This article is a part of AniTAY’s Spring 2021 Early Impressions series, where our authors offer their initial thoughts on the new, prominent, and exciting anime from this season!
Taboo, controversial, and potentially problematic relationship narratives are nothing new to anime. 2018’s After the Rain centers around the budding romance between a high-school girl and a forty-five-year-old café owner, and 1998’s Cardcaptor Sakura includes an eventual marriage between an elementary-school student and her teacher, just to name a couple. While one can debate endlessly the ethics and intricacies involved in these relationships, I find myself more drawn to how those alternative romances speak to, comment on, and interrogate the emotions of our relationships both intra- and inter-personal. Whether that interrogation comes in the movements between consenting, adrift individuals as in After the Rain or in the nebulous limits of romance in Cardcaptor Sakura, anime often makes space for exploring bonds traditionally seen as taboo, those that cause us to, intentionally or otherwise, re-examine our own relationship to love.
Higehiro: After Being Rejected, I Shaved and Took in a High School Runaway is the newest addition to this slate of non-traditional romantic anime, following office worker Yoshida as he finds Sayu Ogiwara, a beautiful and dejected high-school girl, dirty and alone on the street outside his apartment building. He takes her in, and Sayu immediately tries to seduce him, Yoshida immediately and bluntly rejecting her. After some back and forth in which Sayu reveals that she has run away from home and bounces from grown man’s bed to grown man’s bed, Yoshida allows her to stay with him on the condition that she help out with chores while he is at work and, eventually, either return to school or find work for herself. Thus kicks off Higehiro, one of Spring 2021’s most engaging anime and, three episodes in, one that is quickly becoming one of my favourites of the year through its well-defined characters, interrogation of the relationships between those characters, and its emphasis that self-worth comes in the intersections between our bonds with others and with ourselves.
Higehiro comes in the same season as Koikimo, a similarly premised show about the relationship between a high-school girl and an office worker. Koikimo, however, makes light of the problematic behaviour of its adult male protagonist by casting his grooming and meticulous seduction of his sister’s friend as cute, funny, and harmless — it is none of those things. What most immediately struck me about Higehiro is how it flips that potentially problematic relationship on its head: in nearly every way, Sayu is the instigator, with Yoshida consistently rejecting her advances. This simple change all but eliminates the problem that many age-gap romances tend to run into; it changes the narrative from one of grooming to one of bonding, and that distinction is crucial.
Sayu, as the first two episodes gesture towards and the third makes specific, has a fundamentally skewed sense of self-worth. While we have not yet learned why she ran away from home (her own admittance that her parents are nice, good people complicates things further), her lifestyle of moving between lonely men’s beds has caused her to define herself by her body. She attempts to seduce Yoshida multiple times in the first episode because it is all she knows how to do to repay him. And it is that sense of reparation that, too, dictates her actions. She outlines her lack of belief in unconditional kindness in episode three, arguing that kindness comes only from expecting others to do something for you or doing something for them. Kindness is a transaction, and Sayu pays with her body.
It is the slow reveal of Sayu’s worldview that makes her relationship with Yoshida all the more compelling. Yoshida, the show establishes and repeats, is a fundamentally good person. He gives 110% at his work, staying for overtime to help his coworkers. He is lonely, sure, but he is also self-admittedly independent, able to live and survive on his own. Sayu is a fundamentally disruptive force in his life, but one he quickly adapts to, displaying an older brother or cool uncle mentality towards her far more than one of wanting to use and abuse her like every man before him. He rejects her attempts at seduction because he understands that she is doing this less out of attraction and more out of obligation, routine. Our man Yoshida is better than that, and the show makes that abundantly clear through him buying her some new, comfortable clothes, a futon to sleep on, and a cellphone so he can check in with her. He comes to care deeply for Sayu because he can see that she needs caring. It is too early to tell if he has positively affected her in the long run, but Higehiro makes it abundantly clear that Yoshida’s empathy and maturity are key to improving Sayu’s life and, in turn, his own.
Because theirs is a relationship of reciprocation, not recompense. Higehiro is not a story of the older man saving the younger girl, much as its premise might suggest. Episode three asserts that Yoshida, whether he knows it or not, comes to need Sayu as much as Sayu needs him. Not just for doing chores and cooking some tasty miso soup, but because she gives him his own sense of self-worth beyond the workplace in much the same way that our friends enrich our lives. We grow alongside them, whether we realize it or not, and it is that mutual growth that Higehiro founds itself on. Sayu’s insistence that she must repay Yoshida in some way is refuted by his assertion, often subtextual, that her presence is payment enough. In that way, the show gestures towards the larger idea of what we owe each other. Higehiro suggests that perhaps what we owe is each other; that as we work alongside and maneuver around each other, we grow and change and, ultimately, positively affect one another — we make our homes out of each other.
The end of the third episode contains my favourite moment from the show thus far. Sayu, in a moment of existential desperation, comes to Yoshida in her underwear, draping one arm around him while the other travels to his lower half, insisting yet again that he allow her to sleep with him to repay his kindness. And, yet again, he rejects her, this time more definitively asserting that he does not want to have sex with someone he is not in love with, and he is not in love with her. This striking moment of honesty comes immediately after Yoshida admits that, yes, he is physically attracted to her and, yes, her coming to him in her underwear and touching him seductively did turn him on. It’s a humanizing moment for Yoshida, one in which his openness begets the reassurance that Sayu needs right now. Because she clings onto that last shred of self-worth that her body grants her, Yoshida’s acknowledgement of her attractiveness is the affirmation she needs to begin seeing herself as worthy of love, both platonic and romantic, again.
The first three episodes feel largely like prologue, and now that, as Yoshida states, they “truly started living together,” the show can kick off in earnest. While a romance between the two leads in some form still seems inevitable at some point, much work remains before we reach that point. I’m confident, however, that Higehiro is competent enough in its storytelling and skillful enough in its characterization to make whatever Sayu and Yoshida’s bond turn into feel earned, natural, and socioculturally astute. Thus far, Higehiro is my favourite show of the Spring 2021 season. Through its focus on how we redeem our self-worth through others, it comments on our own relationships by suggesting that recompense comes through presence. More than an age-gap romance, Higehiro is a compelling, insightful, and mature look into how empathy is radical in its potential to fundamentally redefine the places we call home. Sometimes all it takes is rejection, a quick shave, and reaching out your hand to someone in need.
Higehiro: After Being Rejected, I Shaved and Took in a High School Runaway
Based on: Light novel series written by Shimesaba, illustrated by booota
Produced by: Project №9 (Bottom-Tier Character Tomozaki, Didn’t I Say to Make My Abilities Average in the Next Life?!)
Streaming on: Crunchyroll
Episodes watched: 3
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