Sunday, October 22, 2017

Classroom of the Elite - Style and Substance

Classroom of the Elite is produced by Lerche, the same studio that recently brought us Assassination Classroom and was directed by the duo of Seiji Kishi (who also directed Assassination Classroom) and Hiroyuki Hashimoto. It ran for 2017 episodes on both Crunchyroll (subtitles) and Funimation (English dub) and wrapped the dub just over a week ago. The series has been met with good reviews by the fanbase and there's still no word on a second season. 

The series revolves around the Tokyo Metropolitan Nurturing High School, a school in Tokyo off on an island where students are subjected to four years of intense learning and are then spat out into the world, with almost all of the students guaranteed their dream college or dream job. We follow Class-D, the lowest of the school, as they scratch and claw their way into respectability, following Kiyotaka Ayanokoji and Suzune Horikita as they lead the classroom. 

While Classroom of the Elite slips into a few modern anime tropes such as overt fan-service, over-dramatic characters, over-the-top action sequences, and teenagers that are drawn better than most real-life super-models, its clever narrative and story structure blur the line between whether or not these tropes are placed to appeal to mass audiences or lull audiences into a false safety blanket, only to have said blanked yanked over their heads. The characters (most of whom could honestly hold their own series) inhabit a world where they must prove their worth not through combat or fighting, but through sheer survival. 

1. Suzune Horikita and Visual Style

The true hero of the anime is Ms. Horikita, shown below. 

Suzune Horikita - Classroom of the Elite 2017
Horikita, among the colorful cast of characters, does not stand out based on her character design. She just has black hair and has a basic dress like all the other girls of the school. Her biggest standout feature are her eyes, but even then, several characters have green or blue eyes that leap off the screen. She's been labelled by the fans as a "tsundere" character, meaning she pretends to not care about things when, in reality, she does. She deliberately keeps a low profile.

Classroom of the Elite is a series in which the things that stand out are meant to stand out and grab the audiences attention. One of the characters introduced from Class B, Honami Ichinose, has a pretty "anime" character design, with pink highlights, a stunning figure, and an overall great attitude. She purposefully steals attention from other characters so that we never see what's going on, and the narrative plays with that. In the arc in which Ichinose is introduced, she becomes a scene stealer which allows Horikita and Ayanokoji to figure out a plan on how to save another classmate. 

In that same arc, we're introduced to another vital character to the series, Airi Sakura, shown below. 

Airi Sakura, Classroom of the Elite Light Novel
Sakura, as the audience learns, has a major online personality. She's basically an Instagram model, and nobody at school figures that out since she has such a timid attitude around all of her classmates. Once this is revealed, however, the story then shifts to cover up any major workings going on in the background to subvert our attention to something new and that will obviously stand out. In hindsight it's a rather obvious trick, but in the moment, Sakura's arrival into the plot is jarring in a way that best serves the narrative.

The series bases most of its little plots around mysteries and suspense. Will Group A of characters be able to figure out what Group B did to other characters while Group C works mysteriously in the background? Not to mention that there are several characters that branch off on their own from all of the groups. The aforementioned Ichinose is the only character we're properly introduced to from Class B and is meant to serve as our main look into Class B, which is admittedly a downfall of the series. It treats most Classes like having all of the characters all be the same person, save for Class D, who is a whole cast of characters (we'll get to that). 

Horikita reflects this mystery and suspense alongside Ayanokoji, but unlike Horikita, she wears this all on her chest to try and reflect how superior she is to all of this while internally struggling to keep it all together. During the summer vacation plot when the groups are stuck on the island, Horikita sacrifices her health in order to find out what's been happening. The animators cleverly have her square off with one of the characters that stood out the most against some of the extras in Class D, as if putting this exact visual symbolism to work. Equally clever, they had her face masked with mud for part of the showdown, having it half of it in light and have of it in shadow, much like how the narrative had been portraying her thus far. 

2. Sae Chabishira and Narrative Structure

Sae Chabishira, shown below, is probably only mentioned by name once or twice. She's the teacher of Class D, one of the four major upper influences and supervisors of the academy. 

Sae Chabashira Classroom of the Elite 2017

Her design is fairly basic, similar to the rest of the teachers, so that the students may stand out against her and completely overshadow everything she is to the plot and to their ultimate quests. Sae stands as three major roles that the narrative chooses to balance wisely: as the motivator of the class, as the series antagonist, and, in some ways, as a best friend to Ayanokoji and Horikita. 

She motivates the class by showing them what they really are: insolent children with ideological deprivations that are ultimately going to destroy them. In the first episode alone she singlehandedly asserts herself as the most powerful force in the classroom by not saying a thing until the very end. This, in turn, was a sign for how the series would manifest itself. 

Through all the mysteries and plots and interesting character dynamic, the narrative is basically done three times in the same way: there's a thing the characters already have, then they exploit it, then they realize that it wasn't what they thought and find out that they'll pay the price and do. The show is about a system and as such becomes structured like a system. Narrative reflects storytelling, and it almost seems as if Sae is the narrator at times, always watching our characters but never showing herself. She arrives at key turning points for the plots of our characters just before or after they're about to head into a major part of the story. 

She is the antagonist in how she is the perfect foil for Ayanokoji. While other series villains stand against him and Class D, like Ryuen, Sae is the only character that ultimately stands in the way of what Ayanokoji wants, and it's not to get to Class D, but, as we learn, it's to "win." She could stop that. What's to stop her from purposefully failing him? It's clear as day that the two stand armed and ready to battle each other with wits, but in just making those preparations, the war has begun. Their relationship is one of the most raw protagonist vs. antagonist battles there is. Even a story as basic as Star Wars doesn't have as tight a relationship as that, since Darth Vader only actively interacts with Luke once in the Death Star trench. 

The best example to describe this, to give this relationship a little more context and how it affects the structure of the show, is probably, again, from the "Star Wars" universe: Return of the Jedi. Luke wants to turn his father back to the side of good while the Emperor stands as the final test of his mettle as a son and as a Jedi. He is the big roadblock. He, reflectively, serves as the best friend to Darth Vader, but also as an antagonist in the end for the entire Skywalker family. 

Sae is also a prominent character because she is one of the first to be explicitly called out for her sexy appearance, and to have that wheeled back around to the narrow-minded of the class and have them be on the bottom of the barrel. The ultimate example of that, though, comes with this character: 

Kikyo Kushida Classroom of the Elite 2017

3. Kikyo Kushida: The Masked Role of Fan-Service

Kushida receives the most shots of her body as a means of distracting both the incompetent boys of Class D and as a means of lowering our guard and our expectations of both the characters and the show. She's cute and sexy on purpose, but not for the purpose of just having her on-screen. It's clear, after Episode 3, that she's aware of how her looks can win over hearts and how she can use it to manipulate people in a rather clever and new way. 

Because she knows that she's the class heartthrob she's capable of making connections all around and building good will everywhere. Her motivation, a little unclear at first, seems to get a little clearer while the narrative develops and eventually comes to coexist with everyone else's. This is all done, of course, with flashy shots of her in a bathing suit or her walking away from a pool, or something gratuitous like that. 

Similar to how Horikita has been called a tsundere, Kushida has been labelled "yandere," which is almost the opposite of tsundere. A yandere is a character who acts cute and innocent but has a malicious edge to them. Kushida certainly is that, but it isn't as malicious as one might think. She's like a reverse-super-hero: her secret identity is that of a villain while her mask is more friendly and outgoing. 

The fan-service of the show, as I alluded to with Sakura earlier, is meant to be deceptive. In a normal show, those painted shots of Sakura, or the bathing suit shots of Kushida, would exist just as a means of having it on screen and nothing more. Instead, these images serve a means of creating deception. Kushida uses her natural charm to compete with a Horikita that uses her natural talent to get ahead, even though Kushida has natural talent as well. Her strategy is a weakness, but she can't just drop the facade, and therefore finds herself in a bind. 

Her deceptive nature adds both to her character and to Ayanokoji, as they have a surprisingly intense moment in Episode 3 where she says she'll blackmail him for sexually assaulting her, and even moves his hand onto her chest just so the fingerprints will there for proof. It's one of the few moments in the entire series to actually surprise a mellow Ayanokoji, and sticks with him the entire series, making her an instant wildcard. 

Thus, the idea is sort of implanted for the rest of the series that maybe the fan-service is just a means of distracting. We, again, get further evidence of that from Sakura and again from a lack of fan-service from characters that we're understanding. Horikita is never really sexualized (though to be fair she wears a really small miniskirt, though there aren't any gratuitous panty-shots, thank God) while Ichinose, who we don't understand much of, is seen in a bikini later on. While it's easy to assume that the fan-service is there just to please some horny boys and get them titillated (despite all of these girls being supposedly teenagers?), it does serve purpose for both our characters and the overall narrative. 

4. Airi Sakura - A Protagonist Among Protagonists

One last quick note about the fan-service, that also plays into Sakura's character: she's totally sexualized in her early appearances through those online photos, but it gets quickly dropped as we come to understand her character and while her character develops. The show actually goes out and proves this by not having her in a bikini anymore and instead, during the summer vacation episodes, has her in a full-body swimsuit to completely cover her up. 

In comparison to other sexy anime ladies, Sakura never relies on her body after the narrative "needs" her to, and even then, it's just as a means of getting to a point that even she's learning to grow through. During the presentation in which these photos are revealed, Sakura stands up and becomes her own person, as well as a surprisingly strong character. While out in the jungle, when Ayanokoji grabs her and has her stay silent while they scout the other classes, it would have been easy for her to just think "OMG sempai" but instead she stays true to her character and, while embarrassed, focuses on the task at hand. 

Of the four most developed women on the show (Sae, Horikita, Kushida, Sakura), Sakura walks away a the most improved character, having shown herself to be a real force when it comes to the character department. Without a doubt, she could have her own series, even if it were just from her perspective in the story instead of Horikita or Ayanokoji. 

Classroom of the Elite is probably one of the most appropriate titles for a series this year. Each character is elite; they're interesting, complex, well-designed, well-voice, and just overall well. Sakura is no exception. It's almost surprising to see her in just a supporting role. Her character, in any other series, would have lent itself to being a protagonist of another series. However, it seems the reason that she remains as a support role isn't because she's a bad character, but because her influence on the narrative comes in at critical moments. 

Think of it this way: in Dragon Ball Z, the protagonists are really Gohan and Krillin. We follow them across Namek and during the journey to get the Dragon Balls. Goku, up until the final several episodes, comes in only as a supporting role as a means of thwarting enemies that are just too poweful for Gohan and Krillin. Similarly, Sakura, capable of a lot, simply can't handle some of the tasks that Horikita and Ayanokoji could. She's too timid, her character is not developed enough yet. Again, in DBZ, Gohan would eventually become the protagonist to defeat Cell. Sakura just hasn't had her Super Saiyan 2 transformation moment yet. 

5. Kiyotaka Ayanokoji: Hero vs. Protagonist

Kiyotaka Ayanokoji, Classroom of the Elite Light Novel

He is not the hero. He is the protagonist. Just like Fate/Zero, our hero is Saber, but our protagonist is Kiritsugu. Ayanokoji wants to win, he has the goal that we all want to follow. Horikita is our hero in that she is the moral center of the show, the one thing that we all can try and relate to. There are two critical moments in the show that separate him from being the one that we root for and the one that we can relate to and see as a hero: 

1. Government-based prodigy
2. Lack of soul

The first reveal comes through some flashbacks about halfway through the show that reveal he is a child prodigy, raised in a farm system to be, basically, an incredibly smart, deductive machine. Sae figures this out and stands in his way just as a means of testing him, since she too is an incredibly smart force of nature. Thus, she becomes the antagonist. 

Having Ayanokoji being this child prodigy immediately makes him unrelatable to most audience viewers (though I will admit I knew a few and they were actually really cool people, but they weren't farmed by men in white suits to be that way) and thus we can't root for him as much as we could someone like Horikita, who has worked hard for what she wants and is willing to do anything to get to her goal, but her morals conflict with what that means. As we learn with Ayanokoji, in a brilliantly obvious reveal, he is willing to do anything and has already done that. 

He's been actively manipulating Horikita and the rest of Class D, with the exception of Kushida, into his will. He never takes credit but always comes up with the plan. He does so not to make anyone feel better, but to set up much bigger, larger challenges for him to topple and overcome. He wants to win, simple as that, but doesn't want to do it easily. It's established by the second episode that there's something going on with him that starts him down the path away from being a hero and instead being the protagonist, the one we follow, the one who we see the story through. 

Let's examine this with both Fate/Zero and Dragon Ball Z. Gohan is the protagonist of DBZ, he is the one that we see all of the arcs through and the one that grows the most over the course of the series. While its hinted at, we fully see this come alive in the Cell Games when he literally takes Goku's place against Cell and ultimately defeats him. Goku is the hero in that he motivates Gohan and defeats enemies that the young boy couldn't at that point. With DBZ it's less of a character based division than a physical one, but the narrative still belongs to Gohan. Similarly, in Fate/Zero, we know what Kiritsugu wants and how he wants to get it, but can we really root for him? It's tough, and it adds to the complexity of his character. On the other hand, Saber, a noble figure, has a goal that most people could agree is probably pretty good and acts as a righteous warrior. Their difference, explored excellently in the show, is ideological. 

Horikita and Ayanokoji clash in that they both want the same thing but for different reasons. Horikita wants to make it to Class A to prove herself to everyone, while Ayanokoji just wants victory because he was trained to be like that. 

The series plays around with the story of Icarus as a metaphor, having it brought up twice between Episodes 9 and 12. Both times we're meant to gain that Ayanokoji is the Icarus to Sae's Daedalus, as Sae sets him up and Ayanokoji is going to be the Icarus that flies too close to the sun. However, it goes deeper than that: in reality, Ayanokoji is Daedalus and Horikita (or, really, anyone else from Class D) is Icarus, as Ayanokoji constructs her wings that will allow her to fly into Class A, but she may not be ready for that without his help. In that sense, he's almost like a villain. 

He, too, is designed in such a way to not stand out, and is completely aware of that. He is the ultimate shadow of the show, lurking in the background and always influencing things but never making mention of it. While he never really gets properly thanked for anything, it's becoming clearer that this game may be his downfall. And, again, there is still the Kushia wildcard floating, and now the eyes of Class A's elite have fallen upon them, and him specifically. 

In conclusion, Classroom of the Elite is a smart show that wields is modern tropes to its advantage. At the surface level it's a show with pretty visuals and pretty characters and doesn't seem all that smart, but by the end it's clear the the show was doing things without you even realizing it. It's a hidden kind of intelligence that makes this show stand above others from the summer anime season and allows it to play clever tricks and involve such interesting and complex characters into its world and story. The characters of the show embrace the ludicrous style of it all while carving it to their advantage while the narrative alone is packed with tons of substance, allowing Classroom of the Elite to have both style AND substance. 

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