Normally, I don’t wrote about straight up comedy anime because they’re mostly paper thin in premise and thematic meat, the vast majority of them coming from gag strips and really only being worthy to talk about through their general structure in delivering jokes. But every once in awhile, I find myself watching something like Watamote, which has far more interesting elements buried under the surface. Of course, Watamote wears those elements proudly and openly, so even the dimmest person can pick them out.
But then you have something like Himouto! Umaru-chan, and I dare say it’s surprisingly complex in how it has its main supporting cast interact with the titular character. There’s an actual thematic core to this otherwise pointless diversion, but it’s not really apparent until you start picking up on little moments here and there.
The series’ lead character, Umaru, is a hedonistic otaku that consumes media and junk food like a tornado, tossing around the free time of anyone that stands in her way. She presents herself as a perfect, popular girl at school, but dresses like a slob at home and spends all her time gaming and devouring chips and soda, openly excited and satisfied with every single act. Basically, when she’s at home, she’s the target audience, much like Tomoko from Watamote. The difference between Umaru and the human shaped disaster called Tomoko is that Umaru can function in the outside world, and she’s become very talented to make her low level life possible.
So, a comedy based around a self-centered, thoughtless user of other people shouldn’t work, but there’s more here that prevents the series from being a complete unwarranted celebration of its culture’s awful vices. Namely, Umaru has a very subtle character arc throughout the series, and every major supporting player in her life is central to that arc. She’s becoming a well rounded person and growing from hamster to actual human being.
Our four major players besides Umaru are Taihei, Ebina, Kirie, and Sylphynford (or Sylphy). Taihei is both her brother and guardian, while the other three are all classmates that have different relationships with Umaru based around her different personas. The first is Umaru’s student self, the dignified persona she shows to the world. The second is her private self, where she wears a ridiculous hamster cape/hood thing and acts like a spoiled child, even willing to throw tantrums to get her way. But there’s also UMR, her pro-gaming persona that has become legend among many an arcade. All three personas represent a different facet of her personality, and every character has different exposure to these various faces.
Taihei is the most important character of the four, as his presence actually allows the other three to even get close to affecting Umaru, and he’s the only one aware of all three sides of Umaru. He’s taking care of her and is trying to get her on the path to being a proper adult like himself, a very busy and responsible salary-man. He is the ego to Umaru’s id, and he occasionally gets through her thick skull, through not without resistance and literal temper-tantrums. He has it pretty much like every parent, trying to raise a child the way they see as proper and meeting endless resistance along the way. He can’t do it entirely on his own …but his attempts DO make Umaru more aware of herself by giving her someone else to care about via blood relation. He’s a peer and a friend to her, and she doesn’t necessarily want to be a disappointment or hated by him. But most importantly, she has affection for him and does have respect for him.
A recent episode (as of writing) had Umaru trying to manipulate Taihei via insults to get more control in the house. He accidentally threw out some figure accessories, but only because Umaru made a mistake in not seeing what box he was asking about and gave the okay to toss it. At one point, he’s gone from the house trying to make up for the mistake, which results in Umaru at first being scared, but then guilty that her actions seemed to have really hurt her brother. When he comes back with the wrong sort of doll, she feels no anger. She’s just glad he’s there, and she even apologizes in her own way by admitting that it was her fault and keeps the doll he bought as a reminder of the incident. She hangs onto an incident that brought the two closer together by making her more aware of her own faults. That’s an important first step to self-improvement.
But you only get so far with just awareness with family, which is where Ebina comes in. She’s from a rural area and moved to the big city with a serious lack of confidence that she can belong, not helped by her breasts catching the attention of various onlookers and giving her the wrong idea that they’re somehow aware of her carefully hidden accent. Ebina is an admirer of Umaru because she so effortlessly manages to be what she wants to be, the very image of a perfect city born girl. She only knows student Umaru, so their relationship is the most superficial, with Ebina mainly being another person that inflates Umaru’s ego.
The interesting thing is that Umaru’s problem is not ego, it’s a lack of ego. It’s not thinking highly of herself that caused her terrible personality, it’s indulgence in mostly pointless and even self-destructive hobbies and little else. If she had no ego, she’d just keep living as she is, but because she does, she hides her true self. Ebina’s presence forces her to be aware of herself and present herself as someone else, and their friendship helps enforce this more and more. But more importantly, Umaru cares because she honestly does like Ebina and wants to be her friend. This makes the relationship a bit more even, because they each have something they want from one another. Ebina looks up to Umaru, and Umaru appreciates Ebina’s company.
Kirie, however, is where Umaru starts to grow more of a conscious. Kirie is the most Tomoko-like character of the cast, a socially awkward, messy haired lesbian (Tomoko is bi, mind you) that hates her brother and obsesses over a friend in a romantic and lustful way. But while she knows Umaru as a student, she also knows her as her private self, just under the assumption that this Umaru is Umaru’s sister due to how different she looks alone, because gag manga logic. Kirie considers herself the student of private Umaru and seeing her as a little girl gives her just enough confidence to speak (if very badly and with the sense that she’s about to grope someone). She basically worships Umaru, and Umaru even comments that Kirie will probably make her worse than she already is. Yet, Kirie is so pathetic yet likable that she has a different influence on her.
During a game of Life, Kirie ends up losing terribly after a trip up in her swimming career, which leads to Taihei deciding to sell his bakery in the game, wiping his savings. It confuses Umaru at first until Taihei points out that now he’s at Kirie’s level in the game, tied with her for last. Umaru realizes what he’s trying to tell her, and she encourages Kirie in their game. She also tries to help Kirie as a student by spending more time with her outside her home and introducing her to Ebina as a new friend (whom Kirie sees as a romantic rival, hilariously enough). Umaru ends up caring for her admirer in a different way than Ebina, wanting to help her through her constant tough times. Kirie helps make Umaru a more empathetic person to those outside her family and circle of friends, a stranger she ended up seeing something good in and wanted to help, despite her countless flaws and shortcomings.
Realizing you want to be liked by those you like, being more aware of your faults, empathizing with people you don’t personally know well, all these are necessary parts of becoming a better person. But you also need to be outgoing and willing to do new things, which is where Sylphy comes in.
Sylphy sees herself as student Umaru’s friendly rival, and she constantly shows off and tries to be the best at everything to prove to herself that she can be the type of person she wants to be to her brother. Unlike Umaru, her interactions with family made her grow into an extrovert that lives on attention and new experiences. She knows Umaru more personally as UMR, whom she fought in a videogaming tourney, and quickly befriends her as a fellow ally to help her prove herself better than Umaru. The two have overlapping interests, but Sylphy’s desire to do new things or find elements of her childhood long gone manage to get Umaru to do things outside her normal routine.
There’s this one segment where Sylphy decides that she wants to go to an old fashion candy store, so Umaru takes her to one she knows of. It has little character building on the surface, but just the segment existing the way it does really shows just how much of an effect Sylphy has on Umaru. Her excitement is infectious, and she gets Umaru to enjoy something she normally wouldn’t be that into. More importantly, she does something absolutely nobody else has ever managed to get her to do; open herself up a little in a public space.
This one segment has no posturing by Umaru, nor is it unbridled delight in simplistic entertainment. It’s Umaru appreciating something simple and sharing that experience with someone else. Just hanging out is something she really needs, and she can be more open with Sylphy than either Ebina or Kirie, whom see her either completely restrained or far too loose. Even in her private state, Umaru tries to be a mentor of some sort to Kirie, someone to look up to. But with Sylphy, Umaru has an equal. She either looks up or down a little towards everyone else, but she’s more or less equal to her supposed rival and she’s well aware of it.
When Sylphy challenges Umaru to a tennis match, it’s the first time she really understands Sylphy and starts to be affected by her. She’s a talented go-getter and a lover of life, yet as we later find out, she can love the same things that Umaru does. What makes them different at first is that Umaru doesn’t want to try new things, only get through the motions of public life and go to her more enjoyable private life. But Sylphy slowly breaks her out of that unhealthy state of mind, and she starts to appreciate just how much she has and all those around her more, along with all yet she has yet to try.
Sylphy may be the single most important character after Taihei because she can challenge Umaru. She forces her out of her comfort zone and her way of thinking by complete accident, and it’s making her a better person because of it by introducing her to a new way to see things.
What I’m saying with this overly long Sylphy tangent is that she’s basically a hyper Hajime Ichinose and that’s why she’s the best character after Kirie.