A Season of Friendship

I don’t know if I can pin down other season of anime as having a theme. And it probably isn’t intentional, but nevertheless this season has a lot of shows that seems to fit together in a special way. This season celebrates friendship in so many different ways that it heightened my awareness to it in each show. From new friendship (Tsuritama) to teammates (Kuroko’s Basketball), from unexpected connections (Kids on the Slope) to brothers (Space Brothers).

The Internet keeps telling me that friendship is magic and so it seems that this season of anime is here to reenforce that notion. It is not as if anime is unfamiliar with the power of friendship. Most of  modern Japanese society is almost obsessed with the harmony of the group and working together so shows emphasizing solidarity among peers is not unheard of. But I think Narutaki was inspired by this season because even the common place can seem extraordinary if done correctly. This seasons shows have been very good and the bonds of comradery have been shown superbly as well. This article will look at relationships beyond the standard shonen “I beat you up so now we are blood brothers” but at people who form real bonds.

The reason I wanted to talk about this is because I can feel the friendship, it isn’t just a word in these shows. The friendships here don’t start and stop with the words “let’s be friends.” The bonds of friendships are shown in a hundred different ways each week. I don’t have to hear the characters say “you’re my friend” to know that it runs deep in their hearts. But sometimes characters do say it, more often than not it is because the other person needs to hear it right then, believe it, or remember it. Sometimes characters say it inspite of themselves so it tells us something about them, too, and strengthens their growth as we celebrate breaking down a wall.

This couldn’t be more true in Kids on the Slope and the friendship between Karou and Sentaro who feel at first like total opposites. But when Sentaro enters Karou’s life, things change, and who knows how it will end or turn out, but you know that it is a powerful coming together that won’t be forgotten. Further still is the realization that while Sentaro and Karou face the world with different attitudes, they’ve both felt similar pain in their pasts. And music bridges everything. In fact, the resolution of their disagreements which culminate in a burst of jazz at the school festival is amazing and genuine.

Space Brothers shows us a different perspective. First because Mutta and Hibito are close in age they have practically (or in the case of Mutta because he is the eldest, literally) known each other their entire lives so the way they interact is different from a lot of other characters mention here. They can read each other so well, they need very little information in order to figure out the other’s thinking. It is like they communicate on another plane at times. And this is despite them having spent their more recent years apart. It doesn’t matter, the connection is there, and it isn’t just because they are brothers. Being siblings doesn’t always equal being friends, but Mutta and Hibito share a dream.

Whether it is new or renewed, friendship changes you.

Noitamina has gone though a bit of a renaissance this season. After a few variable seasons it came back with 2 very solid shows about friendship. Kids on the Slope is ostensibly about jazz and love triangles while Tsuritama is reportedly about aliens and fishing but the core of both shows is about the protagonist learning to make friends. Both anime are centered around a main character who has an almost crippling social anxiety disorder that prevents him from getting to know other people. In both shows we see the protagonist learn to open up as he makes friends with people who seems like polar opposites to himself.

Kids on the Slope takes a very normal approach to this problem.  Kaoru knows how to look down at people but not how to treat them as equals. Sentaro could waltz through a bad part of town but can’t communicate with most people with anything other than his fists. Because they come from the same problem on opposite ends when learning to talk to each other Karou and Sentaro learn to interact with everyone else at the same time. At the same time Yuki from Tsuritama is the more off the wall version of the problem. Yuki freaks out whenever he is under pressure, Haru is a space cadet (literally and figuratively), and Natsuki is as cold a fish as the ones he catches. But as a common hobby draws them together their interactions help dull the neurosis that keep them from connecting to others.  Most notably we see that Yuki goes longer and longer without going into oni face mode. Natsuki learns to have a bit more patience and consideration for others as he teaches Yuki and Haru is fish. Haru is always marching to the beat of a different drummer but at least he can find a way to still participate in the parade by being a bit more aware of those around him.

But in both shows it is more than them just using the others to improve themselves. When Kaoru and Sentaro play in the band together so much of their freestyle is dependent on them being able to read the other one. They have top learn to feel each others style and adapt accordingly.  By the same accord the guys in Tsuritama become closer by working on the boat and learning to work as a team. In both shows it is all about the give and take as they all learn to be a harmonious unit.

The circumstances of all these shows are very different from each other. But each group involves coming together for a certain task: music, fishing, space training, basketball.  These collaboration between friends then allow each person to play off each other which in turn elevates what they are able to accomplish.

Group dynamics are always fascinating because you inevitably get a meshing off all different personalities, sometimes in a surprising fashion, because they have a singular passion.

Most groups also have a lead, a point of focus where things emanate from. And this is true in Kuroko’s Basketball, after all it is called Kuroko’s Basketball. Kagami is a powerhouse, but as the saying goes there is no I in team. Kuroko wants to be part of a well-rounded group who loves basketball and he immediately starts to influence everyone’s game. The odd couple relationship between Kuroko and Kagami is a big part of that. They come together because they know if they do they can lead the team to victory.

Speaking of odd, Tsuritama is a quirky show that tends to surprise me with its subtle character growth. Our four leads might as well be the four points on a compass. And instead of the group revolving around one character there seems to be a natural equality to the show. Certainly, Yuki sets things into motion by moving to the island, but he never comes off as driving this crazy train.

It feels very believable in Tsuritama that though characters have problems in their lives, they aren’t always the focus of everything they do. They can forget about it for a while fishing or simply being together, but it will still be there. Natsuki’s family problems rear their head quite thoughtfully as does his friends attempts to help.

As always, a goal can make for some strange companions.

While Kuroko’s Basketball is all about the team there is one pair that stands out above the rest. Paradoxically Kuroko’s distinguishing trait is the fact that he is always overlooked. At the same time Kagami is impossible to ignore with his towering presence. But despite Kuroko’s aloof demeanor his passion for basketball attracts the equally gung-ho Kagami. And so their rapport on the court is mirrored in their downtime as well. Kagami is bold and aggressive in his support for Kuroko like when he stand up to those hooligans that are about to beat the tar out of Kuroko when he confronts them about being poor sports. At the same time Kuroko has the same subtle support of Kagami as he is always there to give a gentle word of encouragement or piece of advice from seemingly out of nowhere at just the right time.

Space Brothers centers around two brothers who are both fierce rivals and loving brothers at the same time. Mutta and Hibito support each other and challenge each other in equal measure depending on the circumstance. When one brother is down sometimes they sometimes need a gentle hand to show them the way. Other times they need a hard kick in the ass. While clearly Mutta is more in need of the carrot and the stick in the present we see that over the years both brothers push each other to strive for their dreams no matter how impossible they may seem. We see Hibito encourage his brother by inviting him to Texas to be reinvigorated, throw down the gauntlet when he is in the dumps, and leave him alone when he just need to sort things out for himself. It is not a rivalry of spite but that does not make it any less fierce. Both brothers know that the other is capable of so they never let the other one slack off too much. They push each other to be the best that they can be.

The whole point of Saki Achiga-hen is for Shizuno and Ako to get to the finals so the can reunite with their friend Nodoka through their love of the same game. When Shizuno and her friends of the mahjong club graduate they slowly grew apart as they all went to different schools. But after seeing Nadoka on TV as a star mahjong player Shizuno gathers together her old comrades as well as some new recruits so they can meet their old friend again and rekindle the old passion they once shared. Since Saki has always been a “suggestive” show the bonds between the girls on each team is usually fairly tight as the girls have to support each other to win. But we see the strongly sisterly bond between Kuro and Yuu and supportive relationship of Toki and Ryuuka.

While Fate/Zero is filled with dysfunctional people embroiled in broken relationships there is one team that goes from an Odd Couple styled mismatching to two men who genuinely respect each other. When Waver first summons Rider he tries to exert his authority as a Master but it is clear that Waver’s gaggle of insecurities and inadequacies prevent him from definitively taking charge. But Rider acts as an almost fatherly mentor to Waver and uses a combination of tough love and support to show Waver that the path to being the man he wants to be as been within him all along. By the end of the series their relationship is not of Master and Servants but of two partners who have an equal respect for each other.

Sometimes without reason people are drawn to each other, it is true in life and it comes through as true in these shows. Friendship is a really touching emotion and these shows get it just right.

There are a lot of other aspects to these series, but I find myself coming back every week because of these friendships.

One of the more popular complaints I hear about anime is that for a visual medium it seem very hung up on telling you things rather than showing you them. But I feel this season shows that there is still some very quality storytelling to be had as long as you pick the right shows. The friendships this season are best expressed by the deeds of the characters and the subtlety of their growth more than inner monologues and grand speeches. And that is something we should all encourage and appreciate.

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