Thursdays on Anime Strike
Sanae invites a heartbroken Hanabi to her family’s summer retreat. Atsuya invites himself.
It’s about that time in a show’s run for me to get obnoxiously personal in these write-ups, so here goes: I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what love is. I’ve never been in a relationship before, unless you count one time in sixth grade when a girl I barely knew asked me to be her boyfriend and I didn’t want to hurt her by saying no. Only now I realise that completely ignoring her afterward probably hurt her way more than turning her down ever would. Romance back then seemed like little more than some sort of mandate to feel nervous and awkward around your significant other. It’s a feeling I still haven’t really grown out of. Is it because society invariably ties romance to sexual attraction, another concept that’s all but foreign to me? Sure, I like the sight of a pretty lady or a good-looking gentleman as much as the other, but never anything more than that. Be that due to nature or nurture, I don’t know –– but I’m happy enough to know that it allows me to spend my time on writing this, rather than on googling the perfect Pepe the Frog meme to express frustration at my twenty-fourth year of ‘involuntary celibacy’.
I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. There is, after all, a reason why people make a distinction between ‘romantic’ and ‘sexual’ attraction, regardless of prefix. Yet for some reason that split just made the whole thing even more complicated for me. Overexposure to romanticised fodder and a complete lack of experience with interpersonal relationships to burst that bubble has caused all different kinds of possible relationships to blend together into a single monolithic über-Other – there’s people I couldn’t imagine my life without, whom I’d be comfortable sharing my deepest secrets with, and everyone else. Most people would consider the former traits to be those of a lover, but I never got where exactly the intersection lies between those traits and the other, commonly agreed upon characteristics that distinguish lovers from a family members or a friends. I’d always assumed love was just the sum of friendship plus sexual attraction, but once I found out that romantic feelings are completely distinct from physical intimacy, I was left grasping for straws as to what did constitute this missing link.
It’s why I never really ‘got’ shipping, why part of me loathed even, the fact that people would bend over backwards to have characters who are very close to each other be lovers, rather than ‘just friends’. What was wrong with being just friends? Why did the desire to spend any waking moment with someone, to die for them, to do any of the grand gestures of affection anime likes to throw around always have to belie a desire for anything ‘more’? It’s almost as if people weren’t allowed to care about each other without some kind of ulterior motive. In a way, friendship in fiction speaks to me far more that romance, perhaps exactly because fiction tends to romanticise friendship while trivialising romance – often portrayed as little more than an obligation distinguished from other relationships only by the absence of strictly platonic interaction.
Does that rip me of any qualification to say anything about Scum’s Wish, though? Hardly. In case you’ve ever read one of my many diatribes about anime’s rampant pandering to the demographic I am begrudgingly and involuntarily a part of –– that is, awkward male geeks between the ages of 18 and 30 –– it shouldn’t come as a surprise if I tell you I don’t subscribe to the notion that characters need to be like you to be relatable. I can tell you with stunning accuracy that Hanabi and Ecchan are nothing like me, but I still think they’re relatable characters. Because of pragmatic necessity, certainly –– after all, a character who’d truly be like me in any substantial way would have to star in the most boring show in the history of fiction –– but most of all because relatability isn’t dictated by resemblance, but by empathy. And if there’s anything Scum’s Wish is second to none at, it’s making you empathise with, well, terrible people. I empathise, because aside from the whole sexual aspect that further complicates their relationship, they also don’t know how to distinguish friendship from romance anymore. And at this point, they never might.
Because it was never about the question whether Hanabi was – pardon my French – “gay enough to make this relationship work”. Scum’s Wish has always been rather direct in establishing that sexual orientation was a negligible factor in all this. In a rather refreshing take on convention, “but we’re both girls” was never the issue here, it was “but she’s my best friend”. Hanabi’s struggle was mine, the inability to locate that switch in her mind between “friend” and “lover” and flick it, something she was relatively comfortable with, but Sanae obviously wasn’t, given her constant public displays of affection. It’s the textbook definition of “things just didn’t work out,” and that’s where the brilliance of this episode lies. Despite being a clean break-up to a messy relationship, it doesn’t claim to have any definitive answer to the situation Hanabi and Sanae have ended up in. They’re still more than friends and less than lovers, and will probably remain so forever, unable to become a proper couple as society generally dictates, but tied by a history they will never, and would never want to forget.
It’s a Gordian knot, said tie, but rather than to try and take on the impossible task of solving it, Scum’s Wish decides to just walk away, leaving the tug-of-war between friendship and love without a clear winner. There’s beautiful irony to be found in sealing a break-up with a passionate kiss, but in a way, Hanabi and Sanae’s first genuinely mutually consensual display of affection is a big middle finger to conventional assumptions on what relationships should be like. Some messes, like love, are simply too complicated to solve, especially when it teeters on so many edges as this one does – between friendship and love, between selfish and selfless, between passionately wholesome and disturbingly abusive. If that means Sanae gets to walk away scot-free, and Hanabi continues to live under the reins of her abandonment issues and her inability to say no, so be it. What matters is that they’ve accepted themselves, and the other, for what they are, even if what they are is scum. At least they’re happy scum.
Hence, Scum’s Wish ultimately shows that while there may be countless wrong ways to love, there is no right way, which is a pleasant thought for someone like me. That doesn’t make it a lot easier to figure out a way to love you’re comfortable with, but at least it makes things a lot more bearable. Scum’s Wish doesn’t believe in magically figuring out the truth of love, let alone any complexity of life. It teaches that there is no such thing as a clean break, that people don’t change overnight, that there’s no such thing as perfection – that you can abandon a toxic lifestyle without sacrificing the pieces that make you you. Eventually you’ll get yourself figured out, perhaps not the way quote-unquote society would like you to, but when has that ever mattered? In the end, any attempts to understand yourself and others boil down to a single goal: attaining happiness –– and attaining happiness is any piece of scum’s wish.