Essentially, Orange is a time-travel story. Characters are gifted with knowledge from the future, and they need to decide whether or not to act on that knowledge. Orange is also a teen drama, with all the heartbreak and angst associated with that. Orange is also one of the most poignant anime series this year, with its mix of relatable characters, realistic conflicts, and a looming tragedy that the main character is desperate to prevent. In a crowded anime scene that includes bombastic, over-the-top plots and larger-than-life characters, a quiet series like Orange could understandably be overlooked.
Here’s why you shouldn't skip it.
A notable main character.
Naho Takamiya is “the quiet one” in her small circle of high school friends, the painfully shy one that others often make fun of. In any other show, she’d be the sidekick to the more outgoing main character. In Orange, the bulk of the series is from her point of view. She’s indecisive, and she doesn’t make all the right choices for herself. She’s often conflicted between her own feelings and her friends, and sometimes this puts a strain on their relationships. She’s caught between her gut instinct and the good of the group, and there’s always an underlying fear that she might lose her friends if she doesn’t give in to peer pressure.
In other words, she’s a teenager.
One day, she receives a letter that’s supposed to be from her future self, 10 years from the present. The letter lists -- in bullet points -- certain details of Naho’s day that only she would know: she will oversleep for the first time in her life and almost miss school, there will be a new student named Kakeru Naruse who will be introduced in class, and this new student will sit next to her. But the letter clearly states that Naho and her friends can't invite Kakeru to walk home with them after school. They can (and should) hang out with him any other day, just not that particular day.
Naho is a young woman with self-confidence issues, and she has no idea what to do with this information. There’s a part of her that wants to ignore the letter because she doesn’t feel like she has the courage to follow the instructions. She can’t talk to her friends about the letter because she’s sure they’ll make fun of her and urge her to ignore it. So Naho keeps the letter a secret, even as she’s inwardly tearing herself apart over her friends’ warm and welcoming reception for newbie Kakeru. Nothing bad appears to happen on their walk home, and Naho's worry eases. But Kakeru doesn’t come to school the next day, and the day after that. He goes missing for weeks.
Naho’s investigation into what actually happened to Kakeru brings her back to the letter. More details are revealed which send Naho into the heights of anxiety. Kakeru’s mother has health issues and moved from Tokyo to a country town with her son in the hopes of a cure. On the day Naho’s friends invite him to hang out with them after school, Kakeru receives a text from his mom pleading for him to come home and take her to the hospital. Kakeru, feeling that he deserves to be selfish after giving up his life in the big city for his mom, ignores the message. His mother dies, which brings Kakeru into a state of deep depression and eventually, suicide.
The letter offers a list of dates and events which Naho needs to focus on and change. Every little detail of Kakeru’s life could push him closer and closer to isolation and tragedy. This is a ton of responsibility for a 16-year-old girl, and she struggles to find ways to encourage Kakeru to open up to his new friends and seek out support, without making her seem too clingy and overprotective. It gets even harder for Naho when she discovers she has feelings for Kakeru.
Effective flash-forwards and the hope of second chances but not without risk.
Orange opens with Naho and her friends, all adults, meeting back in their hometown (on Kakeru’s birthday, no less) in order to open up a time capsule they buried back when they were teenagers. The reunion sparks a wave of grief for the group, as they remember the conspicuously absent member of their squad. On the surface, adult Naho appears pretty content. She’s married to Suwa, the high school friend who was the “jock with a heart of gold,” and they have a young son together. But in these flash-forward scenes, it’s clear that Naho still has a bunch of regrets, which is echoed in the letter she writes to her past self.
Not only is Naho anxious to try and save Kakeru’s life; she’s also trying to rewrite some of her own past mistakes. For example, future Naho’s letter details an incident at a softball tournament where she regrets not accepting the team’s offer to pinch-hit. Naho, being socially awkward and worrying that she might screw everything up further, refuses to play. This causes the team to lose, and Naho carries that tiny bit of disappointment and guilt with her for ten long years. As a teen, she might not realize how much that decision would weigh on her life at a future point, but as an adult, Naho’s already experienced that disappointment and that guilt. She went through the experience of being ridiculed and criticized for not taking that shot when it’s offered to her, and she's lost the friendship of the girls on the softball team because of that small decision.
Orange is a show where the smallest actions make the biggest ripples. Not walking with Kakeru that first day might have saved his mother’s life. Not teasing him about his family might have steered him clear from negative thoughts about being a burden. As Naho begins to see the consequences of her actions, she starts to take the letter’s requests in earnest. However, with every event she tries to fix, some unexpected thing happens that makes it all worse. As the events spiral away from the timeline of the letter, Naho is sent further and further out into an uncertain future. There’s a point in the narrative where Naho can’t use the letter as a guide anymore, and she still doesn’t have the confidence to continue on with her mission. Luckily at this point, (SPOILER ALERT) it’s revealed that every single member of the group has received letters from their future selves with the exact same message: Save Kakeru. Naho, thankfully, doesn’t have to go through it all alone.
The sci-fi stuff is subtle and a little sad.
Orange is a teenage drama with a faint sci-fi element. The explanation for how the adult-aged friends are able to send their letters back to their past selves all boils down to the possibilities of black holes being able to warp time and space. Yep, they somehow discover that a black hole exists somewhere on Earth and manage to toss their letters into it so that they’re able to contact themselves in the past. It’s thoroughly and utterly ridiculous, and it can be a frustrating experience to watch, but Orange is never as concerned with the "how" of the time-travelling letters as the "why."
As the series wears on, the characters openly discuss the possibilities of time-travel and the various ways in which one can change the past to affect the future. There’s talk of the idea of multiple timelines which could split off from the major timeline if a large enough event occurs. In this moment, it’s made clear that the adult friends who send the letters back to the past will never see the consequences of the changes they requested. Kakeru will not come back from the dead. Naho will still be married to Suwa, and they will always carry with them the questions of whether they could have done more to save Kakeru. Theirs is a melancholy ending. They’ll never know whether their mission worked.
The slowest of slow burns.
There’s a term for the type of anime where nothing ever happens. “Iyashikei” literally means “healing” and is used for the kind of slow burn show that Orange aligns with, though the urgency of Naho’s mission disqualifies it from being a true example of this type. Iyashikei shows are usually episodic, with characters going through the normal, everyday activities: going to school, having lunch, hanging out together, etc. The characters are usually friends who go through heartwarming realizations together which strengthen their relationships even further.
Orange contains elements of this genre, and this might put off some viewers who want a little more narrative to go along with character development. The worst thing one could say about Orange is that the show can be boring if you’re not invested in the characters. Also, the teenagers will act like teenagers. They're selfish and impulsive, and this aspect could put off a viewer who can't find anyone in the cast to relate to. But as someone who was painfully shy in high school, I definitely empathize with Naho's indecisiveness and lack of assertiveness. There are moments in my own past where I wish I could have done something differently, and if I had a chance to give my high school self a message about being braver and taking more risks, I would do that in a heartbeat.
And that’s the crux of what makes Orange so affecting, at least to an adult watching a teenage drama. Regrets are a part of life, but there are always those events we can’t let go of, events where we wish things could have gone differently. We still want that do over. We still want to know what might have been if we could've done the right thing in the first place. Also, Orange is perhaps the most realistic and heartbreaking depiction of depression and how it affects loved ones of any anime show out there. It shows the importance of forgiveness, especially when selfishness can truly hurt one's friends and family. The ending might be a little too cut and dry for some tastes, but Orange has touched my cold, cold heart in ways no other recent anime series has, and for that reason, it's well worth a watch.