. Hachiman only drinks coffee throughout the show, but Haruno, as I suggest, is implying that his critical function is something from which he cannot escape, something he cannot “turn off”; it is, to echo the Underground Man, a real sickness to think too much, which no numbing can mitigate.


The Real Thing; or, Genuineness

But this all raises the main question again: If all these forces are arrayed against Hachiman, if he has the habit of distrusting others, if he is overly rational and cannot get drunk, and if he cannot open himself up and be vulnerable, then how can he ever hope to? How, in short, is change possible, if at all? In a sense, this has already been answered. He changes because he decides he has no choice but to change. The more important question, then, is not how he can change, but how he does change. At the end of his “Genuine” speech, he declares that he wants “the real thing,” that is, “something genuine.” Here, if we wish, we can also add the word “authentic(ity).” Whichever translation we proceed with, the sense is generally the same, put negatively: He wants to avoid whatever is false, unreal, inauthentic, untrue, and shallow. Quite a bit has been written about what exactly is meant by a desire for realness or authenticity, and the topic is too extensive to sufficiently survey here; accordingly, only a few brief comments will be permitted.[7]

The best way to get at what he means is by looking at his own words. In the same episode in which Hachiman gets himself rejected by Hina, as he debriefs with Yui, he thinks to himself, “This [i.e., rationalization] is the kind of deception I hated more than anything in the world”; and later, clearing things up with Hina in private, he ends with this crucial pronouncement: “Everyone has something that’s important to them, and they don’t want to lose it. So they hide, and they pretend. That’s why they tell lies. But the biggest liar of all is me” (S2E2 21:51). With these quotes, we can conclude that by “something genuine,” Hachiman has in mind a relationship in which rationalization has no place and where one can be open about what one cares about. Such a relationship we can characterize as expressive, vulnerable, and reciprocal. Above all, this kind of relationship is a commitment. Perhaps this comes off as obvious, but the point is that those involved must deliberately have this intention. When, as in Hayato’s clique, there is gossip or a budding romance that threatens to dissolve the group’s solidarity, these tensions being disguised by shallow talk, revealing a lack of deep, substantive ties, this relationship is far from genuine; on the contrary, it is inauthentic to the extent that the people are there, to borrow Aristotle’s classifications, for the sake of utility or pleasure, but not for the sake of the others there. Likewise, Hachiman, Yukino, and Yui are brought together, initially, for the sake of the service club, but they end up deriving something more from their time together. Yet they are not exempt from the same standards as Hayato; they are just as much (or rather little) “friends.” If what they have is to become real, then the way they feel, the things they think, and the values they hold must all be disclosed—and with all the unavoidable uncertainty and anxiety which come with that.

What Hachiman finds out in season two episode eight, with the aid of his teacher, is that he cares about something other than himself for once, namely, Yukino and Yui; and “caring,” to repeat Ms. Hiratsuka’s definition, “means being resolved to the fact that you’ll hurt” those who matter to you, whether you want to or not. To be sure, this is not to say that how much one cares is measured in terms of how much one has hurt another; instead, it points to the fact that some amount of pain is never absent from a true relationship. This pain, moreover, is not a cause for separation but, on the contrary, for further unity: A genuine or real relationship is one which stands the test of pressure—in fact, which grows from that pressure, using it to grow closer, stronger, more honest. I know I have found something real when I can withstand and bear the tempest, not when can I flee from it. This is why Ms. Hiratsuka advises Hachiman that what one has is not real because one struggles, but one struggles because it is real. Something—oneself, another—is at stake. The vitality of this message is subtly expressed at the end of season two, when Hachiman compares his relationship with Yukino and Yui to a Ferris wheel, which, to his mind, symbolizes an instability that plays itself off as stability, a movement that is no movement at all, going round and round without ever progressing forward.

As valuable as this all is, though, it is one thing to say this, and another to act it out. One cannot expect or demand authenticity from others unless one is willing to live it out oneself. Yet is this not what Hachiman does by means of his speech? Is his request for “the real thing” not itself the most real thing? Until this point in the show, we have known Hachiman as misanthropic, judgmental, isolated, private, and standoffish. He cannot be otherwise simply because he has known no other possibility. It is easy to scorn what appears as trust, friendship, love, kindness, etc. when one is not exposed to them, or when one subjects them to thorough rational analysis, which dissects and decomposes. Thinking that he cannot change, convinced that he does not want to change, he lives comfortably, if not limitedly, in his own world, to himself, apart from others. His whole world is shattered and expanded, though, in becoming close to the two girls in the service club. Finally, feeling something for which he does not yet have the language, unable to articulate it, to even identify it, having never experienced it before, he is at last impelled, in crisis, through self-examination, to redefine himself, if it means preserving the first good thing he has found in his life: He seeks help outside himself, he shows vulnerability, he speaks from the heart and not the head—he seeks, in a word, connection.


Conclusion

Originally, I intended for this piece to be more personal in its reflections, but not only would that have lengthened this considerably, it also felt too self-important. Ultimately this essay is an expression of gratitude to a show that, for whatever reason, deeply moved me, and I wanted to share some of my wonder with others, in the hope that they would be inspired to either watch the show or else think on the questions and findings reached through it. No amount of exposition will adequately capture how much value I found in watching this series. It is, I will admit, a strange thing to write so much about an anime and, by applying literature and philosophy, to treat it so seriously. A conclusion like this is unusual, but I see no other way to clarify my purpose and, in so doing, to highlight its limitations. I wanted to write this not only to share my thoughts about the topics addressed in the show but also because I felt that what it had to say about life was worth sharing; because I think that regardless of whether one watches it or not, it can teach us something. I do not believe I have adequately conveyed all that I wished to, but I will end with a quote from the end of season two, when Hachiman addresses himself, Yukino, and Yui—but also all of us: “I want us to think, to suffer, and struggle […] Even if we’re wrong, it’s okay. Because every time we’re wrong, we’ll continue to look for the right answer” (21:48).




 

Notes:

[1] G.W.F. Hegel developed the existential necessity of mutual recognition in the Phenomenology of Spirit, §§178-184, and Emmanuel Levinas stressed the infinite humanity of the Other and our ethical obligation to them in Totality and Infinity (1969). Claude Romano similarly makes the case in Event and World (2009) that the encounter with the Other is catastrophic; it is an event which reconfigures our worlds.

[2] Pp. 430-1. Cf. also Furtak, Rick A. "Skepticism and Perceptual Faith: Henry David Thoreau and Stanley Cavell on Seeing and Believing." Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, vol. 43, no. 3, 2007, pp. 542-561.

[3] The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays (1991), p. 15

[4] This may seem ironic, if not textually dishonest, considering the bulk of the Underground Man’s criticisms are directed precisely at rationalism, which overlooks and comes at the expense of humanity’s irrational side, its capacity for freedom. However, I defend calling him a rationalist for two reasons: (1) although he praises passion and emotion while denouncing reason, he engages in the latter for most of the book and comically desists from the former, being utterly incapable of acting upon his impulses, which are often impeded by reflection; (2) he can recognize and praise the importance of irrationality only because he has been cut off from it, being a well-educated man and living in an increasingly rationalized, Westernized Russia. In other words, it is precisely because of his disconnection from his emotions, his analytic approach to them, that he laments this condition, for the rationalism he denounces is not some empty ideal, but his very own rationalism.

[5] Cf. The Principle of Reason (1962), pp. 11-2


[6] https://www.gutenberg.org/files/18269/18269-h/18269-h.htm


[7] E.g., https://www.reddit.com/r/anime/comments/64ane8/rewatchspoilers_oregairu_s2_episode_8_discussion/



 

Cited Books:

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays. Translated by Justin O'Brien, Vintage Books, 1991.


Cavell, Stanley. The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality and Tragedy. Clarendon Press, 1979.


Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes from Underground. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Vintage Books, 1994.



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