Kimagure Orange Road, The Wonder Years, And Unanswered Questions of Adolescence

When it comes to my favorite stories, no matter the format, they tend to be about adolescence. There is a universality of experience that cuts across time period and culture, at least to a certain extent in our increasingly globalised society. However, there are stories from different cultural backgrounds or time periods which seem to have very strong parallels. It is known to almost all regular readers that my favorite anime/manga series is Kimagure Orange Road. What they may not know is how influential the American TV show, The Wonder Years, was on me and how I may have recognised its parallels in the discovery of KOR.

[Warning, this article contains ALL THE SPOILERS for both The Wonder Years and Kimagure Orange Road. But it’s been 30 years, do you really need this warning?!]

It would be easy to believe that the primary interest I have in stories revolving around adolescence (especially recent anime offerings like Tsukigakirei) is due to my current position as a junior high school teacher. After all, I spend a great deal of my time interacting with teenagers, so it’s natural to think I would want to keep in touch with the adolescent experience in order to better relate to and help my students. Yes, yes, very reasonable supposition. And also entirely wrong.

The truth is, in fact, pretty much the opposite. I am a secondary educator because of my experiences in, and my continual fascination with, adolescence. I first decided I was going to be a teacher when I was 14 years old. There were many other occupations I wanted to experience and consider (naval officer for one, paleontologist as another), but I felt that whatever I did, I would be a teacher eventually. And I didn’t mean a professor. I meant someone who worked with teenagers.

This was a direct reaction to the fact that, in my perception, most of my teachers were, well, terrible life coaches. They were, at best, seemingly indifferent to my feelings, thoughts, and opinions. At worst, they were outrightly hostile. A few, I have to say, were even bullies in their own right (and my opinion on that score hasn’t changed, as I have met coworkers with bullying, tin god complexes, too). I wanted to be a teacher, as an adolescent, to be someone who understood and someone who would be an advocate when it was really necessary. I was infuriated by, and am infuriated still today by, adults who treat adolescents as incomplete humans, rather than as people.

This is not to say there were not exceptions. I often speak of the three teachers who meant the most to me, and all three were high school teachers. I consider my elementary school years and junior high school years to be relatively devoid of such teachers. I remember names and faces, but if there were moments of kindness or understanding, I was either unable to recognise them at the time, or they were insignificant enough that I cannot currently remember. Most teachers made me the teacher I am today because they taught me what NOT to do. Mr. Greenwood, Mrs. Kuykendall, and Ms. Sayer, however, taught me what TO do by showing me every day. Or at least, by trying, even when they failed. And they did fail. Teachers are human, too, something sometimes forgotten by students.

As a child I was fascinated with Anne of Green Gables, and I was very much in elementary school during the initial run of The Wonder Years. While I was not yet an adolescent, I looked to Anne and Kevin, and Winnie and Paul, to understand what was about to happen to me. It’s somewhat surprising, but I did not read, and never have read, the works by Judy Blume (an oversight I must, at some point, actually correct), but I have heard others talk about those books the way I talk about Anne, Kevin and Winnie, and Kyosuke and Madoka. I would reread Anne, as well as reading of her peers in Chronicles and Emily. And I would rewatch episodes of The Wonder Years.

I could not relate so much to Kevin’s living in the same suburb for his entire life (although I would find biking around Plano and Frisco in North Texas to be shockingly similar once I got there at 13, with its concrete streets, its row upon row of identical suburban houses, and “all the disadvantages of the city with none of the advantages of the country”) with one best friend and one best girl. But I could relate to the importance of these people, as so many of my peers could claim to belong to such groups, and I could not.

By this point I was also very much aware of both my gender (girl) and sexuality (I liked girls), and so I found myself in the position of relating to both Kevin and Winnie, although it was easier to relate to Kevin about Winnie, than to relate to Winnie about Kevin. I can theorise that the reasoning is two-fold, the first of course is my sexuality. While there were certainly times I wanted to be Gwendolyn Cooper, I also recognised a fundamental truth that just like many cisgender, heterosexual men of a current age range, Winnie Cooper was very much a representation of my ideal girl. At least as far as 12-17 year old girls when I was the same age. The second is the literary device of a first person narrator. We are focused on Kevin because the story is told from Kevin’s perspective, literally.

The Wonder Years can be best described as a look at the drama of adolescence in the otherwise completely banal middle-class, white, suburban existence during the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time of extreme change in social institutions. Not too different, to be honest, from perhaps in some ways what we are experiencing now.

I took The Wonder Years as the norm. Yes, that norm is very middle-America, very suburbia, very middle-class, vaguely Christian, heterosexual, cisgender, and overtly, almost painfully white. I wasn’t all of those things, not precisely, but my mother was. An actual contemporary of 1960s teenagehood in the Northwest ‘burbs of Chicago, this invariably led me to understand my mother’s period-specific experiences through the filter of that universality of adolescence which I have found in many of the places I have lived or visited. My experiences in New Mexico were very different from this, but I saw New Mexico (and my own experiences) as the outlier. In North Texas, so much like the world of Kevin and Winnie, I experienced that norm.

And it was very much a struggle from the get-go. I had no Harper’s Wood, and I had no attachment to the street on which I lived, no history in the house in which I lived, and until I was in my first of three years of senior high school, I had no friends. The Wonder Years had come to an end, and spoiler, Kevin and Winnie had just crashed and burned. Older viewers no doubt would recognise this as the maestro stroke of splendid artistry. The suddenness of the ending, and the following split lives of the two central characters, is all too realistic.

Relationships you believe will last forever can die with a bang or whimper out so gradually in the moment that looking back, it’s impossible to remember what went wrong. You only know it did. But at that age, all I remember is being angry. Outraged. Inconsolably distraught. It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t right. Had not everything we had been shown proven that Kevin and Winnie were destined to be together?

I still believed in this fundamental idea of the ideal partner, the ideal complement, the ideal girl. I still believed in the idea of Winnie Cooper.

In the summer of my 13th year, we moved to Plano, Texas. It was the first time I’d lived in actual suburbia. Oh, there are suburban areas of Las Cruces and Austin, but we had lived well within the city limits, and in both cases, mostly in apartment complexes, sometimes near busy highways. Suburbia it was not. I’ve told this story before, about how my parents returned from scoping out the neighborhood with some VIZ comics (Ranma and Maison Ikkoku), but I’ve never told it precisely from this vantage point. In a scene that could have been straight out of The Wonder Years, I rode my bike down the immaculate concrete streets, past the many identical looking houses, to the corner where Kaboom Comics was located. I was there to find more Ranma and Maison Ikkoku, but what I found was precisely what I needed.

I found Kimagure Orange Road. KOR presented me with an alternate response to The Wonder Years, although I have only recently fully realised just how much I was looking for it. There are differences in the set up, of course. While Madoka may have lived all of her life in the Tokyo neighborhood near Orange Road (vaguely based upon the real life Tokyo neighborhood of Shimokitazawa), Kyosuke was new to the area, just like me. Kyosuke and Madoka have different sibling orders than Winnie and Kevin, but family is still an important aspect (the tightness of Kyosuke’s, the absence and problems in Madoka’s) that echo that which is explored in The Wonder Years (the tightness of Kevin’s, the absence and problems in Winnie’s).

Both the general standard of living and school experiences can be considered relatively “default” for their respective societies. These differences actually, to me, present a similarity in how they reflect on the social background. It is important to note that while The Wonder Years takes place in 1968, it was produced in 1988. Kimagure Orange Road actually predates the American show with the manga being produced in 1983, and the anime produced in 1987. Despite the fact that they are also different “media” (live action versus animation), they are essentially the same genre, with a very similar feel. Both have a narrative structure, both from the teenaged male point of view, with similar uses of music and cinematography that feel very much like an 80s approach that transcended national boundaries to apply to both series.

Both series do have comedic aspects, but comedy is actually not the point. They are not comedies. They are comedy-dramas. I’ve heard KOR described as the anime version of a sitcom, but I hate sitcoms, and feel strongly that this does a great disservice to KOR‘s depth. Both KOR and The Wonder Years are actually incredibly painful to watch at times because you want to scream at the characters to make better decisions–knowing fully well you will not make, are not making, or did not make (depending on your age) decisions any better. Casual watchers of Kimagure Orange Road are especially disturbed by the capstone movie, Ano Hi Ni Kaeritai (I Want To Return To That Day) , as it forgoes any comedic aspects whatsoever and is as painful (in its own way) as the ending of The Wonder Years. Those who would judge KOR based on its somewhat amusing slapstick anime tropes are not watching closely enough, not really listening to the subtextual statements. They are, in a word, missing the point.

To compare the central characters is particularly easy in the case of Kyosuke and Kevin. In almost all situations with Madoka or Winnie, they are utterly interchangeable. This is clearly intentional in both cases, as the characters are supposed to be as representative of the “norm” (understanding that this norm is a privileged social position) as possible in order to invite the viewers into placing themselves into the character.

Despite the fact that Kyosuke has special ESP powers, they are almost entirely unnecessary to the plot line until much later in the series. Most situations caused by their misuse could easily be constructed without them, and are often comparable to the sorts of idiocy Kevin walks into all by his normal-human self. And honestly, given Kyosuke’s powers are entirely absent in the movie, the most important part of the series, I’ve always felt they were more metaphorical for the “weirdness” we keep and hold inside, always a secret from others.

For Kevin, and the entire setting of the series more generally, Neal Marlens and Carol Black reportedly (and I suppose stated in interviews) that they reached into their own suburban upbringings to apply to the setting and to its central character. Also reportedly, ABC specifically demanded that this be as “Anytown, US” as possible. †hat Kevin could be the viewer or someone the viewer really knew was absolutely paramount.

In my conversations with Matsumoto Izumi, creator of Kimagure Orange Road, I had an opportunity to explore his creative processes. Surely, Kyosuke was part him, but the goal was to create the story he wanted to read, because at the time, no one had. Kyosuke isn’t Matsumoto any more than Kevin is Marlens or Black, and Kyosuke is a stand-in for the reader in many of the same ways Kevin is for viewers. It’s also important to note that Matsumoto’s own adolescence is closer to Kevin and Winnie’s historical period (he was 10 when they were 12) than it is to the period of Kyosuke and Madoka, and I think this is another subtle reason the series feel so similar.

A similar comparison between Winnie and Madoka is also possible. Undeniably, both are representations of the ideal girl who, slowly but surely, actually becomes a real girl through revelations to the narrator character. Becomes in the literary sense, of course, not in an actual sense. Both Madoka and Winnie are already real people, and they always were. I think this is important to point out. Even in the case of Madoka, where her connection to Kyosuke actually transcends the normal order of time, Kyosuke doesn’t “create” her with his discovery of her depth. Nor, of course, does Kevin “create” Winnie when he discovers her depth. Both Kevin and Kyosuke discover that there is far more to their respective “ideal girls” than they thought to be the case.

One of those is the fundamental recognition that neither Winnie nor Madoka know what the hell they’re doing. Both Kevin and Kyosuke make a very similar mistake. Kevin even says it in the voiceover, although Kyosuke never does aloud: “This was a first, I always figured girls knew exactly what they wanted.” Even while being semi-aware of their own ability to be completely illogical, non-sensical, awkward, and contrarian in front of girls, both of these male characters take a significant amount of time to even notice, let alone fully grasp, the idea that being people (and not, as certain Star Trek reenactments would have you believe, aliens from a different planet), girls also regularly found themselves to be completely illogical, non-sensical, awkward, and contrarian in front of boys (considering, as far as we are aware, all of these characters are heterosexual).

This leads both male characters to see girls, and specifically their love interests, as alternately capricious (the English meaning of kimagure, referring to Madoka’s alternate expressions of interest, rejection, and indifference) or manipulative (the way Kevin often wonders if Winnie is doing x or y just to make him jealous). In truth, Madoka and Winnie don’t really know their own feelings and often a given situation, action, or expression has nothing to do with Kyosuke or Kevin, respectively. Everyone is the star of their own story, and in the cases of Kevin Arnold and Kasuga Kyosuke, this is the literal truth. Therefore, they routinely make the mistake in believing that it’s always about them.

Family, or rather its fractured or absent nature, also is incredibly important to formative aspects of the people we meet in Ayukawa Madoka and Winnie Cooper. In the case of Winnie Cooper, we learn in the pilot that her older brother dies after being drafted into Vietnam. We learn still later in the series that in the wake of Brian Cooper’s death, the family becomes unhinged, with Winnie forced to become diplomatic envoy between her increasingly estranged and grief-stricken parents. Eventually there are periods of separation, and even when her parents are no longer physically separated, wounds remain. This is trauma that a current Winnie Cooper will almost certainly still carry inside to this day. Winnie responds to this, mostly (with some later rebellion) by being “the good girl” (Miss Prissy, as Kevin has called her, “like she forgot the take the clothes hanger out of her shirt”).

Madoka too has seen her share of a troubled home life, despite her relative affluence (she is clearly of a higher class than Kyosuke, but just how much higher is still difficult to glean) or, maybe, perhaps because of it. For most of her adolescence, if not a good portion of her childhood, she has essentially been a latch-key kid. Her parents live in the United States where they are members of an American symphony. Although she has an older sister, that sister has a boyfriend and then a fiancee, and eventually moves out of the house entirely when they are married. We never see her sister’s face, she is always in darkness. Madoka’s parents too are similarly darkened out, and there’s even potential evidence that might suggest Madoka’s father is not Japanese (with the obvious potentiality being that he is an American). For a period of time it seems as though her father is having an affair with a protégé, which leads to Madoka threatening to run away (as pictured above), but it was a misunderstanding.

The darkened nature of Madoka’s family seems to me to be a complex metaphor combination of their absence and perhaps their perceived “non-Japaneseness” (outside, possibly, of her mother, of course). Madoka’s own visage seems to be very much of Nadeshiko (the ideal of Japanese womanhood), but Matsumoto told me that Madoka is a mix of two 80s idols, one American (Phoebe Cates) and one Japanese (Nakamori Akina). Phoebe Cates is herself part-Chinese, but has almost always been coded as white. Madoka is also fluent, perhaps even native, in English (although her voice actress, the recently passed Tsuru Hiromi, was most definitely not, so you must trust what is canonically told about the character, as opposed to Tsuru’s real abilities), which strongly points to a major English influence in her life.

I feel the evidence for Madoka’s biracial background is strong, yet it is not noticed at all by any of her peers (probably because, as Nadeshiko, she “passes” as “full” Japanese), except perhaps in terms of knowledge about her father. This has always struck me as an additional major stressor on Madoka, and one of the several reasons why despite being incredibly smart, talented, and kind (the Madoka we meet in the first episode with Kyosuke), Madoka is mostly known as a violent delinquent who ditches class, gets into fights, argues with teachers, rides motorcycles (years before one can legally get a license in Japan), smokes, and drinks.

The strongest similarity between the two series, however, is clearly the complementary nature of the couples and the set-up to that effect. This underpins both the comedy and the drama in both series. No matter who else it seems like the characters spend time with, they shine best when they shine together. As a viewer, you alternately find yourself laughing at or screaming at the characters as they yo-yo between almost admitting what is blatantly obvious to the viewer, and forcibly pretending the opposite. The most hilarious moments and the most painful interactions are always reducible to, “GET TOGETHER ALREADY AND STOP BEING IDIOTS.”

Unlike many cisgender, heterosexual male fans of Kimagure Orange Road, I don’t feel the same way about Ayukawa Madoka that I feel about Winnie Cooper. If asked if I feel that way about Madoka (and I have been asked several times) or perhaps a more generic “Who is your favorite character?” (almost always code for “Hikaru or Madoka”), I always answer “I like Kyodoka.” Kyosuke and Madoka are complements. They are at their best, their happiest, shining their brightest, when they are together. This is even the point of their names, as Kasuga means the Spring Sun and Ayukawa means Trout River. The beauty of the Japanese river trout, the Ayu, is best seen only in direct sunlight, when they sparkle brilliantly. Madoka, surrounded by literal darkness, shines when Kyosuke is near, but if not for Madoka, what good would it be to have the sunshine? There would be nothing of beauty to see.

Although I certainly watched The Wonder Years before Kimagure Orange Road, this complementary nature of Kevin and Winnie is clear from episode one. It’s supposed to be. We know the score. We know they’re destined to be together, we’re just being kept on the edge of our seats. The enjoyment isn’t in the outcome, that’s already known. It’s all about the journey. Not the what, but the how and why. First girl always wins, right?  Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper. It’s so obvious. Why are they messing around with Becky Slater and Kirk McCray? Transferring schools? Nonsense, come on now. The ring incident?! COME ON, ALREADY.

And it never really occurred to me to think that the outcome was going to be different. It may well have played with a romance trope, but it was my model. It was my first. I didn’t have the intertextual background to suspect that this might be an ultimate expression of literary irony. I was a pretty good observationalist, and all the clues pointed to one potential answer only: KA + WC 4EVER. I was absolutely devastated by the final episode. If this was a joke, it seemed horrifically cruel. I watched the relationship between Kevin and Winnie fall apart, but I had faith. There would be an explanation, surely. The narrator would explain how it had all worked out.

Daniel Stern (adult Kevin) voiceover: It did not work out.

So in that summer of my 13th year, when I met Kasuga Kyosuke and Ayukawa Madoka, I was in desperate need of a happy ending. For all of its pain, especially at the end, ultimately Kyosuke and Madoka do end up together. The experience is not painless, for it seems strongly implied that Hikaru’s friendship with Kyosuke and Madoka is pretty much busted for years to come. Many viewers I know, especially casual ones, have found the movie to be very painful to watch because of Hikaru’s complete breakdown and inability to deal with Kyosuke’s rejection.

This is not the TV series. It isn’t remotely funny. It’s incredibly slow, realistic, and excruciatingly detailed. Kyosuke and Madoka have hit a make or break point, and making their relationship work means breaking Hikaru’s heart. You almost feel sorry for Hikaru–at least until you realise she’s known Kyosuke’s true feelings all along and was intentionally trying to sabotage Kyosuke and Madoka’s relationship. I’ve become somewhat more sympathetic to Hikaru over the years. She is, after all, two years younger than Madoka and Kyosuke, always playing catch-up, and because first girl always wins, she never really had a chance.

In all of the most important ways, KOR is an affirmation that sometimes the odds are already in your favor. That you can trust your observations, and with so much that goes wrong in your world, you can rely on the existence of at least some happy endings; that not everything we watch and read need turn tragic, gritty, or ironically implosive. Hikaru’s ending wasn’t happy, but ours was, because Kyosuke and Madoka have one. Perhaps there were simply too few of these kinds of stories recorded in a way which was still engaging and ultimately believable. Perhaps Matsumoto, like me, was waiting for fulfillment of the promise. Tired of waiting, he took matters into his own hands.

Throughout my junior high school and high school years, fairly or unfairly, and consciously or unconsciously, I probably compared nearly every girl for whom I had feelings to my understanding of what Winnie Cooper represented. I was not ever looking for some kind of mid-90s copy of Winnie Cooper, but I was looking for someone who made me feel the way Winnie made Kevin feel, and how Winnie felt about Kevin in turn. If there was ever anyone who felt about me the way I felt about her when I was a teenager, I was either far to oblivious to see it and respond appropriately, or she kept feelings much deeper inside than Winnie was ever able to do with her feelings for Kevin. I am aware of at least two girls (potentially three, we still debate what exactly she said 20 years later) who expressed feelings for me that I did not share. However, mutual feelings? Not like that.

In rewatching series like The Wonder Years and Kimagure Orange Road, or newer series like 2009’s Aoi Hana (notable because it is the only real queer work I feel I can yet put in this category, as Fumi and Akira also are a well-deserved happy ending) or 2017’s Tsukigakirei, I can always find something new. Something I’ve only now experienced, something I missed, or some question that I never really stopped wondering about and realising I still can’t answer it.

There are so many questions from adolescence I cannot answer, and unlike many adults, I won’t try to fit an answer in order to avoid ambiguity, nor will I act as though the question isn’t important and doesn’t exist. Truthfully, as I have so often told my students, I usually do not have the answers, I don’t know what I’m doing, and I still have no idea what I want to do when I grow up. And I’m not being facetious or cutesy, this is the literal truth.

I never found my Winnie Cooper. Yet, I still believe in the promise of Winnie Cooper. I believe it in the way that I believe the sun will come up tomorrow. The way I believe that the moon will not fall from the sky tonight. And perhaps this is absolutely key to why I tend to get along much better with adolescents than I do with adults. I ultimately believe it will all work out, that as long as I weather the stream of highs and lows, there will be a pay off at the end. I believe in the promise of the future. It affects my politics, makes me suspicious of those who do not wish to take care of others, and insures strong support of public institutions like schools, libraries, and community sharing.

I have a great deal of trouble seeing myself as that much “older” than my students, because for everything I have already done, there is so much yet to do, and for all that they think I know, I think I know so little. I have heard many adults say that they became adults when they realised how little possibility still lay before them. When I look at a room of thirty 13 year olds, I can’t imagine what the hell they’re talking about.

If I have not yet found my Winnie Cooper, then this cannot be the middle or ending of the story, it must, as yet, be the beginning. After all, I still believe “first girl always wins.”

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