I have a problem with romance anime that can basically be boiled down to the fact that I'm a sucker for an emotional narrative. Against my own will, I often become so invested in the characters that I'll force my way through any amount of melodrama to reach the emotional closure of the ending. Even the most transparent plot points keep me up at night, demanding I read the next chapter, to rip out my nagging uncertainty like a mental hangnail. It takes some truly bad story to allow me to completely divest myself of my emotional investment so I’ve become wary of starting high school tear-jerkers that I’m not sure I’ll want to finish.
Last week, I finally picked up Tsukigakirei and I’m very glad I gave it a chance. It swaps out the stressful push-and-pull of cathartic highs and melodrama for a more stable emotional payoff. A slower, realistic romance that follows Kotaro and Akane’s journey navigating their own emotional pitfalls, rather than unlikely circumstances, to grow closer together. Set in middle school, the romantic leads are only vaguely aware of what it means to be in a relationship, muddling their way through the emotional peaks and valleys as they discover them for the first time. Tsukigakirei is built of a hundred small, awkward, immensely relatable moments like googling “what do people in relationships do?” and the regret of ordering coffee instead of a soda just to look mature in front of the person you like.
Replacing the tragic pasts, surprise suitors, and fateful encounters with runaway vehicles as obstacles standing between the shows fated union, Tsukigakirei focuses its lense on a more mundane but still considerable barrier posed by the intense social anxiety suffered by both leads. Although each of them has their own group of friends, they both remain largely silent in social settings, uncomfortable with speaking up on their own. Each possesses their own driving passion, but they are unable to share it with others. Akane’s anxiety is so severe she carries around a therapeutic "potato mascot" to furiously squish when she feel stressed and often becomes trapped in conversations with her friends as a silent participant, incapable of speak up even to excuse herself. Kotaro seems to border on depression, quoting fatalistic lines from Dazai and hiding away from his mother's disapproving gaze to write in his room.
Their anxiety is an immense impediment that is undertaken incrementally. When Kotaro asks her out, Akane is initially unwilling to commit, doubtful of their prospects when they have so much trouble simply communicating. Although drawn to one another, their first meetings are possessed by long periods of silence and stilted attempts at conversation. It takes several meetings before the two of them are able to find their feet, learning to speak with one another and eventually open up to share their private dreams and fears. After they start dating, the two are faced with a new challenge finding they’re still unable to speak with one another at school. Fitting in is difficult enough and the prospect of attracting additional attention is downright antithetical to them, so they find private places to meet away from the their peers. Rather than the whiplash of growing close and being pulled apart ad nauseum, Akane and Kotaro’s relationship is a persistent march of uncertain steps.
Modern technology proves uniquely useful for Akane and Kotaro, acting as the first bridge between them where their mutual affection first takes root. LINE allows them to speak with each other from the safety of their own rooms, replacing the need to awkwardly search one another's expressions with cute emojis. Over the course of many encounters, we witness the two slowly overcome their aversion to making eye contact and divest themselves of their anticipatory fear of speaking in person, but their remote communication is never so strained. They come alive while texting each other in privacy. Smiles come easily, they shout and laugh, and become animated, moving around within rooms that can barely contain their excitement.
This more introspective romantic struggle also allows the supporting cast to shine, helping Akane and Kotaro along in minor but meaningful ways. Noticing Akane searching for an excuse to break away from the group, Akane’s friends, after some requisite teasing, excuse themselves to give her an out to meet with Kotarou. Showing immense understanding, Kotaro’s bookstore confidant provides his shop to the couple as a place to meet away from the eyes of their classmates, causing the meeting where Kotarou was able to summon up the courage hold Akane’s hand, the first physical contact between them. Even Chinatsu, who seems on track to becoming a complication in their relationship, helped the two along by ascertaining Kotaro’s unspoken desire to find Akane and offering her phone to help them meet in person.
Perhaps my favorite part of these many novel dynamics at play is that the very barrier through which Akane and Kotaro are attempting to navigate may be one of the major factors that drew them together. Even before the two of them ever speak, they constantly catch each other stealing glances, becoming aware of each other even as they notice their shared fear of discovery. Their reciprocated encouragement “I think you’re fine the way you are” is particularly meaningful precisely because they understand that the other truly grasps their struggle and still values them. Their pinky promise to pursue their passions carries the implicit message of continuing despite the pressure posed by teammates and publishers. Encouragement and support are both invaluable, but coming from someone facing the same challenges it's truly special.
Even as I write this, we approach a potential turning point in the story where an outsider may find a way to complicate Akane and Kotaro's relationship. Even if the series is destined for drama, I can still appreciate it's taken half a season to slowly build the two leads into a compelling romance based on shared experiences and simple persistence. It's strange that this storytelling should seem fearless given its simplicity but confidently setting such a pace and tight focus on two characters growing up and growing together is a rare treat. Tsukigakirei is a gem that truly deserves a spotlight.