There is a reason why the "3 episode rule" exists. Although, in this case, it's more of an 8 episode rule. What starts as a fairly typical school life romantic comedy (albeit with a somewhat unusual premise) filled to the brim with ecchi situations and fanservice morphs into something very real and meaningful somewhere along the way. Sorata Kanda is the only normal, responsible person in Sakura Hall, the old run down dormitory near his high school that no one actually decides to live in. The residents are all those who have been kicked out of the normal dorms for some reason or another, and as such are generally seen as unfit to take care of the dorm's newest resident: Mashiro Shiina, a (noncanonically) autistic mangaka-to-be who is an amazing artist but cannot consistently clothe, feed, or bathe herself properly. To summarize: normal guy surrounded by crazy peers, including a pretty girl who is almost always partially naked. If this sounds generic and awful to you, I can't blame you but seriously hold on a sec. It gets good.
Story - 9/10
While I definitely could have gone without the somewhat sketchy tendencies of the introductory episodes, what follows such displays stands as a testament to the power of character-driven narrative. Complex characters with meaningfully complex personalities make organic decisions based on who they are and, possibly more importantly, who they want to be. The story, then, is derived not from a standalone plot that the characters support, but rather exists as a natural extension of the characters themselves and the decisions they make. It all feels very fluid and natural, moving from plot point to plot point at a pace that doesn't appear at all manufactured. The story itself follows the residents of Sakura Hall as they work towards various goals and, in the process, discover who they are and why they feel the way they do. It's a very emotionally engaging story at times, as it drives home what exactly life really can be about: sometimes hard work and motivation can only get you so far. Sometimes you'll give everything you have, only to fail and be left with nothing to hold onto. Life is unpredictable and the world is ambivalent to your suffering, but there is still beauty in life and love, and finding a place where you truly belong can make moving forward that much more rewarding. It doesn't create complexity for the purpose of having complexity, nor does it make itself more dramatic than it needs to be. It only presents a cross-section of the very real, genuine lives of a group of people who, for however short a time, happen to be connected by this old, worn down building. The moving, unadorned honesty and simplicity of it all makes the story something unforgettable. It resonates with you because, through it, you can recognize your own flaws and needs and desires and triumphs and those of people you love and care about. You feel what they feel because you know them, and are them, and in some way you believe that everyone you love deserves the kind of happiness that they so desperately seek.
Animation - 8.5/10
Let's get this out of the way right now: Sakurasou is a rather pretty show. Crisp lines and meaningful palette choices combine with an unbelievable attention to detail to create a pleasant viewing experience. The lighting and shadow is near perfect. The use of framing and visual metaphor is undeniably good. Everything down to the last individual button on a minor character's jacket is accounted for and drawn beautifully. The results are as striking as they are technically impressive; context and depth is given to the characters and the situations they find themselves in purely through how they are artistically portrayed. There's no mistaking that the animation team knew exactly what they were doing when it comes to making something look good. Unfortunately, no matter how well the individual frames are designed, it's hard to get away from lackluster fluidity. The animation itself wasn't sluggish or poor, but it lacks the sense of motion and urgency that I would have preferred to see out of an otherwise beautiful show. The contents of the show don't necessarily require the same type of animation as a more action-oriented flick, but regardless of what is and isn't necessary, I still felt as though the animation didn't flow nearly as well as I had hoped. Overall, the visuals were incredibly consistent, though; I don't feel as though there was ever a single moment where I felt as though something failed to meet my expectations in terms of static design.
Sound - 8/10
Easily the weakest link, but by no means bad. The openings and endings fit the show fairly well and do a decent job of setting the tone. Voice acting was good all around, with most characters' respective voices fitting their image fairly well. Performance was solid in that regard, as well. The sound assets and ambient music is where Sakurasou shines, in my opinion. Soft piano or sweeping melodies set the mood of a scene perfectly without being intrusive or obnoxious, and silence is often used to proper effect. It really does bother me that some shows can't seem to figure out that purposeful silence can often set the mood better than music, and that music doesn't have to be a loud, clamorous affair. Nothing really stands out to me as being wonderful or worthy of special mention, but in the end, much like with the visuals, what speaks to me about Sakurasou's sound is how consistent it is. The music does its job well and there aren't really any slip-ups to speak of. The voice acting is solid all around and I can't recall off the top of my head any single instance of even one line that had shoddy delivery.
Characters - 9.5/10
Sakurasou includes not characters, but people. Real, genuine human beings with passions and desires and fears and insecurities that come together to create complex personal and interpersonal relationships. They make decisions based on what they feel and then grow as people when they come face-to-face with the repercussions of those decisions. They act and react in ways that follow naturally from who they are and what they want out of life. They mature not in reaction to the plot requiring that they learn a lesson, but in reaction to challenges that they may or may not overcome and to the needs of themselves and others. It's honestly the kind of meaningfully deep characters that you don't really see anywhere else. They aren't tropes. They aren't archetypes. Their layers have layers and the personality that comes out of all this complexity doesn't feel needlessly convoluted. It feels human. It feels like the a group of people who are trying to figure out the world and its workings without first truly understanding themselves.
*Reviewer's note: this is probably the only anime I have watched where I genuinely and earnestly loved, empathized with, and identified with every major character. There is usually at least one that I'm just not a fan of or have reservations about, but for some reason this group really got to me. Maybe I’m biased.
Overall - 9/10
When I finished this anime, the only thing I could really do for a while was try to compose myself and say “Where the hell did that come from?” What starts as an 'already seen it a million times' rom-com becomes, at some point, a lot more poignant than I was expecting. I almost feel weird giving it this high of praise, to be completely honest; even now that I've had time to properly digest it, it still feels like it should be something forgettable. Something uninteresting and meaningless. But it's not. It's managed to strike me with a set of emotions I haven't gotten from an anime in a good while. And I think it's going to stick with me for some time. From matters of love to questions of the future, Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo resonated with me. It hit something that made me stop and see things in different light, a different hue. It struck a chord somewhere inside me that made me turn inward and ask myself, “What color do I want to be?”