I’m not entirely sure what compelled me to watch the second season of Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai NEXT (popularly shortened to Haganai NEXT). Haganai’s first season was an intriguing invitation into the world of the Neighbors Club at St. Chronica’s Academy, fronted by Kodaka Hasegawa, Sena Kashiwazaki, and Yozora Mikazuki. The show itself has all of the trappings that you would expect of a comedy-harem-school-romance-slice-of-life, and though I can’t say that I disliked the show, I can’t really say I cared much for it, either. I can at least say that, if nothing else, the show crafted a cast of characters that stood out in my mind some time after I had finished watching the season. It is perhaps because of this – that I cared for the characters but not the show itself – that I decided to give the second season a shot.
Unsurprisingly, the second season was largely more of the same – oversexualized high-schoolers, misunderstandings, and a whole lot of Kodaka being his protag self and missing every romantic advance that his female counterparts sent his way. Honestly, the second season’s pacing and timing of jokes was an improvement over the first, yet there were still moments where I found myself wondering “do I really want to keep watching this?” It was not until episode 10, “The Sad-Case King and the Stone-Cold Story” (“Zannen Ō to Waraenai Hanashi” [残念王と笑えない話]), that I stopped asking myself this.
On the day of St. Chronica’s sports festival, Kodaka finds fellow club member Rika Shiguma on the rooftop of the school, watching Sena participating in the relay race event. Noting how Sena excels at the event, and how she is an amazing person in general, Rika asks Kodaka how he feels about Sena, to which the obvious, expected reply is a flustered “she’s just a fellow club member.” As Rika points out that he and Sena are technically engaged, Kodaka predictably says that it’s all a misunderstanding. Rika persists, saying that Sena does not view it that way, and in typical fashion, Kodaka responds with a confused “huh? Come again?” It’s at this point, after Kodaka’s relentless flurry of harem protagonist trope responses, that Rika gets confrontational – she posits that Kodaka is afraid of getting close to anyone, and as a result he pretends not to notice the advances of his peers through his use of well-timed “come again”s, “what was that”s. Being sensitive to Kodaka’s feelings, however, she mentions that if he so desires, she will continue to “play the same character” as she has all along, going along with Kodaka’s false pretenses of misunderstandings. Despite this, Rika says that after the amount of time they have known each other, they should make some progress in their relationship. Despite Kodaka’s characteristically laid-back attitude, as Rika is about to claim that they are already friends, he violently cuts her off mid-sentence, instead of letting her say what she has to say and pretending not to notice it.
It was really not until this point that I realized the degree to which Haganai NEXT seemed to be aware of its use of these classic tropes of acknowledgement and denial in romances of all kinds in anime. Every time Sena, Yozora, or any other members of the Neighbors Club had made a pass on Kodaka, his denial and feigned confusion had been a precise, calculated move. Around this time, I paused the show, messaged the other Backloggers, and said something to the effect of “OH MY GOD, THEY DID THE THING.” This was, to me, a huge deal, and I think rightfully so. In one sense, this was a huge reveal in the show, plot-wise, and gave a great deal more characterization to Kodaka and Rika (and character development is always exciting, y’all). On the other hand, though, this was probably the first time I had ever seen any show actually breach this topic – that is, the trope of protag’s lack of acknowledgment. While it was initially a neat concept for me to consider, the more I thought about it, the more I thought to myself, “why is this such a prevalent thing? Why do so many anime protagonists ‘miss’ these romantic advances, intentional or not?”
The most basic answer to consider is that it builds some sort of dramatic tension in the show, and just as you think Protag-kun might finally get the confession he so desperately wants from Cutie-chan, he conveniently falls asleep, a train goes by and he can’t hear, he’s really just a moron with seriously selective hearing, and the list can go on for days. For a show where the main draw is that the central characters are secretly vying for one another’s romantic attention, the show’s draw might drop all power if Girl A actually confessed to Protag and he actually heard and acknowledged it in the first few episodes. So yes, dramatic tension is one reason why this lack of acknowledgement might take place in a show. In most cases, however, it is also an extremely lazy way to foster dramatic tension, because by this point in time, anyone who has watched a few anime series will know instinctively that if it’s half-way through a season and Harem Girl D is rarin’ to confess to Protag-kun and successfully gets it out in the open, there is an astronomically higher chance of us getting a surprise second season of Hyouka than there is of the big deaf moron actually hearing her heartfelt confession. In essence, by attempting to create some sense of romantic stakes through this lack of acknowledgement, doing so achieves the exact opposite purpose, and tends to make viewers more annoyed than anything that the crux of the show is being dictated by such a worthless trope.
In some cases, however, this denial of the romantic confession does serve a specific, higher purpose in terms of the story. If we think about Nisekoi, for instance, we find an example of this where the denial/lack of acknowledgement of the romantic confession does not serve a particularly interesting purpose as far as character development and interesting narrative goes. In Nisekoi, nobody should actually expect any of the girls to successfully confess to Raku (aside from Marika, whose character dynamic in the series is largely based around her identity as “The Girl Who Actually Confessed to Raku”). It is commonplace for any and all potentially romantic efforts to be foiled in some way, and for their advances to be denied outright by some outside force, or for Raku to miss it and just not acknowledge what they said. Even if some sort of romantic situation actually manages to play out, something generally happens to disrupt it, and things go back to normal, and is a different matter entirely. Actual attempted confessions are somewhat scattered throughout the series (or what is presented in the first season of the anime adaptation, anyway), and they have so little impact that they are best considered jokes. This is not in any sense a good use of denial in this situation, as doing so literally only serves to advance the plot on to its seemingly non-existent conclusion, or poke fun at the fact that the show itself knows that these confessions don’t have any weight to them, because the moment Raku actually chooses one of his potential secret suitors, the story is dead in the water. For Nisekoi, then, non-acknowledgement of the confession is less an actual meaningful narrative mechanic, and more an excuse for the story to stay on life support as nothing seems to happen.
To give a counterpoint to this, Haganai NEXT works with non-acknowledgement of the confession largely in the same way that Nisekoi does in execution, but its function extends beyond that of non-acknowledgement in Nisekoi in such a way that it actually sheds light on the characters and the central themes of the story itself. As we touched on previously, Kodaka is painfully aware of the romantic advances of his fellow club members, and regardless of whether or not he has feelings for any of them, he consciously chooses not to acknowledge any flirtatious or romantic passes that they make at him. As we gather in the closing episodes of Haganai NEXT, Kodaka does not deny these advances necessarily because he does not want them, and he certainly does not do so because he is not aware of them. In terms of function, Kodaka does this for the same reason that Nisekoi does: to maintain the status quo. For Nisekoi, however, this is just a set, base tone for the show. For Kodaka, he is happy with the friendships that he has developed during his time as a member of the Neighbors Club, and he realizes how much it means to the rest of the members, as well. He is also acutely aware that if he were to actually decide to act on any latent affections that he has for any of the other club members, the club dynamics would be altered irreparably, and may likely end in the ultimate disbandment of the club altogether. In this sense, Kodaka is not doing this only for himself, and he is not doing this because the plot demands it for the sake of plot. We see him actively doing this for the sake of his fellow club members, and it is this desire for the status quo and the happiness of his friends that seems to fuel the core ideas behind Haganai as a whole.
Though Kodaka does not decide against denying the romantic advances of his friends, he does decide to acknowledge one thing, instead. Ultimately, Kodaka decides to acknowledge his own fears of becoming friends with people by acknowledging that he and everyone else in the Neighbors Club are, as Rika tried to say to him earlier are already friends. Though the denial of the romantic confessions is likely the best move for the longevity of the Neighbors Club as a whole, the acknowledgement of his own feelings is ultimately what seems to be best for Kodaka in the long run. Perhaps, in a sense, Haganai NEXT ultimately set out to show that acknowledgement and denial both have a time and place, and that both can serve vital roles in our relationships with others.