I didn't want to see this show. I admit, the premise alone turned me off: A girl in high school discovers she has an crush on her forty-five year old boss at the family restaurant where she works after class. Don't we already have more than our fair share of that kind of icky male-wish-fulfillment fantasy in our entertainment? But After The Rain, from Jun Mayuzuki's manga of the same name, isn't about romance, but something subtler and harder to come by: sensing, and responding, to the need for connection and empathy in a hollowed-out life. For them to just "fall in love" with each other would be the easy way out.
To live is to be fragile,
So is it a fault to nurture a dream?
-- Mitsuaru Kaneko, "Moth"
Akira Tachibana was a track-and-field athlete at her school, but a torn Achilles tendon put an end to all that. Now her after-school hours are spent taking orders at a casual dining restaurant. Her boss is Masami Kondo, a mid-fortyish fellow with a self-deprecating laugh and a goofy, forced-upbeat attitude about everything. They could not possibly have less in common: the excitable guy with the silent midlife crisis, and the taciturn young woman who had a bomb set off inside her youthful dreams.
One day Akira comes to Masami and makes a startling confession: She likes him, and wants to know more about him. Not desire in a sexual sense, but a yearning to know another person who seems worth knowing. Masami's reaction to all this is in line with our own reactions: Why? What is it about some washed-up guy in his mid-forties who walks around with his fly down and who's single-handedly raising a rather mouthy kid from a now-failed marriage — why would he make her heart skip a beat or three? Especially when she ought to be be pairing up with guys her age? It would be something he could laugh off, and us along with him, if Akira wasn't so deadly serious about the whole thing.
Call it a leap of faith, it seems. There is something about Masami that has captured Akira's attention and affection, and she believes that whatever it is, it's worth knowing and nurturing. Her instincts are exactly that: instincts, not logical deductions. She is drawn, not consciously, to the fact that he has a need, and she does not yet understand that need is not romantic. It's, for lack of a better word, spiritual: it's because once upon a time, this man had dreams of being something else, doing other things, and in the time since he has settled for so much less. Just as she has.
What lies under the crush
Akira learns about the depths and dimensions of Masami's unfulfilled dreams by degrees, and does not understand the significance of it all at first. One day she walks his son back to his apartment, finds him not at home, and stumbles across his study, crammed with books. Not just familiar material like the stuff she reads in literature class; his own manuscripts, too. Masami wanted to be an author, but a friend of his achieved great literary success while Masami got married, and their paths diverged in more ways than one. But all this time Masami has been scribbling away in private. Even if no one reads it, the act of doing it still means something to him.
All of this enters Akira's field of vision, but it takes some time to actually be seen. For the longest time, she looks at Masami and merely sees someone that makes her heart race a little. At one point they even go out on a formal date (one echoed, hilariously, by a failed date with a jealous co-worker). Then they start to let each other into their respective hearts, and her thinking about him goes from "that older guy I have a crush on" to "that man whose dreams have also died an uneasy death". But when that change does take place, it affects her on multiple fronts. It changes her relationship with Masami, to be sure, but it also alters her relationship with her friend Haruka.
Haruka and Akira were once close, drawn all the more tightly together by their shared love of running, but they drifted apart after Akira's injury. There are hints that it was not merely the injury that caused Akira to leave, but Haruka's own unrealistic expectations: she, too, had an injury, but she didn't quit running because of it. Her logic is: I got over it, why can't she? It's harder than she realizes to accept that Akira is her own person, with her own decisions, not all of which she has to like, and that we keep friendships even with such people because of their differences with us, not in spite of them.
The reality that beats the fantasy
It took watching After The Rain to codify for me why I generally don't bother with shows that revolve around romance, and how the ones I care about stand out from the pack.
Most of the time, with such shows, romance is an ingredient and not a subject, just another way to lever laughs or tears out of the audience. A story isn't automatically more interesting just because the characters in it are in love; the same goes for the characters themselves. But every now and then you have a show that is about the way love is awkward and difficult and self-contradictory, not just a showcase for those things. Kimi Ni Todoke comes to mind; Paradise Kiss as well.
Characters in love are hard to depict well. They always run the risk of looking diminished and blinded by love, instead of empowered and elevated by it. Doubly so if they love foolishly, and the story they are in doesn't recognize how foolish love is a fundamentally tragic thing. After The Rain has its own ways of showing how its characters are made better by what they feel, but one element in particular stood out. Twice Akira fantasizes about having an embrace-and-kiss moment with Masami — once after their "date", and once more at the very end of the show, after she has run out after him (the mere fact of her running is itself an affirmation) to give him some missing paperwork.
But both times, we get the reality, not the fantasy: each going their own way by themselves, albeit no longer alone, knowing they have each other as an aspirational force in their lives. And humble as that reality is, it's better than any romantic fantasy either of them could dream up.