The Importance of orange

It’s been quite a while since I first wrote about the orange manga about two-thirds of the way through its publication run on Crunchyroll. Now, an improbable anime adaptation has aired and I am compelled to, at last, put words to the feelings I have about the show. While I probably will continue to regard the manga as the superior version of the story, the merits of the anime adaptation are substantial—and, as you’ll read, ultimately none of that matters when it comes to orange anyways.

orange

Every so often, I come upon a story that I feel so completely succeeds in one critical aspect that its merits in that area either nearly or completely override any other flaws it may have. Or, more precisely, such merits simply render its perceived flaws as irrelevant. This is a commendation of the highest degree, and I can only think of a handful of such tales that I would offer such uncritical respect to—all of them involving some sort of truly beautiful element like forgiveness, redemption, or self-sacrifical love. The most recent anime I can think of that I’d consider this true of is Golden Time, which somehow dredges up exactly the right answer to all the poorly asked and poorly considered questions of its fittingly messy execution.

orange is a much better show than Golden Time. Blessed with incredibly good source material, a distinctive visual aesthetic, lovely music, and a director who doesn’t actively sabotage important moments with poor artistic choices and even sometimes enhances them, it tells a coherent story with likable characters the audience can empathize with and brings all the pieces together in a touching conclusion. It’s emotionally effecting, solidly written, and, most critically, allows the strength of its characters to carry the story. It’s also not perfect, as the show is plagued with production issues, the direction occasionally makes odd choices, and the pacing can sometimes feel slow. Even so, I consider all of those traits—both positive and negative—relatively meaningless before the thing that makes orange not good, but important.

What is that thing? It’s tough to describe something it, but perhaps if I tell you that orange is compassionate, empathetic, kind, and truly loving, you’d bet a bit closer to understanding my meaning? Or perhaps not. Let’s dig further.

orange

orange is the story of five friends trying to both avoid personal regret and save the life of the depressed, self-hating Kakeru after receiving letters from their future selves of an alternate timeline where Kakeru has killed himself. This is a premise that stands on the razor edge of disaster—too much optimism would erase the the critically important agony and sadness Kakeru is experiencing, too much cynicism would leave us with a hopeless, perhaps even pointless show. It is to orange‘s immense credit that it, as far as I’m concerned, walks this tightrope with grace and care. Kakeru’s depression and suicidal thoughts are never glossed over, and orange takes great care in allowing us, through protagonist Naho’s viewpoint, to witness the wide range of his humanity as he struggles, laughs, cries, and ultimately manages to come to a place where he wants to live. Such a portrayal gives us a character who is realistically torn between the good things in his life and the unbearable pain he carries with him. It never fetishizes his struggle or manipulates it for the sake of the plot; Kakeru always remains in the center.

Alongside this careful depiction of Kakeru walks the key message of orange, which balances the need for a concrete narrative resolution against the dangers of making it all too easy (and thus structurally undercutting the delicate work of avoiding trivializing his depression). What is that message? Simply that loving someone, never giving up on them, and truly caring for them are the best things you can do. This idea of “saving” a depressed Kakeru from suicide risks the dual arrogances of denying Kakeru’s own agency and of stating that it’s simply enough just to be nice to someone to keep them from killing themselves. orange does neither of these things. In the final episode, it is Kakeru who actually makes the choice to step back from the road and preserve his life. And, throughout the entirety of the show, Naho, Suwa, Hagita, Takako, and Azu consistently decide to put Kakeru’s well-being ahead of their own wants. That’s not just being nice. That’s truly loving someone—and in the end it is that love that provides Kakeru with the support he needs to make the decision to live.

orange

At this point, I feel a brief consideration of the “realism” of orange is necessary. Science fiction elements set aside (nothing more than a device of convenience, as far as I’m concerned, and not deserving of the time the show spends discussing it), a large part of orange‘s ability to be as impactful as it is derives from its basic understanding of the reality of Kakeru’s depression and suicidal thoughts. Both of these things are intensely personal experiences, and so it’s true that Kakeru’s story is not and cannot be representative of all, or even most, real people who struggle with them. That being said, as someone with professional experience with depressed and suicidal people, I feel that orange conveys a significant amount of the essence of these situations by being profoundly consistent at characterizing Kakeru according to his own specific experience. In other words, Kakeru’s depression is true for him, and that’s the most important thing. orange‘s proficiency at showing Kakeru as a specific character allows to connect it to and lends it the power of reality—leaving it up to us to understand that it is still a fictional story and, as such, ought to be afforded leeway for a certain amount of unrealities.

But what is, without question, true about orange is its endorsement, celebration, and confirmation of the value of human life, love for another, and the desire to simply walk alongside someone who is hurting. This is, really, the answer to the question—why is orange important? orange is, whether it is a good anime or a bad anime, an undeniably important one because of the message it carries. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it doesn’t even matter whether or not orange is “good” or “bad” because of the inherent validity of what it both states and embodies, “You are important. You belong in this world. Even if you feel worthless, you have worth. Even if you messed up, you deserve to live. You are loved. You aren’t alone.”

I wish everyone could hear that message. I wish I could give that feeling that Naho, Suwa, and the rest give to Kakeru to everyone. Every day, there are people out there struggling with deep, incomprehensible pain and self-hatred like Kakeru’s. As comforting as it would be to merely brush off orange as fiction, the fact is that Kakeru’s story is not really a fiction at all. And these people, even if they can’t believe it themselves right now, deserve to be told, “You are important. You are loved.” Because they’re human—and they don’t need to be anything more than that.

If nothing else, orange is important because it reminds us to tell people they are loved and to show them that they are loved. That’s all. That’s enough.

orange


This piece was originally published under the same title on Crunchyroll.com as part of the Aniwords column. The original post can be found here.

5 thoughts on “The Importance of orange

  1. This is a hard-to-write post for me. Although I agree with a lot you say my ultimate take is the polar opposite. Rephrasing your opening line:

    Every so often, I come upon a story that I feel so completely fails in one critical aspect that its demerits in that area either nearly or completely override any other strengths it may have.

    I’ve typed up and discarded two posts already, so who knows if this one will see the light of day. I don’t like being negative about sensitive topics, and in this case, especially, since I’ve heard of enough people who’d had suicidal thoughts in the past that Orange helped. For those people, a post like mine might hurt.

    But the shoe’s on the other foot, too. I know at least of one person who shares my response. I’ll be as precise as necessary, and as vague as possible: From age 12 to age 17, give or take a few years, I had suicidal thoughts, most severe around 14-15. My case is very different Kakeru’s, but there are enough parallel’s that I find it hard to look at it objectively. My main impression is this:

    Orange is an extemely accurate description of what it’s like to be depressed, of the conflict between selfishly wanting people to serve you and being afraid of being burden. At the same time, when it comes to leading Kakeru out of this mess, the show becomes (subjective reaction alert!) a melodramatic rescue fantasy with little depth. They bring up important issues, but then dodge them or act as if they’re ticking off stuff from a list. (An example would be in the last episode, when Kakeru says it’s “all his fault”, and Suwa agrees to the shock of the rest of the friends. Yes, but – too little, too late.)

    The result is that I get a show where I can vividly feel Kakeru’s depression, while at the same time I have a hard time taking his path out of the depression seriously. That’s worse than either a straightforward tragedy, or a fanciful portrayal of an ideal. I get the feeling that there is no hope: that people who understand what it’s like have to make up nonsense, because they, too, can see no plausible way out.

    That’s not to say the approach can’t work. It’s more that the direction seems to take to many shortcuts, makes the ending too unambiguously positive (through that sunset picture you posted, and the accompanying music, and the corniness of Kakeru’s arigatous).

    And there’s also the concept. The time-travel aspect doesn’t work as intended for me. It’s not the mechanics; I watch Orange more as magical realism than sf. It’s that a on-the-nose focus on Kakeru’s issues makes things like Suwa and Naho’s child seem like unimportant ephemera. While the alternate-time-stream model looks like an attempt at “having your cake and eating it”, the real effect – to me – is a creepy feeling of people succumbing so totally to a suicide that they’d not only risk 10 years each, but also a child, to get another chance at saving Kakeru. That’s not a noble sacrifice, that’s pathological. They need help, too.

    Above all, that’s more weight than an already guilt-ridden suicide can bear. When they told Kakeru about the letters then and there and all that achieved was gratitude I was feeling slightly queasy. Have they any idea how lucky they were? This could very, very, very easily have backfired. Someone who’s only barely starting to get comfortable with idea that he can rely on others doesn’t need to learn that he underestimated the burden he really is. (It’s okay; the show underestimates that, too.)

    Orange is part of the public discourse on suicide that made sure that I never really talked about my suicidal thoughts. There’s just the impression that, if someone doesn’t know what it’s like to want to kill yourself, it’s better it stay that way. Shared pain is twice the pain. Because Orange pulled its punches wherever it could, while fully understanding well enough what it’s like (as demonstrated by Kakeru’s portrayal), it re-inforces that feeling. Suicidal me would have been more likely to isolate himself after watching Orange.

    Again, I know Orange helped other people get by. I don’t want the show to go away, or to deny what it’s doing well. But for people like me Orange is an incentive for silence and withdrawal. Even after 25 years, it took me three attempts to write something that’s not too bitter to post (I’m fairly sure, by now, I’ll hit submit, if only to get the impulse out of my system). Give me shows like Watamote or Welcome to the NHK over Orange any time. Those are shows that would have actually helped.

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    • As I suspected, people’s reactions to this show are probably about as personal as you can get—for some people, it’s going to click and be helpful. For others, it might very well feel like poison.

      And it’s tough, because orange is ultimately dealing with some really difficult limitations. The time-travel stuff, which I basically ignore as irrelevant but puts others, like yourself, off is one such thing, as it the use of Kakeru jumping back from the curb as the closing resolution when we’d really expect that his depression would still be an ongoing struggle for him even after that event. And, ultimately, depression and suicide are just far too personal to ever possibly be covered by a single fictional story.

      In a way, I guess that makes me glad that there are shows like Watamote or Welcome to the NHK out there for people orange fails to work for.

      Finally, thanks for sharing. I’ve talked to people before who had big problems with orange, just as I’ve talked with people who it means a heck of a lot to, but it’s always valuable to me when someone who disagrees with me takes the time to so clearly offer their perspective. Comments like this make writing worth it for me.

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      • Kakeru jumping back from the curb wasn’t actually an issue for me. Kakeru needs to do this himself for the message to grab hold, and it doesn’t even seem implausible to me. Kakeru seemed to me to still be in a dithering phase; now I want to/now I don’t. There’s a range between the planned and prepared suicide to the survival instinct simply not kicking in during a dangerous situation. Kakeru’s situation seems to me more at the other end of the scale. A lot depends whether he left with the intention to kill himself, or whether he got the idea the moment he noticed the track. I assume the latter, and it’s not really implausible to me that he’d second-guess himself. (I think it was in an article about the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Centre that I read one of the questions to ask to gauge the acuteness of the problem is after the method: if they call you and know how they’ll end themselves, they’ve gone pretty far down the rabbit hole already. I don’t think Kakeru had such a plan yet. He was still reaching out.)

        It’s more the direction and the dialogue that surrounds it that’s the problem for me, especially mentioning the letters shortly after that (I can’t imagine worse timing).

        Anyway, I’m not an expert. I’ve had my experiences, and I read a lot over my life, but that’s about it. As you say, the reactions are all very personal, and the last I want to do is deny someone else’s experience.

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