When it comes to school romance stories, it can be hard to get fresh takes. We all remember what it was like to be a schoolkid with a crush (if we aren’t in that position right now), and short of sending them to another world or giving them all robots, reinvention gets a bit tough.
Enter Karakai Jozu no Takagi-san, a gag anime whose whole setup is a girl and a boy teasing each other during class — with the girl always gaining the upper hand. There’s no malice, they’re obviously friends, and — as we learn early in the first episode — they have mutual feelings for each other.
A show whose prime mover is the fact that one protagonist antagonizes the other protagonist, on the surface, sounds pretty awful. If done wrong, this could have been a hot mess of very bad ideas. But handled as it is, it brings an aspect back to crushes and romances that is often missing in other shows: the concept of understanding each other.
A Word About “Bad” Teasing
Before we get too far in, it’s probably fair to point out that this series is very careful to show that the teasings, and the reactions, are mutual. The idea of picking on someone to show you like them can be a dangerous one. Think of girls getting their hair pulled, getting pushed around, or otherwise bullied, then being told the boys do it to get attention because they have a crush.
That isn’t this. That kind of “teasing” isn’t done for anyone’s benefit but the bully, and takes nothing into account except expressing dominance over other people. It’s missing a key element of friendship and understanding, a knowledge of invisible “lines,” and respect in general. That kind of behavior isn’t okay. And it’s the lack of that in this series that makes it different.
What Constitutes Good Teasing?
Think about your best friend, or a sibling or other relative you’re very close to. Maybe even a significant other. You know the things you can say to them and vice-versa. But were a stranger ever to say the same, they would get torn apart. By both of you.
Why is this? We all know, even if we don’t necessarily look deeply into why. It’s a function of understanding the other person. When we know the other person well enough, we know where the lines are. We know which personal foibles are safe to poke and which should be avoided because they’re too sensitive. We know how they react to very specific situations, and what they’ll do in response to certain things.
In a way, successful teasing — the kind that’s fun for both parties and doesn’t hurt anyone — is one of the best and most reliable tests of whether two people understand each other. Knowing those lines, and taking part in that interaction without either party wanting to push the other away, requires deep knowledge of the other person.
Why Takagi-san Is the Master
Nishikata, the object of Takagi-san’s affections, does his best to retaliate in kind whenever he’s on the receiving end of a prank. But he never actually succeeds… or else Takagi-san does a masterful job of hiding whether or not his barbs hit home.
It’s pretty clear early on that she knows everything there is to know about him — at least from an emotional standpoint. She knows what embarrasses him, which things he’ll be too afraid to ask, and how to tell if she’s approaching going too far. At that point, she pulls back with sincerity and kindness, leaving him feeling confused… and occasionally motivated to counterattack.
But there’s one more thing Takagi-san knows about Nishikata: he is rubbish at teasing.
Why Nishikata Is Not the Master
The major difference between Nishikata and Takagi-san is their level of delicacy. Takagi-san knows how to wander around a point, go for the jab, or step away if it’s going badly. Nishikata, on the other hand, goes straight for the jugular. But he does it poorly. Perhaps it’s a lack of awareness about people in general, or Takagi-san in particular, but he has no idea how to give back as good as he gets. Which means he’s harmless.
If he were genuinely fed up with Takagi-san’s behavior as he seems to say, there are plenty of ways he could avoid her. But we know from the way he talks to himself that his problem isn’t with being teased: it’s with being outsmarted.
Day after day, Takagi-san demonstrates to Nishikata that she knows him well enough to lead him around by the nose, and that he in return doesn’t know her well enough to do the same. He’ll still engage in the game, obviously, taking pointless pot shots to see if he can finally get a hit in. But in the end, it’s a strangely sweet demonstration of one person’s deep knowledge of another, and the other person taking the exact wrong route to engage in return.
And what would happen on the day that Nishikata finally learned to tease in kind? Well, if that ever becomes the case, maybe she won’t feel the need to tease him to show how much she understands and cares for him.
Kara Dennison is responsible for multiple webcomics, blogs and runs interviews for (Re)Generation Who and PotterVerse, and is half the creative team behind the OEL light novel series Owl’s Flower. She blogs at karadennison.com and tweets @RubyCosmos. Her latest stories can be found in Whoblique Strategies.