I Wish Scum’s Wish Was Scummier

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Technically there’s nothing really wrong with Scum’s Wish. It makes sense, it looks okay, and there’s plenty of reasons to like it. Some can probably relate to the characters and their romantic scenarios all too well and on all sorts of levels–The Pedantic Romantic, for instance, speaks of how much of himself he sees in the cost-benefit analysis which each character constantly applies to their relationships in his video on the series. My brother Victor watched it with his girlfriend and enjoyed it as a sort of comedy, laughing at how it’s such an over the top and smutty affair, and reveling in the soap melodrama for what it is. He even told me that he could relate to the characters for their obsessiveness and guilt complexes as something which he experienced in his own high school heartbreaks.

Over the course of its run, the series was often recommended to me for its unflinching portrayal of sex, considering that I’ve been complaining ad nauseum about how I wish more anime was willing to let its characters fuck. I’m also a known yuri fan, and the series has a handful of intimate lesbian sex scenes, so these recommendations were not unwarranted. I certainly appreciated this aspect of the series even before I watched it, and would love it if it somehow became a trendsetter.

Beyond the plot itself, the show’s distinctive visual design and directing has garnered plenty of praise over the course of its run. Atelier Emily writes about its inventive use of panelling, drawing comparisons to other recent works featuring similar techniques. In the tradition of past Noitamina series such as Honey and Clover and Hourou Musuko, it features a washed-out and dreamlike color palette, with hazy white borders around many scenes, and frequent mutation into more of a painterly style, or in and out of aspect ratio shifts and murky flashbacks. It’s a thickly tonal series to be sure, and it’s easy to imagine how someone could get swept up in it if they found themselves enjoying the story as a whole.

Having said all of that, I deeply hated almost every single minute of Scum’s Wish. I hated the aesthetic, I hated the story and all of its characters, I hated the directing, acting, and basically everything about it. I don’t expect that a lot of the things which bothered me would be such a big deal to others, or even that they’d see them in the same ways that I did, but my laundry list of issues with this show will hopefully touch on some things which you can relate to.

Boiling it all down to a simple phrase, what I really hate about this show is its entire attitude. I hate the combination of elements, and what I feel like the show is trying to do by arranging these elements in this way, and it’s difficult for me to even know where to start because all of my complaints kind of feed into one-another. It’s not that any of my problems is show-stopping on its own, but that when you stack them all on top of one-another it builds into this monster of frustration. I suppose we have to begin somewhere though, so let’s start from the ground floor.

Scum’s Wish is a show about a pair of teenagers who are both in love with teachers at their school, but whose love is not reciprocated. Because of this, they decide to seek comfort in one-another, basically pretending that the other is the one that they love while making out. Each of them has a girl who is in love with them as well, and there are complications in the relationships of their teachers, but if you can imagine how this story is likely to play out based on that plot description, then you don’t really need to watch Scum’s Wish, because the story itself is exactly as it says on the tin. One hundred percent of the runtime is dedicated to exploring the relationships and emotions of these characters, and once you’ve got a grasp on what each of them is looking for and what their personalities are like, the rest of it is just waiting for all the pieces to fall into place. By this, I don’t mean to say that I was able to perfectly predict who was going to get with whom in the end or exactly how they’d get there, but I simply mean that the journey doesn’t take us anywhere which isn’t obvious.

Each of the characters has misconceptions about themselves and about that the ones they love, and by the end, they have resolved these misconceptions and moved on. This progression is communicated via endless internal monologuing on the part of every character without a single ounce of nuance. Everything at every step of the journey is laid out for us in lofty, looping emotional diatribes. Some have praised the show’s use of visual metaphors and occasional clever use of panelling to give us insight into what a character is paying attention to in a scene, but all of that isn’t really necessary, considering that the script itself is constantly explaining every flight of emotion or detail which the characters observe.

While the series does certainly have some clever visual ideas and an understanding of how to communicate something nuanced, its overall flow is so clumsy and unfocused that I can’t abide by calling it well-directed. The entire thing has this hazy, nondescript movement to it where scenes drag on forever and just kind of melt into one-another, and there’s almost no changes to the general emotional mood of the series. It’s always in this hyper-serious, melodramatic mode that quickly becomes exhausting and makes each episode a slog to sit through. There’s a kind of monotony to it all, with the show’s few overly sentimental musical numbers playing over every major scene and trying to do all the heavy lifting by themselves. This isn’t to say that there aren’t any moments that pop out, and I did feel a few sparks of life fluttering into scenes here and there, but it always felt like those were waking me up from this sleepy shroud of boring bullshit that I was meandering through for episode after episode.

Perhaps the most bizarre moments in the series come when it has tiny outbursts of standard anime comedic flare, which are confusing not because they contrast the otherwise oppressively melodramatic tone, but because they cut in and out so suddenly and don’t seem to mean anything. The visual effects don’t bother me so much, but cutting in goofy sound effects over a soundscape comprised mostly of a constant cicada buzz, deliberately naturalistic voice performances, and overwrought piano music, is more than a little bit jarring, and doesn’t seem to be in service of anything in particular. None of it is enough fun or lasts long enough to lighten the mood, and it just feels like a mistake.

We don’t have to look far for examples of other shows with similar directing styles and overall tones which handled this kind of thing much more gracefully. Doukyuusei features similarly washed-out backgrounds and even heavy use of panelling, and is also a very quiet, contemplative film with a distinct overall tone. However, that film lets its characters show off goofier expressions and skates into comedy scenes without ever breaking the flow by holding off on the silly sound effects, and instead leaning on expressive character acting. It never beats the viewer over the head with its melodrama nor buys into its moodiness too much, and is willing to let us experience a character’s sadness by just silently looking at them. As such, the film is able to have much more deft control over the emotions that it wants to convey, and it doesn’t feel like such a hard right turn away from its overall atmosphere if things get funny for a minute.

Again, it’s not even that Scum’s Wish never does it right. There’s a moment when Hanabi teases Mugi with a cat-shaped mouth, and it lands perfectly and is one of the cutest moments in the show. There’s almost a sense as though the staff behind the series is accidentally stumbling into gold every so often in-between trying to do a hundred other things that don’t necessarily always work; and instead of coming off like a sure-handed execution of clear directorial vision, it looks like a sloppy mess of ideas that only connect when they get lucky.

See also Sangatsu no Lion, which goes all-in on every single scene to maximize the emotions to their full potential, very often in silence. That series knows how to communicate as much in a few images as a Scum’s Wish character will take half an episode to explain, and because of it Sangatsu has time to craft a cast of hugely nuanced and multifaceted characters who experience all sorts of highs and lows as we explore every avenue of their lives–not just those which pertain to a single narrative throughput.

And that’s really the hardest hill for me to climb with this series: managing to give a single shit about any of the characters when there’s just nothing going on with them whatsoever outside of their libido. When I was talking to my brother Victor about how I couldn’t get invested in these characters’ obsessive neuroses, he responded that it’s no surprise that these characters are so wrapped up in their own heads, because they’re a bunch of high schoolers with nothing else really going on in their lives; and I couldn’t agree more, or be less interested in anything.

First of all, let me clarify that being teenagers in high school doesn’t preclude these characters from having something else to care about. Obviously tons of shows about high schoolers give them something else to do, even without loading them up with super powers and arch rivals. My favorite romance series, Kare Kano, focuses on a pair of star students who not only find themselves busy with all kinds of school-related work, but also with family drama and other normal, contemporary concerns which lend them some depth and suggest that their love lives aren’t literally the only things that matter to them.

And besides, it’s not even like this problem is limited to the teenagers in this story. Akane’s entire arc revolves around her obsessions with sex and relationships, and at one point she even muses about how this obsession may be the result of a desperation to break up the mundane cycle of everyday living–so basically, it’s all she’s got going on that’s interesting enough to show.

None of these characters is even remotely likable, and I have no desire to see how their relationships will eventuate. None of them have any chemistry together, none of them are fun to watch, none of them fills me with a desire to see them change, and all of their problems seem like they’ll be resolved simply by the natural force of time passing, and people moving along whichever course is clear in front of them–which, for the most part, is exactly what happens. The entire series is a self-fulfilling prophecy about a bunch of terminally boring kids.

And look, it’s not as though having such a singular focus on romantic drama is automatically a bad thing, if perhaps these characters were grappling with some truly complex and relatable emotions, or had some kind of really interesting dynamic to their drama–but neither is the case. It’s hard for me to really buy into these emotional arcs in the first place when so much of it is based on nonstop attempted self-psychoanalysis on the part of the characters, which then has to be upended and re-explained every time they realize the obvious fact that their emotions aren’t as straightforward as they first thought.

What I get so hung up on with shows like this is that I know already that people are multifaceted individuals, and that we can’t always predict how we’re going to feel in a certain situation, or how our feelings are going to change over time. This is a given to me. When someone tries to explain to me exactly what they’re like, all I can think is that you’re obviously not like that one hundred percent of the time. Obviously you’re going to react differently to new situations, and you can’t perfectly grasp what the results will be of the decisions you make. When a character goes on for ten minutes about how they can only feel one way, and then after something new happens, they spend ten minutes explaining that maybe they actually feel this other way, all I can ask is, what the fuck did you think was going to happen?

That’s why I find this brand of monologuing insufferable, and why I champion displaying emotion over explaining it–because more often than not, there is a more complex logic behind our actions and feelings then we first realize; and it is no revelation to me when a character wakes up to what they were really feeling all along–as if this recontextualization is even necessarily any more accurate than what they already thought. Just like the Pedantic Romantic, I am also running a constant stream of self-analysis over every decision that I make–but I do not find this to be helpful information, or something that should necessarily be communicated to others, because it is often circular and complicated, and it only really matters insofar as it informs my decisions. But anyways, I’m kind of getting off into the weeds here.

It’s because I find these characters and their dialog so boring that everything else about the show becomes so cloying and obnoxious. This series has the emotional depth of a Tailor Swift song, but it’s presented in this pretentious package, posturing as though it’s some kind of high art with all kinds of interesting things to say about sexuality and relationships: which it is not, and has not.

One of the first things I noticed about the show, echoing back to my least popular complaint about Erased from this time last year, is its insistence on naturalistic voice acting. Hanabi’s voice actress is clearly trying for this kind of deadpan, non-acted approach, which I’d bet was a reprisal of her approach to playing Kousaka Reina in season two of Hibike Euphonium–ironically enough, since I think she sounds almost just like Kumiko, but whatever.

To me, this kind of decision always comes across as a statement. “We went for realistic-sounding voices, because this is supposed to be a grounded, realistic show, full of believable characters and nuanced emotions,” et cetera. But Scum’s Wish is not that show. Sure, none of its characters are walking archetypes, and the only one who almost is has a deliberately put-on anime-style voice, but neither are they particularly nuanced or especially believable any more so than a thousand other anime characters except in that they have sex.

Really, where everything unravelled for me and I started facepalming ten times an episode was with the grand reveal of Akane’s personality; because Jesus Christ, she is a cartoon villain. I could deal with the fact that she can literally only get her rocks off by cucking someone, and with her being a calculating, manipulative cunt, but the fact that she goes so far as to rub it in her teenaged student’s face that she’s fucking the man she loves, while also fucking another teenaged student on the side, just reaches a point where I have to ask how the fuck could this exist. Like, really, for a teacher, she seems to have no concerns at all about giving a student who deeply resents her a shitload of ammo to get her fired–nevermind just the utter lack of morality. Akane’s whole existence was such a strain on my suspension of disbelief, because I couldn’t imagine a reason for her to be like this except that it’s the perfect vehicle to keep this smutty melodrama as smutty and melodramatic as possible. It’s not even that the show doesn’t do enough to flesh her out as a character, since it spends perhaps more time on trying to justify her than anyone else, and I didn’t even totally hate her development in the end, but her placement in the story at all just makes it so obvious what this show is trying to do–and it’s not to be any kind of realistic or nuanced.

Scum’s Wish reeks to me of trying to have its cake and eat it too. It falls right into the social trap that I’ve been complaining about in my vlogs lately, where sex can be treated as artful and important as long as it’s terrible–either in being physically or emotionally unsatisfying, or just having negative effects in the story. In spite of the fact that every character in this series is drop-dead gorgeous, and the sex scenes are drawn with a special attention to detail that obviously has audience gratification in mind, not a single one of the sex scenes is straightforwardly gratifying for the characters. There was one sex scene in the series wherein Hanabi actually said that she was feeling good, only to immediately follow it up by clarifying that feeling this way makes her a terrible person. Even though the show wants to be sexy so that it can keep the audience’s attention, it also wants to reassure them at every turn that it’s only doing this because it’s important to the emotional arc of the narrative, and it’s totally not porn guys, really.

So much of the series feels like its intentions are smutty, but like it wants you to see them as bold and important. There’s a lesbian character! And her cousin is in love with her! Teachers are fucking students! Cheating! Illicit relationships! All of these taboos are crossed not because the show has something interesting to say about these kinds of relationships, but because taboos are sexy, and this is smut. I think a lot of the audience recognizes this and is okay with it, but the fact that this smut is being backed with this tryhard Tenmon wannabe OST and painterly visuals makes me think that the show doesn’t want you to realize it.

At it’s best, and as it should be, Scum’s Wish is the kind of show that makes you call up your friends as ask “oooh, guuurll, did you see what happened on that show last night?,” but it stops short of actually being fun that way because it’s so far up its own ass. In spite of the gorgeous designs and artwork, none of these characters is even remotely sexy, because they have the personalities of wood blocks. When they’re not moping around over relationship drama, they’re literally just sitting around, bored. None of them has an ounce of charisma.

And moreover, with the exception of Akane, whose personality is so over-the-top that I can’t even take it seriously, none of the characters are even all that dark or sleazy. These people are far from the scum that they want to believe themselves to be–in fact, most of their problems are the result of having too pure of innocent true love. They all sleep around, but it’s always to heal their emotional wounds, and more often than not they’re on pretty equal footing with their partners. The only character who actually acts kind of scummy is Ecchan, who takes advantage of Hanabi’s friendship to knowingly overreach in her sexual advances, and as a result I found her scenes to be by far the best and most engaging in the show. Nevertheless, I couldn’t shake the feeling like this whole show is a very young person’s idea of what a scummy relationship is like. I happened to watch the series at a time when I had the song The Hills by The Weeknd stuck in my head, and I just couldn’t stop thinking of how much scummier the relationship described in that song is compared to anything in this show, and how much I’d rather watch a show about that one.

All in all, Scum’s Wish was a series which I could never manage to get invested in over the course of watching it, and instead continually grew more annoyed and frustrated with each passing episode. There were moments when I could see sparks of something better, or which I could enjoy for random reasons, like the karaoke scene, wherein the naturalistic voice acting actually worked, and it was one of the few times in anime where the characters seemed like they actually couldn’t sing all that well without the actors having to ham it up to oblivion; but there was only so much I could take of watching these characters pine over one-another, constantly wondering what any of them could possibly see in each-other, or what I was meant to see in them or to care about. I was happy to be done with it when it was over, and I’ll probably never watch it again.

Let me know how you felt about Scum’s Wish in the comments below. This show has been hella divisive, and it seems to live and die on how much the viewer can buy into its characterization and themes, so I’m interested to know how you did or didn’t connect with it. Share this video to anyone whom you think it would interest, and support me on patreon if you’d like to help me to make more videos like this. Check out my other channels for more frequent uploads and thanks again for watching–I’ll see you in the next one!

1 thought on “I Wish Scum’s Wish Was Scummier

  1. It might be interesting to see if the Scum’s Wish Jdrama does any better with the same material. Anime has certain stylistic traditions that mean its take on some themes simply won’t be as effective as in mediums that have honed storytelling for those themes. For example, UK teen drama Skins covered a pack of sex-loving screwups with some unrealistic adult figures around them, but the actors had such chemistry, and the filming aesthetics used made the show extremely popular, compelling to watch even for people for whom the characters were utterly unrelatable, because the characters were fascinating to watch. The shows’ creators pointed to hiring young writers to write what young people found to be interesting TV as key to their success.

    Ironically, the aesthetics of the best live-action teen dramas seem to be the opposite of the anime’s tendencies: little to no monologues about character motivations. What few there are either highlight how the characters run away from introspection and try to deflect everything to their supposed hedonism, or are important moments of catharsis. Acting and settings are heightened rather than going for realism, the imagery and actions matching the chaotic hormonal mess these teens are feeling.

    Romeo and Juliet’s staying power doesn’t come from taking a realism outsider/adult perspective to the story, but from portraying youthful passion as youth see it, and through that sincerity, ultimately illuminate the outside view anyways.

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