WARNING: This article contains heavy spoilers; you have been warned.
The Sakurasou dormitory: A place built to hold the misfit students of Suimei University of Arts.
The romcom genre is somewhat contested among the anime community. Although I myself am an avid watcher and lover of the light-hearted genre, some don't see it in the same way as others. To some, romcom anime is relaxing, heartwarming, and usually laughter-inducing, although not always brilliant. To others, however, the genre is filled with cheaply-made, unoriginal anime that don't contribute anything to the industry. Due to this perception, romcoms are often scored fairly lowly on MAL. There are a number of highly popular and generously scored romcom anime such as the Monogatari series and the Haruhi Suzumiya series, but these franchises are perhaps better perceived than others in the romcom genre because of their relatively darker tones and plot-driven stories. However, these are outnumbered by the large number of smaller series which cloud the general view of the genre due to their recycled content and cheaper budgets.
Due to this, I was naturally surprised to see Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo, a standard-looking school romcom anime, with a score of 8.37 and a popularity ranking of #60 with over 440,000 members (at the time this article was written). Out of love for the genre and curiosity to find out what made this series stand out from the rest of its kind, I began to watch it. And boy, was I in for a heartfelt and heart-wrenching surprise.
Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo, made by the acclaimed J.C. Staff (makers of other successful romcoms like Toradora, Golden Time, and Kaichou wa Maid-sama!), is distinct in a number of different ways. Aside from its unique, stunning art style and light soundtrack, its characters, relationships, and themes tell a stand-out story of love and effort that has its own twist on the romcom genre.
Just a few of the quirky, rowdy residents of Sakurasou.
The Varying Relationships
One of the key elements of the series is its broad range of character relationships and what they entail, which encompasses both romantic and platonic relationships. In anime of the romcom genre, there are three character relationship types that are the most common: "The Harem," which involves supporting love interests flocked around one central character, such as in Nisekoi and Fruits Basket; "The One and Only," which focuses on the relationship or developing love between two main characters, such as in Kimi ni Todoke and Ore Monogatari!!; and "The Spread", which focuses on multiple developing relationships within an enclosed setting (often a school), such as in Kokoro Connect and ReLIFE. "Harem" and "One and Only" are by far the most common types of romcom anime for a number of reasons. They are much easier to balance in terms of storyline and character, and they create opportunities for fanservice and other appealing elements to be introduced. Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo fits into "The Spread" category, as it is centered on multiple relationships surrounding the characters living in the Sakurasou dormitory.
Although each character has their own relationship and interactions with the others, it is in the romance between certain characters that the true beauty of the series lies, namely with Mashiro and Sorata, Nanami and Sorata, Misaki and Jin, and Ryuunosuke and Rita.
What makes these romantic relationships stand out from other romcoms are their greatly varied, distinct circumstances and personalities. For example, Sorata becomes Mashiro's primary caretaker when she moves into Sakurasou, Nanami is good friends with Sorata, Misaki and Jin are childhood friends and work partners, and Rita has an obsession with socially awkward Ryuunosuke. The series is based around the development and drama surrounding these relationships, often taking place within the structure of story arcs. However, what drives the events surrounding these relationships isn't romance, it's the dreams and ambitions of every character: Sorata hopes to become a game designer, Mashiro wants to be a manga artist, Nanami aspires to be a voice actor, Misaki wants to make anime, Jin plans to be a writer (for Misaki's anime), Rita aspires to be as good an artist as Mashiro, and according to Ryuunosuke, he wishes to make Maid, his personally programmed AI (Artificial Intelligence), become a real human. What drives these ambitions and aspirations are the other members of Sakurasou, particularly those of the previously mentioned relationships.
Speaking from personal experience and interpretation, the audience is meant to feel inspired by the strong efforts made by the characters of Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo, and we expect a happy ending with the efforts and struggles of the characters succeeding. But that is not the case. Instead of giving the audience a happy romantic tale of love and success, Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo tells a story of heartbreak and failure.
The despair of failure that Sorata and Nanami are forced to accept.
In a standard romcom, one would assume that the couples get together and everything works out in the end. But Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo stands out from the rest of its genre in that regard. The couples don't quite get together (Nanami is beaten by Mashiro, and Misaki has to wait for Jin), separation occurs (Jin having to move to another school), and most of the characters don't succeed in their goals. This greatly affects the audience emotionally, and it was at episode 21 that this effect truly struck my heart. At this emotional pinnacle, we deal with seeing the fallout from Nanami failing her audition as well as Sorata learning that his game proposal wasn't accepted in the final stage.
In this episode, Sorata comforts Nanami, who is unable to cope with the disappointment of failing her audition and begins to tear up in class, resulting in Sorata taking her to the nurse's office. While on his way back, Sorata receives a call from Fujisawa and learns that his game proposal was rejected, leading him to fall into despair despite Fujisawa's encouragement. Soon after, he finds that Nanami has disappeared from the nurse's office, but he finds her standing outside alone in the rain. They burst on each other, recognising their failures and accepting the future that it holds. Mashiro witnesses all of this, resulting in a touching moment that we are left to assume is the end of the despair, but such is not the case. To make this situation even more painful, Sorata receives a letter from the game company that he assumes to be his; only to discover that it was meant for Mashiro as a job offer as a character designer. This devastates Sorata, resulting in Mashiro questioning him if she's the cause of all their failures.
Salt in the wound; fuel to the flame.
Due to the abnormal lack of success and happiness that is expected from romcoms, the audience is left to also feel the emotional impact left on the characters. This is deepened even further by the very relationships that fueled the motivation of the residents of Sakurasou (as mentioned earlier), which was what lead to the subsequent motivation of the audience; in particular, the inspiration that Sorata gained from Mashiro. Mashiro is a genius artist who turned to drawing manga, and although some view this as wasted talent, Sorata is inspired by her beautiful creations and work ethic toward her own goals. However, he feels cheated because how no matter how much work he puts in, he can't match a genius like Mashiro, as shown at the end of the episode. This is also exemplified in Nanami's failure, as she worked endlessly for two whole years and sacrificed so much time and energy only to fall just short of her goal. What makes this series special is its ability to connect to its audience on a unique emotional level, making them reflect on their own efforts in a number of ways.
At first, Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo inspires the audience to work harder towards their own goals and sets them up with an illusion of automatic success. However, this is broken down toward the end of the series, demonstrating to the audience that sometimes, no matter how hard you work, you may just fail in the end. But not everything is lost, as it also teaches that it is not the end of world when this occurs. Others are there to support you, and there is always another path to follow or another door to enter. Upon watching this show myself, it struck me incredibly deeply because it relates to my own life. I can't disclose the exact situation, but I myself have been stuck in despair as I put all my effort into my passion, only to fail and get nothing out of my sacrifices. It hurts, and watching it occur in this series both pained and encouraged me, and I imagine that it has done the same for others as well.
In short, Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo sets itself apart from other romcoms through its individual, unique relationships and how the series centers itself around them, in addition to the main theme the series encompasses: even if you do your best, sometimes things don't work out in your favor... but it isn't necessarily the end of the world.
Source: All images are screenshots from Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo. ASCII Media Works, Genco, and Media Factory.