A disease (or rather, trend) that most modern day romance (and romance-comedy) anime have these days is that they avoid the “darker” issues of infatuation. To them, infatuation is like that first crush in high school: bright, mellow, sometimes bittersweet. The male and female protagonist will end up together, their love made clear by their first kiss delivered amidst a resplendent background, often times with their comrades in the background, cheering “You look great together!”
But rarely do they attempt to trespass into the much darker, Freudian-esque territory, of raw dejected desire and unrequited love. The sheer taxing burden on one’s soul when one gets rejected or sees the love of their life being stolen away by a cunning vixen and being helpless to prevent it is almost never explored; and if it is, it is written off comically. This is where Kuzu no Honkai attempts to go; into the pit of despair, the graveyard where love goes to die and gets replaced by banal desire.
This shouldn’t be considered a review of Kuzu no Honkai; rather, I think of it as an idle musing of the themes that Kuzu no Honkai attempts to deliver to its target audience, which is mostly adolescents and young adults (definitely no snot-nosed teenagers trying to claim a waifu).
We tend to be conditioned to think that love is an uplifting emotion; that with love, we’ll raise above clouds into heaven itself; that with love, we’ll be able to conquer the absurdity of life alongside out trusted soulmate; that with love, we’ll be able to survive a Trump presidency. The typical smorgasbord of romance anime tropes reinforces this notion. Putting aside stupid rom-coms such as Infinite Stratos, the basic promise of the romance genre is to provide a story where love trumps all, where the protagonists strive to achieve and consummate their love in the flashiest way possible.
However, love’s burden is an aspect that is rarely explored. Even if it is, it is rarely deeply explored. When was the last time our protagonist had to spend 12 episodes pondering and accepting the taxing burden of being in a troubling relationship? While not being a romance anime in its own sake, Valvrave once tried to examine this, albeit failing miserably. I refer to the scene where Haruto raped Saki, and its consequent impacts on their friendship. Of course, a few awkward moments that ensued does not count as an exploration. We only see Saki and Shoko awkwardly attempting to deny the event.
Kuzu no Honkai goes against the normal template of romance and tries to look more into desire. It doesn’t advertise itself as a romance show where everything will work out; the opposite is true: nothing works out and everyone ends up (or will end up) being fucked over one way or the other (pun intended). It examines love’s burden, or the effect of harbouring an unrequited love for so long on one’s soul. To some, this might sound E D G Y, but the act of mocking can be considered an equivalent to being in denial. Hanabi loves her childhood friend, but he’s infatuated with that class-A bitch, Akane. Likewise, Mugi loves Akane, but Akane, being a class-A bitch, only considers Mugi another one of those guys who fawn over her. As both carry similar baggage, Hanabi and Mugi come to “like” one another, seeing each other as replacements for the love they’ll never have.
It’s sobering to see an anime being so frank about being in a fake relationship because the characters have no other choice.
It gets even more sobering when Ebato loses herself to desire and has her way with Hanabi, despite them being best friends. Sometimes, even friendship cannot survive our most suppressed desires. You can actually feel a lot of sympathy for Ebato, whom I think cannot bear seeing Hanabi, the person she truly loves, being tossed around in a fake relationship she formed in lieu of a proper one with her beloved onii-chan.
Akane is a representation of true desire, who plays on other’s burdens. A master manipulator and sadist, she recognises another’s love burden and proceeds to play them like a fiddle. The anime, to some extent, exaggerates her behaviour, yet it brings to light much truth about our inner desires. Don’t we all want to be adored, to be liked, to be wanted? And what use are good looks if we can’t have our way with them?
Desire and lust laid bare
Unlike other romance anime that usually avoid sensual scenes (I won’t count hentai into this), Kuzu no Honkai is fairly liberal with its visceral nudity and sexual imagery, often to the point of it being softcore porn. From french kissing to intercourse, Kuzu no Honkai presents desire and lust in its purest form. Those who lack appreciation for such imagery may resort to berating the series for being “not kinky enough to the point of giving me half a boner” or “too sexual hence I need to sue the company”, yet the imagery fits in nicely with the overarching narrative of the anime: desire.
The sexual imagery presented throughout Kuzu no Honkai adds a lot of grit to the anime, reinforcing a sense of realism. To deny that we, who are in love and consumed by lust, do not think of such is a form of severe self-repression. The anime’s use of vivid sexual audio-visuals may serve to remind us of our own internal desires, that we sometimes just want to give in to our desires and not think of what follows. Ebato and Hanabi’s turbulent relationship is an example of this. Their one-night stand, driven mostly by Hanabi’s frustration, was interpreted by Ebato as an affirmation of her innermost desires: to consummate her love with Hanabi regardless of how Hanabi feels towards her.
Love’s graveyard and the journey to salvation
Kuzu no Honkai is where love goes to die. It is the exact opposite of the promise of many romance anime out there. The protagonist won’t end up with their true love; they’re doomed to “love hell”, being stuck in a fake relationship and being constantly manipulated by a lying bitch. Friendships get ruined due to desire prevailing over reason. Tears flow because one can’t hold back the dark cornucopia of emotion. Characters give in to desire. Kuzu no Honkai is practically love’s graveyard.
But if one insists on remaining positive, we may still find hope among the dead. Dante’s Divine Comedy has himself traversing through the rotten pits of hell before he can find salvation. Perhaps that is true of Hanabi and Mugi. Perhaps by braving through love’s graveyard, they’ll be able to transcend and be better people than they were. The issue here is not whether they’ll come to accept one another and throw away their ideal love; rather, it is about them coming to terms with the fact that what they see in their ideal loves may not be the best for them. Transcendence comes when they accept their hardships and move on from the graveyard, leaving behind the images of their once desired loves and being freed from their self-imposed prisons. Hanabi will have to learn that her once-held notion of Disney-esque “true love” may be subject to other interpretations as she squares off against that fucking bitch Akane. Hanabi will have to learn that love is complicated and sometimes twisted. She would have to learn that love hurts and know when to let go.
These harsh lessons that Hanabi will eventually face, reinforced with visceral sexual imagery, make Kuzu no Honkai a commendable and deeply relatable romance anime that is fairly rooted in reality. Kuzu no Honkai is a story of Mugi and Hanabi’s journey through a rotten graveyard of love and into the light. At some point, we may be currently on the same path or have already completed a similar journey. And instead of sugar-coating the crap out of these hardships, Kuzu no Honkai presents it to us in its purest form.
Thanks for reading this far! I know I haven’t been able to update regularly because I’ve added more work to my schedule, leaving out less time to actually watch anime or even engage in weeb stuff.