Image source: TVアニメJust Because !公式 on Twitter

To some, winter brings with it a sense of melancholy. This is especially true to adolescents in their third and final year of high school. Many try to balance the extreme pressure to figure out how to end one stage of life and begin another. With the giving up of club activities, optional classes, cram school nights, and short days, it all becomes a blur. Many secretly ask, what’s the point?

Just Because drops us into a fairly standard Japanese high school, where a sense of futility and melancholy reign. Eita Izumi has transferred back into the area after four years of absence, and he will only spend the third trimester of the school year here before graduating. Since classes from February on are optional anyway, and third year students have given up on clubs and resigned themselves to the churn of exam prep and the exams themselves, Izumi would seem to have arrived at the worst time to rekindle old friendships and build new memories. Our synopsis suggests that Izumi will lead his peers into breaking out of their ennui, but very much ensconced in my own Japanese economic ennui, I’m curious as to how he will succeed.

Image source: TVアニメJust Because !公式 on Twitter

The school to which he is (and we are) introduced does not seem to be a joyful or lively one. It is very different from my experiences at junior high school, as third year students are under extreme pressure, but still are largely hopeful that they can achieve their dreams at some point in a still seemingly distant future. There is a very different sense with many high schools or universities.

I have watched my own friends, many who had big dreams as junior high school students, lower their sights considerably as they reach the end of high school. The rock star turned massage therapist, the baseball player turned municipal servant, the manga artist turned English teacher (whose English still isn’t really that great, but at least it might be fun, and maybe he won’t need to deal with a completely new environment as he’s choosing to leave school for… school?).

These are all actual former students and current friends of mine. In the characters Izumi either meets with or reconnects with, I see the same sense of terrified nostalgia and hopeful desolation. Unsure of their legacy and fearful to leave a place where they have title and identity, they look to an uncertain future and ask, “Was it it worth it? Will it be worth it?” Even more depressingly to hear from a seventeen year old is, “What happens if I come to regret the choices I have made?”

This is not something you hear so often in junior high school. Yet, increasingly in Japan, you will hear or feel the same crisis of identity and self-worth we might find in much older adults suffering mid-life crises in those less than half that age. It’s a tough world out there, and when it comes to economic viability and professional outcomes, the experiences of the lost generation, the end of lifetime employment, and the increased nature of the casualization of work

Image source: TVアニメJust Because !公式 on Twitter

Well, it can be hard to get excited by an adult world which has already made it clear your dreams are not important and you’re lucky to be offered full time regular employment. Not everyone can manage that. Happy and gainfully employed? That’s hard to get anywhere in the world, and it’s simply not that easy to find in Japan. Especially given the amount of information overload we have access to via the internet and social media, many adolescents are well aware of the perception that the sun is setting on the Japanese economy. It did not help, certainly, that in the past few years, China overtook Japan as the world’s second largest economy. It’s really no wonder that so many young people seem sullen and resentful at trading adolescence for an adult world that is very likely to treat them badly.

While we get this same kind of sense from all of the characters, two in particular stand out: Natsume and Haruto. Haruto has already secured work, but he seems deeply troubled by his legacy. His baseball team did not do well in the lead up the national championship and this was his primary focus for almost his entire school life. He and Izumi were together in their middle school baseball club. They had promised to meet up at the national championship, but Izumi gave up on baseball after he transferred and Haruto’s career ended in a fizzle. At only seventeen, we get the sense that Haruto already feels his best days are behind him, and that he has put little true thought into the position he will take after graduation.

Natsume, on the other hand, reminds me of several of my own friends… and in some ways, myself. Natsume is introduced to us as tightly focused on her studies and the upcoming entrance exams. She has removed herself from many of the social groups of which she was a part, but not because she really wants to. She tells herself, as she tells others, that this is temporary, there there will be time in the future to do all the things she’s putting off—but it’s pretty clear that this is not the truth. Natsume is stuck. She is trapped between her fears that she has not made the most of her adolescence, and yet also her fears of failure in transitioning to the next stage of her life. No matter which way she looks, back towards the past, or forward towards the future, she seems frozen by fear of regret.

Image source: TVアニメJust Because !公式 on Twitter

At nearly fifteen years older than both Haruto and Natsume, I can honestly say, this is a feeling I know well. I didn’t feel this way at seventeen, but at thirty-four, I definitely do. And they are both products of economic shift we have seen in the world and in Japan. It is my own natural inclination to be dismissive of the idea that Izumi could change the calculus when it feels so all encompassing and soul-crushing. It may be naïve to wonder if perhaps an anime can really offer us an answer on how to break free of this feeling. Then again, what do we have to lose?

Just Because can be watched subtitled on Amazon’s Anime Strike.

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