What Can Kaede's Struggle Teach Us About Our Own Battles?
From her introduction in episode one, clinging to her big brother as she expressed her love in an exaggerated cute voice, it’s easy to get the wrong idea about Kaede Azusagawa. Putting her individual qualities in a bullet point list may leave Kaede sounding like an amalgam of anime’s tired tropes, but like the title of Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai itself, you definitely shouldn’t judge her at face value - especially as she’s the first anime character who I feel has shared my experiences with social anxiety.
Before I continue, it’s important to remember that everyone’s struggle is different, and that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Like how not everything that applies to Kaede will to me (or vice versa), they may not for you or people you know, and I can only speak from my own personal experiences.
In middle school, Kaede was the victim of bullying. Students sent her everything from insults to death threats, resulting in her developing a violent manifestation of “Adolescence Syndrome”. Phantom cuts and bruises appeared across the terrified girl’s body, until she logged out of social media, stopped going to school, and isolated herself from the world. Kaede has suffered from agoraphobia since then, and just the thought of talking to anyone other than her big brother is terrifying for her.
While I never received anything as traumatic as death threats, I wasn't popular at school. My love of "nerdy" things like anime and video games, as well as existing awkwardness stemming from my dyspraxia quickly led to me and my small circle of friends being branded "outcasts" - and ten years after leaving high school, I still remember how no one sat at the tables next to ours at the prom, or even the ones next to those. Even though their approach was less direct than in Kaede's case, it's had a lasting impact on my social interactions since - always leaving me second -guessing whether I'm being judged, or made fun of behind my back.
With Kaede finally taking center stage as we approach the series’ finale, I was relieved to see the spotlight given to a fear of mine that, while many find minor or laughable, continues to be a tremendous cause of my anxiety today: phones. Some may interpret Kaede’s inability to answer the phone to be an extension of her childlike persona, but it certainly isn’t cute when something most don’t give a second thought to feels like an insurmountable challenge to some.
The causes and severity of our phone phobias may be different, but seeing Kaede flinch at the sound of a ringtone felt like I was watching a part of myself. While I don’t fear abuse on the other end, the thought of calling someone riddles me with doubt and second-guessing. “Are they on the toilet?”, “Could they be in a bad mood?”, “What if I’m disturbing them?” are just some examples of the questions that race through my head. When I can't avoid having to take a call (such as for work), I have a routine to mentally prepare myself that includes controlling my breathing and even rehearsing an introduction, so I don’t end up a tongue-tied bag of nerves! Kaede is right when she says it’s important to take frequent breaks; even a brief phone call can leave me mentally exhausted and needing a time-out to regroup, so I can understand why poor Kaede ended up collapsing. Some may say this is an exaggeration, but that's the point! I know it's unusual, but that's just the way it is, for now at least.
Despite being derided by many as the titular “rascal”, I have a lot of respect for Sakuta Azusagawa, deadpan innuendo notwithstanding. Remaining by Kaede’s side even though her condition became too much for their parents, he has never tried to force anything onto Kaede, and it was ultimately her who decided it was time to change. My only caution with Sakuta’s method, is when he lied to Kaede about them not being outside. While he quickly admitted his mistake and she was happy with the result, throwing someone off their own pace may not be the best for some, to say the least.
This is in contrast to my own experiences, where two friends on separate occasions had the best of intentions but not the right methodology, when it came to trying to break me out of an isolationist rut. They frog-marched me into every recruitment agency in town, where I felt pressured into having to pitch myself to people I had never met. Of course, my anxiety went through the roof, I froze up, and didn’t get a job. It wasn't because I was content in my rut - I just couldn't see a way out. It took a while later, but eventually something just snapped inside me and enough was enough. I finally felt ready to open up and take those first steps myself; I obtained a referral for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and while I can't say I'm completely anxiety-free, I've definitely improved a lot since then!
Kaede's motivation to change came from wanting to make things easier for her big brother, with her worried that he wouldn't be able to marry if she were still around. I'm glad that both Sakuta and Mai reassured her that while more independence is a good thing to strive for, that she wasn't a burden, because this is a concern I've seen from friends and family with both mental and physical difficulties, but it's obviously not true and needs to be nipped in the bud.
An important lesson I had to learn, which I was grateful to see Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai enforce, is that it’s important to know your limits. Not only did Sakuta work with Kaede to revise her list of goals into more feasible milestones, but they started small and with what - or who - Kaede was already familiar with. Having earned her trust over the course of the series, Mai Sakurajima was a natural choice for Kaede’s first non-family phone call. Knowing the person on the other end of the line would have removed some of the more stressful variables, allowing Kaede to rehearse the motions and build up a confident foundation before the real deal. A montage showing Kaede gradually increasing the distance she can walk outside her apartment over the course of a month, was also a helpful reminder that these things take hard work and won’t be an overnight success, but if you hang in there, you can achieve things you once thought impossible.
Where Kaede really struck a chord with me however, was while trembling in the entranceway of her apartment, she admitted that something scared her more than the outside: remaining stagnant. Kaede knows the short-term will be frightening, but the thought of being trapped by her fears will be even moreso.
Kaede’s fear of stagnation is especially poignant to me, as it’s one I share right now. Although I’m held back more by circumstance than fear, working from home in the rural village where I’ve lived for almost twenty years, I too worry about things never changing and the impact that could have on my family. With no real community, and amenities that shut down after six o’clock, I don’t even leave the house most days, while my peers are getting marred and emigrating across the world. So while our reasons may be different, I’ve found myself both sympathising and feeling inspired by Kaede’s own battle with fear and social anxiety, seeing my challenges reflected in those she faces.
With the New Year fast approaching, perhaps now is the perfect time that we take a page from the book of a panda onsie-wearing anime girl, and take that first big step towards conquering our fears?
Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai is currently available to stream on Crunchyroll, with a new episode every Wednesday.