September in the US means the end of summer vacation and the beginning of the school year. Kids spend more of their lives at school than anywhere else and I’d wager that more shows are set in schools than in any other setting. Even though school based shows have the same setting, some of them couldn’t be more different. I looked back at three such shows, Azumanga Daioh, His and Her Circumstances (Kare Kano) and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Each show could be described as a slice of life story about high school students, but each show is unique.
Of the three, His and Her Circumstances does the best job of capturing the high school experience. It centers around a romantic relationship between two overachievers. I could relate to the character’s concerns. They often worried about their future life paths and I distinctly remember how that felt, not knowing what my path was, apart from a strong desire to succeed. The petty rivalries illustrated by the show were also spot on. High School seemed all about gossip and I often worried what other people thought about me.
Haruhi Suzumiya has its own romantic tension between a feisty girl and an apathetic guy, but packages this conflict within a science fiction framework. It lacked the realism of His and Her but I enjoyed its stories of espers, aliens and time travelers. Kyon, the main male character, is one of the most likable male protagonists in any show. Unlike many male main characters, he doesn’t get overwhelmed by self doubt or self pity. He thinks for himself and sees the world for what it is. His down to earth personality is a good complement to Haruhi, whose outlandish schemes he tries to keep in check. This is a better choice for those who dislike shows that focus on relationships like His and Her Circumstances.
Azumanga Daoih takes the school genre in a different direction by showing the comedy of student life. The show opts for an ensemble cast instead of focusing on one main character. Each episode is made up of short vignettes without an overarching plot. This setup has been criticized as producing a show about nothing. But most of the scenes are quite funny and they provide a unique window into Japanese life.
The differences between the shows are vast but several themes appear in each. Insecurity is a problem that concerns many of the characters. The students in the shows compare themselves to their classmates on everything from their level of popularity to sports aptitude to even their bust size. I think these insecurities stem from realistic teenager concerns. Teenagers are after all discovering themselves.
Relationships, romantic or platonic, were another common focus. His and Her Circumstances does a standout job here. Both main characters strove to be first in academics and sports but often felt detached from their classmates. They discover kindred spirits in each other. And, crucially, a solution to loneliness that no amount of individual success could fix. Azumanga Daioh avoided romantic relationships and instead focuses on groups of friends. While a friendship might not seem as serious as a romantic relationship, it can often be just as important, particularly for high school students. Lovers may come and go, but it’s your friends that gets you through high school.
These three shows are just a drop in the high school show bucket. Great Teacher Onizuka, Ouran High School Host Club, K-On!, Utena, Gokusen, the list goes on. I don’t think you can account for the large number of school anime just because the setting is familiar. Instead the large number reflects how important school is to us. The dreams and neurosis of high school have a power over us that don’t go away when we graduate.