(1st season : 24 episodes + 2 specials, 2005 ; 2nd season : 12 episodes, 2006)
My previous exposure
None whatsoever, beside being aware that it’s an adaptation of a josei manga that aired on noitaminA. (And that there’s also been at least one live-action TV series of it.)
For those not aware, noitaminA is a well-reputed TV timeslot that’s known for airing (1) adaptations of josei (female adults) manga (which is quite rare in anime) and (2) ambitious and/or artsy series. Both of which are perfectly up my alley, so it might surprise you that the first noitaminA series I watched was… last year’s Kuragehime. Since then, I’ve made a point of at least checking out every new show of theirs, while also going through their back catalog. Hence me now watching the series that started it all… and there are more of them in my to-watch list (I’m open to suggestions).
So far, only one show has been particularly outstanding (Eden of the East), and there’s been some misfires (Fractale, [C], most probably No. 6), but even those were at least interesting to watch, and the baseline quality of what I’ve seen has been quite good indeed : noitaminA really deserves its reputation.
What’s it about ?
A group of students at an art college who share a low-rent house. There’s Takemoto, doormat supreme, our de facto point-of-view character ; Mayama, the neat-freak who’s slightly more mature than the others ; and Morita, the money-grubing asshole who shares his time between cartoony antics and being away on mysterious, well-payed but tiring jobs. Also part of the main cast are Hanamoto, a young teacher of theirs that they’ve become quite close to ; Hagumi, Hanamoto’s cousin who looks like a child ; and Yamada, a girl who pins for Mayama.
While there’s a lot of slapstick humour, the main focus is on the various romantic subplots : both Takemoto & Morita are pinning for Hagumi, but the former’s too shy and friend-zoned, while the latter doesn’t think he deserves her (and I kinda agree) ; meanwhile, Yamada’s love for Mayama is mostly one-sided, as he’s stalking Rika, a close friend of Hanamoto who never quite recovered from her husband’s death.
What may be surprising is that none of these subplots make much progress over the 38 episodes and 5 years the series spans ; sure, the characters grow up quite a bit, but none of those relationships really goes anywhere (aside from Rika partially accepting Mayama) ; and despite frequent rejections, the characters can’t really move on. (The ending scenes suggest they do move on a bit eventually, but not that much.)
I’m treating both seasons as one because they’re really the same show with a six-month hiatus two thirds in ; there’s no real point in separating them.
What did I think of it ?
Well, it’s certainly an interesting watch. The first impression is that nothing much happens, with none of the romantic subplots making much progress over the course of the series ; which is compounded by the show averaging 4 episodes per in-story year until it finally slows the heck down and devotes a third of the first season and all of the second one to the fifth and final year. As a result, it’s not a show about people slowly discovering their love for each other ; it’s a show about people in (one-sided) love getting bluntly and repeatedly rejected, and learning to come to terms with that. Only Mayama gets some level of success in his romantic pursuits, and even that’s debatable. But then, there’s something grounded and realistic in how those classic rom-com archetypes (Takemoto the Nice Guy, Morita the Charismatic Jerk, and Yamada the Violent Tsundere) fail and it’s the Creepy (But Handsome) Stalker who “wins”.
You’ll notice I’m not talking much about Hagumi. That’s because she’s mostly an object of desire for other characters. We barely ever get into her head, and our perception of her is mostly filtered through Takemoto, Hanamoto and Morita. (And I get the feeling that Morita doesn’t understand her.) Sure, we don’t get much into Morita’s head either, but he’s easier to get a handle on (especially as the second season develops his backstory), and he’s not objectified to the degree Hagumi is. I do think Morita’s a horrible human being who wrecks everything and everybody around him, but at least he mostly feels real. Hagumi doesn’t, and her way too youngful appearance doesn’t help ; the only time I manage to take her seriously is when the camera is framed to make it less obvious.
So, we’ve got a love triangle centered on a non-character, and meandering romantic subplots that never go anywhere for much of the series. Does that make the series a wash ? Well, no, because occasionally there’ll be absolutely brillant melancholic sequences that will just break your soul. Especially striking were Episode #1-05, where Takemoto’s uneasiness with his new stepfather hit way too close to home ; and #1-06, where Hanamoto explains Rika’s circumstances (but there are a lot of those throughout the series). Moreover, I’ve grown to really enjoy the company of those characters (well, mostly Yamada, Hanamoto & Mayama, however much I joke about the latter’s “creepy stalker” behavior). They do feel like a tightly-knit group of friends (plus Morita), and I’m going to miss watching them, however rote some of their slapstick and infuriating their hopeless romantic pursuits are.
There are worse ways to feel about a series, aren’t there ?