Where do we see ourselves as we watch anime?
A little over halfway through Hanayamata it suddenly dawned on me that Sally Tokiwa (referred to as Sally-chan-sensei in the English dub), who we’re told is 24 years old, was actually only a single year older than me. I don’t mean it took me 8 episodes to figure out the math; I mean that for the first time I actually apprehended the fact as something true, particularly in relation to myself.
I suppose you could say I was taken a bit off guard.
Why the surprise? Well, I think the first-level answer is pretty easy—Hanayamata‘s basic viewpoint characters are the girls of the yosakoi club, a quintet of five middle-school girls (although differentiating them from high-school girls in other animation is basically impossible). Naru and her friends are the characters we follow throughout the story, the ones whose emotional arcs we’re lead over, and the characters to whom the ultimate triumph of the entire show belongs. Sally, as wonderful a character as she is (when she’s not being ridden down by obnoxious anime tropes), is a bit player, a sidekick, a facilitator of all these events. In short, she’s neither the character the show wants or expects the audience to see as a point of relation.
That part was not a surprise.
Anime, as well all know, has an heavy bias towards high-school aged and earlier characters as its main characters. The lack of about and featuring adults has been long lamented (and even more so recently). Some shows put adult characters in fairly important side character roles, as in Hanayamata, but others have more or less entirely dispensed with them altogether. I recently watched the Love Live movie, in which the main cast of nine high school girls take a trip from Japan to New York without apparent supervision and then put together a gigantic national festival sans any adult assistance whatsoever. It’s incredible to the point of being unbelievable, but it’s perhaps representative of this particular brand of anime’s feelings about adults generally—they’re only necessary, really, insofar as they add a necessary element of unavoidable realism, but can be done away with entirely if a show like Love Live (which exists in its own kind of superreality anyways) so chooses.
That’s all a bit of a detour away from the main point here, but I think the fact that adult characters can be made entirely auxiliary in these anime focusing on casts of teen girls loops back around towards informing why my sudden realization about Sally-chan-sensei was so surprising. Anime is very good (and very consistent) at framing adults as partitioned, even distant authority figures and teens as the relatable characters. There’s a narrative force that pegs adults into this particular role, forcing a kind of distance between the viewer and them. As I said before, Hanayamata neither wants or expects us to see Sally as a point of identification.
In my particular case, I think there’s another barrier in the way of me relating to Sally as another young adult in a first job (this is true! this is the commonality between me and her!)—and that’s the level of responsibility she carries as an authority figure and a semi-caretaker. At this point in my life, not being a parent or otherwise having responsiblity for anyone besides myself, the weights that Sally carries (at least that we’re allowed to see in Hanayamata) are very different from the ones I carry. While I can empathize with coming home from work and having a beer on the couch because I’m tired, bringing work home to help a kid learn is something entirely foreign to me.
But, even so, I really am much closer to being Sally than I am to being a middle school girl who wants to dance with her friends, and somehow the realization that Sally basically my age enforced a new sort of respect for her in my mind. And, perhaps more importantly, it reminded me that—as much as Hanayamata wants me to empathize with Hana and Naru and Yaya (who is the best, by the way) and Tami and Machi (and not that this is a bad thing!)—Sally is perhaps the character I should be looking to most, when she’s not be turned into a pervy “older” lady trope. The girls of the yosakoi club drive the story, but Sally’s still a valuable player simply because she’s there to provide the support they need. And that’s not such a bad thing, you know? Maybe it’s good for me to look at the character who is my age—a little older, a little more tired, and little busier without being cynical, mean, or grouchy. Maybe it’s good for me to remember that the Sallys of anime are the friends of my real world, not the Hanas.
After all, look! She gets to sleep on the bench with little sleep bubbles! That’s good.