Edited by The Davoo
Can you tell the difference between these three currently-airing shows? [Pan de Peace, Anne-Happy, and Sansha Sanyou] I’m sure that some of you can, and that a lot of you can’t–and that’s perfectly understandable. Admittedly, they do all look pretty similar; and if you’re not interested in watching a show about characters who looks like this going to high school, then you probably don’t have much interest in learning anything about them.
That said, I find myself bothered by the pervasive notion among anime fans that all of the shows in this genre of cute high school girls doing cute things are exactly the same; or that there isn’t a very clear distinction in quality between the best and worst of the genre. It’s odd to me that so many viewers are willing to make the logical leap from not having any interest in a certain type of show, to feeling like they know what that type of show is about. I mean, if you’re not watching any of these shows, then what can you possibly say to someone who’s seen all of them? And sure, there is a contingent of viewers who will watch all of these shows for their common elements of cute girls and lighthearted fun, and maybe won’t bother defending them as anything greater or worse artistically–but for the sake of those of us who care about whether our cute girl shows actually mean something, or reach us on some kind of emotional level, I think it’s worth explaining what makes some of these shows so damn good for those people who can’t tell the difference.
So for starters, let’s take a look at Pan de Peace: a series of three-minute episodes starring four cute highschool girls who are weirdly fanatical about bread. If I could pick any show to represent the most stereotypical and cynical idea of what these cute highschool shows are all about, then this would likely be one of my go-tos. It is every bit as vapid, pandering, and pointless as critics of the genre would expect this kind of show to be; and if you require anything more to satisfy you than just seeing cute girls on screen, then you probably won’t be able to sit through it.
Of the four main characters, three of them have so little personality that you have to be kind of genre savvy to even figure out what they’re supposed to be like. The main girl is the energetic one, the glasses girl is the kind of reserved voice of reason, and the girl with the big boobs is the one who puts on the front of being a proper lady, while having a personality full of eccentricities. These personality types would already be pretty generic, but I don’t even think that I’d be able to call them out so easily if I didn’t know that those are the kinds of characters who tend to appear in shows like this. The actual dialog and scenarios are so basic and devoid of personality, that if the characters didn’t have different voices and appearances, then I’d probably get their lines mixed up half of the time.
The loli girl who shows up in episode two has a more distinct personality, but is equally generic. Like every loli in this type of show, she’s upset about her height and her breast size–and in this case she also happens to view the world around her in terms of video games. These types of gamer characters and the general chuunibyou ones have started popping up pretty much everywhere in the last five years–and at this point they’ve gotten to be miles past overdone.
I’m not really sure what, if anything, I’m meant to connect with in this show–aside from having a very broad and general appreciation for cute girls and bread. The bread theme is barely explored at all to begin with anyways, and it’s not as though the characters have any kind of bread-based goals–in fact, none of the girls have any apparent goals at all. It’s really more like the show just happens to be focused on the times that bread comes up within the girls’ day-to-day lives.
Meanwhile, most of the dialog feels as though it exists in service of the audience, rather than having come naturally from the characters. In episode one, the main girl sees two other girls hugging and immediately asks if they’re in “that” kind of relationship. Aside from this being the kind of question which you’d only ask immediately of two classmates that you don’t know if you happened to be the main character of a cute girls comedy; it only serves to put that question into the viewer’s mind so that they can start shipping the characters themselves. We then get consecutive lines hinting at some level of each character being into other girls–but without ever actually crossing over into any of them being clearly gay; because in this kind of show, lesbianity is constantly implied for the sake of the viewer’s imagination, but is never actually explored, for the sake of keeping things breezy and unromantic–and leaving the possibility of them actually being straight open for the sake of the viewer’s imagination.
If nothing else, the main character does seem intended to play the role of an audience surrogate: half of her dialog in the first two episodes consists of repeatedly exclaiming how cute the other girls are–particularly the loli in episode two, whom we’re told is cute by the other characters about ten times before we have the chance to decide that for ourselves. The rest of her dialog is all about how much she loves bread–which I’m sure is relatable for someone.
Pan de Peace is difficult to get too offended about when its episodes are only three minutes long, and when it so clearly isn’t trying to appeal to anyone outside of whatever audience is into horrifyingly cynical cute girl yuri-bait comedies–but it’s important to clarify that the runtime isn’t any kind of excuse. Yama no Susume was exactly the same kind of show as this, at exactly the same length–and, while I don’t think that that show was necessarily amazing, it had a much more in-depth take on its subject matter; characters with actual personalities and goals; and a hell of a lot more in the way of production detail. Pan de Peace feels like the kind of show that last-season’s Oshiete Galko-chan was taking the piss out of–and it reminds me of why that show was so refreshing, while this one is a huge waste of time.
Up next, let’s have a look at a regular-length series called Anne-Happy. Much like Pan de Peace, the primary thrust of this show is in observing cute highschool girls in lighthearted scenarios–but in this case, there’s a lot more going on with the setup than simply tossing cute girls and bread into a show together. The main conceit of Anne-Happy is that all of its characters are terminally misfortunate–and that they’ve all been gathered into a special class for misfortune-dogged students with the goal of teaching them to be happy… or something, it’s pretty vague.
The series kind of goes all-out with this premise, using it to craft a bunch of wacky scenarios in which the students are tested on their misfortune–and in which each of their particular brands of misfortune are made to interact with the scenario. I won’t say that the series usually does anything particularly clever with its setup, but there’s definitely a few sparks of creativity in there–and your mileage will vary on how much entertainment value you can get out of it.
The three primary characters in this show have nearly the exact same personalities as the ones which I described before–one is a ball of energy, one is the more reserved voice of reason, and the last is a more proper young lady who happens to have an eccentric personality–although this one’s eccentricity is much more unique, in that it mostly takes the form of her being extremely down on herself. In episode three, our cast is rounded out with a ridiculously prideful girl who’s in love with her best friend, and said best friend who’s personality is generally lackadaisical.
While it’s true that the personalities of these characters are not much less cliche than those from Pan de Peace, this show goes a hell of a lot farther in strengthening those personalities until each character feels totally distinct from one-another–performing in ways which naturally reflect their personalities, as opposed to speaking for the sake of the audience and blending into one-another.
Each of the girls in Anne-Happy also comes with some kind of gimmick–aka misfortune–which plays off of their character. The energetic girl is gifted with uniquely horrible luck, which contrasts with the way that she’s able to stay upbeat and enjoy herself in any of the terrible situations that she stumbles into. The proper lady is excessively brittle, suffering constant injuries and having to bandage herself up, which has caused her to regard herself as useless. The reserved girl is secretly in love with a mascot character used at construction sites, which caused her to be bullied and harassed in middle school, ergo leading to her determination to keep up a facade of normalcy.
None of these characters has much more going on with them outside of their basic personalities and gimmicks, but since the show actually takes the time to explain why they act the way that they do, and how these gimmicks have affected their everyday lives, the characters at least feel alive and complete, and like they might exist in a space outside of what is seen within the story. Their interactions with one-another have some level of verisimilitude. You might have some difficulty buying into the idea that anyone with these personalities could ever exist; but in the context of the universe in which they live, their interactions feel natural and sensical.
While there is a fair shake of contrived pandering sprinkled throughout the series, most of it is treated diegetically and played for laughs, as if those scenarios mean the same things to the characters as they do to the audience. Your mileage will vary on how much any of this mitigates the obnoxiousness of noticing how the story is clearly pandering to the audience; but at the very least, I don’t think anyone can deny that the series puts way more effort into justifying itself than Pan de Peace does. After all, in this show, they at least went all-in on making the one girl legitimately in love with her friend.
Where Anne-Happy falls short of being particularly good is simply in that there isn’t very much going on with it. Once you’ve been introduced to each character, you pretty much know everything that you’ll ever need to know about them–and from then on it’s just a matter of rehashing the same interactions between them in different wacky scenarios.
Funnily enough, the series which Anne-Happy most reminds me of is Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei–another show in which each member of the cast was defined by their one gimmick. But in the case of Zetsubou-sensei, the entire presentation was meant to be sarcastic. Zetsubou-sensei was intended to parody a certain style of harem show wherein each girl is given a specific charming character trait by having each of its girls be defined by their horrible personality disorders. Every character was deliberately made to look similar and to be difficult to respect, because the goal of the series was to be a satire of the kind of show that Anne-Happy ultimately ends up being. In spite of also characterizing its cast by way of negative gimmicks, Anne-Happy’s intent is clearly still for all of the girls to be cute and likable–whereas Zetsubou-sensei’s characters were only either of those things incidentally. None of this is to say that Anne-Happy couldn’t still have been a great series if it used its gimmicks in stronger and smarter ways, but I think that comparing it to Zetsubou-sensei makes the general lack of vision for the series a little bit more clear–and reminds us what a comedy show can be capable of doing with these kinds of gimmicks.
The last show that we’ll be talking about is Sansha Sanyou–and if you can’t tell what the three main girls’ basic personalities are just by looking at their hairstyles, then I’m afraid that you haven’t been paying enough attention. Comparing these characters to any of the ones whom I’ve talked about so far, though, would be massively selling them short, because Sansha Sanyou is gifted with the mythical quality which most of these garden-variety cute girls shows lack: its characters are multi-faceted.
If it seems like I’m getting ahead of myself, it’s only because the narrative of Sansha Sanyou is entirely character-driven. Rather than centering around some theme or gimmick, such as bread or misfortune, Sansha Sanyou simply follows the budding friendship of three high school girls, and bases its scenarios around their personalities, lifestyles, and struggles.
The main character, Yoko, had been, until recently, living in the lap of luxury as the daughter of a major business owner–but since her father’s corporation has gone bankrupt, she’s now bottomed out to living the life of a commoner and barely scraping by. Because of having grown up in such a posh environment, Yoko now struggles to understand the culture and mannerisms of her peers; and as such has come into difficulty with making new friends. Most of the comedy surrounding Yoko presents her as a fish out of water, trying her hardest to maintain friendships with the other girls without accidentally scaring them away because of her cultural handicap.
A lot of the jokes about Yoko trying to understand what it means to be a normal highschool girl are pretty funny–but what makes her character endearing, and what makes the series work, is that there’s a lot more to her personality than just being ignorant of her surroundings. Yoko is way overly eager, overexerting herself to try and impress her friends and desperately clinging to any approval which she receives for her actions. She’s impressively dedicated to doing whatever she can to get by, and to trying to make others happy–to the point where she takes up a job working for her former maid just because the maid suggests that she would be helpful. She’s also so afraid of the idea of being wasteful, thanks to her newfound appreciation for the value of money, that she often takes the sunk cost fallacy to its furthest extreme.
What interests me the most about Yoko, though, is how different she is from other characters of her archetype. This isn’t the first time that I’ve seen a rich girl attempt to understand the ways of her commoner friends–but it is the first time that said rich girl has not only been put into a much lower class than her peers, but has been a part of that class for long enough to have totally changed her lifestyle and mindset from how it was before. The real tragedy of Yoko’s character is that she isn’t a rich girl who has it all and is trying to make friends for her own amusement–she’s actually a kind of desperate poor person who needs to make friends in order to better understand her situation. There’s just a bit more gravity to her character than is usual for this type of girl, and I really appreciate that as a longtime viewer of these kinds of shows. For that matter, it’s also rare for a character who starts out shy and reserved to so quickly and completely open up to her friends, and to be so clear about her desire to have them. Usually these kinds of characters, like the ones from the other shows that I talked about, are too proud to admit their desire for friendship–but in Yoko’s case, making friends is her explicit goal from the very beginning.
Futaba Odagiri is broadly characterized as an energetic and active girl with a giant appetite, who spends much of her time eating enough bread to put the whole Pan de Peace cast to shame; but while being 2016’s second attempt at translating the perfection of Kirby into an anime girl is Futaba’s main gimmick, it is far from the defining feature of her character. While she does have some rather offbeat opinions regarding food, Futaba’s personality is very straightforward and expressive. She whines when she’s bored, she gets excited when she’s enjoying herself, and she will tell you exactly what she’s thinking if she thinks you’re doing something weird. She can a bit blunt and a little harsh, but also very compassionate when it comes to her friends. The fact that she’s not an idiot is also kind of playing against type, since the gluttonous balls of energy in shows like this are usually pretty dumb–but Futaba seems to be of normal intelligence, and possibly even a lot more self-aware than Yoko is.
Rounding out the main cast, Teru Hayama is described as having a dark personality underlying her helpful, smiling facade–which manifests itself as being somewhat manipulative and aggressive with anyone who tries to mess with her, or to make her do things that she doesn’t want to. In other words, she’s got a bit of a savage streak; but, once again, this is far from the only thing worth knowing about her. Not only is she a compassionate friend who participates in bringing Yoko out of her lonely shell (albeit with some teasing along the way), but her affection for cats runs deep enough that she practically transforms into a different person at the mere sight of them. She also has a close relationship with her somewhat bumbling older sister, with both of them looking out for one-another in each of their own little ways. In terms of breaking from type, Teru is just about as unique as her compatriots–and I’ve gotta say that it’s more than a little refreshing to get one of these characters without the giant breasts.
What’s great about having such well-rounded characters as these, is that there are so many more ways for them to interact, both with one-another and with the situations that they find themselves in. In fact, it’s precisely because each of the characters in Sansha Sanyou is so multidimensional that the series is able to be entertaining in spite of its total lack of any central narrative or gimmick. Whereas the characters in Pan de Peace are boring because they don’t have any personalities, and the characters in Anne-Happy become boring because their reactions to different situations are always exactly the same, the girls in Sansha Sanyou are constantly showing new sides of themselves and their dynamic–leading to curiosity on the part of the viewer about how they might react to new situations as the show goes along.
None of this is to say that Sansha Sanyou couldn’t have been strengthened by having a little bit more in the way of a main narrative arc, or in presenting a draw that’s more clear than just enjoying the company of this trio of friends. I do think that if the series has any major weakness, it’s that there isn’t any particular goal for the characters to be moving towards, nor any readily apparent dramatic stakes which might come up in the future. So far, each episode has mostly been focused on learning the basics of the characters, or introducing various side-characters who tend to be a lot more gimmicky than the main cast. While it can be fun to see how the main girls react to these more basic characters and scenarios, I have my doubts about whether the series will ever get to be much better than it currently is, in the way that a show like K-On was able to grow so much over the course of its run because of the strength of its central arc. Nevertheless, I think that Sansha Sanyou exemplifies some of the biggest strengths of its genre, in how it can present a group of multi-faceted characters in such a deeply understood way, that they can be entertaining to watch in even the most mundane scenarios of their everyday lives.
Hopefully this video has helped you to understand some of the ways that these shows about cute highschool girls are distinguishable from one-another–and why some of them can be so much more satisfying to watch than others. If you want to learn more about how one of these shows can be great by studying what I consider to be the high watermark of the genre, then I highly recommend reading or listening to my loving thesis on K-On–which is about an hour and a half long. If you enjoyed this video and want to see more like it, then consider donating to my channel via patreon, or simply sharing it to anyone that you think will enjoy it. If you want to hear more of my voice, then check out the Pro Crastinators Podcast which I do with my friends every week, or watch my let’s play show, or follow my weirder stuff on my other channel. Thanks again for watching, and I’ll see you in the next one!