When this anime was first announced, I didn't know what to expect from it, exactly. Brains-Base is a studio that as of late has been doing superb romcoms (Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun) and vomit-inducing terrible reverse harems (Amnesia).
More importantly, the ''loner protagonist'' theme is used more than it may seem at first, but often just as a schtick for comedic relief and/or an excuse for yet another average romance/school-life anime with a naïve pretension of being different.
So, was that the case for Yahari? Absolutely not.
Granted, the first episode gave me the impression of this being a more clever, mature version of the likes of Haganai (with the general premise, snarky humor and apparent character types), but by the end of it I found Yahari to be much closer to programs like NHK regarding its main focus, as well as character development and interactions.
Sure, the protagonist's personality and views on the world and society (especially reflected through his outstanding inner monologues) may make for plenty of intentional, very good comedy which had me laughing and chuckling throughout, but, much like NHK, there is a serious backdrop to the characters' issues which is not passed off as a joke and is managed immensely well through their dialogues and even body language.
If you are looking for an average romcom in this, or some kind of harem-ish comedy, you are in the wrong track. As the title suggests, this anime is pretty much a deconstruction of the romcom genre which effortlessly makes most of its unnerving clichés crumble down.
The story does not follow a frequently used formula of presenting each new heroine with a particular problem, followed by a character arc to solve said problem and after which she gets a cheap, melodramatic catharsis of sorts and is then added to the regular cast without ever actually delving into the character again, as if that issue they solved were the only major point to their thoughts and worries.
This is about an ensemble cast, and it is very dialogue-driven - much to my enjoyment. Each arc serves the purpose of dealing with different aspects of social life as a whole, while at the same time developing different nuances of all the characters' personalities by having them participate as an active part of the discussions at hand and thus making their own ideas and views and related personal issues and quirks shine seamlessly, rather than artificially passing down a huge blatant spotlight from one to another.
These social deliberations are made in a realistic, true-to-daily-life manner, in which every character has something relevant and different to contribute instead of just taking a side in a black-or-white debate. All the situations presented are easily relatable.
For example, in one arc, you have several children forming a closer group by way of feeding off their collective bullying to a lone girl, who as a result of this grows more and more aloof and is in a dilemma about giving up her social life entirely so as not to feel bad about it, but she doesn't want to be left alone, and there's also the pressure of the parents' expectations mixed into the equation ("make lots of photos with your friends during the summer camp, we want to see them!"). The actual ramifications of this kind of aggressive, excluding group mentality are effectively portrayed, as well as the decisions the shunned girl comes to when the protagonist lay an abstract crossroad before her.
Or in another episode, you have this other bunch of four highschool buddies chatting lively and having fun together, but when the ''main guy'' who is in fact the glue that keeps the group together goes away, suddenly the cheery talk ceases and the three other guys start minding their own business: fleeing to their mobile phones, looking away, etcetera. Who in the world cannot relate to this kind of situation, especially in this day and age with technology taking over most social interaction?
What's even better, all the situations are dealt with rather effectively, but also subtly. There is a catharsis of sorts to be had for every given situation, but the package does not include overblown melodrama, screams and crocodile tears, and the characters do develop but ever so slightly, just like a person in real life does not change their mind completely about people and the world and the way they behave from one day to the next. Everything is also grey-shaded, with no solution being perfect and without some kind of negative consequence.
Now, for a closer overlook at the characters...
Hikigaya Hachiman, alias Hikki, has been arguably the best male lead of the current season by a mile. His aloof, detached, distrustful, pessimistic personality has won over most of the viewers rather than alienating them, and there's a good reason for it: his character is in fact very well constructed and coherent with reality (and being right up there in skepticism and social paranoia as I am makes me very prone to relate with him). His experiences regarding his social life are depressing but plausible. His somber monologues are harsh, yet well-founded and their content rings terribly true for the most part (and when it doesn't, it's because the show is trying and succeeding at making me laugh). And most importantly, his offbeat actions and the very awkward way in which he interacts with other people is perfectly coherent with the way he thinks.
He's true to himself, has solid beliefs, his sarcasm is freaking hilarious and he never comes off as an obnoxious twat - in fact, he can be exceptionally frank and severe for the greater good while being hurt himself, which makes him some kind of incredibily endearing highschool Batman. Even with all this, he does have subtle character development to speak of. Deep inside he wants to be able to trust people again, to have close, sincere friends, and while reality is often not as simple and makes him regress to his lonely path more than once, he slowly learns to cope with the fact that no frienship is perfect and maybe, just maybe, not everything is so bad after all.
The protagonist girls are also very good, even if Hikki decidedly steals the show.
Yukinoshita is calm, intelligent, very honest: she pulls no punches when it comes to expressing what she thinks and feels. She's also had bad experiences in the past, but her way of confronting the hardships of life is different from Hikki's, which makes them very different and very similar at the same time. The way they get to know each other is slowly built up, natural and absolutely rewarding, and overall she's also a very interesting, admirable yet flawed, as well as funny character to follow on her own.
Yui on the other hand is more cheerful and socially extroverted, but actually has problems expressing her own opinions and avoiding to follow a group mindset and the existing social hierarchy. Hikki's way of behaving around her is similar but their conversations are fundamentally different in tone, flow and content. Still, their budding, hard-to-describe relationship is just as lovely, believable and adorably imperfect.
The supporting cast is naturally less prominent, but the narrative never lets them stay as one-dimensional side characters. They participate in the social disputes as much as the main cast members do, and their input on things comes from varied perspectives and ways of life, keeping things open-minded and thought-provoking. Similarly, what these characters do or say may often not have a clear-cut meaning, you're frequently left on your own to figure out exactly how these characters are underneath their appearance, which is then proved right or wrong by their later developments. Hayato, Yukino's older sister Haruka and the teacher are the most remarkable ones, but other than a couple slightly annoying individuals, the secondaries are often compelling to watch.
(Also, Saika, please stop messing with my until now well-defined sexuality)
As a last note content-wise: just like in the way the story and characters progress, the show has close to zero otaku catering, and this feels endlessly pleasant. Hikki has a little sister and for once actually behaves and thinks of her in a way most siblings 'round the world can honestly relate with: no excitement/blushing bullshit if she's changing clothes near you, actual annoyance at her shrill, hyperactive demeanor, etcetera. Similarly, the closest you'll get to the loathed beach/swimsuit episodes are three or four minutes of the characters having fun on a riverside, with a very toned down, not-in-your-face fanservice element.
The visual value is honestly not as big: animation is simplistic, and so are the backgrounds and effects. However, they all do their job well, and I have to give praise to the character designs (Hikki's especially so) for actually feeling sort of fresh while at the same time retaining many aspects of the genre the anime is deconstructing. Other than some inconsistencies (sloppily drawn faces here and there), they're pretty and memorable.
As for the OST, it is equally simplistic but does its job perfectly in complementing the scenes, and in this case I must congratulate the show for the voice acting, which conveys the characters' personalities and feelings almost as well as their actual lines do. Hikki's half detached, half jaded tone is marvelous to listen to - almost addicting. As for the opening and ending, I'd have to mimic what I've said earlier: they sound like your typical romcom fare, but they're actually rather beautiful to listen to, and I don't think I've ever skipped them (often replayed them, even).
Overall, this is my second favorite anime out of everything in the Spring season, and it will probably rank very high in my yearly top list as well. With a very different from norm focus, clever gags, a delightfully slick narrative, wonderful characters and an unusually mature approach to school life and interpersonal dynamics, Yahari is perfect for big fans of the genre, for former fans who are losing hope in it, and even for people who aren't really fans at all.
This is only the adaptation of the first half of the original light novels' story, so sadly it doesn't have as strong a conclusion as we the viewers would have loved it to have. Still, most of it was brilliant and I'm willing to bet what's ahead only gets better. Here's hoping for a second season a few years from now.