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

Just Because is a series about recapturing a sense of meaning in lives seemingly increasingly devoid of that meaning. Worse yet is that the protagonists of the series, graduating high school seniors, should be too young and too on the cusp of a new chapter in their lives to feel so hollow. And yet they do. While this feeling is easily understood through word, expression, and action, the very scenery and color palette of the series backgrounds communicate the profound desolation much more viscerally than any direct word or act.

The First Episode of Just Because Accurately Captures the Listlessness of Many Japanese Adolescents

The story follows the return of Eita Izumi to a high school in the area he used to live in. Four years prior, in the middle of junior high school, he left when his father was transferred for work. Now, with his family moved back, he transfers into a high school at the very end of his high school experience. In the final term of his third and final year, this would appear to be the worst time to make friends or memories.

Although, to some degree, he is actually quite lucky as two of his junior high school friends are also enrolled in this high school. While Izumi might be forgiven for being forlorn with so much movement in his young life, it is readily apparent that his old classmates are stuck in a deep and all encompassing sense of listlessness and ennui. Series synopses suggest his arrival will be a catalyst in returning meaning to the lives of his friends.

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

At length, I have already spent time addressing these feelings, their reflection of actual conditions in Japan, and the unfortunately widespread nature of their existences amongst Japanese youth. I would argue that the way the characters are presented isn’t subtle, but what is subtle (and too often not discussed) is the way background design absolutely toys with our emotions and perceptions. The use of background in Just Because is both powerful and yet subtle, because its subtlety is, in this case, a key component of its power.

The series is about transitional melancholy, fear of the future, regretting the past, the potential fruitlessness of the search for happiness and meaning, and ultimately, signals a definite, if perhaps not clinical, depression. Such themes require a presentation which is representative of the perceptions and feelings of the characters. This is a bleak world; it is not one for strong design strokes, bright and saturated colors, and clean landscapes.

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

Let’s start with the color palette. Colors are desaturated, lacking vividness and depth. Colors look like they’ve all been mixed with gray, and made to appear dirty, dingy, and washed out. Some of this can be explained by the time of year, of course—being the third term of the school year, the series is taking place almost entirely during winter. Just as a matter of science, less light is reaching Japan, what light is reaching Japan is coming in at a highly filtered angle, and frigid temperatures give rise to gray and overcast skies. All of these contribute to our perception as viewers that things just look less colorful in the winter. 

However, this is only part of what is happening in the colors used for Just Because. Even when reflections or shadows tell us that a fair amount of sun is shining, colors remain muted, grayed, and desaturated. Even in the harshness of direct light, be it natural or artificial, colors simply fail to pop. We’re not quite watching a monochrome world, but we feel like we are on the edge of it. There is an overpowering sense the the world is being drained of color, and we are simply present at the last bit of saturation. 

The colors are contained inside sharp, realistic shapes. Objects, buildings, and clothes are incredibly hyper-realistic. Textures add to the sense of the real, lived in, imperfect, and “clean but not new” nature of Japan. Whereas many anime present schools, bus stops, trains, stores, and houses with clean spaces that lack imperfections, textures, and grit, Just Because does not make this mistake. In addition to using real brands as much as is possible (unlike the common anime trope of changing a letter or brand shape), objects are not amalgamations of many similar objects. Floors are scuffed in one area, shiny in another, and, if tile, are uneven or wavy. Walls periodically have a grittiness around corners, with pockmarks or scratches. Curbs and streets show divots, gashes, and cracks attesting to the slow march of destructive time.

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

This is the Japan I feel, today, as I get up in the morning, put on five layers of clothing, and trudge across my neighborhood to my train station in the wet and wind. This is the Japan that I run through, stopping at the convenience store, because I took to much time getting ready to eat a proper breakfast. This is the Japan I curse as I go and get my car out of the parking lot, my hands shaking, my 1000 yen bill wet, the machine angrily spitting its floppy form back at me while I let the car idle, in contravention of the stated rules. I know otherwise my car would be too cold to finish my morning commute. And due to Just Because this is the Japan that viewers, no matter how far from Japan, can feel with me.

Most viewers will not be aware they feel this way even though they do. This is the incredible power of great art, and we don’t just hear what the characters say, or know what they think, or see what they see. We feel what they feel, and we live where they live. And as a winter anime being broadcast in the lead up to the winter (and where it is already too cold, too wet, too gray, and definitely too depressing), we cannot help but feel the weight of its setting upon our own emotional states.

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

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