Promoted Community Blog: Break it Down: School Days


Back to school!

[Awesome user MrRasczack has a great breakdown of School Days, everybody's favorite "Nice Boat" anime. Want your deep thoughts to get on the front page? Write a cool community blog! -Josh]

When the anime adaptation of School Days, a dating sim developed by interactive fiction maker Overflow, first aired, it quickly gained notoriety for its slowly rising darkness, with an ending so shocking that it is still brought up when discussing particularly violent scenes in anime. The juxtaposition of tone and action, of wanton cruelty and emotional abuse against the seemingly lighthearted face of a common, uninspiring romance series makes School Days just as relevant now as when it first aired.

Unlike so many anime before and after it, School Days was unafraid to look at the terrible and foolish depths that teenagers could sink to when pushed hard enough, and remains one of the most subtle and powerful commentaries on dating sims as a whole and the mentality of those who play them. It is an exercise in tragedy laid out in anime tropes.

(Note: massive spoilers for School Days follow. If you wish to view the series before reading, Crunchyroll has your back.)

School Days, at first glance, seems to be one of the more derivate animes you could possibly imagine. It has every trope of the romance genre out in full force. You have a smoothened out, bland protagonist in Makoto Itou (complete with one of those oh-so-punchable anime protagonist faces), a shy, wispy love interest in Kotonoha Katsura, and an electric, tomboyish friend in Sekai Saionji. Their love triangle, in any other anime, would form the basis of the entire plot. Will he pick Konoha? Will he pick Sekai? 12 episodes of vacillation later we’d have our answer and go home happy.

But, the unthinkable happens. Within the first episode Makoto confesses to Kotonoha, Sekai congratulates him on having the balls to go ahead with it, and the show goes on.

This is where School Days is so effective, it tells the story after. If this were any other show, it would have ended with the confession. We would have had 12 episodes of fun and games, maybe a little fanservice, but ultimately it would have ended with Makoto getting the girl and watching the sunset from the riverbank.

At this point, School Days shifts from your standard romance story to a tale of jealousy, mental abuse, and the slow dehumanization of characters through their actions. Out of all the anime I’ve seen, no show has ever shown the awkwardness of physical intimacy and first dating quite like School Days manages to. There are so mnay little touches that feel like the show pauses and decides to cut through the all the trappings of anime to something that actually can speak to teenagers in all their foolishness.

In one great scene, Kotonoha is railing off this long fantasy about what she imagines her first sexual experience will be like. It involves Europe, hiking in the mountains, being trapped in a cabin as it snows outside, huddling together for warmth in front of a roaring fire. Meanwhile, we get a shot of Makoto’s room, with the opening image being his tissue filled trash can and then a shot of him flexing his hand with a single sentence of him remembering how soft her breast was from an earlier make out session.

If it comes off as callous and immature, that’s the point. Teenage life is full of callousness and immaturity. In the episodes that follow we begin to see Makoto’s relationships slowly become more toxic and self-destructive. He quickly transcends simply being a terrible person to being poison to all he touches.

By episode 3 Makoto has admitted that he finds Kotonoha boring to be around, and pushes for physical intimacy as a way to relieve that boredom. When Kotonoha rebuffs him, he finds solace in Sekai, and the whole tragedy begins with Makoto’s influence extending to nearly every other girl in the series. He never forces himself upon them, but capitalizes on their own emotions for his own gratification. He takes from them without having to give anything back. By either curiosity or their own boredom, nearly the entire cast eventually finds their way to his bed.

In a recurring theme, Makoto is marked as being apart from the normal selection of anime romance protagonists. Keichii from Oh! My Goddess he is not, nor is he the comical pervert of Golden Boy. Rather, he comes off as someone using sex as a form of escape from the rest of the world. In place of facing emotions, he simply moves on to whatever girl in his immediate vicinity happens to be willing to get naked.

This is meant to reflect the nature of dating sims as games with concrete goals rather than as essentially visual novels. Players are meant to work hard to get a single girl, but then once they get her, well, are they really expected to stay with her for the whole rest of the playthrough? There are seven other girls they could potentially seduce. It’s the movement from cutesy role playing to the aggression exertion of power as a way to relieve boredom, just as how School Days plays out. He has a brief moment of self-reflection near the end of the series, but he makes no point of acting upon it.

Women as Agents

One of the big criticisms I’ve seen leveled against a lot of harem animes and anime based on dating sims is that they go out of their way to develop the female characters as perfect reflections of the main character’s desire. They don’t have true agency because their sole purpose for being is to provide something the protagonist (in this case the viewer or the player) could imagine themselves dating. Tsundere and yandere archetypes are just that, easily digestible collections of tropes that serve as the framework to hang whatever trappings the creators care to add to her.

In School Days, women can be classified into two tiers, with Kotonoha and Sekai being in the first tier, with all other women in Makoto’s life operating in the second. Kotonoha and Sekai together represent the impossible ideal of Makoto’s desire, with Kotonoha being unconditional romantic love (it should be noted that she is one of the few girls to never have sex with Makoto) while Sekai represents more grounded, carnal love. It’s the dichotomy of the chaste, beautiful angel and lustful whore split across two people, and it is Makoto’s inability to see either of them as true individuals capable of pain that drag the lot of them down. Both women suffer horribly, emotionally and physically, as a result of his actions, and it their fate that School Days asks us to see as tragic.

Nowhere is this hammered home more than in the final episode. Despite having killed Makoto, the scars and baggage of having been in such close contact to him remains. Where killing him should have been liberation, it only serves to seal her fate. Convinced that she is carrying his child, Sekai can do nothing but face Kotonoha. If the two could simply stand down and realize what fools the both of them had been, the final bloodshed could have been avoided, but instead the series must end with two women fighting to the death over the severed head of their mutual lover.

The women from the second tier, however, are able to interact with Makoto differently. Unlike Kotonoha and Sekai, side characters like Hikari treat their interactions with Makoto with equal coldness. Hikari just wants sex, as do all the other girls. When the immensity of Makoto’s philandering is finally revealed to the school, the other girls have no trouble abandoning and letting him fall into despondency. The tables have turned. Makoto has no power over them and so they can walk away knowing that they avoided the fate of their friends.

Of special note is the role (or lack thereof) of Makoto’s mother, who is nonexistent in School Days. All we know is that she is divorced and apparently shows little concern for Makoto or his state of being. Whether this is a deliberate choice on the part of Overflow or merely casting her aside to avoid any complications, it might explain why Makoto is the way he is. Perhaps his actions are an emulation of his father, or maybe he blames his mother for breaking apart their family. There is little evidence given, but the lack of parents seems to indicate a breakdown of guiding principles somewhere in the world.

The Darker Truths of Relationships

Finally, perhaps the one must underappreciated element of School Days is the sheer boldness to present an anime that skews towards the idea that relationships can be unhealthy, and that they can lead to people being deeply hurt. Whereas in seemingly every other show the audience is yelling at the protagonist to grow a pair and just tell the girl how he feels, School Days is about tearing out your hair and begging the girls in Makoto’s life to escape the cycle of abuse they’ve become trapped in.

Anime about relationships, especially about those involving teens and young adults, rarely venture into the territory of exploring what those relationships are actually like. We see it rarely enough in American media, to say nothing of anime where the fetishization of middle and high-school life is firmly set as a creative bedrock.

Complications of sex, so often brushed aside or made the topic of “special” episodes of TV, are at the forefront of School Days. These are children acting in a vaccuum, and as children are wont to do, they pretend to adulthood. Sekai, before starting her affair with Makoto, volunteers as a kind of impromptu matchmaker between him and Kotonoha. Despite later admitting in an internal monologue that she has no idea what she’s doing, she plays house with Makoto, allowing him to kiss her and to practice initiating physical contact. It’s a bizarre, awkward scene that illustrates just how much these characters are fumbling in the dark.

Later we meet Taisuke, Makoto’s only male friend in school. Coming off as a laughable joker, giving the old wink and nod every time a pair of breasts show up on screen, he quickly becomes a lonely, distanced character. The one girl who has a crush on him, Hikari, eventually solicits Makoto for sex, leaving Taisuke with no one.

Lonely, despondent, he stumbles upon a dazed Kotonoha, professes his love for her and proceeds to rape her before she can respond. Part of the reason this scene is so terrible is because of how understated it is and how sudden it developed. Taisuke and Kotonoha just happened to be alone, and he chose to take advantage of her in her state of weakness. We know that his is how the majority of assaults in America take place, not by evil guys jumping from the bushes, but by people that the victim knows. Taisuke, despite being kind of a pervy guy, never struck me before as being capable of doing that, which I realized is exactly what every person who has ever lived next to a serial killer says to the news crew.

Nothing particularly graphic is shown, but they take a moment to focus on the characters in the aftermath. Taisuke seems oblivious that he has done anything wrong, Kotonoha stumbles out, and a day later it’s simply another blow to Kotonoha’s already fragile mental health state.

Still, relationships are not totally bleak in the world of School Days, and there are even healthy relationships. One character, Nanami, is said at the beginning to have a boyfriend, and the two have a touching scene later in the series around the time of the school festival. It’s a small moment, but it’s still acts a slight counterbalance to the drama of Makoto and the others.

The (Infamous) Ending

No discussion of School Days is complete, it seems, without picking apart the ending and  reeling back in horror at how grisly the scene is. For those who haven’t seen it and don’t care to watch it, Makoto is killed in a mad rage by Sekai after he blows off their christmas dinner to spend the night with Kotonoha. When she confronts him about it, he pushes back and makes out with Kotonoha in front of her. Later, in a rage, she stabs him in the stomach and kills him. She then chops off his head and puts it in a bowling bag and heads off to meet Kotonoha, but not before engaging in scene with a trio of characters who are half greek chorus, half witches from Macbeth.

At last she meets Kotonoha. The two acknowledge each other, brandish weapons, and start fighting over the head of Makoto. Sekai is killed and Kotonoha cuts into her stomach, discovering that there was never any fetus.

At the time it certainly was grisly, and an escalation of violence as of yet unseen in the series. Cheating is one thing, but your mind doesn’t really wander to a murder that borrows the MO of the Manson family. It was shocking, it was brutal, and it was a big, bombastic  ending to a series of characters whimpering along to Makoto’s tune. The final scene, of Kotonoha cradling the head of Makoto in her family’s sailboat, presumably off the coast of France, does at least fulfill her saccharine romantic desires.

I posit, however, that the ending might have worked too well, to the point where all other discussion is either inchoate or lacks any momentum. The ending of School Days is no different from a particularly bloody rendition of Romeo and Juliet, even following a similar theme of teenage idiocy. The game actually took this a step further and made Sekai be Makoto’s neice, making it a further betrayal of blood. It is strong, and it is satisfying to a degree to see Makoto die, but I can’t help wondering if the graphic nature of it has overwhelmingly overshadowed the greater purpose of the series.

Whatever you think of the ending, it’s important to remember School Days for the whole of its parts. It’s a strong, short anime that takes an idea and skews it towards darkness in a way that feels believable and grounded enough in reality to make it impactful. It is certainly steeped in anime tropes, but the slivers of humanity that shine through are laser-like in their precision. There is enough here to make Makoto and the others caricatures at first that show a surprising level of depth and life. And though their drama and stakes might seem small compared to other shows, it is nonetheless as gripping and saddening as any show based on a dating sim has a right to be.

If you have any thoughts or comments, please feel free to leave them below, I’d love to read them.


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MrRasczak   gamer profile

I'm 23 years old, and I've been writing for about as long as I've had my hands on a keyboard. Sometimes it's hard, but I can't imagine doing anything else. more + disclosures



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