I’ve been revisiting a lot of anime that I have watched this year, seeing how this is about the time when we look back on everything 2016. That includes anime. And in all that time of reflection, I have to say:
orange is my pick for Anime of the Year 2016.
Yeah, I said it! And based on literally every poll I’ve seen lately, I’m in the minority for saying that. I’m sure for the next couple of days, anime fans will be arguing over why their favorite anime is the best. But for me, the reason is rather simple. orange didn’t just make me think about its narrative. It became part of my own.
orange starts out in the present day, as told by Naho Takamiya. Up to this point, Naho was an average girl: she went to high school, hung out with her friends, and didn’t have much direction in her life. Everything seemed very open-ended for her. But one day, she received a letter that would change how she viewed the world forever.
The long letter was addressed from herself, 10 years into the future. In it, the future Naho (whom I will call adult Naho from here on) recalls lots of memories: some of them fond, others somber, with lots of regret attached. Along with these memories were instructions for what she wanted teenage Naho to do each day. Some of these tasks were vague, while others were straightforward. But seeing how adult Naho was speaking to herself, she never wrote anything that she herself would never have done or anything that would be impossible.
All of the instructions were made to erase regrets, but more specifically, to change her future. After all, the adult Naho knows teenage Naho’s future.
Some time in February of her 17th year, her precious friend, Kakeru Naruse, would commit suicide.
I will be splitting up this review into three sections that I think are integral to the series as a whole. From here on, there will be SPOILERS!
Time Travel and the Two Nahos
I feel that my biggest criticism of this series is also its greatest strength: this anime is surprisingly realistic, despite the fact that there are plenty of science fiction elements. Some of my own friends were frustrated by the series’ lack of explaining the time travel feature or its one-sided dialogue between the two Nahos, elements that shows like Erased simplified, and Blast of Tempest went into detail (wow… I still need to review that). What one might expect to be a standard shōjo romance introduced (not so) unique twists that anime critics like myself are really getting tired of in popular shows! So what makes this one any different?
If I had to give an analytical reason, it’s because this version of speculative fiction and time travel happens in a series targeted to teenage girls, not boys or men, whom you’d think were the only ones who would be interested in such a theme. Not only is that incredibly false, but it frustrates me that when you generalize about elements like time travel, you forget that there are subtle features of it that are forgotten if you throw all of it out.
For me, the model for time travel that is touched upon in this series sufficiently, albeit briefly, is more science than fiction, and for the most part, very practical as well.
The dialogue between teenage Naho and adult Naho acknowledges that they are two different people. While they share some memories, adult Naho has 10 years of history that teenage Naho doesn’t, and after receiving these letters, some of that history changes. Unlike a linear timeline that other anime suggest, orange assumes a multiverse timeline, where it would be impossible for these two Nahos to ever exist together! The only way for them to communicate is through that letter. But the letter is only sent once back to this specific point in the past, and teenage Naho cannot send a letter back to the future. The only way for her to communicate to her future self is through the memories she makes here and now.
In case you are still interested in the ontological implications of time travel, I suppose you can ask if one set of reality is truer than another, inquiring whether teenage Naho’s experience is merely a memory or dream to adult Naho’s experience, and vice versa. But for me, time travel was not nearly as important to the plot as it is simply the means by which I’m even having this conversation.
orange presents us with two narratives that ask two different sides of the question on time travel. If you could write a letter to your past self, what would you say? And if you had received a letter from your future self, what would you do?
Given what I’ve learned about myself and human behavior in general, the drama that happens between the two Nahos actually got it right. Adult Naho presents herself through the letter with careful attention to detail. She knows that her teenage self might tick a certain way if she reveals too much, or do something completely different if she doesn’t spell out something important. But with her adult wisdom, she also acknowledges that some of the memories that teenage Naho will manipulate will also change the good memories she once had, and that’s terrifying!
Similarly, teenage Naho isn’t always sure if her adult self has all the right answers. I often kid around, saying that if I ever had the chance to tell my past self to do something different, he’d probably be too stubborn to listen to me. And given how much resistance Naho has toward instructions left by her adult self, that sentiment still remains largely the same.
Even when teenage Naho does exactly what adult Naho asks her to do, there is no guarantee that that one event will change the future. One of the earliest heart-breaking moments in this series is when Naho is asked to give Kakeru her honest feelings about him when he’s thinking about dating one of their seniors. Naho tells him that their senior is no good for him, but he goes out with her anyway!
The very feelings that Naho experiences in this moment are valid, and they hurt! And just like the taste of that orange juice she has with it, her feelings are a fine mix of sweets, sours, and bitters, knowing that one thing just wouldn’t go her way! Perhaps changing the future would be impossible. But then again, not even the two Nahos can complete this entire narrative on their own.
Breaking Through to Kakeru
The two Nahos’ main goal is to save Kakeru. But seeing how taking action alone isn’t sufficient enough to change the future, that won’t be such an easy task. They had to learn about him, find out what his experiences are like, and act accordingly through their shared experience.
Like the wordplay that comes with his name, Kakeru (Japanese for “to be broken”) is fragile, and extremely vulnerable. His parents were separated, and his own mom committed suicide just before his high school coronation. Living with his grandmother who has become his guardian by default, it’s understandable why he wouldn’t make friends easily, and why he doesn’t trust a lot of people. Even though he is surrounded by good friends, Kakeru always feels alone in his world.
I appreciate that Naho can guide me through her narrative as the protagonist, but my feelings resonated with Kakeru a lot as well, if not more. Perhaps the most unsettling things about orange are its detail into Kakeru’s mind, and the depression he feels going through this series. Contrary to what Naho and her friends tell him, he rejects them, even lashes out at them. Kakeru dreads his own circumstances and takes them out on himself, in fear that he will hurt others.
Kakeru’s suffering hit me on a personal level, and I don’t think I’m the only one who felt that way. It’s too easy to say that lots of people suffer from depression, but those of us who suffer from it believe that no one else will understand what we go through; and nonchalantly stating that so many feel the same way only invalidates those strong feelings that we have projected. Countless anime that I’ve watched and reviewed have often had a character that suffers from depression, but the feelings from it often end on positive note, where the characters eventually overcome their internal ailments or laugh it off with something else to replace it. But orange lets Kakeru’s feelings remain as is, to give us a chance to imagine how he must feel or why he feels so strongly about matters that most people wouldn’t even give a second thought.
This is how depression actually feels.
Naho and her friends take guesses at how Kakeru must feel, but more often than not they fail to capture every last detail of his experience. Again, the realism shows in just how vulnerable and imperfect they are at breaking through to this one guy they care about so much. But even so, Naho never gives up on Kakeru, even when the advice from the letter fails to help her out.
I think it’s a gross understatement to say that the main goal of the series is to see Kakeru alive at the end. While I am curious to see a future where adult Kakeru is alive, that wouldn’t satisfy me enough; not to mention, we wouldn’t learn anything by seeing it. Given the massive possibilities of multiple worlds that this show suggests from the git-go, it is possible to see Kakeru in 10 years, but he might still be a depressed, nervous wreck without any friends. Similarly, if there was a future where Kakeru lives and stands by his friends, it could be possible that we lose something important that happened in adult Naho’s present.
It wouldn’t be enough to save Kakeru’s life. The goal here is to save Kakeru’s heart.
Change the Future
Naho can see a noticeable change in the events that were to happen in adult Naho’s letter, compared to what happens to her in her present. However, there comes a breaking point where she realizes that following her wisdom isn’t enough to save Kakeru. No matter what instructions she followed or chose not to do out of fear, it seemed impossible for Naho alone to change her future.
Well, it’s a good thing she’s not the only one who received a letter that day.
I’m sure you’ll hear this from anyone who cops out of talking about a series they love, but I adore every last one of orange‘s principal characters. I loved Saku Hagita’s outlandish actions to demand as much on-screen attention as possible. I loved Azusa Murasaka’s blunt honesty to express exactly how she feels about everything. I loved Takako Chino’s cool-headed regard to every situation that comes her way.
And Hiroto Suwa? I really, really wanted him to stand by Naho’s side just as his adult self would have done, but I felt that his willingness to sacrifice something so important to him was also admirable. In fact, that’s something I probably do more often than I would like to admit!
All five of their adult counterparts sent letters to this exact moment in the past, each with their own instructions on what to do to save Kakeru. But as you can imagine with any group of individuals, none of them can agree on every last detail on what’s important to them collectively.
The best example where I felt this conflict could actually tear them apart is determining the course of the budding romance between Naho and Kakeru. About halfway through the series, it’s very obvious that they like each other. What’s not so obvious is that not everyone thinks that’s the best option to save the future — not just Kakeru’s future, but all of theirs.
One of the advantages (or perhaps disadvantages) to seeing the drama play out on both the teenage and adult sides of these characters is that you can see what their lives were like when they were all together in the present, versus how they turned out to be in the future. And for me, one thing that stands out the most that would bring a lot of conflict is that Naho and Suwa get married and start a family!
I don’t know if teenage Suwa was oblivious to adult Suwa’s life (I guess I’ll have to find out in the movie), but not everyone was. Hagita and Suwa were very supportive of Naho and Kakeru dating, but Azusa and Takako were not! Saving Kakeru’s heart doesn’t mean that they have to sacrifice their own happiness. There can be another way. Adult Naho is saddened by the fact that Kakeru is gone, but her happiness with Suwa and her son are so precious, that I wouldn’t want it to change either! Sorry Kakeru fans, but I am on #TeamSuwa.
But rest assured, there is a 10-year gap between the two narratives going on in this show, and it would cost me dearly if I assume one set of events overshadow another! Teenage Naho appears to be oblivious to adult Naho’s marriage to Suwa, but the letter leaves a few subtle hints that there are things that she doesn’t want to forget about in the past that have to do with Suwa. Adult Naho would be the first to know exactly what’s in teenage Naho’s heart, seeing how she lived that experience once before. Moreover, she expresses her confidence that had Kakeru been alive today, she still would have married Suwa.
It’s tough to get people to work together to accomplish a single goal, and this show does express that concern quite beautifully. But when they do manage to work together and execute the best plan of action, they really are on top of the world!
One of my favorite moments from this series comes from instructions that Azusa left for her teenage self. On this day, there was going to be rain, but because there was no forecast for it, only Hagita and Azusa brought their umbrellas. As a result, the boys huddled under one umbrella to get home while the girls huddled under another. It’s a friendly gesture, but a rather indifferent one.
Teenage Azusa was asked to coordinate with everyone else to bring an umbrella that day, but not tell Kakeru about it. When the rain came after school, all five of them came prepared for it, but Kakeru did not.
At this point, Kakeru had to choose whom he would walk home with under whose umbrella. Of course, guys like Suwa or Hagita wouldn’t have obliged if Kakeru had asked them. Finally, in order to save Kakeru’s heart, Naho lets Kakeru know that she could share her umbrella with him.
And the results were nothing short of satisfying.
Call it a sappy romance, but this event was not Naho and Kakeru’s will alone. This was a collaborative effort by Naho, Suwa, Takako, Hagita, and Azusa that actually went well. And it did prove that despite their constant bickering at each other, they can work together to change the future.
That’s the one thing I find missing in a lot of these kinds of narratives: there is so much emphasis on how the will of one person can affect the world, and don’t get me wrong, orange covers that as well. What is often missed is how much change can happen when a group of people work together to make a difference. Perhaps this is the most improbable part of orange (aside from the whole time travel bit), but those were the moments when I truly believed that these friends could do something right.
orange made me realize a lot of painful experiences from my past, anxieties in my present, and dreams for my future, and put them into perspective of where I want to go with them.
I recalled a friend who committed suicide when I was in high school, and wondered what it would have been like had my friends and I had done more to save her. But I alone don’t have all the answers, nor the means by which I could change that one event today.
As for the letter from the future, my past self would probably still be stubborn about it. But if my future self wrote a letter to me today given how terrible I feel at present, I might actually listen to what he has to say this time. I am much wiser than my teenage self was 10 years ago, but part of that wisdom is knowing that I don’t know what my future will be like. My future self might have some insight on that.
I think it’s unrealistic to say that I can save everyone who suffers from depression. That would be too monumental of a task for any one person. However, with each blog entry I have written, I have opened the possibility to reach out to someone who might feel the same way I do about each show, with my own thoughts and words through a medium that I enjoy. Maybe that’s not sufficient enough to bring relief to the depressed, but it is a start. And for that, I do plan to continue to review anime this way. But of course, even I don’t know what the future is like, and neither does this show. One can only guess.
I don’t want to spoil the ending, but orange‘s animation ends on a satisfying yet ambiguous note. I would love to have seen what happens to these friends in the new future, but there are so many things that could have happened along that 10-year gap. But to me, that’s not anxiety-inducing enough to me to fret over. Rather, it lets us, the audience, imagine what their future might be like.
After all, if there is a way to change the future, it is up to us to create it.
So if you are looking for a sweet anime that challenges depression, leaves open a lot of possibilities, and has the potential to change the future, watch orange. Thank you for reading through my thoughts if you got to the end. See you in 2017.