Konobi & The Art of Good Anime Crushes

Shows like Absolute Duo have shown I’m weak to anime where the central relationship is solid, and Konobi falls into that category. And so I wrote about what makes Usami’s crush on Uchimaki better than your average anime blushing.

Konobi

I’ve watched enough high school anime to have seen my fair share of anime crushes. You know the kind—lots of blushing, lots of teeny tiny steps towards confession followed by long sprints in the opposite direction, stuttering, frequent utterances of the word “nothing” in response to “what’s wrong,” etc. And, I must say, I’m generally a fan. Even in their most base forms, anime crushes tend to be fluffy and cute enough simply in terms of behavior displayed that watching them makes me grin—although, I confess, I have my times of frustration, too. But even as a overall fan of anime crushes, there are certain ones that stand out as being better than others and, fascinatingly (but not coincidentally), these crushes often evolve into being convincing romances.

The central relationship in the  semi-romantic comedy, This Art Club Has a Problem!, strikes an intriguing balance between those anime crushes that are just cotton candy romance and those that have enough depth to them to become emotionally involving beyond just the pleasure of watching cute characters blush at each other. The leads in This Art Club Has a Problem! (also known as Konobi, an abbreviation of its original Japanese title), Mizuki Usami and Subaru Uchimaki, occupy a weird space where the genre of their show, among other things, will likely never allow them to actually become a couple and yet still permits them enough space to feel something like a real relationship.

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At the most basic level, the best anime crushes fundamentally understand that good crushes aren’t just informed by physical attraction or a vague niceness that exudes from the other person, but by actual friendship. Usami and Uchimaki present a neat example of this because Usami’s crush on her fellow art club member is initially presented to us as finding its genesis in Uchimaki being nice to a lost child. That’s the kind of bland, directionless kindness that gets many protagonists their love interests (see: Nisekoi‘s Raku Ichijo or Sword Art Online‘s Kirito). However, although this is implied to be the start of Usami’s crush on Uchimaki, Konobi undercuts this generic reason through its presentation of their current relationship. Watching the two of them interact and reading between the lines a little bit makes pretty clear that Uchimaki being “nice” isn’t the sole or even primary reason for Usami’s crush anymore. After all, Uchimaki’s kindness towards Usami herself (as well as others) is intermittent at best.

So, if Usami doesn’t like Uchimaki just because he’s a “nice guy,” and in fact finds herself oftimes repulsed by his 2D-loving ways, what is left to attract her to him? Watching the two of them interact with each other and their clubmates both inside and outside of the show’s clearly demarcated romcom jokes, I think, provides the answer.

While it was Uchimaki’s Kirito-like kindness that helped Usami get over her negative first impression of him, it’s now a functional friendship that holds their relationship together and grounds Usami’s infatuation. While the chaos of Collette’s wild whimsies and the lazy idiosyncracies of their deadbeat president swirl around them, Usami and Uchimaki are often framed as reacting together to these comedic events, playing the straightman in unison. Perhaps more importantly, the two of them encounter a number of recognizable peaks and valleys in their relationship. Scenes like the two of them painting the mermaid on the pool floor in episode 5 or their pillow fight and subsequent reconciliation in episode 6 or any time they’re just hanging out and talking are, although interwoven with jokes, recognizable moments of genuine friendship between the two of them—something that makes Usami’s crush on Uchimaki feel far more realistic because it’s balanced with just regular hanging out.

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Underneath the bigger umbrella of friendship, there are two further subsets of crush characteristics that set good crushes apart from the rest. The first of these, and potentially the most difficult to portray effectively, is relational chemistry. In episode 6 of Konobi, the show’s newest addition to the cast, transfer student Imari, actually points this out. “You’re on the same wavelength,” she observes. And she’s right! Although much of it is framed through the show’s jokes, there’s a naturalistic feel to Uchimaki and Usami’s back-and-forth banter. When the two of them are being used to make a joke together, their dialogue doesn’t just fall back on generic lines, but actually draws comedy out of the way they interact with and respond to each other. This chemistry—which shows up on fairly convincing display in Nisekoi between Chitoge and Raku—also extends outside of jokes, as Konobi does a nice job of providing us with occasional genuine moments of connection between the two leads (like during the scene on the bridge at the end of episode 1).

The second subset, which also partially informs the quality of the banter between Uchimaki and Usami, is that they engage with each other as people. Although it’s less an element in Konobi, don’t mistake it being buried this late in the column for it being a lesser factor. Indeed, when I think of my favorite anime romances, this idea of truly listening and responding to the other as a person dominates. Toradora!‘s Ryuji and Taiga are rightly held up as one of anime’s best couples, and the bulk of their show is actually about them learning to do exactly this. Zen and Shirayuki from Snow White with the Red Hair are another quality example, as the two of them are constantly trying to communicate with and better understand each other. For Uchimaki and Usami, this is filtered through a lens that often casts their relationship in comedic terms—mutual tolerance of the other’s quirks. For Usami, this is her attempts to relate to Uchimaki and his 2D obsession; for Uchimaki, it’s his willingness to be friends with Usami despite her baffling (to him) 3D emotions and reactions. The majority of these moments within Konobi are framed as jokes, but it makes them no less emblematic of the warmth in this relationship.

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The paradox of the existence of all these important factors in Konobi‘s anime crush—friendship, chemistry, and mutual engagement—is that they exist within a show whose format is normally directly opposed to this kind of actual relationshipping in anime. The core joke of Usami’s crush on Uchimaki is that she’s infatuated with a guy who only loves 2D waifus, so the way their relationship has been structured within the show is inherently opposed to actual romantic development. Because of this, I’m convinced much of what I’ve talked about here, at least specifically with regards to Konobi, is the result of the excellent work of the anime adaptation’s staff (many of whom also worked on My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU TOO!) in highlighting these qualities in Uchimaki and Usami’s relationship. It’s details like little bits of body language, eye contact, and atomospheric framing that lends a sense of genuineness to this relationship that could very easily be nothing more than a long running joke.

Outside of Konobi, these characteristics exist in other anime crushes in varying quantities (I’ve mentioned a few of my favorites already, but Kuromukuro is another good example of an anime crush to-be founded on solid relationship fundamentals), and while I think anime crushes like the one in this season’s Momokuri, which basically rides solely on cuteness and fluff, are nice, I can’t deny that it’s the ones that feel as if they’ve been born out of real affection for another person, not just a character who just happens to be the object of attraction, are always going to be more fulfilling for me. And I think it’s nice to see this happening in Konobi; it proves that good anime crushes can exist anywhere.

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This piece was originally published under on Crunchyroll.com under the title “The Art of Good Anime Crushes” as part of the Aniwords column. The original post can be found here.

4 thoughts on “Konobi & The Art of Good Anime Crushes

  1. I completely agree with everything you say about Konobi, down to the fact that it’s probably the anime staff that’s responsible for the resonance rather than the source writing (and the picture with Usami painting is an excellent choice to give an example).

    I’d add that the Konobi type of crush goes nowhere by design. Things can change, but it’s prime function is to support comedy. The crush is real, it’s one-sided, and it’s resistant to the presence of turn-off factors. I think the bench-mark for this kind of crush (with reaction faces good and bad) is still Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun. And this, I think, is why the presence of a crush doesn’t make a romance. This sort of show has romance potential, but it’s unmined until there’s some sort of romantic reciprocation. But reciprocation is a risk in that sort of show, since it means transforming its prime gimmick. If this doesn’t work you go from a good comedy to a lacklustre romance. (I can’t think of examples right now.)

    So when we go from crush to relationship, that’s quite a leap. The twist with Toradora is that, while the show’s not skipping the curshing phase, both of them cursh over other people. It’s actually quite clever, and lets the relationship develop in plausible ways, before either of them actually notice it happens. Basically, Toradora separates crushing from the development of a relationship. So: getting along is important for a relationship, but how important is it for crushing? And does crushing mean you want a relationship in the first place? What does it mean to crush over a 2d chara?

    And this is where I disagree with you: Momokuri does not rely solely on cuteness and fluff. Perhaps more than any other anime I’ve seen (and that includes Toradora) the show understands the difference between a crush and a relationship. In the early episodes, all we have is Kurihara crushing over Momotsuki, and Momotsuki being kind and cute. But the show strips this away layer by layer, and a relationship emerges that surprises and confuses both of our protagonists in their own ways. And they have friends who are there for them and watch out for them. Momokuri is a show about crushing, and about relationship expectations. It’s not a well of deep insight, but it is rooted in a very subtle emotional understanding of what teens go through, I’d say. It’s easy to miss, especially early on (I certainly missed it), because what the show is doing is developing a relationship out of a “relationship”. I’d go into details, but what you said makes me think you haven’t actually watched the show beyond the early episodes, and if you ever get back to it, it’s probably better to do so naively. It’s really good and knows what it’s doing.

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    • I actually meant to get around to talking more about the crush going nowhere by design and how I actually think that plays into giving the relationship space to grow out of actual friendship because it’s not “mired” in explicitly romantic terms. Like you said, the transformation can become a gimmick; so in this case the stasis is actually beneficial.

      My Momokuri comment was an ignorant one based on my impression of the first episode; I”m glad to hear that there’s more to it. Kinda encourages me to take a look at it again!

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  2. Naturally, this got me thinking about some of the best one-sided crushes I’ve seen in anime, and I think your criteria are pretty much spot-on for what I like to see in a well-done one-sided crush also. Looking at a few examples from shows I know you’ve seen, that meet all three of your criteria:

    Tomoyo –> Jurai (Inou Battle). Most people who remember this show at all probably remember it mainly for Hatoko, but this was always the pairing I liked best. Of all the girls, Tomoyo’s the most similar to Jurai in base personality type and interests and the closest overall to being on his wavelength, even when she’s getting thoroughly exasperated with his chuuni antics. It’s also probably the closest in spirit to the Konobi quasi-relationship you talked about, especially in that it also fits the bill of teasing their relationship potential even though there’s no chance of it ever happening within the duration of the series.

    Ami –> Ryuuji (Toradora). I’m team Ryuuji/Taiga of course, but that one’s pretty much mutual from the time it starts to develop. So out of all Toradora’s numerous one-sided crushes, it may surprise you that this is the one I liked the best. But I think it works so well for me because out of everyone in their circle of friends, Ami and Ryuuji are the two who, by choice or necessity, are already the closest to living in the adult world. So it feels like some of the conversations they have are just on a totally different level, and they’re generally comfortable being completely honest with each other about their thoughts and feelings, which they aren’t always with the rest of the group. She never had a chance in the romantic race, but they still found a solid, if unlikely, friendship.

    Hachiken –> Aki (Silver Spoon). Technically not one-sided, since there are clear hints all along that the interest is mutual, but since most of the story is from the terminally insecure Hachiken’s perspective, it usually feels pretty one-sided, plus there’s no actual confession, so it fits the bill well enough. I think this one is a stellar example of mutual engagement, in particular, with the ways they’re able to talk and listen to each other and sometimes help each other out. The quiet support he’s giving her late in season 2 when she has to face her parents about her future is a standout scene for both of them.

    So I guess along with the three things you brought up, thinking about it as I’m writing these down is highlighting a fourth trend that’s also important to me, which is having the character with the crush still being able to function as an independent person with their own agency and role in the story beyond the crush itself or their relationship to the other person (an issue I’ve sometimes had with other characters where “has crush on X” is one of their given personality traits, like Hinata from Naruto). Ami and of course Hachiken both have plenty of their own agency and are central to the storylines of their respective shows beyond just the romantic subplots, and while Inou Battle is more classically “harem romcom,” we still get enough of a sense of Tomoyo as her own person with her own goals and ambitions that the relationship works for me at a more substantial level than “it’s cute.”

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    • SHAME ON ME FOR FORGETTING HACHIKEN X AKI. DEFINITELY IN THE HIGH TIERS OF MY FAVORITE ANIME COUPLES.

      It’s just been such a long time since I watched Silver Spoon and its greatness to me is a rather quiet one that doesn’t give it quite the mental presence for me that other shows do.

      And this fourth trend you mention is a good one, too. I don’t think we get that all that much from Konobi, but it helps that Usami is the viewpoint character more often than not, so it feels more like her story.

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