Regression to an Imagined Past: Deconstructing the Childhood Friend in Anime

Anime relies heavily on tropes, which means that viewers will encounter similar character patterns repeatedly as they watch large amounts of anime. I find the variations of the ‘childhood friend’ (osananajimi) trope particularly fascinating, largely because I had such a figure in my own life, a girl I'd known since I was 10, and with whom I had an on and off again romantic relationship up until about sophomore year of college. This means that the childhood friend trope in anime has functioned as a lens through which I can see myself, and also understand how men like me can move forward.

The New Girl and the Childhood Friend

The childhood friend trope is best understood through an analysis of another trope which invariably accompanies and plays its opposite – the new girl. Let me describe a typical high school 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 in some way. 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 her status as childhood friend provides her some special claim upon his attention and ongoing justification for her proximity to him. 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 (maybe they walk to and from school together).

If you watch enough anime with these two tropes functioning in the narrative, you will begin to notice that the protagonist never ends up with the childhood friend. It is the childhood friend character's inexorable fate to be rejected, and to have her precious crush snatched right out from under her nose by the new girl. The new girl blasts into the protagonist’s humdrum world, bringing new colors and direction to his life, something which the childhood friend seems unable to do. The new girl essentially drags the protagonist forward through sheer enthusiasm (and usually some unintentional transgression of social protocol). The new girl in anime possesses a strong homology with the Manic Pixie Girl exemplified by characters such as Zooey Deschanel’s Summer in 500 Days of Summer. She seems to have an immovable internal compass, and by setting her sights firmly on the protagonist, he encounters an unstoppable force determined to upset his ordinary routine.

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 arriving in the now.

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, she may simply be the only person who notices a particular aspect of the protagonist, thus taking a unique interest in him. These 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, but which also paradoxically is created through her interest in him.

The new girl is different because the childhood friend never unlocked these powers in the protagonist, 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 as the new world opened up by the new girl invades and transforms the protagonist’s life.

An analysis of Kimi no Iru Machi

I've said all this thus far to provide some context for an analysis of an anime I watched many years ago which served as something of a breakthrough for me in understanding of the tangled emotions around the childhood friend character. Kimi no Iru Machi (hereafter referred to as Machi) unveils the danger and the snare of the childhood friend character precisely by crafting a narrative in which the character does choose the childhood friend as their romantic partner rather than choosing the new girl. Many anime fans cheer for the childhood friend, but in the case of Machi, psychoanalytic theory says it best when it observes that the fulfillment of our wishes is perhaps the most traumatic event of all.

In Machi, the main character Haruto 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 when they were in high school, during which time the two fell in love. When she returned to Tokyo, she broke off all contact with him, and so he finds a job as a cook part-time in Tokyo in order to find her and learn the true nature of her feelings about him.

The show reveals that the two had actually met even earlier, when they were still both young children. The girl, Eba, was visiting the town’s summer festival, and had become separated from her parents. The young 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.

The show brings dimension to Eba as the childhood friend trope by introducing another woman into Kirishima’s life. When he moves to Tokyo, he meets a girl in his class named Mishima Asuka. She is a girl next-door type who is attractive, a little bit of a tomboy, optimistic, energetic, easy to talk to, and forgiving. They become friends, and she falls for Kirishima quickly. They spend time together regularly, overcome some hardship together, and even have similar experiences of adjusting to living in Tokyo with country accents (which is apparently a surprisingly big deal in Tokyo society). Asuka remains by Kirishima's side, even as his tumultuous relationship with Eba seems to wax and wane.

The final episode of the series jumps ahead a year or two into the future. Asuka and Kirishima have been dating, and seem to display the outward signs of a healthy relationship. She surprises him with flowers, they cook together, they are affectionate, and he even picks up an additional part-time job to save money to take her to the beach during summer break. However, when Eba suddenly re-appears, she strikes Kirishima like a bolt of lightning, upending everything he thought he knew. He had thought he was over her and was happy with Asuka, but nonetheless experiences afresh the flood of desire to be with Eba. He begins to fall back into old mental habits.

The fateful moment comes when Kirishima makes a trip home to visit his family during summer break, and he does so knowing that Eba will be there. Inevitably, being in the town where they spent so much time and made memories together reignites the feelings they had for each other. Ultimately, Kirishima and Eba find themselves at the same pond where they once watched fireworks together. Kirishima makes the fateful decision to lie over the phone to Asuka about his whereabouts, only to discover 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 his relationship with Asuka, and then meets up with Eba in order to start their new life together. The show 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 feels deeply wrong about this ending.

Machi interrogates the enigma of the childhood friend by positing a childhood friend who was at one point a new girl. Eba is more than just a childhood friend; she is a new girl whose revolution failed to materialize as a radical change in Kirishima's life. The moment at the pond which Kirishima and Eba continually circle back to in their imaginations represents a possibility which was never explored, and thus remains like an unfulfilled wish. They return to it again and again, like an animal licking an open wound. This fantasy serves a pathological function in each of their minds – for Kirishima, it's the lost object he's been searching for, and for Eba, it's the ultimate security which she hasn't been able to find anywhere else. These functions are complementary and co-dependent, ultimately serving as powerful forces of stagnation in their lives.  

We can observe this in the effects which they have on each other. Rather than filling them up so they can pour out love beyond the bounds of their relationship, their relationship cuts them off from other people, both by encouraging them to spend inordinate amounts of time together, but also by harboring secrets and unspoken desires which can only find expression within the context of the relationship. They continually turn inwards, becoming warped and smaller versions of themselves as they each desperately search for ultimate satisfaction. They declare that they have no need of others as long as they have each other, and then they lie and betray the people who have cared for them most.

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, but I think that 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.

However, all that Eba can promise Kirishima is an eternal return of the same. She is the illusion of possibility. 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 beyond himself, or from finding a romantic relationship that is built on love and self-sacrifice, not mutual need and a spirit of martyrdom.

Here we see the truth of the childhood friend. By choosing Eba over Asuka, Kirishima rejects the possibility of something truly new and real embodied in his relationship with Asuka. Instead, he opts for that which is 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 can't see true love when it live and breaths right in front of him in the form of a real person named Asuka.

The woman I loved when I was younger represented for me not the possibility of something good or healthy or new. Rather, I have grown to see that she represented for me a symbol of a love which remains primordially lost. My attachment to her rehearsed nothing more than an attachment to the impossibility of true love. She was destructive to me – I ignored people who told me this – and her own set of pathological reasons were destroying her too. Yet, I circled back to her inexorably, drawn by a force which I felt powerless to resist. I understand now that it was something in me – a void – which propelled me towards her time and again. Ultimately, what we were experiencing was a codependency in which our personal pathologies propelled us on intersecting trajectories.

If I were writing Machi, I would have made the few days that Kirishima and Eba spent 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 alongside her. To find life, health, and joy, they should have valued those precious memories just as they were, rather than believing that those memories demanded a repetition in the present. Only by acknowledging the wound for what it was could they then set their faces to the future in search of a new abundance of life.

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