Gakuen Utopia Manabi Straight is a series that has been on my plan to watch list since like, 2011. I definitely should not have slept on it for so long. The world of Manabi Straight is one in which childhood is increasingly in decline. School still exists but it’s no longer mandatory past the basics and is positioned precariously between rising labour demands and collapsing budgets in the face of catastrophicly low birth rates. The end result of this all is that in the show’s setting childhood is something that increasingly needs to be justified.
The role of students in a world like this is a lonely one. Their place in the world increasingly eroded, most of the teachers who’re meant to be guiding them have lost the will to try as their own role becomes seemingly obsolete. Conversely, the handful of working non students we see are consistently happy with their lot in life, as the structure of things continues to incentivise work and make abandoning schooling seem like the more appealing choice. The way this is consitently framed presents a fairly straightforward statement; you had better have a good reason for doing this. If you’re still going to school when it’s not required, when there are significant incentives to abandoning it then society expects you to have some justification for it.
And if it can’t be justified then it has to go. The school the cast attend, Seioh academy, is a formely prestigious institution on the brink of being merged with another school due to a combination of further loss of funding and a falling reputation for success; if you’re still running a school in this era you had better be producing some top tier students after all. Aikoh academy is everything Seioh isn’t; modern, high powered and succesful and prepared to change with the times to meet the demands of the 2030s. It’s also soulless. By orienting itself solely towards the demands of the labour maket it’s lost sight of the needs of its students, the only Aikoh student we’re ever really introduced to is Takako, the student council president. Takako consistently finds herself feeling alienated by her position. While she’s aware that her school is organized in a way that will benefit the students in the long term it doesn’t change how unfulfilling it is on a day to day level, and she struggles with her own role within that system and how it sets her appart from her peers. She’s more an agent of the school management than a student in her own right at times.
Seioh’s student council on the other hand, barely exists at the start of the series. Having dwindled down to a single member, who had the role unceremoniously dumped on her on her first day by the outgoing president. Mika struggles to do anything with the position and nothing is really expected of her, because nobody really expects much of Seioh students. If Aikoh represents the ideal, hyper rationalized school within this society then Seioh is the opposite, it represents the abandonment of childhood, as the faculty have largely given up on the children and by extension none of the students really care about school, for all that their world expects them to have a reason for being there they mostly just treat it as a way of stalling on decisions about their futures. So it’s no wonder a school where nobody really engages doesn’t have a functioning student council, it seems like a lot of effort and nobody’s willing to put that effort in. Until Manabi arrives.
Where the majority of the students see the lack of expectations as a reason to not engage, Manabi sees it as an oportunity. If nobody epects anything from the student council then they have room to shape it however they want, to make it something truly for the students, something which can turn school into something meaningful again. Manabi lives in the moment, unconcerned with long term implications or justifications, she wants to make school joyful for those around her, here and now, even if that won’t necessarily translate into qualifications or vague employability further down the line. Manabi’s arrival is what gives Mika the push she needed, she always wanted to the student council to amount to something, but never saw any signs that the student body actually wanted that. Manabi shows her that it’s OK to do things for their own sake, even if there’s no real meaning in the long run, if it makes you happy it’s a net positive to the world.
Mikan isn’t the only one spurred into action by Manabi’s relentless energy though, for all that much of the faculy has given up on the future, two teachers are still trying their best within the increasingly tight constraints of their jobs. Particularly the school headmistress, who is herself a former Seioh student. She longs to give her pupils a school experience like the one she had, while being fully aware of the impossibility of doing so. Having attended the school right as the population crisis hit its breaking point she’s experienced the decline from both sides and finds herself simply strugling to preserve as much of what she loved about the school as she can, which gets her branded by the higher ups as behind the times and is one of the catalysts of the Aikoh merger. Her efforts to preserve the joy of childhood proving futile against the wider forces of society. Just as her actions as part of a protest against the closure of the school dorms while she was a student ultimately achieved nothing. She’s spent her life trying to protect something she loves and falling short. But does that really matter? It’s Shimoji, the other teacher who’s still engaged (much as he pretends not to be) who points out the obvious. Maybe the head teacher’s efforts couldn’t stem the tide, but does that invalidate everything she’s done?
Even if they ultimately ended in failure those memories of working together with her classmates to stage a sit-in and oppose the dorm closure are still a precious memory that she’s held onto all this time, a unique but shared experience with her classmates, which was only possible because of the circumstances of the time. It might have achieved little in the grand scheme of things but it was still a way of asserting themselves and pushing back against an uncaring world. Sometimes the value is in doing something, not simply in what it achieves.
Which brings us to the school festival. The school festival becomes the central conflict of the show as the merger with Aikoh threatens to see it canceled and the student council scramble for the support of the student body in allowing it to go ahead. The reason for the cancelation is simple; it’s not justified. Where Aikoh’s festival is a carefully curated programe of workshops and seminars designed to enhance the curiculum and allow students to network (it even has a brochure, fancy) Seioh doesn’t really have any grand plans in place, it’s just an ordinary school festival like any other, it doesn’t serve a purpose in preparing students for the adult world so it’s not really worth anything as far as the administration is concerned.
So Manabi and her friends rally against the decision, with some behind the support from Shimoji and the headmistress they try to bring the students together to convince Aikoh’s superintendant to have it reinstated. Only to fall short, the superintendant proposes a bargin; if they can gather signatures from 70% of the Seioh student body she’ll allow the event to go ahead. But nobody will sign. It’s not that they’re opposed to the festival or anything, but is it really that big a deal? There will be other events in the future, heck there’s even a dance event on by the station on that date, does missing out on this one thing really matter? The general sense is that with the impending merger there’s no real apetite for some kind of uniquely Seioh event, they’re going to be a different school next year anyway so why dwell on the past. Things look pretty bleak for the student council’s plans in the face of student apathy. Even the student council office they put so much effort into transforming into a welcoming space for the whole school is destroyed in a freak accident, they’ve lost the support of their peers and the one tangible thing they’d worked to build.
So they keep going. Rather than dwell on the failures of the past or the seemingly unavoidable loss of the festival they do what they can do in the moment. Moving into the abandoned dorm building they start work on converting the dining room into a new student council room. They may have lost the previous one but that doesn’t mean they can’t make a new space for the students. It’s a big job though and five girls converting such a large room that’s been left unused for so long seems impossible at first. Help comes from an unexpected source when the theater club (who had previously helped with the original council room but only under duress) arrives to pitch in. Then more people show up, soon most of the school has gotten involved and they end up touching up the entire building in their enthusiasm. While the school festival might be an abstract idea that hasn’t been able to appeal to the students thus far they’re all aware of the effort Manabi and her friends have been putting into making their school lives better in other ways, so they rally to help them.
It’s this exciting shared project that finally convinces those on the fence to support the festival, because it’s something they can all do together. There might be other things in the future but the festival is a unique thing that can only be done once. This pushes the petition past its stated goal and so the festival goes ahead. Everyone works together to build something they can be proud of as students of Seioh, even if that name won’t hold any meaning past the end of the year. It’s the culmination of their time at an independent Seioh and a chance to create some memories with their friends.
It’s ordinary. After months of work from Manabi and co the festival finally takes place and it’s nothing special, just your ordinary high school festival. Manabi and the student council barely even get to take part, being relegated to running the help desk away from all the festivities. But it’s still special because it’s theirs. It might just be a brief moment of unity before the school loses its identity but it’s something they shared which can’t be taken away from them. It might not have any lasting impact or consequences but it justifies itself simply by being what it is. Something special but impermanent, worthwhile in the doing but ultimately without any real impact. Which is why the series doesn’t end there.
For all that it was the central point of the preceeding episodes the school festival isn’t the end, it’s just one precious moment in the girls school lives, one of many that will stay with them even after they graduate. Which is where the show picks up again, with the friends preparing to go their seperate ways, their time at the school is done and it wouldn’t be fair to say they didn’t make a mark; the festival led to the reconsideration of the merger meaning Seioh got to retain more of its individual idenity and they’ve left behind a bunch of enthusiastic successors in the student council where once it was a thankless task, but ultimately they’re leaving, what they achieved is going to become nothing but memories as they’re split apart by circumstance. Mikan particularly begins to feel the pressure as she prepares to head oversees for college, but her memories with her friends are more than that, they’re an assurance. Even if they’re far away they’ve always got her back. Life goes on but the things they’ve done together will always be with them going forward.
It doesn’t end there either. Because life keeps going we jump forward one last time, to a reunion. A year and a half later Mikan returns for the first time, and of course everyone is there to greet her. Then, in an unexpected but transcendant sequence they break into the school and recreate the series fantastic OP.
Why they’re doing it isn’t ever made entirely clear, but the context is enough. They’re taking a chance to make their mark, quite literally in this instance, on a place that meant a lot to them all. The fact that it won’t leave any trace once they’re done is almost the point. They were there, they shared something special at that school and that matters, even if it has no lasting impact. Sometimes doing something for its own sake is enough.
I had planned for this post to be the final one in the series but there was no way I could miss up the chance to post it on the 24th since well…Happy Birthday Mikan
Tomorrow things are going to get a bit screwy.