I hadn’t heard of Hitohira until coming across an online review of its manga incarnation last summer. The story — shy girl joins drama club and overcomes her stage fright — isn’t exactly new or daring, but it was all that was necessary to catch my attention. Hitohira is a high school drama that, unlike so many other “slice of life” series that I’ve loved, doesn’t flirt with fantasy or science fiction to give its everyday scenes a little extra spice. There’s still plenty of recognizable character types and some unnecessarily heavy foreshadowing at times, but what the series lacks in originality it makes up for in a pair of likable leads and a tense, realistic sense of everyday dread that permeates its otherwise cheerful mood.

Then again, regarding that quality I might be reading more into the series than is really there. I’m surely projecting my own experiences onto it, which would explain the feeling of butterflies in my stomach during several pivotal scenes. But I’ll get around to that later. The story opens as Asai Mugi is accepted to the Kumataka Art Academy, where in reading the posted entrance exam results she’s scouted by senior members of the struggling Drama Research Society. Despite Mugi’s crippling shyness and stage fright, which occasionally causes her to lose her voice or even pass out, she’s quickly pegged as acting material by the club’s upperclassmen, particularly the soft-spoken but persuasive Ichinose Nono. Getting the reluctant freshman on stage is no easy task, requiring her peers to resort to both rigorous coaching and some friendly coercion. Can Mugi overcome her fears and do the impossible?

I get the feeling, at least from years of reading anime fans’ complaints about how much of an intolerable wuss Shinji was in Evangelion, that the character of Mugi could possibly grate on Hitohira‘s more sensitive (er, insensitive) viewers. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, although I’d have to say that the prevailing lack of empathy towards such characters is probably more indicative of a antisocial solipsism that’s infected a generation of Internet-bound anime fans than an actual criticism that holds any weight. Mugi whines, cries and frets, is plagued by uncertainty and self-doubt, and is often too timid to speak up for herself, let alone move herself to action when she needs to most. She’s also a caring and perceptive girl who’s appreciative of the work that others do for her, and who longs to repay her friends for the trouble that she believes she puts them through. Mugi (as well as her best friend Kayo) sees high school as the ephemeral experience that it is, and realizes the importance of getting the most out of it before it’s over.

As a comedy, Hitohira could have simply played up on Mugi’s quirks for laughs, wringing punchline after punchline out of her awkward predicaments. While there’s plenty of laughs in each episode, they’re not all at Mugi’s expense and certainly not reliant on any formula as simple as that. Rather, the social hangups she faces, as well as the effects they have on her life, are portrayed as realistically as I’ve ever seen. Her efforts to overcome them lead to some real character development over the 12 episodes of the series, and explore deeper psychological territory than the premise initially suggests.

Thankfully, I’ve never experienced the kind of complete social paralysis that Mugi continually suffers from, but in many ways this series hit painfully close to home for me in its depiction of a character striving to change themself from within, to overcome a certain degree of social anxiety and to discover or develop an authentic sense of self-confidence. I wasn’t prepared to try to deal with any of these obstacles in my own life until I was out of high school and in college, and as it turns out, one of the most successful steps I took was enrolling myself in an acting class. This was really one of the most difficult ordeals I ever put myself through, but as stressful as it was, I feel that I came out of it as a more confident person and can say with no hesitation that it was an extremely positive and life-changing experience. So I can’t help but identify with Mugi as she’s dragged kicking and screaming towards a trial that she doubts she can see her way through. I also can’t help but feel uncomfortably empathic towards her character, even vicariously embarrassed for her at several points in the series. I watched most episodes of Hitohira at home in the morning before heading off to work in the afternoon. There I’d begin to notice a strange knot in my stomach reminiscent of the feelings I used to have in the weeks and days before giving a speech for class in high school or performing a big scene in front of my more experienced classmates in college. It’s this feeling of dread, which will likely be lost on extroverted viewers who thrive on being the center of attention, that Hitohira absolutely nails. Then again, I may just be projecting my own experiences onto the story, but who doesn’t?

Given the basic premise of the series, it’s tempting for any potential viewer to predict how its climax and eventual denouement might play out. But the world of Hitohira isn’t quite so simple. While the last few episodes see the series lose some of its momentum, it’s a necessary sacrifice to bring about a more honest conclusion. Ultimately, it’s a more satisfying one that elevates Hitohira above the average high school drama.

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