Friday, April 21, 2017

"Interviews with Monster Girls" ~ Four Lessons About Living with Disability

In my early takes on the winter anime season, I noted that Interviews with Monster Girls (originally Demi-chan wa Kataritai, or "Demi-chans want to talk") seems like the worst possible setup for a harem show, but ends up overturning those fears extremely quickly. It genuinely looks like fanboy bait in every respect, what with it taking place in a high school, involving paranormal high schoolers and one male lead, and including a succubus in its cast.

I was more than a little shocked to watch as it quickly bucked "paranormal ecchi" for social commentary on the lives of disabled people attempting to function in normal society. And then handling it well. Because God knows I'm tired of seeing Very Special Episodes that get it all wrong.

The central character of the series is Takahashi-sensei, a high school biology teacher in an alternate universe where demi-humans are not only recognised, but integrated into society. Think Grimm with less killing and more overall understanding. Vampires, succubi, dullahans, and yuki-onna are the result of genetic mutations, and their differences from humanity combined with a general fear of the unknown turned them into the stuff of legend.

Takahashi-sensei is fascinated by demi-humans (who prefer to be called "demis"), and wants to learn more about them. He just happens to find himself at a school that contains four. And while his encounters with them are originally to satisfy his own curiosity, he eventually becomes a confidant, enabling them to attend school more comfortably and helping the student body be more accepting of them.

And each of the demis, in turn, explores a different side of living with disability.

Hikari: Support Systems

Series poster girl Hikari is a blonde, bright, cheery vampire. Being a "vampire" in this universe does involve consuming human blood (although some vampires can go off it in the same way humans can give up meat), sunburning and suffering heat exhaustion easily, having excellent night vision, and itching to bite things -- literally.

Of the four demis in the series, Hikari seems the least concerned with her nature. She's already got coping methods in place such as government blood (yep) and a fridge in her room. But she's also lazy, irresponsible, and easily distracted, leading to her non-vampire twin Himari looking after her a great deal.

Hikari kicks off the between-class chat sessions with Takahashi-sensei, but her storyline also offers insight into the concept of disability vs. presumed laziness. Many disabled people genuinely do have limited energy resources -- which, in Interviews, is represented by a conceived inability to do certain things thanks to Hikari's vampiric nature. (It turns out that these things are not true and Hikari really is just lazy... not a sign that disabled people are lazy, but a reminder that disability does not make someone a martyr.)

While Hikari is not the only one with a family, her family goes out of their way more than others to make sure she has a support system -- even going so far as to lighten their hair so her bright blonde is less noticeable in the group. In the end, the lesson of Hikari's arc is both the necessity of a support system and -- via Himari -- the necessity of that support system to see the disabled person as a whole person, rather than becoming nothing but a caretaker.

Kyoko: "Normality"

Kyoko the dullahan is a rarity even among demis -- she is one of only three or four of her kind in the world. While her condition is unique and difficult (her neck exists in a wormhole and she's forced to carry her head around), her coping methods in order to maintain quality of life are relatively few and far between compared to the others. She also seems more fascinated by her condition than burdened by it, and expresses a desire late in the series to go into demi-human research so she can learn more about herself and help fellow demis.

However, despite her being one of the most "taken care of" demis in the show, the people around her (Takahashi-sensei included) seem to consider her one of the worst off. Classmates are put off by the offhand way in which she talks about her condition, and even Takahashi-sensei briefly finds himself wondering what it would be like if she were "normal" and musing on how much happier she'd be.

Fortunately, he knows better in the end; Kyoko is normal. She's generally happy and unconcerned, and she's even found ways in which her condition can be helpful (being able to do chores without missing your favourite show, for example). But many pity her because, from their angle, it must be terrible to be her.

Kyoko's journey in the story is far less about her and far more about those around her... their ability to see that "different" is not "abnormal," and that she isn't sad or miserable just because she's not like everyone else around her.

Yuki: Fear of Your Condition

Yuki-onna -- literally "snow women" -- are a common mythical creature in Japan. For the uninitiated, they are ghostly women who use their ice powers to kill and ensnare humans (often men). In the "real" world of Interviews, they (like vampires) are extremely sensitive to heat, and also possess the ability to create cold air and ice around them. One wonders if Frozen exists in this universe, and how it was taken if so.

Yuki's journey is probably the greatest in the series, to the point that her "curtain call" in the opening actually changes drastically mid-series. She isolates herself, fearful that she will hurt someone, because of an incident in her past that seems to align with all the horrible legends of yuki-onna. This leads to many seeing her as standoffish -- angering some and saddening others.

Through Takahashi-sensei, Yuki learns what her condition really entails, how she does what she does, and that... well... she really doesn't need to be afraid of it at all. It alters quality of life for herself, but not for others. And with new coping mechanisms in place, we're able to see Yuki not only grow as a character, but also try to find ways to make her identity serve her, rather than the other way around.

Sakie: Finding Love

One of the hardest -- and less talked-about -- sides of living with a physical or mental disability is the fear that we will never truly find love. It may be because we feel something about our condition makes us unattractive. Or because we can't trust anyone. Or because we worry that our condition will harm or inconvenience a potential partner. In Sakie's case, it's because she's a succubus -- and simply touching someone has an aphrodisiac effect.

The one teacher out of the four demis, Sakie has carefully crafted a life for herself that will make sure she never inconveniences anyone else. She lives out in the middle of nowhere to keep her powers from affecting anyone while she sleeps. She takes the earliest and latest trains, which are practically empty, to avoid brushing against people. She dresses down to hide her nature. And even though she's unquestionably a party girl who loves a beer and desperately wants a boyfriend, she never goes out, staying home in the evenings and drinking with her teddy bear instead.

While her lifestyle has kept her "footprint" on society essentially nonexistent, it hasn't done her many favours. She wants to find love, but fears she may never know what's real love and what's just her succubus nature affecting someone yet again. So even though she is content to believe that her isolation is completely her own choice and no problem at all... it's not.

And that's another problem with living with disability. We don't want to inconvenience those around us, but many of us take that to an impossible extreme. The series ends with Sakie attempting to find a middle ground, but (at least in the anime) the results are yet to be seen.

In the interest of full disclosure. Does absolutely every freaking demi in this show crush on Takahashi-sensei? Yes. Does that make it a harem show? Not really. These are three high school girls (and one lonely teacher) who have all found a chill, caring guy who spends time with them, helps them be more secure in their identities, and is also apparently super ripped. With the exception of Sakie, the crushes are not any sort of plot point. And speaking as someone with a male high school teacher friend... girls do crush. In a real high school, his fan club would probably be a lot bigger and a lot more vocal.

But the prime message of this series is acceptance. Of others who are different from you, but also of yourself if there is something about you that you feel is strange, wrong, "broken," or otherwise. And, most importantly, it shows just how much can change for a person if you just open your ears to them and let them say what they need to say.

Interviews with Monster Girls is available to watch on Crunchyroll.
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