Haganai: I Don’t Have Many Friends (2011)

Episode 01 – 13

Social catastrophe? Join the misfits in the Neighbors Club!

Haganai, short for Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai — which, when translated, literally means, ‘I Don’t Have Many Friends’ — is a Japanese anime series based on a collection of light novels, written by Yomi Hirasaka, illustrated by Buriki and published by Media Factory; though, prior to the animation, a number of manga adaptations were produced, with a live-action film version having been released earlier this year, 2014. Haganai is predominantly a comedy series which mixes elements of high school drama, science fiction, and fantasy with mild fan service and while the awfully familiar premise of misfit high school students trying to fit in sounds rather overdone, this title succeeds thanks to its superb cast of odd-ball characters and its constant effort at remaining laugh-out-loud hilarious throughout, even as it treads on territory that most anime fans would have surely seen countless times before.

The protagonist — who narrates the show, as the anime is predominantly told through his point-of-view — Kodaka Hasegawa, is a 17-year-old high school boy who moves around a lot due to his father’s arduous profession as a renowned archaeologist. In the past, Kodaka had always found it difficult to fit in, limiting his ability to make friends, thanks to his dirty blondish-brown hair — inherited from his deceased English mother — and fierce-looking eyes, with peers and teachers constantly misunderstanding him, believing Kodaka to be a delinquent ‘Yankee,’ due to his apparent, off-putting, appearance.

Neighbors, everybody needs good neighbors!
Neighbors, everybody needs good neighbors!

When Kodaka transfers to what is evidently a Catholic prep school, called St. Chronica’s Academy, he encounters similar troubles, especially after a mistaken first impression in homeroom, when Kodaka arrives to class tired, out of breath, stumbling, and looks as though he is trying to attack the teacher. With a rocky start already in place, Kodaka is shunned by his schoolmates for several other misinterpreted factors and occurrences, one being his somewhat intimidating Caucasian appearance, and another being an incident on his first day of school, following the apparent ‘assault’ on his teacher, when a nearby female student is compelled to simply hand her textbook over to him, after Kodaka discovers that he had forgotten to bring his own, coincidentally lending to rumors of Kodaka being a textbook thief.

After school one afternoon, Kodaka unexpectedly meets the equally solitary, rather abrasive loudmouth, 17-year old Yozora Mikazuki, the female deuteragonist of the anime; while Yozora doesn’t have the appearance ‘issues’ Kodaka is forced to live with, her sullen attitude virtually screams, ‘leave me alone,’ which the rest of the school is more than happy to comply with. Walking in on Yozora, with her long flowing, black hair, decorated with small pink ribbons at the ends, Kodaka discovers her mid-conversation with her imaginary ‘air friend’ named Tomo-chan, where she’s abandoned her usual scowling demeanor for something more affable. Though Yozora is initially quite embarrassed, and therefore snappish about having been discovered, it becomes obvious that she is sympathetic towards Kodaka, and his situation, sensing a similar spirit within him, especially after one of his apparently innocent comments gives her the idea to create her own after-school club for people with no friends — like Kodaka and herself — since neither she nor Kodaka felt comfortable joining clubs that were already in existence — and had been for years — where the social interactions among participants were already well defined. The following day, Yozora forms her very own school club, which she titles, ‘The Neighbors Club,’ established for outcasts who are in search for friends, recruiting Kodaka, as the first, initially unwilling, member, so that the pair can go out and discover new friends together.

Blonde Moment!
Blonde Moment!

With the Neighbors Club officially open for business, Yozora and Kodaka go out into the schoolyard to advertise, in search for other potential members — likeminded students who are eager to find friends — which catches the attention of many eccentric characters, instantly wanting to sign-up. The first student begging to become part of the Neighbors Club is 17-year old robust blonde bombshell, Sena Kashiwazaki, who happens to be the female tritagonist of the series. The wealthy and arrogant daughter of Pegasus Kashiwazaki, headmaster of St. Chronica Academy, Sena is an outstanding academic, with strong athletic skills, making her popular among male students, though she is an outcast among her female peers, being envied due to her superior intelligence, exceeding good looks and popularity; she also happens to have a strange addiction to eroge — Japanese erotic videogames — and boy-dating sims. Yozora originally refuses to accept Sena into the club, disliking this seemingly perfect ‘princess’ immediately; consequently the two girls spend multiple episodes in fairly humors bickering matches, throwing around a variety of witty insults at one another. Upon meeting, Yozora begins calling Sena abusive names, such as ‘Meat’ or ‘Sandbags,’ because of her supersized breasts, obviously jealous, as Yozora is rather flat chested, which in part, initiates the girl’s ongoing catfight; what complicates things further is the fact that both girls eventually become moderately interested in Kodaka as the series develops.

Several other weird and wonderful supporting players soon join Yozora, Kodaka and Sena in the newly founded Neighbors Club. Sexual deviant and perverted school genius, 16-year-old Rika Shiguma — who takes all her classes in the science lab — signs up, after Kodaka rescues and revives her from a self-conducted lab experiment which knocks her flat out; an obviously intelligent girl whose mind nonetheless tends to wander pretty consistently toward the spicy side of things, Rika also likes to speak in third person, which further illustrates her eccentricity. Next up, 16-year-old androgynous, gender confused, feminine looking boy (?), Yukimura Kusunoki, officially spotted as a stalker of Kodaka, is recruited, and eagerly pledges to become Kodaka’s ‘underling’ on the basis that he can learn to become less effeminate through serving him, but on the advisement of Yozora, Yukimura only wears women’s clothing, such as French maid uniforms. Rounding up the club are two younger girls, Kodaka’s little sister, 13 year-old Kobato Hasegawa, a middle-school student who dresses in Loli-Goth attire, almost always carries a patchwork stuffed rabbit around with her — since it is the mascot of her favorite anime character — has a fascination with vampires, and a slight brother complex. Last-but-not-least, we have the extremely immature, potty mouth, Sister Maria Takayama, a 10-year-old nun, who is the ‘supposed’ supervisor/moderator of the Neighbors Club, and also apparently a ‘teacher’ at the school; Kobato and Maria see each other as a rivals, both crying out for Kodaka’s brotherly affections, thus often getting into hilarious tiffs and/or childish backbiting arguments against one another.

Strike a pose, there's nothing to it!
Strike a pose, there’s nothing to it!

On the outset, Haganai appears to be a harem style anime — an ambiguously-defined subgenre of anime and manga characterized by a protagonist surrounded, usually adoringly, by three or more members of the opposing sex and/or love interests — particularly in its opening moments, and especially in regard to its credits sequence, where Kodaka is encircled by a bunch of scantily clad and quite busty, curvaceous females. And while there’s no denying that Haganai indulges in quite a bit of — mostly pretty innocent — fan service, the series is almost an anit-harem outing, if for no other reason than Kodaka’s basic incapability of being able to interact comfortably with anyone, let alone girls.

The show’s standout ingredient however, are the interactions between the club members themselves, exposing their many intricate flaws, and oddities, and with a cast of such incredibly colorful personalities, there’s obviously plenty of material on offer for both bellyaching humor and heartrending sorrow. The immature child prodigy, Maria, is hysterical, often using a variety of expletives when annoyed, making her continuous quarrel with Kobato, who is self-deluded about being a Gothic vampire, an absolute hoot; the two younglings even clash in appearance, with Maria’s reverent exterior and Kobato’s Gothic Lolita dress, thigh-high socks with a black barrette — Kobato also wears a red-eye contact lens on her right eye to match the anime character she’s usually cos-playing from her favorite show, Fullmetal Necromancer. Yozora and Sena’s squabbling is equally as amusing, though on few instances, Yozora often stretches the boundaries of her character’s likability, being a tad too nasty and cruel to the gullible Sena. As the series progresses however, Yozora and Sena do eventually make some headway within their relationship, venturing into more of a fr-enemy territory; for example, Sena actually begins to like her humiliating nickname, ‘Meat,’ as it is the first nickname she had ever been given.

... Love Thy Neighbor ...
… Love Thy Neighbor …

This series is tremendously funny, and rather clever, in the way it seamlessly spoofs multiple anime genres simultaneously — there are nods and winks to anime such as The Sacred Blacksmith (2009), Fullmetal Alchemist (2009) and even Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995) — blending elements of fantasy, mecha, high school romance, and ecchi — a word adopted by fans of Japanese media to describe works with sexual overtones — with the plot device being the ‘assignments’ the club use to learn how to gain friends. The club members spend a lot of their school afternoons playing video games, in which, we the viewers, are often transported into fantastical worlds of erotic sci-fi or dating sims; there’s also a strangely comical episode where the club members exchange phone numbers for the very first time.

Then, there is a portion of the show where the Neighbors Club spend their Summer Vacation together, partaking in a series of misadventures, by attending events or social activities which usually go askew — referred to as ‘assignments’ for training purposes — in the hope of learning how to ‘perform’ or ‘behave’ when they actually make ‘real’ friends; the club attend the summer festival, try their luck at getting into an overcrowded pool resort, take a stab at karaoke, and even spend some time overnight at Sena’s beachside villa, which the club considers to be a training facility similar to a camp, where the members use the twilight hours attempting to share horror stories. So the basis of the series is the idea that these high school misfits are supposed to be learning how to make friends, and how to act in social situations after they’ve make friends, even though they are partly oblivious to the fact that they are actually becoming friends, amongst themselves, in the process.

Blonde or Brunette?
Blonde or Brunette?

While comedy element is the driving force behind this series, there is also a touch of deeply moving drama, making Haganai unexpectedly subversive. The character relationships and interactions, particularly a love triangle between Kodaka, Yozora, and Sena — with Yozora and Sena persistently attempting to win over Kodaka’s affections — comes across as fairly honest and sincere, as the girls clearly, though somewhat unaware, reluctant to admit their true feelings, profoundly care for Kodaka, and each other for that matter. As an anime, Haganai tackles a subject proverbial to all people, no matter what walk of life: the notion of friendship. Throughout their days together, the members of the Neighbors Club gradually discover that ‘true’ friendship often emerges when surrounded by those needed in one’s life, even if these friendships aren’t necessarily the ones desired or desperately longed for. Haganai explores newfound friendships, cherished friendships and friendships lost, striking the right emotional heartstrings, as anyone who has ever made, lost or rediscovered a friend will surely be able to relate.

In terms of animation, while visually, there’s nothing overly innovative or groundbreaking, Haganai is a rather nice looking show with very bright, bold primary colors and crisp line detail, with character designs all being distinctive, intricate, lively and expressive; the same can be said about the often stunning backdrops and scene-setting locations. When it comes to score and sound design, the atmospheric ambience and mood generating melodies all compliment the great animation work; throw in an upbeat, energetic opening and closing track, as the cherry finish, making Haganai a clear winner, aesthetically.

'Watch Out! We have a hardcore gamer over here!'
‘Watch Out! We have a hardcore gamer over here!’

Probably every anime fan out there has seen some iteration of Haganai before, possibly even more than once, so anyone coming to this series shouldn’t have any pre-conceived notions that they’re about to experience some sort of revolutionary new show that is going to completely reinvent the genre. But that said, all involved should really be proud of their tremendous work on Haganai, as the show is awesomely constructed, beautifully animated, and features an extraordinary cast of uniquely quaint, comical characters, who exhibit some rather interesting relationships, and embark on, or get caught up in, some truly entertaining scenarios; just show me where to sigh up, as I’d love to be part of the Neighbors Club, and accompany this loveable gang of misfits on their scores of riotous escapades. As predictable and formulaic as Haganai might be, it succeeds — without a doubt — in showcasing the best this off-the-wall, sub-genre of anime has to offer!

4.5 / 5 – Highly Recommended

Reviewed by S-Littner

Haganai: I Don’t Have Many Friends is released through Madman Entertainment Australia