Haganai, much like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, involves a group of misfits creating an unorthodox after-school club. In this case, Average Male Protagonist Kodaka and ice queen Yozora start a club devoted simply to making new friends. They don’t have any peripheral activity, which makes you wonder why an official club was needed in the first place. Anyway, the club soon gets new members, such as popular Sena (who joined because none of her followers were “true” friends), science geek Rika (who speaks in the third person, and is the resident perv of the group as well as a big comic/giant robot buff), Kodaka’s younger sister Kobato (the gothic lolita who thinks she’s a character in a popular TV series – seriously), Maria (a ten year old nun who, despite her intelligence, is very immature), and Yukimura, yet another “trap” character who frequently dresses in maid outfits and has no real personality to speak of (spoiler: Yukimura is a gal).
Despite being billed as a comedy, Haganai really isn’t all that funny. There are a few reasons for this. First, the characters are frequently jerks to each other, particularly between Yozora and Sena. I realize this is how antagonistic teenage girls often behave towards each other, and I further realize that conflict is the essence of a compelling story, but some of their exchanges go beyond simple conflict and just become unpleasant. For instance, Yozora’s nickname for Sena is “Meat.” Oh that’s real nice. There’s another time when Yozora forces Sena to read the text in a visual novel game to prove that it’s nothing but smut (which Sena disagrees with), which is obviously an embarrassing situation to go through. But perhaps the most obvious instance of this is in the obligatory beach episode; when Sena requests that her back be oiled, Yozora pins her to the ground with her feet and dumps obscene amounts of lotion on her, all while teasing that Sena likes to be treated like garbage because it turns her on. This isn’t light teasing between friends; this is bullying. This also leads to repetitive humor, like Sena shouting “I hate you!” and running out after Yozora mocked her. It doesn’t help that Kodaka rarely stands up to Yozora; he’s a pushover like so many male protagonists in anime like this. Further, this is yet another series with a pervert character (in this case, the glasses-wearing Rika), and like pretty much all instances, is done without wit and expects us to laugh at how over-the-top someone’s erotic fantasies are. Instead, it’s more annoying and forced (even Kodaka agrees).
But above all, despite being a comedy, there’s a definite sad undercurrent here. Many of the members of the club are afraid of crowds, seen in episode 11 when Rika admits to chickening out from attending a comic convention because of the crowds, or in episode 8 when Yozora ditches the group at the pool. Kodaka never got to say goodbye to his childhood friend before being transferred to his current school, and made a bad first impression which convinced everyone that he was a creep; Sena wants to be appreciated for more than her body. Yozora is perhaps the most tragic; she has difficulty opening up to people, and instead masks her insecurities with snarky insults. In general, it’s hard not to feel sorry for a group that, outside of their club, have no friends (some of which is admittedly out of their hands; we remember how cruel and unfair high school rumors could be). Now don’t get me wrong, this all makes for decent drama (you certainly pity their situation), but it does weigh down the levity.
Most importantly, though, the show has no real momentum or arc. The group does stuff in their club (usually dating sim or role playing video games, but occasionally a “field trip” to the beach or pool), and nothing really advances. Everyone still seems to have unresolved issues; specifically, Sena and Yozora don’t really become any better of friends throughout the series (ironic for such a club). And before you know it, the series ends. It honestly feels like the studio knew a sequel was inevitable or green-lit beforehand, so the writers didn’t feel a need to wrap up anything or develop the characters in any significant way. The “ending,” if you can even call it that, is one of the most unsatisfying I’ve seen in some time.
Speaking of unsatisfying, since Haganai is yet another show set in a school, it doesn’t really offer anything unique in the backgrounds, although the in-game role playing game environments in a couple episodes are at least distinct. The animation is average most of the time, but I enjoyed the character designs, particularly on Sena and Kobato.
The Blu-ray/DVD combo pack is housed in two Blu-ray-sized cases. The limited edition comes in a sturdy artbox with some lovely artwork. As for special features, we get two commentaries (episode 2 and 8), neither of which are all that informative, as well as some promo videos, commercials, textless openings and endings, and FUNi trailers. It’s an okay selection, but nothing substantial. The FUNi dub was mostly fine; my favorite VA was Alison Viktorin as Kobato, who channeled her role of Viola from Kiddy Grade, and who’s verbal tic “Kuu kuu kuu” was adorable. But Ashleigh Domangue as Yukimura was pretty flat. Thankfully, Yukimura didn’t have many lines.
Haganai wasn’t particularly good or awful; it was mostly forgettable, lacked inspiration, and was actually mean-spirited in some areas. If you enjoy characters acting like asses to each other, you might enjoy Haganai, but I didn’t. It’s another instance where cute-looking characters can’t save a series.