Image source: tsukigakirei_tv on Twitter

Figuring out just how much in an anime, even a “slice of life” series, is an accurate reflection of Japanese lives and experiences is something many overseas fans often find difficult. Unsurprisingly, most series depart from reality in entertaining ways, but still depart all the same. Tsukigakirei is not one such series. 

Image source: tsukigakirei_tv on Twitter

I knew from the moment I saw the first released commercial on my morning commute to school on the Tokyo subway screens, Tsukigakirei was going to press all of my “realism” buttons. I could see beyond the animation style and quality that (copyright issues requiring spelling tweaks to established brands aside) this was a series which would speak truly about Japanese school experiences in a way which celebrated both the universality of adolescence while hewing to the reality of that which is uniquely Japanese.

Tsukigakirei has no gimmick, no special premise, no “it’s almost the same world except for X” plot point. It’s the story primarily of third year junior high school (grade nine) students Mizuno Akane and Azumi Kotarou, along with their friends, classmates, and fellow club members. The primary focus is on the budding romance between Akane and Kotarou, both of which are quite shy and quiet, but passionate about their interests. Along the way, of course, there are explorations of other students, couples, and the music/homeroom teacher. 

Image source: tsukigakirei_tv on Twitter

Really, it’s “just” an anime about junior high school students. Specifically it’s a work which focuses on romantic and platonic relationships of said JHS students, the joys and pains of adolescence, and the unique place school days and school peers—especially from junior high school, have in Japanese lives. Many overseas anime fans could be forgiven for not understanding; no, really, that’s where the premise ends. There’s no quirk. 

Even my favorite series, Kimagure Orange Road, starts with the special premise that the main male lead is secretly a psychic. Neither is Tsukigakirei a serious social commentary like the realistic LGBT works, Wandering Son or Sweet Blue Flowers, by Shimura Takako. It certainly isn’t the comedic four-panel comic anime style with extreme caricatures containing kernels of cultural truth a la Azumanga Daioh, Lucky Star, A-Channel, or Nichijou.

Tsukigakirei draws heavily from, and makes constant allusion to, the works of Dazai Osamu. I’m familiar with Dazai’s work from graduate school, where in studying Japanese culture and politics, we read a sampling of Dazai’s work and literary criticism about his background, his style, and also his deep unhappiness. This led to his eventual taking of his own life just shy of the age of 39. His style is famous for being a “picture window” into the lives of his characters, much as Tsukigakirei is for its characters’ lives, including the Dazai-quoting Kotarou.

And for what Tsukigakirei is—i.e., a reflection of what I called the “universality of adolescence” filtered through the lens of “the reality of that which is uniquely Japanese”—it is a masterpiece. In my many years of engaging with Japanese media, including anime, combined with my years in Japan, I can think of few works that approach its mastery of the subtlety, perhaps even banality, of everyday Japanese junior high school life and the primacy and significance those experiences play in Japanese personal and communal, collective histories. 

Image source: tsukigakirei_tv on Twitter

Yet it is fair for readers to ask what experiences I have on which to judge this asserted realism that other “non-Japanese” viewers lack. Despite the fact I am naturalizing to Japan, I wish to set aside the contentious issue of what it means (or if it is even possible) to “become Japanese.” Instead, I wish to speak about my perceptions of Tsukigakirei through my years spent as an English, social studies, and homeroom teacher in Japanese schools (primarily junior high schools) across multiple prefectures.

Even more useful, perhaps even most useful, is my own very unique experience of being able to “go back in time” and spend eleven months as a third-year junior high school student. I even “graduated” with a real JHS diploma, despite being chronologically far older. This was a school in the same prefecture in which Tsukigakirei takes place (Northern Saitama), where I was living at the time. This was also, undeniably, the happiest and most fulfilling year of my life so far. 

Choosing to look at the third year of junior high school, Tsukigakirei pinpoints where the roller coaster of adolescence is most acute. In the first year, everything seems so new and confusing to new students, and the outlook is very short. The second year of junior high school is famous for being a time of general disengagement or overt strangeness, as the newness has worn off, but there’s no pressure yet to look beyond the present. There’s a fair number of works which mine this period, often for humor.

Image source: tsukigakirei_tv on Twitter

The third year, however, is when everything takes on a sense of urgency. Not only do students realize while grades don’t matter for graduating from junior high school (you can’t fail), they do give a realistic assessment of how one will likely do on high school entrance exams. Students also begin to feel the weight of a graduation which means moving beyond their immediate communities. This introduces a pressure to identify even more strongly with peers and with the school, which also serves as an example to younger students. Junior high schools in Japan, as more than one principal has reminded me, is the last chance a local community has to “make a Japanese person” (you don’t have to go to high school) before students choose where and how far they wish to travel for high school (or something else). 

This urgency means that for many, while there is pressure to lead younger students, leave leadership legacies in club activities, and study for entrance exams, there is also a prioritization of “making memories.” This in turn drives significant emotional depth into friendships, romantic relationships, and club affiliations. It’s not uncommon for students to be as deeply forlorn to be leaving as they are excited for the future as graduation nears. It’s this muggy aura of emotion in which the everyday lives of the characters of Tsukigakirei become highly dramatic.

If we place Akane, even more so than Kotarou, at the center and sweep around her, we can see how her place is defined less by her class than by her club, the Track and Field team. Her primary friendships are with the girls Chinatsu and Aoi, and the male club captain, Hira.

Image source: tsukigakirei_tv on Twitter

Yet it would be a mistake to say she is not at all defined by her class, 3-1, as it contains Kotarou, and this allows us to consider Kotarou’s own circles, including the Literature Club. We can also see which characters are important to Kotarou but not so important to Akane and vice versa. We also see characters with second-order importance, like homeroom teacher Ryouko. Tsukigakirei’s switch between characters is very comfortable. However, what it does brilliantly is use subtle changes in framing and focus to allow us to see how Akane and Kotarou’s perception of each other—and the other students and teachers—changes over time.

Characters in Tsukigakirei are also, to me, real people, and not archetypes or caricatures you often find elsewhere in anime. Especially in terms of the four-panel style “four girls in high school” anime series. I know many students and have many friends who have similarities with—or share personality traits with—or choose similar hair or clothing styles—to characters in the series. But I don’t see these precise combinations in anyone. These are believable characters who don’t actually exist, but could exist, and if they showed up in my homeroom, I wouldn’t be surprised. Even characters who get fairly minor screen time seem like real people to me.

Image source: tsukigakirei_tv on Twitter

Even the “short episode” vignettes, while funny, don’t fail in realism or characterization. They’re more light hearted—often more overtly funny—than the main episodes, but there’s nothing I believe couldn’t be possible from real students and peers I have known. Specifically amusing to me were three recurring vignette subjects: the relationship between Miu and Inaba (are they a couple or aren’t they? Do they even know?!), Sakura’s daydreams/inner thoughts, Ryouko’s dismay over her increasingly close—perhaps even inappropriate—relationship with Roman, one of her own male homeroom students. Roman, Sakura, Inaba, and Miu are all classmates of Akane and Kotarou, and under Ryouko’s homeroom supervision. 

I like the vignettes because they approach slightly taboo conversations in a way which respects the fact that these conversations do occur in junior high school. They occur between students, and they sometimes occur between students and a particularly close, respected, or adored teacher—especially if that teacher is a young teacher and also a homeroom teacher. As a teacher, Ryouko’s concern over her closeness with Roman—and her inclusion as “one of the girls” by several of her homeroom’s female students—has a comedic aspect, but it’s serious too. Her inability to figure out where the “lines” are in her relationship with students is an issue many young teachers face. It’s also one with which I am personally acquainted. It’s not unusual for a few students to “confess” to teachers. I’ve had it happen about four times.

The vignettes in general also approach sexuality as simply “in the air.” They neither hide this fact nor deeply explore it. Sakura’s daydreams get closest, and her odd responses and thought processes show the cognitive dissonance about like/not-like which is a hallmark of adolescent psychology. The other couples that are friends of Akane and Kotarou also have interactions which suggest there is confusion over issues of how far is too far, who initiates what, etc. Little is directly spoken to or revealed, but the indirect-just-on-the-periphery-ness of it is, itself, an accurate depiction.

Image source: tsukigakirei_tv on Twitter

When I watch Tsukigakirei, it brings to mind my own similar experiences. When Ryouko is both concerned by and happy about the friendship she shares with her students, I think of my own student-friends and the line we walked. When Chinatsu, Aoi, and Akane start crying at their last track meet of junior high school, my eyes well up. I remember my own awkward, drawn out goodbyes with my “fellow” third years (who remain close friends of mine, as we will always be bound together). And I almost start sobbing as all of the characters begin to rehearse the common Saitama graduation song, Tabidachi no Hi ni, only to laugh uproariously at the unexpected interruption of silliness. 

For me Tsukigakirei is the epitome of natsukashii (nostalgia), a past deeply missed, and even more deeply loved. It is a painful reminder of the non-physical aspects of “home” that always are and yet never will be again. 

Image source: tsukigakirei_tv on Twitter

It’s quite easy to get into tropes, oversimplifications, gross exaggerations, and the like for purposes of age demographics, comedy, special premises, or fan service when dealing with school life in Japan. It’s also possible to go to the other extreme, leading to such an averaging out of experiences that situations become cookie-cutter, characters become flat and static, and no insight is reached or no soul is touched.

Tsukigakirei walks fine lines between these pitfalls and succeeds in quiet, understated glory.

Tsukigakirei can be viewed with English subtitles on Crunchyroll and with English dialogue on FUNimation.

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