Note: I do not intend to touch in significant depth on the more problematic content of this episode – other writers have written far more insightfully than I could on those specific scenes. Instead, I want to look at the episode as a whole and consider why it fails more generally as a piece of comic fiction.
As I have watched a number of school-set comedies, I have seen in them elements of reality; I have experienced the difficulties of making friends in a new school, the joys and trials of running an obscure society and trying to keep it open, and I even encountered the delinquents and rebels who so often feature in fiction. As a result, the series Tonari no Kaibutsu-Kun, or The Monster Next Door, seemed like the sort of thing I would like; a romantic comedy about a studious girl and a dropout who end up working together.
However, the series failed to capture my imagination. My biggest complaint was that it was too inconsistent; while I could believe the twist that the rough and rude Haru was in fact clever and simply unwilling to fit in in a school he feels is oppressive, the whole tone of the series felt uneven. The idea of a bully and poor student being motivated to misbehave by not being sufficiently challenged by his studies was one I could easily identify with because I went to school with a student whose case was almost identical; he was so far ahead of the work being set he felt the school had nothing to offer him and so kicked out against it in boredom. However, the character of Haru in The Monster Next Door does not fulfil this role convincingly; his almost autistic mood swings and inability to fit in are believable in intent but not in execution, as this is perhaps compromised by the demands of the romance elements. Ultimately, the story of the series will not (based on what the first episode presents) be the school coming to terms with Haru’s intelligence but more about the female lead coming to like him and accept his manic behaviour.
Indeed, the setup is almost a reverse of The Taming of the Shrew; there is a strong-willed woman trying to tame a transgressive man and the use of pet imagery in the series’ credits sequence (with Haru physically on a leash) makes the inevitable shift in power dynamic clear. He will go from the wild and untamed man to the domestic ideal. For this to work, his behaviour needs to be established in the initial sequence as transgressive and unlikeable. The equivalent of the archetypal delinquent I went to school with, my own monster next door, played pranks and wound up the teachers and other students; he was eventually expelled when one of his stunts crossed the line into actual cruelty but up to that point his behaviour was, while set in solid resistance to school rules, the sort of thing that his fellow students could laugh at – jokes played at the expense of ineffectual teachers and so on. This series, however, presents Haru not as a class joker or even a bully per se (for the time when the viewer sees him resort to violence it is against people who are themselves bullies) but simply as an overly aggressive and offensive man; he harasses the female lead in a way that is completely socially unacceptable.
This resorting to what is undeniably sexual harassment utterly ruins any believability in Haru; while it is perhaps intended to show his social ineptitude and issues with controlling his impulses, it goes too far to make his redemption credible. The pranksters and delinquents at my high school may have mocked others, or hidden books, or any number of things that ultimately made others’ lives difficult, but there was a clear line of acceptability drawn which made this behaviour to us as students OK. That Haru so readily, and without consequence, crosses the line of what I have come to consider acceptable behaviour – and that this is supposed to be presented as comedic and endearing – makes The Monster Next Door fail. Were it a serious drama about a violent and troubled youth mending his ways and coming to realise that his behaviour is antisocial and bordering on illegal, the apparently malicous and ignorant Haru depicted in some scenes would fit. Were it a completely comedic series about a studious girl learning to let her hair down and an irresponsible student learning to sharpen his act up, the manic and slapstick Haru depicted in other scenes would fit. It is the jarring move from one to the other that occurs throughout the episode that makes neither work. Furthermore, the entire tone of the show, from its visual language to the comic “man on a leash” image in the opening credits, does not fit the darker side of Haru that is depicted. The juxtaposition of this behaviour with standard visual humour and a character who is clearly supposed to be sympathetic and simply awkward makes the entire episode a difficult thing to watch.
To conclude, The Monster Next Door fails as the comedy it states itself to be. Its use of innuendo and visual humour makes it clear it is intended to be a gentle school-set romantic comedy, but its sudden changes of tone do not sit well with this – and their juxtaposition with basic humour makes them seem trivialised themselves. That Haru is shown to be not only awkward around women but completely indecent at times makes the romance subplot seem highly unlikely (for while the idea of a rough-and-tumble boy falling for a more serious girl could work as a reversal of the “manic dream girl” archetype of the quirky woman and serious man romance, that Haru is shown to have no concept of what is and is not acceptable behaviour at all makes it hard to believe a victim of his harassment could fall for him). Furthermore, the character of Haru simply does not sit right with me – as someone who has been through high school, seen the jokers, pranksters and bullies, Haru is not the sympathetic rogue but ultimately nothing but a bully whose behaviour is interspersed with incongruous slapstick.