There is a common misconception that the most memorable stories are the ones which leave behind something profound. I deem this a misconception because it neglects the other half of the equation. While the writer can leave a million messages, it is ultimately up to the reader not only find those messages, but to accept them. So when we talk about theme, or the central ideas of a work, we run into a bit of a communication problem.
Standardized tests, for example, rely on panels of English professors and randomly-selected authors to interpret the thematic elements of testable passages. Authors have been tested on their own works and failed simply because the possible answer choices don’t match up with what they originally intended to convey. In the real world, this can actually be quite damning because it alludes to the idea that a reader could – in theory – write a story which is better than the original (or at the very least, more in line with the personal interpretations of the theme).
Now, many stories exist wherein the overarching message is rather blatantly put on display. A character might narrate or otherwise lampshade it to ensure that the reader understands where the writer is coming from. While this can be presented rather well in works of all ages, things tend to fall apart if the reader chooses to reject that message in favor of something the series had not explored. That’s why today, I would like to discuss a 2015 anime tiled “Ultimate Otaku Teacher” where – you guessed it – every episode is a lesson plan.
The story opens by introducing us to Junichirou Kagami, a 24-year old ex-scientist who at one time published a theory on the “Anywhere Door, ” a machine which could use quantum particles to teleport objects of mass. After getting the scientific world in an uproar over the project, he decides to follow it up by completely losing interest in his own endeavors and retreating to the world of anime and manga. His teenage sister Suzune gets sick of this behavior and orders him to accept a part-time job as a high school teacher. What happens next should come as a surprise to absolutely no one.
Junichirou begins to incorporate “otaku-isms” into the classroom, allowing him to learn more about the students he is supposed to teach. As he learns of the struggles in their personal lives, he tries to use what he has learned from anime and manga to put those students on the right path. It works well the first time around, though the second time, he makes a choice which ultimately costs him his job. Though fear not – a chairperson from a top-tier school immediately puts him on the payroll, allowing this bizarre series of lessons to continue to get even crazier. That is the premise for the 24-episode anime, though the manga likely expands on this.
If I were to review the anime based on its presentation, I would argue that the true depth of the series is limited to the first twelve episodes, as the latter twelve do much less to engage the viewer. The style becomes more formulaic, the lessons are summarized before the opening credits, and Junichirou acts without any real weight to his choices. So for the sake of this discussion, I want to cap things at episode twelve; and as a reminder, there will be spoilers.
Now then, let’s start by discussing the circumstances surrounding his dismissal from Higashi High School and his subsequent employment at Ichou Academy. One of his initial students (Yukino) begins to struggle academically and blames Junichirou’s lack of teaching motivation. It’s no secret that Junichirou only cares when otakuisms are involved, but her choice is to follow him to an anime shop he frequents and steal one of the same products he likes. When he inevitably catches her, she turns around and labels him a molester before running off.
Junichirou does meet up with her minutes later, and the two talk it out. He impores her to give the material a chance and try to take something away from it, which she ultimately does. However, security cameras catch the sexual harassment scene, and the head of Ichou Academy (Koyomi Hiiragi) spreads this information across the internet.
When Junichirou is placed on suspension pending dismissal, Yukino becomes guilty over the problem she caused. She asks him why he didn’t explain the truth to the Higashi administration, to which he says it really isn’t his problem. Now, you might think the lesson here is that if Yukino wants justice, she needs to rise up and take responsibility, but that never happens. Instead, Junichirou decides to use this episode’s lesson to deal with a little side plot.
The student of his first lesson (Minako Kanou, a major character throughout the series) comes to him explaining that the videogame they used during classroom instruction became a popular trend among the school. However, many students were at a disadvantage due to an inability to afford the best in-game items or put in the time to grind for higher levels. So what Junichirou does on the day of his dismissal is he creates a new videogame for the school to play once he’s gone. In this game, there are no rules or restrictions; the ability and strength of a player is matched only by their imagination and resourcefulness. Doing so practically guarantees he can never show his face at that school again and that Koyomi Hiiragi will hire him for Ichou Academy. The story cannot progress any other way.
It’s a derailment that, for some people, can be incredibly jarring. Nor does it stop there; a few episodes later, Junichirou’s target is Seijuurou Nanami, a former baseball player turned delinquent. The boy became depressed when his father, an ex-baseball star, passed away following a series of low points in his career. Seijuurou began to turn on his teammates, blaming them for holding him back, and it was this rift which ultimately caused him to be ejected from the sport.
Junichirou challenges him to a game of soccer, though he does this by presenting a soccer videogame. Seijuurou gets it in his head that the fight will take place on the game, so he plays the game until he’s memorized every possible strategy. On the day of the challenge, Junichirou reveals the game will take place on a conventional soccer field, and that while his own team will consist of the Ichou boys team, Seijuurou’s team will be girls from a rival school with much less experience.
The viewer is led to believe that Seijuurou will ultimately lose, and that the important thing is what he values following such a loss. If he grows to respect his own teammates who hold him back, then he can gradually rebuild his life and return to the sport he and his father loved. That does not happen.
Instead, what we are given is perhaps one of the strangest series of events I have seen in recent anime. Seijuurou begins to use the strategies he learned from the videogame in order to perform moves which not only are illegal in soccer, but also shouldn’t be possible in real life. This results in a come from behind victory, him gaining the respect of the girls on his team, and the boy’s soccer team recruiting him into their ranks. When I watched this, my jaw hit the floor completely.
I remember trying to deduce what the lesson actually was. The closest I got was establishing the idea that what we learn in other aspects of our lives (in tgis case, videogame strategy) can be applied to pathways we never realized existed. However, even that is a bit of a stretch, so by the end of the sixth episode, I found myself having to give the series a major double-take.
From my perspective, the lessons up to that point were certainly valid on their own, yet in the contexts of the problems they were meant to solve, they just did not seem appropriate. Yet upon drawing such a conclusion, I had to ask myself: who am I to deem what questions are appropriate? This is what led me to pursue what I feel to be the “truth” about theme.
See, from the sixth grade onward, I was able to read at a college level. In 2010, I took the CollegeBoard AP Language exam and passed with a 4 of 5. Even so, when I attempted the AP Literature exam a year later, I failed outright with a score of 2. I recall vividly one of the passages which was so culturally different from anything I had ever experienced that I was simply unable to wrap my head around it. What I realize now is that when I interpret story, I can only see that which mirrors my own mannerisms and ideals.
I tried to put myself in the positions of each student and then gave preference to the kinds of lessons I personally would have wanted to be taught. Not only that, but I expected the characters to take actions I personally would have taken in those situations. While my expectations of the series might have been perfectly rational in an all-possible-outcomes kind of existence, it was still a case of me rewriting the story for my own sake.
It occurs to me now that this type of mindset is something most readers get in the habit of doing. This is why test-makers and educators approach the material in such a sharp contrast to the original writer, as well as why students approach it in such contrast to the test-makers and educators. It’s why hobbyists turn to fanfiction in order to seek the motifs and the outcomes that they want. When a hundred endings branch out from the same beginning, it becomes impossible to tell which endings are valid, or if all of them are.
This post isn’t meant to be a criticism of the educational system by any means. That said, I’ve reached a state of mind to infer that stories and other literary works are seldom meant to reflect a singular value. For the sake of example, I want to bring up the contrasting themes of “American Exceptionalism” and “American Imperialism.” A single story could present the two themes simultaneously, and the one which the reader chooses will depend entirely on which side of the coin they fall upon. If this choice differs from what an educator or test-maker might have chosen, does it necessarily make the choice wrong or improper? I think not.
I think that when we teach new readers how to interpret story and the messages contained therein, we should encourage the reader not to ask what the author is trying to convey. Instead, we should have them ask what the characters are trying to convey through their depicted thoughts and actions, and whether those characters are either wise or misinformed. The reader should have every opportunity to appeal the decisions of the characters and present new actions for them to take, even if it means the entire story becomes rewritten.
The truth about theme is that it changes from moment to moment. All it takes is one choice or change in the direction of a plot to completely revise the messages communicated to the reader. The literary elements we cling to – plot, setting, characterization, tone, etc. – are all unreliable due to how fluidly they can be altered the moment a reader mentally checks out of the current context in favor of a better one.
“Ultimate Otaku Teacher” is a prime example. It may be a well-scripted and passionate series full of humor and wit, but so long as it can be rewritten by the viewer, it will never truly stand out as a profound or inspiring work. It will always be considered (at least by some people) as being second-rate.