Review of Bocchi the Rock (2022)

Moving picture, 5.0 hours

Seen in 2023.

Gotō Hitori starts learning the electric guitar, thinking it will allow even an introvert like her to make friends. It doesn’t, until her first year of high school.

This is a clone of K-On (2009) and a breakout hit. It’s more moe Monkees, with better jokes but simpler, more stylized visuals and a wilder ontology sometimes verging on surrealism. The characters are a little more crudely colour-coded. The backgrounds are mostly painted over photos of real locations, even though the setting is “just” Tokyo instead of the more scenic, tourism-industry-friendly settings in shows like Laid-Back Camp (2018) or Let’s Make a Mug Too (2021). As in the “cute girls doing cute things” genre in general, male characters are statistically underrepresented, but they are not completely excluded. Sexualization is lower than K-On but higher than Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! (2020). In particular, maid costumes appear not once, but twice in the first season, to my dismay.

The main point that characterizes this show over the others is that Yui, the fool in K-On, is replaced by Hitori, who is not foolish but has crippling social anxiety. This anxiety is probably what caused the groundswell of fan support for the series. It’s ambiguously written, mixing realism, sympathy and zany character-based comedy. When subjected to the strong social pressures of Japan, Hitori will lie, cheat, freeze up and black out to escape. She has fantasy sequences trying to come up with excuses to permit a retreat, and she oscillates between teenage narcissism and profound contempt for herself, sometimes crawling into a waste bin. In the darkest sequence, Hitori imagines a future where she uses alcohol for decades to dull the pain of being unable to work or socialize, ending up mired in garbage, having exhausted her remaining parent’s hopes. It’s done better than, for example, Komi Can’t Communicate (2016), an earlier effort to integrate the social ineptitude of stereotypical manga/anime consumers with traditional escapist content like Carole & Tuesday (2019).

Hitori’s disability is a point of media-historical interest because it, just like Yui’s foolishness, is used to characterize Hitori as weak and therefore as “cute”. Subjects like therapy and autism never come up, but the disability is not just “cute”. In episode 10, which is especially good, Bocchi “awakens” from a fugue state not associated with real social anxiety and alludes to Shinji’s line from Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995): “An unfamiliar ceiling”. Bocchi’s social anxiety is the anxiety of the intended viewer: The sort of person who would recognize and relate to that line.

It is supposedly because she’s never had much practise that Hitori often commits social faux pas, but these are rarely realistic. They’re balanced between an inside, “cringe” comedy perspective and the more alienating, unkind perspective of disability humour. Some of this ambiguity probably comes from the source material, a four-panel comic where sustained exchanges with realistic reactions are excluded by the publishing format. On the positive side, when Bocchi is disconcerted, the character design is warped to look uncute.

As in K-On, the main characters are named after real musicians. This time it’s Asian Kung-Fu Generation.

moving picture Japanese production animation fiction series