I had gone into Hen Zemi expecting lewd otaku commentary and nothing else. I got a lot more, surprisingly.
Hen Zemi is the story of a normal university student, Nanako, who enrolls in an “Abnormal Physiology Seminar” because of a crush on one of its students, Komugi. It turns out that the seminar is a playground for people with demented sexual fetishes who are generally screwed in the head. While the main content of the show is devoted to discuss and illustrate the weird squicky things that people get off on, Hen Zemi devotes a surprising amount of depth to its characters.
It’s easy to write the characters off as walking fetish machines or mouthpieces. But the rest of the characters (remember, Nanako has to be normal because she’s the viewpoint character) are more than that. If anything, the relationships between them are nuanced and adult in a manner that befits their age as university students.
Let’s look at the ex-couple, Komugi and Miwako. Miwako is lauded with the dubious honor of the pride of the seminar, where no fetish or deviancy is far from grasp. She enjoyed a sexually-active relationship with Komugi, but had to move on. Not because of some quarrel, they simply decided it was not going to work. How many anime romances end this way? Not with a bang, not even with a whimper, just a simple, civil agreement offscreen to stop dating.
What further complicates things is Nanako’s attraction to Komugi. In episode 2 of the OAD, Nanako listens to Komugi spill the beans. She feels a cocktail of emotions bubbling within her, part sadness, part relief, part pity, part hope. “Komugi is now single!” she thinks. “But is it really right if I try and take advantage? I should just try to cheer him up.” Etcetera, etcetera. The conversation steers toward their relationship and, not strangely enough, the ideal ratio of nipple to areola. But we feel Nanako’s tension throughout, the sense of awkwardness that she has in wondering if it’s in her place to do anything.
Next is Makiko and the oddly-named Yesterday, who have a codependency relationship. I won’t pretend to understand all of it, but Yesterday is perennially trying to make Makiko break up with him, as they are an official couple. Makiko, however, is the most inscrutable of the group and never really goes with what Yesterday wants. While this is often played for laughs–Yesterday does something stupid in front of Makiko, who never bats an eyelash and does something weird or unrelated–Komugi spells it out for Nanako in episode 7 of the TV series.
The following conversation happens:
Nanako: Isn’t that a happy relationship?
Nanako: Because their reason for existence will be the other person. It’s much better than relationships with give-and-take and nothing else.
Komugi: I wonder… In that case, you just want to use the other person to establish yourself. Because you have no self-confidence, can’t love, and can’t be responsible for your own life, you intervene in the other’s life and want him to intervene in yours. A hopeless case, in short.
Makiko and Yesterday are stuck in a status quo. Yesterday’s hopelessness is what makes Makiko dependent on him, and yet makes no move to help him, because she fears that their relationship would come crashing down. Yesterday, on the other hand, wants to get closer to Makiko by drawing manga, yet aborts all his projects in a self-destructive manner.
It’s really harsh. It’s obviously an unhealthy relationship, and the two need to completely break it off and fix themselves, but the setup is foolproof and there’s no easy way getting out of it without outside interference. The conversation between Nanako and Komugi was also eye-opening in terms of the former’s rosy view of relationships. We are often told aphorisms that lovers should need each other, two broken halves that become one complete whole. The notion is romantic and poetic and also wrong. And it’s so easy to believe because it sounds so nice and your loved one completes you in a very neat way and you feel fulfilled and stuff, but the fact that you depend on your partner means that you are severely lacking as a human being, and that is never healthy!
Cuchlann wrote about Toradora’s ending:
…a year passes where they never get to see each other. That was fucking harsh. I don’t even know what to do with that, except to say it’s the final trial to prove they are self-sufficient. Lovers who actually do need each other are co-dependent, which isn’t really healthy. That is, they can’t get out of bed, can’t eat, can’t do anything without the other near. They deal with each other’s absence. They’re healthy. They are capable of giving and receiving gifts, like each other’s love. And that’s one fine Christmas present.
This paragraph struck a chord in me. You cannot give what you do not have. If all you have is self-loathing, then you can’t give love.
Now, let’s go to the final couple, Anna and Ishiyasu. They’re developed through awkward scenarios, like Anna coming over to Ishiyasu’s house to pass a simple message, yet manages to stay in Ishiyasu’s room, a veritable den of perversion. I can’t really say when, but Ishiyasu does begin to sport a concern for Anna, who is often distraught and confused about herself and her dark past… which turns out to be a lie. I don’t want to spoil (partly because the very details aren’t important here and partly because I don’t believe I can do the twist justice by writing about it), but it is Ishiyasu who exposes Anna and helps her achieve catharsis. This is a big turning point in Anna’s character and I was incredibly surprised that a character in a perverted fetish comedy could have such development. Anna and Ishiyasu have great chemistry and it’s fun to watch them interact with each other.
Really, I’m more than pleasantly surprised with Hen Zemi. It’s more than a perverted show that tries to squick out its audience, it’s got fascinating characters who are more than the deviant ideas they spout, with a mature take on human relationships. There’s a brilliant mind at work here, the very sort whom I’d like to meet someday and swap notes with.