Despite my Y chromosome, I have a thing for shoujo. Raised on Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman and The Cutting Edge, I love watching chemistry develop between two paramours from either furtive affection or outright antagonism into burning romance. Such a predilection stands behind my decision to watch Spring 2010's Kimi ni Todoke, a delicate flower of a high school love-story told through Production I.G.'s crisp visuals and astute sound direction. And, while the solid technical aspects and a fistful of fun characters keeps me interested in the anime, its shambling pacing takes much of the wind from its sails.
Kimi ni Todoke tells the straightforward story of the ghoulish Sawako Kuronuma as she tries to overcome her passing similarity to 'Sadako' of Ringu fame and make friends as she enters high school. As the year progresses, her circle grows, along with a budding friendship with class hottie, Shota Kazehaya. In lockstep with Sawako's growing social capability, the anime traces three and a half arcs concerning the tribulations and small victories that accompany the process of making new acquaintances into friends. After a enjoyable introductory vignette, the show launches feet first into conflict as the naive lead finds herself the victim of a smear campaign designed to split her group up before it can solidify. The arc's considerable drama and exciting climax of this portion serves--in the grand scheme of things--as herald to the series antagonist, Ume Kurumizawa. And when she arrives, everything improves. Despite the fact that Kurumi incites rage in any of Sawako's fans, the presence of a focused and able villain in a shoujo romance energizes the proceedings. Watching each of the girl's plots unfurl to impair or confuse the hapless protagonist elevates those episodes above the rest of the series by a considerable margin. Sadly, however, the series follows up this climactic battle of wits and wills with an important, but auxiliary examination of the love triangle surrounding Sawako's friend, Chizuru, and here the show stumbles.
Given the shuffling pace of the main plot, the choice to spend a majority of the season's remaining episodes on things not directly related to the interaction between Kazehaya and Sawako hamstrings the show's ending. The abbreviated tone of the last segment--which concerns the end of the calendar year and Sawako's birthday--feels less like an optimistic end and more like an abortive return to the story already in progress. Winding up when the anime should have been winding down delivers disappointment where viewers expect closure. Of course, the second season (announced at the time this review goes to... press?) should push aside these issues as it gets back into the saddle of the leads' growing affection, but as a standalone effort the state of Kimi ni Todoke in its final installment felt far short of its initial promise.
Production I.G. certainly did the source material justice with its visuals. Kimi ni Todoke's original manga looks like Wallflower on extra shoujo juice, making heavy use of chibi characters, fanciful spreads, and heaps of sparklies. The show's animation takes all this in and improves on it. Pin, Chizu, and Ryu look better in color by a mile, as it lends a depth and plasticity which suits these direct and solid characters better than their previously diaphanous character designs. Similarly, each and every one of Sawako's emotional swings gets a royal treatment: her joyous highs become brilliant bursts of pastel fauna, and her depression covers the screen in deep blues and purples. When this combines with the deformed characters, the anime emanates an overall impressionistic and emotive feel which complements the mercurial cast and high school romance.
Unfortunately, this purposeful corner-cutting wears a little thin on occasion. No matter how thematically or artistically consistent the simplified character designs may be, long stretches without any detail make some episodes seem more lazy than fanciful. And, when Kimi ni Todoke chooses to immediately switch into chibi mode during important scenes or use stills apparently lifted from the manga as substitute for subtly animated close-ups, something feels lost in the adaptation.
The show's mild, unobtrusive classical pieces complement the show's wafting plot and fits perfectly with the mood of every episode. The OP, named after the series, features a catchy chorus section which surfaces repeatedly as a deliberate piano number throughout the work. Its hopeful strains can transform in temperament with interpretation and tempo, allowing it to fit the mood of any scene. In contrast, the saccharinely stately ending theme, "Kataomoi", while a delightful enough song in its own right, overpowers the rest of the anime's score and takes a little getting used to, even though it adheres to the overall feel of the work.
The best voice work in the series comes from the three main females. Makimo Noto's Sawako has three distinct voices and the seiyuu transitions between them with admirable agility. Her pitching of the young, insecure high school student at somewhere between oujo-sama and bookworm strikes a fine balance for the naive girl, and the resulting voice is both easy on the ears and helps make her seem more sympathetic. Similarly, Miyuki Sawashiro and Yuko Sanpei execute their charges with verve. Yuko Sanpei all but sings her lines in order to capture Chizuru's upbeat attitude, and when the tears flow, bawls in a manner that's believable and comedic in equal measure. But the accolades go to Sawashiro-san, who manages the subtler role of Yano with a deft hand in order to bring the calculating social mover and the steadfast friend into one whole character.
Across the way, Dasiuke Namikawa applies a subdued vulnerability to Kazehaya, which adds a much-needed touch of believability to his cautious emotional development. Nevertheless, Yuuichi Nakamura's performance as Ryuu again shows the superiority of the secondary characters in this anime. The voice actor manages to turn the barely vocal athlete into a delightful combination of straight man and comic relief through a mastery of utterance and single-word delivery ("Amazake...").
As female leads go, Sawako sits on the cusp between compelling and repetitive: her naivete makes her easy to root for, but her crippling awkwardness and social ignorance wears thin as the episodes pile on. And, when she continues to walk on eggshells around her classmates deep into the season despite her increasing number of friends, even the most indulgent fans should find it stretches reason. That said, her enthusiasm and wry sense of humor make her entertaining and empathetic. As the object of her affection, Kazehaya suffers from a similarly flat set of character traits wrapped around a glaring inconsistency. Fans who engage their brains as he blushes should spend a good deal of time wondering how someone so friendly and frequently the center of attention can be petrified by the presence of meek and well-meaning Sawako. Of course, he's a charmer and fully capable of washing away any doubts with his winning smile and steadfast friendship. But this sincerity itself causes his paramore-to-be place him on a pedestal high above her own perceived position, and further attenuates the already awkward interactions between the two. In another title, the resulting lack of chemistry between the leads would stop the whole effort dead in its tracks, but here, it actually serves as focus for the narrative (hence the translated title, "Reaching You").
Luckily, both main characters get exceptional support from an effervescent secondary cast. Leading the charge out of Sawako's corner, Chizuru steals many scenes in the show. Her tough-as-nails and athletic exterior hides a delightful sensitivity, which frequently causes the girl to explode into tears at the slightest display of sincere emotion. However, unlike the also-frequently-wet Lag Seeing, Chizu's waterworks draw out another side of her character, and in so doing, provide depth and comic relief in equal measure. The lead's other new best friend, Ayane Yano (Yano-chin to her pals) hides a cynical and sadistic streak under a kind and beautiful exterior, which contrasts her heartfelt affection for those she cares about and paints her as that one bitch you love to have in your corner. Though she shines brightest when pitted against the similarly cunning Kurumi, her level-headed reactions complement Chizu's zesty outbursts the practiced rhythm of a straight man/funny man comedy act.
Of course, like a brilliant sun, Kazehaya himself pulls both the tall drink of water, Ryuu Saneda, and the amusingly brash Pin into his orbit to serve as counterpoint to the otherwise reserved male lead. The young baseball player adorns his laconic nature with a pinch of laziness and a blunt delivery that helps him sober the group despite the fact that he, too, can be a sentimental and emotional teenager. When paired with the vivacious Chizuru or skittish Sawako, his curt utterances pry giggles from the audience by some strange, subtle comedic alchemy. Conversely, the loud, dense, and egotistical Pin wanders through the plot like a force of nature, capable of dispensing humor, misfortune, or solutions on his students. His absurdity and power provide excellent contrast to the seemingly grave arcs that consume the show's middle while also offering some genuine belly-laughs.
For all its pacing missteps, Kimi ni Todoke only withers upon scrutiny. No matter how much you hate Kurumi's face or bemoan the glacial plot development, each episode will put a warm smile on your face, and find you rushing to forgive the show's faults. Much of the reason the it feels unfinished to me comes from the fact that I want to see more of Sawako and the gang, and viewers should agree with this assessment. Whether it's to hear Noto-san's dulcet tones, gasp at cute flowers blooming around an excited character, or get a dose of adorable doki-doki, this series is worth your time should have you eager for a second season.
Sawako Kuronuma is just like any other high school girl who wants to make friends and be useful. The only problem is she bears a worrying resemblance to Sadako from 'The Ring!' Because of her reputation, people are not only terrified of her, but small dogs even bark in fear at her presence; in fact, the only person in school who will talk to her is the lively class hottie, Kazehaya. As the pair spends more time together, Kazehaya slowly begins to bring Sawako out of her shell and soon their feelings for each other develop further. Though with her crippling insecurities, lack of social skills, and a series of cruel rumors and misunderstandings, it seems that Sawako's dream of a normal life won’t be quite so easy to obtain.
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These days I load up on comedy, slice-of-life, and horror shows, but I'll watch almost anything that sports a good voice cast, an interesting story, or looks particularly pretty. I tend to relate anime I review to other shows I've seen, because that's just how my mind works. Whether my warped view on a particular show totally misses the mark or you believe I've hit the nail on the head, I'd love to hear from you and welcome feedback and intelligent discussion of just how wrong I might be.