#12 The Actual Definition of Bland (Saenai Heroine no Sodatekata)

This is part of the 12 Days of Anime project that I do every year. There will be a good number of people writing under the same vein, so go check out other people’s opinions on the anime they watched this year as well!


After finishing the first season of the anime, Clannad would become the first visual novel I would play. Impressed enough with that, I decided to go a bit further into other visual novels that people seemed to like. Soon I would become enamored by the likes of Fate/Stay Night, Ever 17, and Katawa Shoujo. I was even confident enough in myself to embrace the dirtier side and try out things like Edelweiss, Shuffle, and Saya no Uta. It was at that point, however, that I completely stopped playing VNs. Time constraints would be an excellent excuse since I would soon be entering the later years of high school and then college, but part of me realized that I had been playing the same thing over the span of five years. I soon wanted more from a VN experience than the possibility of dating a 2D girl, and sure as hell wanted more than having to deal with 5 different girls at the same time to get a full story.

That’s not to say that girls in VNs are uninteresting. No, if anything a girl in a VN is one of the most recognizable things in the known universe. That’s how they’re designed, after all. The VNs I played spared no expense in getting me to at least sympathize with the girls as soon as possible, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t empathize with a few of them. I believe, however, that this is not merely a natural reaction. That’s because girls in the VNs I’ve read wear their hearts on their sleeves.

This makes a person like Kato Megumi, the main heroine of Saenai Heroine no Sodatekata, a real problem to interpret at a surface level.

Megumi becomes the model of a VN that the main hero, Aki, is trying to create. Most of her character arc throughout the show is about getting her to express herself naturally. Sure, you can see straightaway that she has feelings and emotions, and they certainly show a pattern towards being cheerful and compassionate, but you wouldn’t be able to tell very well from her facial expressions, body language, tone, basically anything other than her words. Unlike other heroines I’ve been familiar with whose personalities are so vibrant and easy to spot, Megumi proves to be a total enigma to the rest of the cast.

Eriri: “Maybe if she were deadpan and emotionless, then we’d be able to play her off as a character similar to Ayanami Rei. But it’s more like her personality is neither here nor there.”

Aki: “Ah, I know what you mean. It’s not so much that she has no emotions. It’s just that she doesn’t put her heart into expressing them.”

Eriri: “Seriously, I’ve never worked with such a useless character before.”

For me, her perceived uselessness explains a lot about what VNs, and to an extent mainstream anime, desire out of their characters: transparency. The rest of the girls in Saekano are transparent in this manner, between Eriri’s petite twintail tsundere antics, Utaha’s cool verbally abusive remarks, Izumi’s dutiful imouto charm, and Michiru’s brazen selfish shamelessness. Whatever traits were assigned to them, they owned in all aspects. Every action they took, every feeling they felt, all of it had to be within the confines of their personality. Not because it would make them good characters but instead because it makes it easier to relate to them, and in turn makes them more predictable once the question of flags starts rolling in. What is desired out of such girls is an immediately recognizable and completely consistent character.

That’s why Megumi’s presence as an anomaly in the system plays such a crucial role in keeping the story grounded in reality. When Aki has his “fateful encounter” with Megumi over her fallen hat one day, that hat is shortly pawned off to a cousin. Once Aki tells Megumi how cute she is, he’s unceremoniously rebuffed with a flat “thank you”.  Other girls dominate the scene so forcefully with their personalities that she’s free to sneak out of or into situations in the background. Her ignorance towards the otaku culture also helps expose the insular nature of the hobby, where in one instance Megumi has to keep reminding Aki and Eriri that she’s plenty capable with making her own choices when playing a VN of her own, and that their constant advisory on how to play their games is very much not appreciated.

And in a particular fusion between poking at VN tropes and otaku culture, this exchange happens:

Aki: “Kato,  do you have that trait of being unforgettable once seen? You don’t! You don’t at all! You’ve been kind of cute all along. You’ve got no obvious flaws. But what the hell am I going to do about your lack of individuality!?”

Megumi: “Setting aside the fact that I’ve done nothing to deserve such harsh treatment, is my lack of individuality a problem for you?”

Aki: “It is! It’s a huge problem! Kato, you have to be special or else it won’t work! You need definable personality traits!

Megumi: “And why is that?”

Aki: “Because you were supposed to be my main heroine, that’s why!”

Megumi: “Um, did you confess to me just now?”

Aki: “Huh? Me to you? Why would I do that?”

Megumi: “Just as I thought. Even though you’ve been speaking to me, it felt as though you’ve been focusing on something far away.”

Aki: [pauses and sits back] “Not far away, but in another dimension.”

The show is peppered with exchanges like this, with everyone kind of marveling at how Megumi continues to behave unlike a proper 2D girl. Megumi sort of tolerates it because she’s getting attention and she really has nothing better to do than to hang out with these clowns. But the support she provides and the interest she holds towards making a game with them is genuine. Her inability to show her feelings straight becomes a refreshing exercise in subtle interaction that I didn’t expect from this show at first, as the show follows Megumi’s slow progression from being forgettable to having a bit of an identity for herself.

That’s not to say that I agree that the show is trying to make her an “ideal heroine”, as if making her act out common tropes would marginalize her character in any meaningful way. However, what this show does instead is strike a balance in commitment. While having a perfectly transparent personality is hardly realistic, there’s nothing wrong with using that as a model to express yourself a bit more freely. And that’s why Megumi stands out among the rest of the cast the most. Becuase she’s the most realistic one of them all.

Addendum

  • This is my thinly veiled explanation as to why Kato Megumi is the best girl to have ever best girl’d out of all best girls.
  • 100% objective analysis
  • do not argue
  • Real talk though: thinking about this show more and skimming through the series as I wrote this post, I understand better why I stuck with it through the end. The show’s a parody of VN/LN tropes and an understated critique of otaku culture at times, and sometimes the fourth wall breaking and fanservice can get exasperating at times, but I find its devotion to and focus on the creative process earnest and full of heart. And as I state with this post, Megumi’s existence and role in the story elevates a stupid, indulgent tropefest into a nuanced if still stupid tropefest.
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One comment

  1. arbitrary_greay · · Reply

    I’m reminded of the character of Clara Oswald from Doctor Who. Her initial arc’s theme was eventually about berating the Doctor (and the audience by proxy) for treating Clara as a trope, not helped by Clara’s own performative personality. Fans of the show followed the Doctor’s lead in comparing her to previous Doctor’s Companions, reading her apparent “generic Companion”-ness as an indication of her being a puzzle point to be solved for the season’s plot twist. In doing so, they ignored that Clara was adopting this persona for her own reasons, the same reason we all present a “generic” version of ourselves to strangers, rejecting transparency until we get closer to someone. Only after the Doctor (and we) got over that assumption, could their friendship truly begin, the show then delving into the other facets of Clara’s life and personality previously unseen, because we had deemed them nonexistent, due to her narrative framing-appointed “plot point character” role.

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