Tanaka-kun is Always Listlessly Growing Up

Taking the staircase elevator to adulthood.

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Part 2 (of ??) in my Tanaka-kun is Always Listless mini-essay series! This time I thought we’d veer away from specific cultural influences and talk about what the show does in terms of addressing adolescent concerns. ‘Cause what would this blog be without some good old-fashioned coming-of-age narrative chatter?

Given our high school setting, it’s not surprising that Tanaka-kun‘s cast spends a lot of time dealing with the bumpy transition from child- to adulthood. Sometimes this is about “grown-up” concerns like marriage or personal independence, but usually it’s more general than that, as characters struggle to find a balance between who they were/are, who the world thinks they should be, and who they want to be. In other words, it’s all about changes.

Detailed discussion of Episodes 2 & 4 and general references from the rest of the series below the jump.

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Tanaka deals with this conflict in is own way, a little, as he knows he’s supposed to “work hard” (ganbatte!), but it’s so completely against his nature that he can never muster up the energy to do it. Sometimes this sends him into spirals of self-loathing (particularly when he meets someone who does work hard, like Shiraishi), but his friends are always quick to pull him out, assuring him that his listlessness is part of what draws people to him and grants him unique insight and wisdom (which I talked about last time).

Tanaka-kun in general (and Ohta in particular) is extremely supportive of its high school cast, finding positives in nearly all of their personalities (even as it affectionately teases them for their quirks and weaknesses). It encourages people (especially teens) to accept and even love the parts of themselves that they–or, more accurately, the world around them–might consider flawed, and to find ways to turn those perceived weaknesses into strengths.

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But it’s more than that, and much smarter than that as well. Because Tanaka-kun also understands that sometimes people want to change, and that’s okay, too–as long as they’re not hurting themselves or others in the process, anyway.

Using its offbeat humor and low-key conflicts, the series strikes a delicate, difficult balance between “encouraging stasis” and “forcing change,” instead offering a patient middle road for its characters to take. While we see this to some extent with the entire cast (even the self-assured Ohta, who has arguably found that road and walks it every day), it’s especially noticeable in our two hardest of workers: Miyano and Shiraishi.

Miyano flies into the second episode like a speeding bullet, insisting that Tanaka make her his apprentice. Hyperactive and undersized, she wants to move away from her “childish” image and into the world of adults, and she equates listlessness with cool maturity. She initially does this because she thinks it’ll appeal to Echizen, but eventually she stays on as Tanaka’s “student” because she really does want to become more mature (however flawed her idea of adulthood might be).

While the series takes care to assure Miyano that her hardworking nature and innate cuteness are perfectly fine, even admirable, it also doesn’t demand that she stop trying to be more “adult-like,” either. If that’s what she wants, then that’s okay, too. What Tanaka-kun does exceptionally well with her story, though, is point out the importance of understanding limitations, accepting them–and then, instead of forcing the impossible or giving up altogether, finding a new way forward.

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No, Miyano can’t grow 10 centimeters in a few days, and there aren’t any kimono she likes in her size (social norms cause a lot of subtle but pervasive problems for these kids, you’ll notice). But, with the help of a supportive friend, she can make her own kimono, and attend the summer festival looking the way she wants to look. Hopefully she’ll realize she can approach adulthood in the same way, taking nuggets of listless wisdom from her “master” while still remaining true to herself.

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While Miyano’s conflicts are fairly lighthearted and often played for giggles, Shiraishi’s is probably the most serious and earnest story line in the show, and also one of the more complex. She was lonely and awkward in junior high and doesn’t want to be anymore, so she completely changes her appearance and mannerisms when she enters high school. It’s implied that she doesn’t change her entire personality (she’s still serious, sincere, and kindhearted), which is good, but just finds a way to express that personality among others so she can make friends and stand out at school.

It works, but in exchange for a different kind of unhappiness: The contacts hurt her eyes, she feels weird in a short skirt, and she finds the “idol-like hairstyle” embarrassing. And while the new look has helped her become more confident in public, she’s still personally insecure and constantly worries about how the other students would react if they found out about “old-model me.” As Tanaka notes, it is “exhausting to be so sparkly all the time,” and Shiraishi is nearing burnout already.

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Even so, Shiraishi makes it clear that this is the life she wants for herself, and both the other characters and the series itself respect that choice. Granted, there’s a question here (and one I definitely asked of myself in both high school and college) of how much she personally wants this and how much it’s society telling her she wants this, but that’s something she’ll have to figure out for herself over time. It’s not Tanaka or Ohta’s place to tell her who she should be; only to support her wishes and help her if she needs it. And that’s exactly what they do.

But they also provide her with something equally important: People she can relax and be “a dweeb” around. Most of us wear some form of public mask, and it does get tiring, so it really helps if we have close friends or family we can drop that mask around. Tanaka also reminds Shiraishi that being imperfect is okay–even vital, since it’s our flaws that make us human–and that change isn’t something we can make happen over night. It takes time and patience.

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Having friends who accept her also gives Shiraishi the confidence to balance her old and new selves in a healthier manner, as she gets rid of those painful contact lenses and goes back to glasses (albeit a more stylish pair). Like Miyano, Shiraishi comes to understand that some things will “never fit me right,” and it’s better to listen to yourself, accept those limits, and work around them than hurt yourself by trying to fit into a box that’s not the right size for you–or worse, a box you’ve chosen for someone else’s sake rather than your own.

The Tanaka-kun manga is still ongoing, so a part of me hopes that Shiraishi will become more secure about herself as the series progresses. Maybe she’ll open up willingly to Miyano or her other girl friends at some point, choosing to “let her hair down up” in front of them rather than having it happen by accident. But that kind of trust and confidence can’t be rushed. And, as she later decides, it’s okay to take her time and ease into changes–both within herself and her relationships with others.

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Tanaka-kun sees high school and adolescence as a tangled ball of seemingly opposing forces, as the idea of adulthood crashes against the reality of it, desires bang into limitations, and an urge for rapid change keeps bumping into the necessity for patience. Yet through it all the series exudes an atmosphere of relaxed laughter, as if to tell its audience: Don’t panic. Take a breath. You can accept the person you are and work toward becoming the person you want to be. Maybe by finding that balance in our own lives, we can approach change with a relaxed smile of our own.

And speaking of tangled balls of contrast, I haven’t even mentioned Echizen’s struggles with public image and forced change… But that’s a fight with gender expectations as much as it is adolescence, and that is very much an essay for another day.

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7 thoughts on “Tanaka-kun is Always Listlessly Growing Up

  1. Daniel Sees Anime says:

    Good job on the essays! I thought Tanaka-kun Itsumo Kedaruge was a really thoughtful little project, and to think that someone would write these little things about the show’s subtle messages, I’m impressed! Keep up the good work!

    Like

  2. Rime Pendragon says:

    Another great mini-essay! Watching Tanaka-kun, I now realize Japanese school-life is a lot more structured than my school-life in the 80’s-90’s in the Netherlands. We didn’t have school-uniforms, school-clubs, seating arrangements. But the social issues of growing up are much the same.

    Like

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