Anime relies heavily on tropes, which means that viewers will encounter similar character patterns again and again as they watch large amounts of anime. I find the ‘childhood friend’ trope to be particularly interesting, I think largely because I have such a figure in my own life, a woman with whom I have had an on and off again romantic relationship. This means that the childhood friend trope in anime has actually functioned as a lens through which I can see myself, and also understand how to move forward.
I think the best way to understand the childhood friend trope is actually to begin with a different trope, a trope which invariably accompanies and plays opposite the childhood friend: the new girl.
Let me describe a typical anime plot for you: Boy lives a normal life, maybe has some sadness and some scars, maybe not, but his life is just perfectly ordinary and not going anywhere in particular. A new girl appears in his life out of nowhere. Then, through some sort of plot device, be it magical, social, or what have you, he somehow becomes bound to her. Somehow, he’s stuck with this girl in his life. Usually, he initially won’t like her. She shakes up his daily routine, forces him outside of his comfort zone, and generally makes a mess of his life. But along the way, he begins to fall for her, and eventually he realizes that he loves her.
Now, while all this is happening, typically the childhood friend of the boy will be along for the ride. She will be a part of the friend group that orbits around the protagonist, but she will have some special claim upon his attention. They share good memories as being children together, they know each other like the back of their hands, and they also likely have special privileges, like access to each other’s houses or established routines.
But, the childhood friend is always playing catch up to the new girl. The new girl blasts into the protagonist’s life, bringing new color and new direction to his life. She essentially drags the protagonist forward through sheer enthusiasm (and usually some unintentional transgression of social norms). In modern American parlance, the new girl often acts similar to the ‘Manic Pixie Girl’ (exemplified by Zooey Deschanel’s character Summer in 500 Days of Summer).
And here we have the kicker: the protagonist will never end up with the childhood friend. It is the childhood friend’s fate to be rejected, and to have her precious crush snatched right out from under her nose by this new girl who bounces into his life.
Here’s what I take these two corresponding tropes to mean, and why I think they’re so prevalent in anime:
The new girl trope reappears in anime again and again, because the new girl exists to be a catalyst for change in the protagonist’s life. She becomes the radical in-breaking of something entirely new and out of his control, a sort of X-Factor that, once introduced into his life, prevents his life from ever being the same again. Thus, the new girl in her very being represents the pure possibility of something new, something beyond the present. She literally is the future.
But if the new girl is the future, then the childhood friend must represent the past. She represents all of the established routines and habits which have given structure to the protagonist’s life to this point. But these are precisely those structures which the in-breaking of the new girl utterly shatters and turns upside down. Those things with which the protagonist was encrusted only served to cement his life into patterns of dull repetition, and the endless return of the same. Until the star of this new girl rises in his sky, he finds himself simply wandering through life, directionless.
Often, we find these “pure possibilities” externalized in some sort of new power, ability, or status that the protagonist gains. The new girl may come from a magical realm, claiming that the protagonist possesses deep within him the lost spirit of some ancient warrior. These sort of plot devices tangibly represent how she literally “un-locks his potential,” a potential which has lain dormant in the midst of the humdrum world which he previously inhabited.
The childhood friend never unlocked these powers in him, nor did she ever introduce into his life a possibility that was ever utterly new such that his whole world was transfigured. Ultimately, the childhood friend simply represents the old and comfortable paradigm that has to be left behind as a radical conversion to a new paradigm, the new world opened up by the new girl, invades and transforms the protagonist’s life.
I was finally motivated to write this essay because I recently watched an anime called Kimi no Iru Machi (hereafter referred to as Machi), an anime which I believe captures (unintentionally, I think) the danger and the snare of the ‘childhood friend.’
I think that Machi presents the danger of the childhood friend precisely by inverting the trope between the childhood friend and the new girl. By doing so, it reveals how unhealthy, short-sighted, and foolish the choice for the childhood friend actually is.
In Machi, the main character Kirishima moves from the countryside (near Hiroshima) to Tokyo in order to track down a girl who lived with his family for a few years during high school, during which time they fell in love. When she returned to Tokyo, she broke off all contact with him, and so he transferred to Tokyo in order to learn her feelings about him.
The show reveals that the two had actually met when they were children. The girl, Eba, was visiting the town’s summer festival, and had been separated from her parents. Kirishima finds her, decides to cheer her up, and takes her to a pond where they watch the fireworks. Eba is utterly entranced, and they proceed to spend the evening together at the festival playing games and laughing together. The show continually hearkens back to this memory as a fateful moment when the two were somehow bound together, inexorably, and to which they must be unswervingly faithful. In this show, Eba represents the childhood friend par excellance.
The show inverts the trope by introducing another woman into Kirishima’s life. When he moves to Tokyo, he meets a girl in his class named Mishima Asuka (you can see that I liked her more, because I remember her full name, and could not for the life of me tell you the protagonist’s first name). She falls for him very quickly, and they become friends. They spend time together regularly, go through some hardship together, and even had similar experiences of having to adjust to life in Tokyo with country accents (which is apparently a surprisingly big deal in Tokyo society).
Throughout this time, she remains by his side, even as his tumultuous relationship with Eba seems to wax and wane. Towards the end of the series, the time jumps ahead a year or two, to a time when all the characters are in college. Asuka and Kirishima have been dating, and have a healthy relationship. She loves him, she surprises him with flowers, they cook together, and he takes up a part-time job to save money so they can go together to the beach during summer break. Asuka seems to be the one who stabilizes Kirishima’s life in the routines of the normal.
However, whenever Eba appears, she strikes Kirishima like a bolt of lightning, lighting up his world and upending everything he thought he knew. He thought he loved Asuka, and he thought he was over Eba. The fateful moment comes when Kirishima goes home to visit his family for summer break, and he does so knowing that Eba would be there. Inevitably, being in the town where they spent so much time together, the place with all those familiar memories, reignites the feelings they had for each other. Ultimately, while Kirishima and Eba are at the pond where they once watched fireworks together, he lies on the phone to Asuka about his whereabouts, only to discover later upon arrival that she was waiting back at his parent’s house, the place he had falsely claimed to be.
When he returns to Tokyo, he ends the relationship with Asuka, and then meets Eba in order to start their new life together. The show brushes off Asuka’s pain, and ends the final credits with a flowery montage of Kirishima and Eba declaring their love for one another, and walking arm in arm up a flight of stairs in the park. And yet… something seems deeply wrong.
Machi makes the fatal mistake of never questioning what Kirishima’s “love” for Eba actually is. If my theory stands, the childhood friend actually stands for stagnation, a refusing to embrace the open possibilities of life. And I think we see precisely this in Kirishima and Eba’s relationship. Their relationship cuts them off from other people, encouraging them to turn inwards on each other, and to look to each other for their ultimate satisfaction. Their relationship causes them to self-consciously declare that they have no need of others as long as they have each other.
What does Kirishima represent in Eba’s heart? Security. He found her at a crucial moment in her young life when she was lost and abandoned, and he showed her unwavering kindness. He functions in her psychical economy as the symbol of pure comfort and stability. Eba’s “love” for Kirishima does not make her grow and change into a better person, but instead causes her to be someone who desperately grasps for security, makes wild and erratic choices, and continually believes that she is the only thing standing between Kirishima and true happiness. She takes upon herself continually the role of the martyr, trying to cut herself off from Kirishima in order to “let him find happiness.” But he always comes back.
Kirishima can never seem to let go of Eba in his heart. Why? Is it because they are fated to be together, as the show wants us to believe? No! For Kirishima, Eba is the perpetually lost object. She represents the love that can never be his, the continual and desperate pursuit of being loved by someone. He lives a profoundly unhealthy life, even leaving someone who truly does love him. Why? Because he’s more enthralled with the symbol of lost love, than the reality of true love that holds him close each day.
And now, the tropes have come full circle. In Machi, we simultaneously see the missing component of the new girl, and the truth of the childhood friend. In the majority of anime with a ‘new girl’ character, we never get to see how the protagonist’s life with the new girl eventually also becomes normalized into a set of routines. We only ever see him in the midst of the topsy-turvy, the in-breaking of the Event. But how does the Event get translated into a real life that can be lived? Something that they can build together? Shows rarely answer this question.
Machi holds out this possibility in the character of Asuka. It does this by showing her in-breaking not as a cataclysmic event that turns Kirishima’s world upside down, but by her introducing into his life the possibility of a healthy relationship where two people can live life together, sacrifice for one another, and actually build some new together. She is the only stable and sane thing in his entire life, and therein lies her truly cataclysmic nature. She quietly promises the true happiness of real love and a real life. She is possibility speaking in his life.
But all Eba can promise Kirishima is the eternal return of the same. She can only promise to endlessly repeat what they have already experienced together. They have nothing new to offer each other. They can only ever perpetuate the cycles they’ve always known, and these cycles are destructive. They actively prevent Kirishima from seeing the world differently, from finding purpose, or from finding a romantic relationship that is built on love and self-sacrifice, not mutual need and martyrdom. Eba’s presence continually drags him back into a pit of despair, forever condemned to rehash the pain of rejection, and the crushing emotional vice of the “will she? won’t she?”
Here we see the truth of the childhood friend. The childhood friend can only promise a repetition of what came before, regardless of whether that was good, bad, or utterly banal. In Kirishima’s choice to leave Asuka and to embrace Eba, we must not fail to see the price paid by Asuka. Kirishima rejects the possibility of something truly new, real, and healthy embodied in his relationship with Asuka, in favor of choosing the thing which was familiar but wildly painful and destructive. He rejects Asuka because her radical in-breaking came disguised as a perfectly normal life with a perfectly normal person who loves him. To the jaundiced eye all appears yellow, and so too to Kirishima’s eye tinted by years of suffering and lovesickness, he just couldn’t see true love when it was right in front of him.
Why have I bothered to say any of this? Because I know that I am tempted to be Kirishima. The woman I have loved represents for me not the possibility of something good or healthy or new. Rather, I have grown to see that she represents for me a symbol of a love which remains primordially lost. My attachment to her rehearses nothing more than an attachment to the impossibility of true love.
If I could have the opportunity to re-write Machi, I would have the few days that Kirishima and Eba spend together in their old hometown bring a final closure to their relationship. They would have re-played those memories, treasured them, and then made their peace with them. Then they would have gone their separate ways, Kirishima back to Asuka, renewed in his commitment to her, and full of the possibility that his life with her holds. Eba would have left with a new sense that she doesn’t need to cling to Kirishima in her heart anymore, but that she can forge her own path, and perhaps find someone along the way who will love her and journey by her side.
They should have valued those precious memories just as they were, rather than believing the lie that those memories demanded a repetition in the present. I am working on letting precious memories be just that – memories. I am turning my face towards the future, to embrace the real possibility of someone new, an in-breaking that doesn’t look like an in-breaking. I’m listening for that small voice that doesn’t waver or wail, but simply speaks with a joyful and confident tone.