Nisekoi is Perfect

Nisekoi is Perfect (An Analysis)

This essay is based on the first four chapters of the Nisekoi manga, analyzed via the first two episodes of the anime, which is more or less an exact adaptation. May contain spoilers for later parts of the series.

Judging by the way Nisekoi is discussed online by its detractors (and even its fans), you could easily think the show/manga is just some trashy harem with a plot more convoluted than a Rube Goldberg machine. This is an unfair judgment. While I can’t say Nisekoi isn’t trashy and convoluted—that’s part of the appeal, personally—it is also perfect. Nisekoi is the perfect incarnation and execution of the setup.

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Let’s get back to basics. I’m talking barebones narrative structure: characters have desires but encounter a problem that leads to conflict and an eventual resolution. Putting on our grade-schooler hats, the setup is the exposition where we meet the characters and first crash into the main problem. The reason Niseoki is such a popular series—the reason it can get away or even thrive off maintaining the status quo—is that its setup is perfect. Imagine the setup is a car and the second act/rising action is a long road. If you build that car well enough, you can take people on a drive through potholes, snow, T-bones, and popped tires and still reach your destination.

Admittedly, that car might be rusty as hell and running on empty by the time you reach your destination (and some people won’t like where you arrive), but this is the way any long-running shounen manga is designed. Nisekoi just happens to be the best at it. If you want your series to run extremely long—though Nisekoi is only a third as long as something like Naruto—you need to hint at the endgame early. This is the part every anime/manga tends to get right; take a look at the opening scenes of One Piece or Naruto if you need confirmation. Following this line, Nisekoi opens by establishing the core objective of the series: to find out who the promised girl is. So what sets Nisekoi apart?

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The amount of information and number of hints presented in Nisekoi’s opening sequence is surprising. Immediately, the viewer is told “Forever in love” is presumably the phrase of promise between Raku and the promised girl (the actual origin of the phrase notwithstanding). The viewer is also shown glimpses of the key—enough to ascertain its general shape and size. Lastly, even the open field where the story’s endgame will take place is revealed. The viewer starts Episode/Chapter 1 with three major clues towards the promised girl’s identity.

These aren’t just hints about some prophecy, they are icons that we can recognize and get excited over when they show up again in the story. What Nisekoi chooses to do with those icons is another topic, but this is an impressive set of tools to give the audience so early on. These tools give us a sense of purpose. They give us hope that we can notice when the story is actually progressing because we know that these icons are representative of the endgame, of discovering who the promised girl is. That sense of purpose is nice, but useless if the story is an untraceable mess.

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Let’s fast forward to present day and teenage Raku. We are introduced to Raku through his position as a yakuza heir. In a matter of seconds, we learn his problem and primary desire. Raku wants a normal, peaceful life, but is ultimately denied that by the fact he is the son of a yakuza boss. But if this was a simple matter of efficient storytelling, I wouldn’t be calling Nisekoi perfect. This establishing scene arranges the dominos for so much else in the series, including why Raku cares so much about his promise with the girl from ten years ago.

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After being dropped off near school, Raku reflects how he’s never had a girlfriend (or talked to girls much at all) as a result of his diligent studying to escape the yakuza life. He realizes this isn’t quite true, since he did fall in love with that girl from long ago, after all. This connection explicitly binds Raku’s desire for a normal life with his desire for love. The yakuza, both by their foreboding presence and because of how they cause Raku to act, get in the way of Raku’s love life. Honestly, we can say that having a love life is part of a normal life for Raku. Perhaps even a major requirement for a normal life.

This informs so much of why Raku cares so deeply about that ten-year old promise. It is representative of the supposed normal life he longs for. He thinks back on the promise with the same romantic idealism that he looks forward to the future with. They are part of the same package. This, along with the circumstances surrounding the harem he will soon acquire, is a major reason why Raku’s satisfaction with life depends so heavily on figuring out the mystery of the pendant and (eventually) figuring out whom it is he loves.

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Speaking of harems, Best Girl is the first to arrive on stage and she does so in style. Just as Raku is complaining about what a struggle his life has been until now, the scene cuts to Chitoge running late to school. She performs some Olympic-tier acrobatics as Raku warns us that today is the day his “destiny changed”. Of course, it changed for the worse in his eyes. This is because although Chitoge is Best Girl, she certainly is not Normal Girl. Running late for school, vaulting cloud-touching fences, and the best hair in anime are not qualities indicative of a normal, peaceful life. From the first moment they meet, Raku’s dream and Chitoge’s character are incompatible.

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Onodera, on the other hand, appears to be the perfect embodiment of peace and routine. She is soft-spoken and carefully patches up the cut that Chitoge inflicted on Raku. Later on in Episode 1, we’ll see her take care of Raku again and generally be the opposite of Chitoge’s explosive violence. If we want to take things in a meta direction: she doesn’t wear knee socks or tights or bike shorts, instead opting for plain ankle socks, which are probably the most normal or nondescript legwear in all of anime/manga. To get even more meta, she is voiced by Kana Hanazawa, who is—at this time—probably the most “normal” (least out of place is a better way to put it) voice actress in the industry.

Unfortunately for Raku’s dreams, he and Chitoge are paired up by chance over and over. They have to sit together, they get partnered up to feed the school pets (zoo), and—most importantly—they search together for Raku’s lost pendant. Chitoge was already the antithesis of Raku’s peaceful domestic desires, but their search wraps the two of them up in the quest for the truth about the pendant. This is incredibly important creating a compelling tension in their forthcoming bondage.

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Raku and Chitoge are not simply incompatible on account of their polar personalities, but also because of their attitudes towards the pendant/promise. Chitoge calls Raku’s promise “beyond lame” and “totally absurd”, belittling comments that cause Raku to finally fight back in a serious way. This is the appearance, anyway. Chitoge does end up looking for the pendant in spite of herself, eventually tsundere-ing it back to Raku. While this duo will be ever-conflicted in matters of romance, we see glimpses of Chitoge seeing something special in Raku. It is, after all, his commitment to the promise and his earnest retaliation when she mocks it that cause her to put forth independent effort to help him.

All of this work to establish Raku and Chitoge’s opposite world views is meant to help sell the struggle of their fake relationship, but also to enable the duo to push each other to grow. Raku makes Chitoge respect a romantic promise via his earnest passion. Chitoge makes Raku express that passion instead of maintaining his unassuming and forced air of “normalcy”. What’s more, after one episode we can already see how the inescapable union of Best Girl and Raku pushes away Onodera and forces her to acknowledge that her key may be the one that opens the pendant. Onodera’s reactions during Raku and Chitoge’s coincidental partnership at school is assurance that she will be willing to (eventually) press the issue about her key once the duo dates for real-fake.

These are rather complex character dynamics to establish in just one episode. Sure, any mix-and-match harem or romcom could stumble its way into pairing up seemingly incompatible characters—but that’s not all we’re getting with Nisekoi. The intrigue surrounding the pendant brings out an ideological dichotomy between characters. The main conflicts of the series catalyze all three characters of the main cast into action. Desires, relationships, and struggles are all bound up together, balancing on a tightrope of social responsibility. There’s a whole lot of gunpowder packed down this barrel.

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I think this becomes a little more apparent in Episode 2, starting with Raku and Chitoge’s chat after finding out they’ll be forced to date each other. They discuss the pendant further and Chitoge clarifies that “what [she] hate[s] is the kind of guy that keeps brooding over past mistakes and other things that he can’t possibly change,” not necessarily guys that are romantic. This is the root of ideological difference between the characters—it’s a matter of conviction and focus. This is quite a useful point of contention for a series wherein characters are afraid to chase after their dreams, unable to decide what they want, or forced to challenge social barriers to get what they want. This is a series called “false-love” after all, with a central mystery involving a pendant of desire with multiple fake keys. Conviction and sincerity should matter.

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That being said, what can we make of Raku and Chitoge’s fake relationship? This forced romance between two presumably incompatible characters is surprisingly no less fake than the romance between Raku and Onodera. If we compare how each girl responds to the pendant (since the pendant is representative of love and a supposedly true connection), Onodera is significantly less honest than Chitoge. Onodera lies about her connection to the pendant and does not tell Raku about her key. In spite of her crush on Raku, she denies ever seeing the very object that represents that love. For much of the series, she only ever addresses the pendant through a layer of superficial remove. Quite simply: this is not an earnest or honest love.

Chitoge, on the other hand, goes out of her way to respect the value Raku puts in the pendant. She also admits to finding the story of the promise romantic, becoming the first girl in the show to openly connect with Raku on some non-superficial level (and will remain the only girl for a while). This sets up an interesting dichotomy between total pretense with no substance (Onodera) and no pretense with total substance (Chitoge). The girl we’re told loves and is loved by Raku is the girl least willing to connect or reach out to him at the start of the show, while the incompatible girl cannot help but to connect with him. The most classic stories are battles between complete opposites like good and evil, so it is only fitting that the most perfect romcom pits two polarized love interests against one another.

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This is of course reflected in Raku himself. He fantasizes about what might be with Onodera much more than he thinks about what is. He interprets her smallest action as a sign of possible romance, and is always (rightfully, to be fair) considering the possibility she is involved with the pendant. Yet, he does not consider her emotions much in the present. This becomes painfully obvious later in the series, but even in the first two episodes, Raku only ever talks about himself to Onodera. She is an object of desire—not necessarily in a dehumanizing way (Chitoge is the gorilla, after all), but certainly in the sense that Raku doesn’t attempt to have a normal relationship with her. She is always some fantastical girl far off in the distance to Raku.

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Again, Raku treats Chitoge in the opposite manner. He usually does not consider what might be with Chitoge, but instead focuses much more on her actions and emotions in the present. This begins when she returns the pendant, and Raku reflects how there might be “some good in her.” On their date later, he brings her dorayaki as a token of apology for treating her poorly in front of Onodera and making her wait around for him. The anime cuts out his explanation, but the manga reveals that he buys dorayaki because he figures Chitoge wouldn’t have tried it before, having grown up in America. The key here is these are responses to Chitoge. Raku reflects on reality and considers what he knows about Chitoge to decide how he should act in the present. This is much truer to how a relationship built on honest feelings should function, and operates in extreme contrast to the airy fantasy relationship between Onodera and Raku.

Relationships and sincerity and romance all get more complex as more of the cast arrives—Marika and Haru clearly fit into this pre-established thematic sphere—but let’s stay focused on the setup. If I start talking about all the love triangles and foreshadowing, I’ll never stop. Anyway, there is one last element of said setup that we ought to consider: the qualities of the series’ main problem—Raku and Chitoge’s fake relationship. As we’ve come to expect from Nisekoi, every element of the story is woven tightly through this initial conflict. This is intended to allow this conflict to snowball into all the later plot developments and drama as seamlessly as possible, for a core set of beliefs and issues will form a common thread throughout the series.

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Returning to Raku’s primary goals and struggle, we know that Raku desires a normal life married to a normal girl, namely Onodera. His struggle in achieving this is his connection to the yakuza, which is notably why he desires normality in the first place. Basic, neatly looped premise. The main problem notably involves both Raku’s desire and his struggle—being in a relationship obviously prevents you from dating anyone else, and Raku is forced into that relationship because of his yakuza ties. While not as complex as the early character relations, this problem is still packed together like sardines. This makes the issue more compelling, and lowers the chance for narrative fumbling. The less loose space in a setup like this, the less a writer has to make up as they go, and thus there is less opportunity to insert developments that screw with the initial formula.

We can think of this setup as a sort of check on every new plot or character development. Everything that happens from here on out has to work within this paradigm, and since the setup is so cleanly defined, it’s hard to get confused as a writer. We know exactly who every character is, and the conflict is designed to push them all towards the same middle ground via an inescapable and intertwined struggle. The important thing about the Rube Goldberg machine I mentioned earlier is that it works. Inevitably, it works. Sure, it’s convoluted and full of ridiculous twists and turns, but that convolution is precise. The ball gets from point A to point B because the system is designed to ensure that that is the only possible outcome. The machine has to be perfect.

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Never forget.

However long it takes the ball to reach point B, however much it resists, and whatever infuriating detours it takes in getting there, the ball will reach point B. Because the machine is perfect. And, after 229 chapters, Nisekoi reached point B because—yes—the machine was perfect.

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