My methods of choosing what anime I want to watch next are probably abnormal compared to most. Sometimes I become interested in a show by reading a blog post, or sometimes the selection is completely spontaneous and random. Nerawareta Gakuen fell more into the former category for me, as I originally discovered it through a video created by Digibro, an anime blogger/reviewer. While I can’t find the exact video that originally inspired this post, I found another video of his that reflected the same viewpoint.
His viewpoint is that the movie was “over-animated” and “awkward” at many points during the film. This seems to reflect what the general populace of anime viewers felt as well, considering the MyAnimeList scores for this show are lower than what I would expect from a film directed by Ryousuke Nakamura, former Madhouse assistant director and main director of the semi-popular anime Hai to Gensou no Grimgar. The film is also produced by Sunrise, a well-renowned studio producing a wide variety of great works from the classic Cowboy Bebop, to my personal favorite, Love Live! School Idol Project. Anime movies also typically have a higher budget and are better put together than airing anime tend to be, so why exactly does this film get so much criticism if it already has so much going for it from the very beginning? This was my main question and motivation for watching this film.
Nerawareta Gakuen, or Psychic School Wars, is basically a story about how Ryouichi Kyougoku, a human from the “future Earth”, travels back in time to stop humanity from “destroying” the current Earth. For this to happen though, he must first give everyone telepathy (or psychic abilities, whatever you want to call them) in order for them to know his plan and to survive in the future, as anyone without telepathy on the new Earth will die. Since most of humanity had to travel to the new Earth without telepathic abilities, they died upon arrival and now humanity is in danger of becoming an extinct race. This is what Ryouichi is attempting to stop by giving people these psychic abilities.
Throughout the story, Ryouichi encounters Kahori Harukawa, Natsuki Suzuura, and Kenji Seki, and attempts to use them as pawns to carry out his plan. For most of the cast, he is a non-threatening force, with the exception of Kenji, in which Ryouichi has been commanded to eliminate from existence as he will lead to the eventual destruction of humanity. As relationships build and more people get involved, the story suddenly ends up much more complex than it first appeared to be. But the premise of this film isn’t what these reviewers and bloggers seem to have a problem with; it’s the highly unexplained execution of these events that seem to kill this movie for almost everyone.
If you take a look at the high-rated MAL reviews or top blog discussions for this movie, all of them point out these issues. Ranging from “…mumbo jumbo [being] thrown at you.” and “expectations were not even close to being met“, to how it “…makes little to no sense once it’s all over.” and how the plot itself had its “shitty parts” and was “horrible”. Yes, these were the reviews that rated the show positively; the negative ones were much worse. Adding Digibro’s opinion about the animation being ”awkward” into the mix, and this movie sounds like an absolute train wreck, completely polar opposite of what you’d expect from all of the previously described factors.
So what exactly is happening with this film? Are these reviewers’ points at all valid? Is this just the vocal minority sharing their views because they feel so polarized, or is this movie actually a terrible work through-and-through?
By watching the movie myself, I can absolutely say that these statements are valid, but only from a particular frame of reference. Disregarding Digibro’s comments about the animation for the time being, let’s take a look at this film from the perspective of someone that just viewed the MAL page and decided to watch the movie.
Whether you’re familiar with animation filmography and directing style or not, you may be thrown for a loop, as the story uses multiple scenery shots with a lot of animation detail that don’t directly describe the plot or the alternate world mentioned within the story. The main focus of these shots are the current world in which the characters are in during the events of the story happening now.
This may seem strange at first, as typically in filmography, you use the filmography to enhance what you want the viewer to see. If the only things the viewers are seeing are shots of oceans, village houses, and cherry blossoms, which describe nothing about the future earth or the sci-fi events taking place behind the scenes, and those elements are the entire reason the movie exists in the first place, why is the movie showing us these elements repeatedly instead of the sci-fi world created within the story?
Furthermore, while this is more of a misinterpretation of the title and synopsis by the viewer than an aspect of the movie, it would be understandable to assume from a title such as Psychic School Wars that there will be multiple instances where the characters will fight with cool, magical techniques. This notion is even furthered considering a major plot point stated both in the synopsis and the movie itself says that Ryouichi and Kenji will have a battle and “[Ryouichi] will take over the school.”.
This is something that should also be considered, as if most viewers watch a show expecting action and don’t manage to get any cool action scenes by the end, and instead, get a bunch of slow-paced detailed scenery shots, this will also affect their thoughts on the film, even though it’s not directly the film’s fault for doing so.
Now, you may be thinking that “Yes, it is the film’s fault that it promised something and didn’t deliver. That’s actually just a really lame sci-fi film.”, but this line of thinking is the exact same pitfall that almost every reviewer has fallen into, because that is not the point of this movie.
This is a film of the science-fiction genre, which is well-known for doing all sorts of crazy things that are outside of the norm, but people that haven’t heavily studied it may think of the genre as something else. They expect aliens, time travel, spaceships, advanced technology, robots, and all of the other cool, futuristic things of science fiction, when in fact, those are just tools used within science-fiction to make a point about something else.
Science-fiction itself is a genre based around the idea of “Watch how the elements are used to further an idea instead of what they’re physically doing within the story”. While this movie does have these sci-fi elements: telepathy, time travel, space, cell phones, ect., the movie focuses on the message it’s trying to portray over using flashy, action-like moments or cool, mind-blowing technologies to impress the viewer. This explains the lack of the flashy backgrounds and action scenes within the film, although they could have easily emphasized either by using the abilities of the characters or by placing more emphasis on the cell phone aspect.
Once you start looking at this film as a part of the sci-fi genre instead of what you would expect from most films with super powers and sci-fi plot elements, then the film becomes a lot more interesting and the story begins to make a lot more sense.
Another goal within science-fiction writing (and good writing in general) is to limit the amount of explanation given to certain plot devices and to avoid using techno-babble or info-dumps to describe situations, events, or aspects within the work. Basically, the elements have to be subtly worked into the story. This is highly apparent within the story, as most of the events are explained through a mix of what’s being shown to us upon the screen through the animation, and the small amounts of exposition given to us through the main characters.
This also makes sense and coincides with the science-fiction goal explained above, and also proves that viewing this film through the wrong lens may give you misconceptions about what the film really is about. If you weren’t looking at this movie as a part of the science-fiction genre and instead were looking at the movie as a film with loads of drama and flashy elements that scream science, then yes, this would be a pretty scattered movie and the plot would make very little sense as the frame of reference of the viewer would be completely different from the frame of reference demonstrated by the movie.
Now, because of the sci-fi aspects being so subtle, the romance aspects of the movie become a lot more noticeable by viewers than their science-fiction counterparts, despite the movie centrally revolving around science-fiction themes. This create problems with both the normal viewer’s frame of reference and the frame of reference that I’ve proposed above, although both of these problems lead to the same assumption.
A viewer, for example, may not notice the subtle sci-fi tones, and therefore will most likely assume that romance is the main aspect of the movie. By looking at the film as a pure romance movie with some sci-fi twists, the viewer will most likely feel the twists as cheap and not well-explained, as unless you were reading between the lines, the twists will seem to come out of left field. Therefore, this would ruin the only aspect that the movie had going for it. This frame of reference will result in a negative view of the film.
The frame of reference that I proposed also presents a problem though, as if you look at this as a subtle sci-fi movie, then the romance of the story seems to be completely separate from the sci-fi elements of the story, making the two genres completely out of touch with each other. Because of the genres being out of touch with each other, you may find the ending events to be nonsensical and confusing, thus leading to a negative impression of the film by having a nice build-up of events and then having that build-up destroyed via a Deus ex Machina.
Both of these viewpoints stem from the same problem, as they’re treating the romance aspect of the film as a separate entity from the sci-fi one, which the movie does not account for. Therefore, we now have to look at both the romance and the sci-fi aspects together.
While at first the romance may seem out-of-place with the sci-fi aspects, a closer look shows us that’s clearly not the case, as another defining feature of sci-fi as a genre is the unique portrayal of romance compared to other genres. Romance within sci-fi stories is mostly used as a discussion tool by combining it with its sci-fi elements to critique a specific part of romantic relationships, whether those relationships are with other people or with the world around us. While the execution of this in Nerawareta Gakuen was not flawless and had its fair share of issues, I can see the main idea of romantic relationships they were attempting to address.
The idea that the film was attempting to tackle revolves around the alienation of relationships and how romance can transcend any kind of limitations or boundaries placed upon it. In this story, a physical representation of this metaphor would be the cell phones owned by two of the main characters within the story. Natsuki and Kenji both had cell phones, but couldn’t understand each other’s feelings even though they were childhood friends. Due to not being able to understand Kenji’s feelings, Natsuki felt extremely isolated from Kenji and developed a complex about it as the years went on. The cell phones were meant to represent how these two could be so close to each other, yet not understand each other for the majority of the movie.
On the contrary, we have Kahori and Ryouichi’s relationship, neither of which had cell phones. The main difference between their relationship and Natsuki and Kenji’s was that the distance between them was both physically and emotionally strained, while our other pair of protags only had to deal with emotional strain. Ryouichi had telepathy, and Kahori refused to use cell phones, which clearly shows that not only were they from two different worlds, but also that their mindsets were completely different from one another. Ryouichi was initially worried about the future of humanity, and even tried to forcefully convince Kahori to gain telepathic powers in order to save her inferior world and help the future of humanity alongside him.
After she refuses the powers and further events unfold, Ryouichi begins to understand her point of view and eventually ends up empathizing more with the humanity of this world than with the humanity of the future. Ryouichi overcomes the emotional barrier by finally understanding her point of view. While he eventually has to go back to the future world, Kahori understands and accepts the limits upon which their relationship is built, and is completely fine with this eventual physical distance, which becomes a reality near the end of the film.
In the end, the characters finally reach an understanding within their respective relationships, with Natsuki and Kenji’s relationship having a physical connection but an emotional disconnect, and Ryouichi and Kahori’s relationship having an emotional connection but a physical disconnect. While both relationships are still disconnected from each other in some way, they all still find the hope and courage to work through and deal with these romantic situations in their own way. This metaphor is furthered by Natsuki and Kenji both having a cell phone to talk to each other, while Ryouichi and Kahori get nothing after the credits.
The development of these relationships throughout the film and during the ending show the viewer how romantic disconnects and relationship alienation are both a part of romantic ventures, and also gives the sci-fi film a romantic twist to allow the viewer to explore romantic relationships with people in a different way than typical romance stories.
So now the question becomes, “What was the point of the romance within this particular story and how does that relate to the sci-fi themes and animation qualities?”
If this movie had to be summed up thematically in one line, it’d be “Focus on what’s happening now, otherwise you’ll miss what’s going on around you.” Everything about this movie seems to revolve around this concept. This is probably why the sci-fi elements are so subtle, why the movie is explained to the viewer in an indirect manner, why we have the romantic alienation of our characters, and even why the animation is styled in this fashion. All of these factors revolve around this very simple, yet easy-to-miss concept.
It’s completely possible that this is the reason why the sci-fi elements are presented so subtly within this film; the director may have been attempting to show the viewer how important it is to pay attention to the “now”, and that if you don’t stop and observe all of the details within the movie, then you can miss the extremely interesting stories, histories, and relationships of these characters. This reason alone is likely one of the main contributors to the confusion and lack of detail that most viewers are referring to when discussing the plot of the film.
You can also see how the alienation of love applies to this concept of “focusing on the now”, as both Ryouichi and Kahori were not looking at the moment in their relationship. Ryouichi was looking ahead into the future by trying to save humanity, and Kahori was looking into the past by doing everything in remembrance of her deceased father. While you could argue that both of them had their minds changed to focus upon the relationship, I would argue that they both chose their own paths in the end since they knew they couldn’t be together because of Ryouichi’s time travel situation, even if they wanted to be. The moment of realization that they loved each other happened far too late because of their own goals and wishes, and they lost valuable time together for that reason.
The animation further reflects this theme, as all of the moments they show are the world as it is now. We get no visual glimpses of the future world or what it’s like. We get very little emphasis on flashbacks and animation details describing the backstories of these characters, which is likely the other main reason the plot seems under-explained to most people.
This is probably also why the animation that Digibro thought felt “[un]natural” and “over-animated” was animated the way it was. If you overemphasize movements, details, and backgrounds, it puts the viewer’s focus on what’s happening in that particular scene and gives that scene a form of importance. Anything taking place in the present human world was drawn and animated with extreme detail and fluidity, while scenes that were flashbacks or relating to the future were simplistic or were only colored with one or two varying colors.
Even the song that Ryouichi continued to play on the piano, “Clair de Lune (Moonlight)“, during the film reflected the theme, although one could easily argue that this was just used because the “future earth” was the moon and they needed a beautiful piano piece about the moon. The poem from which the song is based upon is a lot more about having hope and enjoying things while they’re around before they disappear, but this isn’t mentioned anywhere in the anime, so who knows what their actual intentions were.
In reality, I think that both my theory and the theory of all of the other reviewer’s that I’ve linked within this post have very valid interpretations based upon their experiences with the film and their frame of reference while watching it. If my crazy interpretation of this movie is the exact thought process that the director had (which is unlikely), then he would be making this for a very narrow audience, which I doubt would be enough to draw in enough viewers to make a profit. It’s probably more likely that the source material, which is a sci-fi novel (an actual novel, not a light novel) of its own, had these problems to begin with, or the material was too long and had to be cut down for the movie, hence the lack of details. Or perhaps there were other behind-the-scenes issues with this film that no one knows about; that’s part of the mystery of what makes these things interesting though.
I just wanted to provide an alternative, positively-framed review of this movie, as I think everything meshed very well together in its presentation, and although the story details were lacking sometimes, I thoroughly enjoyed what the film was doing.
I’d recommend it to any fans of sci-fi, romance, or god-tier animation to give it a shot, and any fans that dislike drama or only want big action moments to not watch because you’ll inevitably be let down.
James, Edward, and Farah Mendlesohn, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. 6th ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 1-12. Print.