Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Kokoro Connect - Review

So I said I'd do this a while ago but I never really got around to it until now, but this will be a review of the anime series Kokoro Connect, due to a few people asking.

The five protagonists clockwise from top left: Iori, Inaba, Taichi, Aoki, Yui

Before I begin I just want to point out how confusing it was that some of the characters were referred to by their first names (Taichi, Iori and Yui), others by their last names (Inaba and Aoki). Iori in particular is referred to by both her first name, as well as her family name Nagase multiple times in the series, which was sort of annoying. But in the end it doesn't really matter, just something I thought I'd mention.

Anyway I probably shouldn't give a review without at least saying what this whole series is about - to sum it up, it's a drama/comedy slice of life piece with supernatural phenomena happening to the cast. First arc is body swapping, Freaky Friday style. Second arc involves involuntary actions. Third arc has the cast randomly de-aging, and the last (which is Blu-Ray only due to some controversy you guys are better off not knowing about) involves random transmission of thoughts. At its core, Kokoro Connect is about the five main characters. Imagine your group of friends, now imagine all these supernatural phenomena happening to your friends. What do you have? Drama.

And yes, Kokoro Connect is forced drama. It doesn't pretend to be anything else. This isn't a bad thing, and I have to stress this because often in dramas, drama happens for no reason at all other than to push the plot forwards. Kokoro Connect frames this drama with the character known as Heartseed, who is behind all of the phenomena happening to the characters. It is when you acknowledge that the forced drama is the entire concept of the plot that you begin to appreciate the minute details.

The most common criticism of Kokoro Connect (and one that I echo) is simply that the series failed to deliver. Ironically, this is related to the show's biggest strength as well - its first arc. Known as ヒトランダム (Hito Random), which roughly translates to 'Random People', the first arc opens boldly with interspersed cuts of the characters as they get ready for school. Their personalities and quirks are established almost immediately in a quite masterful fashion. We see Taichi as a mild guy with a white knight streak, Inaba as being intelligent and distant, Yui as being shy but determined, Aoki as the dogged nice guy, and Iori as your typical upbeat, popular girl. Usually, a character-driven anime such as Kokoro Connect would be hampered by such pigeonholing of the characters, but the stereotypes portrayed by the characters actually serve to add a more dynamic nature to the drama in the series. A deconstruction, if you will. I actually liked it - I think more slice of life shows such as Kokoro Connect could serve to deconstruct their genre a bit more.

I'll put it bluntly though - the series should have ended at Hito Random. No spoilers, but there is a moment of intense emotion near the conclusion of the arc, one that tore my heart out of my chest, played with it, tore at the heartstrings, before shoving it back in backwards. It is masterful. Were Kokoro Connect a simple five-episode (or maybe six, if more detail was put into Hito Random) series, there would not be a doubt in my mind that it would be the best anime of 2012. This is not an understatement - if you want to watch one of the best animated pieces of 2012, watch the first five episodes of Kokoro Connect.

The most heartwrenching part of the series.
But there's a catch. There's always a catch. Kokoro Connect hits that high note, then plays the rest of the piece in monotone, showing signs of wanting to break out, but being unable to. It truly is a pity. After Hito Random, the characters become more one-dimensional. The worst offender is probably Inaba, who turns into your typical tsundere for no apparent reason other than she's horny. Yui and Aoki, who had potential as a sort of 'alpha couple', are shoved backstage so Inaba and Iori can angst a bit more. Fortunately for Yui, a lot of character development occurs during Hito Random (and some almost-good moments in the second arc, Kizu Random), while her unfortunate counterpart Aoki gets one episode of development in the third arc, Kiko Random which doesn't really amount to anything.

Yui and Aoki are shoved aside for the climax of the third arc with Aoki turning into a baby for no real reason.
Some exposition in Kiko Random reveals the audience's suspicion - that Taichi is simply our eyes for the series. He reacts the least to the phenomena out of any of the characters, and is calm throughout. We see ourselves in him, and that can be a good thing, but sometimes we are left wishing for a more interesting character. Honestly, I don't like it. The series, especially towards the end, started to feel hollow and fake thanks to the gaping void that was Taichi.

"I guess I am just exposition in character form."
This leaves Iori as the only character with any real development and depth. She is very realistic, in my opinion. Though an internally troubled character, she deals with her problems with the same arrogance seen in most other 16-year-old girls, trying to take them on by herself. She doesn't really overcome her identity crisis until the end of Kako Random, the fourth arc. I'm not sure if it was the translator's fault, but the moment in which she overcame her internal struggle of identity ended up feeling like being hit over the head with a hammer called Character Development. It wasn't subtle. It wasn't pleasant, either. But I have to give the writers credit for being bold enough to actually do it in a series of otherwise mediocre characters.

Blissfully unaware of just how much faith the audience has in her.

But that's enough gloom and doom. What did I like about the series? Other than the first arc, I have to say the opening of the first few arcs was very catchy and pleasant to watch (it's sped up to avoid copyright, watch the series to enjoy it in its full glory). On top of that, Kokoro no Kara (I believe it's pitchshifted to avoid copyright) is probably the best ending theme I've ever heard. Ever. The way it builds tension for the next episode in the previews is amazing. Episode 4 especially - I had my heart in my throat.

Animation is top-notch, as to be expected. I love the use of colour and lighting in Kokoro Connect - day scenes are bright, while night scenes are coloured realistically. Lighting used to be an unusual technique in the past, but Kokoro Connect uses it well, with the sun shining on some characters in especially dramatic moments. Watch for its use in the opening sequence if you want an idea of what I mean. Overall, it's a very beautiful anime, well crafted. I do appreciate the recent stepping-up in quality of anime, and Kokoro Connect is no exception. It's great on the ears and eyes - the voice actors are perfect for their roles, and I have to give special credit to Inaba's voice actor Miyuko Sawashira (who even resembles her character somewhat), as some of Inaba's scenes do get emotional (one especially in the first arc).

So my recommendation? Watch it, if only for the first arc. It's a learning experience, for sure. You may even like the series on a whole. It's not a waste of time like some other series, it's worth a watch. It's not great, but it's not bad either. I'll give it a 7/10 and my thumbs up of approval. My bitter comments are more out of frustration than anything - frustration that the series didn't deliver on some unique and interesting concepts. But Kokoro Connect has no large flaws that make it a poor series - far from it. And in this day and age, sometimes that's all you need for a satisfying watch.

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