Being the new kid in school can be a challenge… But it’s even worse when every single student and teacher on campus is convinced that you’ll beat them up for minor offenses. This is the boat Kodaka Hasegawa finds himself in when his entire class sees him stumble over his feet in front of them, and automatically assumes he was trying to assault the teacher. Feared and avoided, the already timid teen seems doomed to never make any friends… Until he walks in on one of his quieter classmates having a lively conversation with her invisible friend.
Their conversation convinces her to create her own club for the sole purpose of helping people make friends, and Kodaka is her first member, whether he likes it or not. Soon enough, their club attracts a bunch of other socially awkward kids from around the school, all of whom possess their own special forms of insanity, and all of whom have a big heaping helping of puppy love for Kodaka. Will these lonesome losers be able to teach each other how to make friends with their fellow students, or will they realize that the best friends they could ever ask for were right under their noses the entire time?
Haganai was produced by AIC Build, a company that’s been around since the mid eighties, and they’ve been more or less active ever since, pumping out some very diverse and varied titles. It’s difficult to find a common thread between them, but it would appear that they’ve been very astute about keeping with the styles of the times… Their newer work like this and Kotoura-san looks nothing like their earlier work, like Battle Athletes Victory and several Tenchi titles. I talked about them before in my Oreimo review, and my comments from back then still hold up… Well, some of them do.
On the plus side, the series looks great. The character designs are inspired, with very unique and attractive appearances for each character. The bright color palette that was applied to them contrasts beautifully with the darker, more realistic looking settings they often appear in. The animation, on the other hand, is a little on the dull side. Static shots of the characters talking to each other is only ever broken up by repetitive panning shots, and only the smallest bursts of movement seem to have been deemed worthy of being truly animated. The use of lighting is thoughtful and does tend to make up for it at times, but that trick gets old pretty fast.
Well, to be more accurate, the animation budget appears to have been allocated towards all of the fanservice scenes, and boy are there a lot of them. There’s one character who has breasts that are roughly the size of watermelons, and I’d be willing to bet that two thirds of the budget went towards showing off these giant honkers, whether it means putting her in a skimpy outfit when she’s playing a fantasy video game, jiggling them around in a swimsuit, or just jiggling them around in general. It’s transparent as all hell, but at least the animation doesn’t look bad as a result… No, bland animation and generic settings aside, it’s a pretty easy-on-the-eye series.
The music is your standard fare for this kind of show, but that’s also not really a bad thing… It does a serviceable enough job, even if it doesn’t feature any stand-outs and isn’t very memorable. The opening and closing, on the other hand, are SO AWESOME. The opening, Zannenkei Rinjinbu by Tomodachi Tsukuritai, is fast, catchy, and features some intense orchestration with a fast-paced and well-animated video to go with it. The closing, Watashi no Ki-Mo-Chi by Maria Inoue, is pure rock and roll. The video features the two main female characters rocking out on guitar while cloaked in shadows, which… I’m not gonna lie… I couldn’t skip once.
The English dub is yet another Jamie Marchi effort, which of course means I’m going to spend the entire experience face-palming from all the lame faux teen dialogue and repeated phrases, right? Well, no. This is actually one of the better dubs she’s written. It had a few hiccups in the beginning, with her two favorite terms (totes and what the crap?) shoved into the first episode within a single minute of each other, but from there on, the teen slang she uses never really feels false or out of place… The only real problem I had with it is the “Clever” little joke she made twice about the main character’s hair color.
See, in Japan, blondness is a stereotypical sign of non-conformity, as it means someone is either a foreigner who doesn’t understand societal norms, or a delinquent who just doesn’t care. Kodoka is perceived by his classmates as both, so his hair color was obviously a deliberate detail that was added in during his design process… But Jamie Marchi still manages to slip in two jokes about his blondness meaning he’s an airhead. Not only is that an American thing, but in neither case is it actually called for in the script. But even with one glaring mistake like that one, the acting is still pretty good.
To be fair, Jerry Jewel does sound like he’s phoning it in with the lead role, but I can’t say I blame the guy… After the first episode ends, his character just isn’t that interesting. That’s not to say other actors couldn’t have put forth a much more interesting performance, but for what we got, it’s not bad. Whitney Rodgers in the role of Yozora is cruel, sarcastic, diabolical, and plays the character as though she genuinely empathized with her. Jad Saxton is haughty, manic and insecure as the boisterous Sena, and her particular high pitched nasally voice projects her frantic whining perfectly. Alexis Tipton goes balls-out insane with Rika’s perverted ranting, doing a very impressive job with material that a lot of actresses probably wouldn’t have been comfortable with. Alison Viktorin does okay, but I’ve heard her do much better in other roles.
Slice of Life and Harem are two of the most heavily maligned genres in anime history. The former is known for being boring and by the numbers, while the latter is largely known for being misogynistic self-insert cheesecake. They used to be, for the most part, two separate genres. There were some blends, but they didn’t really become a common thing until the concept of the ‘misfit school club’ anime was invented and largely popularized by a certain god girl and her brigade. With that innovation came the perfect excuse to gather a group of color-coded school girls and examine their daily lives in a small communal setting. Oh, and occasionally, there would be one male character among them to become the object of their affections while taking the high road at every possible opportunity.
It’s pathetic and transparent, but it made production of such titles a lot easier, as slice of life titles had some extra flavor that they rarely had before, and harem titles were no longer solely dependent on coming up with new plots to set themselves against. Now, that’s not to say this formula can’t be done right… As long as the product is well written, funny, and brings something new to the table, a slice of life harem series can easily become more than the sum of its parts… Just look at Ouran High School Host Club and Oreshura as prime examples of this.
So what does Haganai bring to the table? Well, it brings a very interesting set-up, with it’s two downtrodden main characters having depressed, cynical attitudes towards school and other people, yet making the effort to rise above it and develop social lives anyway. Their first club member is a bubbly popular girl who wants their help making genuine friends who aren’t just after her for their own benefit, and her upbeat attitude clashes instantly with Yozora’s more pessimistic outlook. Now, this set-up is a very promising one, and offers a lot of potential for depth, complexity and character development as these three very different people bounce off of and challenge each other through their many differences. It could have been a truly great dramedy.
Unfortunately, this intriguing dynamic is thrown out with the burnable trash as the show is taken over by shallow new characters and ridiculous situations that seem to have been conceived for the sole purpose of putting the female characters in skimpy outfits and baiting them into different kinds of male-driven otaku porn, which they’ll watch, play, and adamantly defend. We get the beach episode, we get the pool episode, we get a bunch of token harem characters, and by the time Kodaka’s 13 year old little sister bursts onto the screen naked as the day she was born for the first of this show’s many nude scenes, it should have been clear to everyone watching that any hint of depth there may have been in the beginning was nothing more than insincere ennui, which was intended… With help from the darker, bleak aesthetic of the series… To make the characters seem more intellectual and edgy than similar characters in other harem shows.
And no, there is nothing smart or substantial about this series, even when you compare it to other titles in the school club/harem genre. It’s yet another twelve episode commercial for body pillows. But that’s what the genre is, right? You can’t criticize a harem for being a harem any more than you can criticize porn for being porn, right? Well, even putting aside the achievements of the few good titles out there, Haganai still has one problem that sets it apart from any other harem that I’ve seen… Or better yet, and other anime that I can think of on the spot. Haganai might be the only anime I’ve ever seen that pretends to have had effort put into it. It actually pretends to try.
Generally speaking, no harem show really has to put much effort into writing their characters. They fit into pre-set categories, and you can pretty much write them with a checklist in the other hand. Haganai takes this a step farther by stealing it’s characters wholesale from other anime, and then rewriting those characters just enough to make them legally original. Here, let’s do a brief run-down of the cast of this show.
The main character is a good natured boy who’s a great cook, but he gets mistaken for a punk due to his looks and an unfortunate misunderstanding. He has a name, but you’d do just fine calling him Ryouji from Toradora. He meets the first member of his harem when he walks in on her doing something embarrassing in an empty classroom(because of course he does), and she winds up being a loner weirdo who can’t make friends because she doesn’t want to join any clubs. Her conversation with him inspires her to start her own club, where she treats her members more as commodities than friends… Oh, and by the way, they knew each other a long time ago. You can file her right under the long list of Haruhi Suzumiya clones.
Their next member is Sena, a popular girl with great grades who tries way too hard to be the best at everything and is in desperate need of genuine friends, and she immediately enters into a cat-and-dog relationship with the main girl. She was obviously intended to be a clone of Ami from Toradora, but Ami was never this annoying. Yukimura is an effeminate boy who has a complex about looking like a girl, so he’s basically Hideyoshi from Baka and Test… Except that he’s in love with Kodaka, so he’s more like Ruka from Steins;Gate. Rika is the socially exempt scientist who is sex crazed, overly forward, and acts like a perverted old man. Think Washu from Tenchi for this one. There’s a little girl who’s so obviously supposed to be Index, and oh yeah, Kodaka has a precocious little sister who is in love with him and dresses in very otaku friendly cosplays, so she’s pretty much every generic incest/pedophile fantasy ever invented.
In other words, there is not one original idea in this entire series. Even the one good plot line it has was adapted and repackaged from better stories like Haruhi Suzumiya and the Love Hina manga. The set-ups, which seemed pretty meaty at first, ultimately lead to nothing more than tired harem elements and aimless pandering that accomplishes exactly what it tries: nothing. Which is a shame, because these set-ups really did have a lot of potential, and I’m not just saying that in an empty way.
So, since I have such a great record of putting my money where my mouth it, here’s a list of some of the opportunities that Haganai missed by leaning back on the notoriously low harem standards.. Yozora could have forced her club to interact with other clubs, only to unintentionally alienate them even farther with hilarious results. Sena’s sudden nosedive into video game addiction could have come into conflict with her studying habits, making her grades suffer as a result. Speaking of Sena, she could have used her popularity and influence to show the student body that Kodaka isn’t really as bad a person as they think he is(Seriously, if you’re going to steal an idea from Toradora, you might as well go all the way with it). Hell, maybe if Sena’s giant boobs hadn’t permanently damaged her backbone, she could stand up to Yozora instead of running away, calling her out on the fact that she wants to make friends, but is a complete bitch to anybody who comes close to her.
Are those ideas great? Maybe not. I’m not a professional writer. I write fanfics occasionally, but if we’re being completely honest, they’re not very good. But I have 100 percent confidence that the scenarios I just cooked up are better than the ones Haganai comes up with. I’ll bet anything they’d be more interesting than watching Yozora intimidate a 10 year old girl by threatening to make revenge porn of her, or having Sena’s dad get drunk and hit on Kodaka, or having the entire female cast act like mewling, manipulative, infantile idiots who bicker with each other for literally no reason other than a continuous feud that started over nothing and escalated over nothing. They beat the hell out of seeing the cast play a virtual reality game that somehow knows exactly what they look like in real life.
I’ll admit, though, Haganai does have it’s moments. The feud between Yozora and Sena, while annoying and pointless and at one point even a little rapey(beach episode), was funny at times. Yozora’s history with Kodaka is also really interesting, at least in the very small amount of screen time it’s given. But aside from that, the only way I could make this experience less painful was by pretending that the Neighbors club didn’t really exist… That Kodaka was just a lonely boy in an empty room imagining that he had a harem of hot girls at his beck and call. He based a few of them on girls he knew, and based the rest off of anime and games he’d enjoyed. That’s why none of them ever act like real people… He doesn’t know how real girls act!
That’s why he’s always rejecting or ignoring their advances… Because while having them want him helps his fragile ego, he doesn’t want to be known as the guy who fools around with invisible people. That’s why these girls are so interested in porno and video games… Because he wants to be able to relate to them, so he gave them the same hobbies and interests that he has! It’s not as terrible a show as it looks, it’s a deep character study about a delusional porn game addict! Yes, I know this theory doesn’t hold up. Yes, I know it’s BS. But you know what? I had to try really hard to enjoy this turd muffin, and that BS is the only weapon I had at my disposal, so back off!
Haganai: I don’t have many friends is available from Funimation. You can find it in a Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack for between thirty and forty dollars. You can also find the second season for exactly the same. There have been several written iterations of the series, and while the original light novels have not yet been translated into English or released in America, a few of the manga series have been released stateside by Seven Seas entertainment. Netflix does not carry it, but Funimation does, although you’ll have to pay to see beyond episode 2. The second season doesn’t really improve upon any of my complaints, aside from the fact that all of the nudity is gone, which is… Kind of missing the point.
At first glance, Haganai looks like it has the potential to become more than the sum of it’s parts, both as a harem series and just as a series in general. Well, that’s what it wants you to think, with it’s eye-catching aesthetic and cynical tone. By not following through on any of this potential, it falls far below the sum of it’s parts, offering the same damn cheesecake garbage we’ve seen a million times before. I might be able to forgive it for that if it hadn’t been so pretentious in it’s presentation, and had just decided to have fun with itself like any ecchi show should do… But it doesn’t, which lowers my opinion of it right back down to the level of all those other pandering titty-fest shows that it should be at least technically superior to. It’s lazy, unoriginal; and just flat out not worth the effort. I give Haganai a 2/10.