I saw the word “sing” and I stopped. That was a terrible mistake! For those who follow me regularly, you know one of my least favorite anime genres is music. So I avoided this show during the Spring 2020 season. One day, I simply decided to watch it anyway. I don’t even know why. I just clicked the link and away I went.

For one thing, I discovered of course that it wasn’t about music at all. Second, I discovered that I had almost missed out on a masterpiece. This anime held onto my heart from the first minute of episode 1 to the last of episode 12. I hung on every word these four fascinating characters spoke. A dialogue-driven anime is a rarity, seinen or otherwise, and this is an even rarer example. A short, easy to watch, magnificent exposition of human personalities and feelings. You know how I love when anime takes something so very human like this and does a great job with it. It is truly beautiful.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Characters

Rating: 10

Romance anime most often targets the highschool age range viewer. Those characters predictably have a great deal of emotional difficulty in their love affairs, as they learn how to deal with these new and powerful feelings. It’s not often anime depicts the difficulties of romance between young adults. Those difficulties are very different than those of the typical younger audience. This show does a beautiful job of shining a light on those troubles and portraying it in an interesting and heartfelt way.

Rikuo is a young man recently graduated from university. But he cannot find his direction in life. He’s not overly dramatic about it, and it doesn’t overly effect his plotlines in this anime, but it defines his life at this point, much to his disappointment. This is the first very human situation we’re presented with in this show. I always promise I won’t let the real world’s issues bleed over into the content on this site, so I won’t say anything further than this is a situation a lot of young people find themselves in these day coming out of college. So it’s easily relatable, and makes Rikuo and his situation relatable to many people. He works ordinary jobs wherever he can just to make enough money to pay his bills. When we first see him, this is at a droll convenience store. At least, it’s droll until he decides to feed some crows one day.

Haru Nonaka. Look up “doki doki” and you might see her picture there. How could anyone not fall in love with her? Since this show is targeted at the young adult, and therefore smaller, audience, I think a lot of animedom might miss out on seeing this character. And that would be a great loss. From the first moment she tells Rikuo to just treat her like one of the crows, she grips your heart and holds onto it with the same tenacity with which she lives her life. She’s so full of life and energy and human beauty! She truly changes the world just by being in it. And if you could be lucky enough to actually be around her, oh how your world would be renewed!

She’s mysterious. The crow is often a harbinger of evil in literature, but in this case, it simply adds to her mystique. And memorability. I don’t know if the crow plays any intricate role in the story however. He does cause a ruckus at convenient moments a couple of times, without which we would have a significantly different story! But the bird aside. Haru is so full of life! This show is full of reticence and heavy emotional burdens, and then Haru will appear and suddenly her lively voice and curious aspect make everything else seem less important, like the weight of the world no longer matters as long as she’s there.

She’s a liar. She says so herself. She will put on a happy face no matter the circumstances. She will help others bear their burdens through her outward exuberance. Often these kinds of facades are the source of tension between people. Perhaps this is why she slowly begins to lose it over time, as her sadness lessens and she can live as herself without having to put a false face on it all the time. We all know the weight of false faces.

You are the light of my life.

But above all, she’s Haru. I don’t know if the word “haru,” meaning “spring,” has anything to do with her character, but I love the choice of name regardless. She might claim she’s a liar, and at times she definitely will put the happiest face on things, but even there I think she’s lying to herself. It’s really her true nature to shine light onto the lives of those around her. After all, when one explicitly states that one is a liar, you have to be telling the truth for that to have any meaning, which means you’re not a liar. This was a clever moment during one of Haru and Rikuo’s multiple conversations on the park bench. It speaks to the depth of the dialogue these characters engage in.

Shinako is Rikuo’s former classmate, and his longtime crush. Her traumatic romance with Rou’s sickly older brother, now deceased, weighs heavily on her. She “lives in the past” as they say. She only maintains her fragile mental stability by connecting to Rou’s family through familiar actions, such as cooking dinner or lunches, etc. She maintains her friendship with Rikuo for the same reason. Or, ostensibly that’s what she believes. Part of her looks towards the future, holding onto Rikuo in her fear of being alone. This character is voiced by the same VA that plays Anri Sonohara in Durarara!!, Kana Hanazawa, and that same nervous uncertainty filters through this character’s voice.

I’ll warn you now. There will be times during this review where it’s going to sound like I’m making Shinako out to be a bad person. That is not the case. I looked at Shinako many times throughout this show and realized how easily Rikuo could fall in love with her. I could imagine doing so myself. You have tons of sympathy–and empathy–with what she goes through, both in the past and now. She’s mature and strong enough to bear her burdens, no matter what those burdens often drive her to do. She doesn’t break ever. Her facial features are probably the most remarkable in the show. You have to see little subtle reactions on her face a lot of times, and they’re always really important to the story. She’s a remarkable character, and easily lovable.

Rou is the younger brother of Shinako’s aforementioned love interest who passed away. He’s a little bit frustrating, latching onto his brother’s lover as they spent time “together” during their younger days. He’s “pushy,” as we see it translated in the subtitles, not hesitating to air his feelings out to Shinako. He does so without knowing the pain he causes by doing so, and it aggravates Shinako’s unhappiness. In the end however, his persistence helps push Shinako to a point were she has to decide to let go of the past enough to allow her to live. So as annoying and unfeeling as he can be at times, he does help get her to a better place.

I mentioned young love is different than mature love. The author does a great job highlighting that here. Haru and Rou are seniors in highschool, but even they approach love rather haphazardly. Rikuo and Shinako approach it with more maturity, treading very lightly, trying not to hurt each other, and absorbing the hurt they do cause without overreacting to it. There’s tension and drama between them to be sure, but it’s not as gut-wrenching as highschool love would cause. But in one area Haru and Rou, in their youthful innocence I guess, approach love more correctly. Love naturally is optimistic, naturally looking to the future. Haru and Rou hold onto their chance at love in a very pure sense. It speaks well to Rikuo’s character as well that he maintains optimism about his relationship with Shinako. But it’s Shinako who’s heart is so heavily damaged that she can’t see love optimistically. She sees love only as a thing of her past, binding her unceasingly to a dead lover.

It’s in each character’s reaction to love that this story is most heartfelt. It’s very simple at times, but also believable, and therefore very relatable. Shinako is bound by her past, and she lets it affect her present and future, but who wouldn’t suffer some drastic effect from what she’s gone through? She took care of a person who, even as a child, she probably knew wasn’t going to live very long. She devoted her young life to him. All she knows is the sacrifice of love. And now that person is gone. A lot of people would jump off the bridge at this. She holds onto her love irrationally, but it does keep her going.

Found this picture in the dictionary under the definition of the word “awkward.”

Rikuo’s impact on Shinako’s life is profound. And she knows it. She knows how much she owes to their friendship, and even the blooming love he has for her, which she’s aware of and subconsciously setting aside in the midst of her trauma. She knows he’s the only thing pointing her to the future, pushing her to let go of the pain of the past. I think this has something to do with why she asks him why he’s not more assertive. She knows the role he’s playing in her life. She knows she’s leading him on while she can’t move forward with him. And she desperately wants his help. So she holds onto him, hoping he can one day, even if slowly, bring her out of the miserable prison in her heart.

Here’s where our two young friends play such an important role. In Shinako’s case, it’s Rou’s coming of age and resulting assertiveness that help her recognize what she wishes Rikuo would do for her. It’s rather hopeless, and even selfish, of her however, as she’s basically asking Rikuo to become something he cannot be. Even when he takes a little initiative and finally hugs Shinako, it’s only with one arm, and it’s very uncomfortable looking. This is ultimately part of the reason they both end up realizing they can’t be together.

But there’s nothing complicated about the other reason Rikuo and Shinako don’t have a future as lovers. Haru is in the middle of everything. She shows up in Rikuo’s life, and she shows him the way. She doesn’t show him a path so much as she simply shows him that there is such a thing as life, and that it doesn’t look like what he’s imagined. He has become disillusioned, for the longest time simply imagining he can continue as things are, loving Shinako from a distance and having no direction in life. Then this wandering princess shows up in his life, and she shocks him. She is a light in dark places, as all other lights go out. How so, says you? Because she lives her life. The separation between love and life in her world is not discernible. She cannot help but love, and she cannot help but live. As Rikuo cannot be something he’s not, so Haru cannot be anything but a fountain of life and love. And that light affects everyone around her.

She’s the reason Rikuo realizes he should pursue Shinako, acting on his dreams instead of just dreaming them. She’s the reason he finally pursues the career he really wanted, photography. She breathes life into him, and shows him that life can be lived. And yet she’s also the reason why he cannot share that life with Shinako. She has scarred his heart, not like Shinako’s heart is scarred by death, but by life. Hearts can slowly die in lots of ways. For Shinako, it’s by attaching itself to the dead. For Rikuo, it’s by complacency, dying to living. Haru won’t allow this. Just having her around, Rikuo cannot be that way. He has to live. Haru doesn’t ask him to change himself into something he cannot be. She shines light into his heart, allowing him to see what he truly can be. And as she shines that light into him, so he cannot help but shine the echo of that light into others. Both Shinako and he come to the same conclusion in time. They are and always will be friends, but their hearts, now both free, belong to someone else.

How could one not love Haru? My only regret is that we cannot see more of her. But also, I am happy with the way this anime resolves, and I don’t even want anything added to it. As much as I’d love to spend a lifetime with a person like Haru, this little dose we get of the character Haru is also enough for a lifetime. Beautiful characters should strike quickly and so forever scar our hearts, a wound to be worn with honor and affection. Such is the nature of our encounter with these characters. Such is the nature of a light shined in darkness. Such is the nature of our encounter with the strangely human Haru Nonaka.

Artwork

Rating: 9

There’s a couple of interesting things about this artwork. It’s fairly “normal” overall, but there’s handful of things I want to note about it that make it remarkable to me.

One thing I really found interesting in hindsight was the first scene with Haru and Rikuo. It was so dark in the early morning hours when Rikuo went out back of the convenience store to feed the crows and wallow in his depression. But the sun begins to rise and it brightens a little. At the same time, Haru appears before him. This speaks a lot to Haru’s role in this story. She is a source of light in these characters’ lives. Nothing shows that better than the brightening of the scene upon her arrival.

Very dark at first…
What’s this?
Haru appears. Not only is it brighter, it’s brighter where she’s standing. Very remarkable in hindsight.

I make no secret I don’t read manga. Sue me. This series is no exception. But the minor difference here is that I’ve seen a good deal of the artwork from this manga from various sources. And the differences between the two are remarkable. Yes, anime artwork and original manga art are usually fairly different, but there’s usually some overarching stylistic points that are similar between the two mediums for a given work. This manga art looks almost like watercolor, some kind of early Impressionist style. Slightly abstract and slightly fuzzy. The anime is very clear, very “anime typical.” It has a bit of Monogatari about it. Which makes sense if you’re looking for something with echoes of the abstract. But it’s not very abstract actually. That comparison has more to do with the coloring than anything. And perhaps a bit with the mildly supernatural air you feel during this story.

I bring this up only in the sense of how the artwork feels. At first (or even second) glance, the supernatural doesn’t appear to have any effect in this series. But if you’re remembering Kansuke, Haru’s crow, at this point, then you’re making the same connection I am. There’s just a little of bit of otherworldliness about Haru. The crow and her seeming ability to go anywhere at any time are the primary factors that contribute to this aura. This sense subsides as the series passes, as we become more aware of Haru’s family life. But until then, there’s just a little bit of mystery about her, and the artwork adds to that effect. I can’t easily point to anything in particular that causes this effect, other than saying the slightly warm temperature of the coloring. That’s the point that feels similar to Monogatari, and it has a similar effect. Whether that’s intentional or not, I cannot say. Referring back to the manga, the colors are on that yellowish-brownish side of warm there as well. So maybe the coloring is simply to mimic the manga style. But why Kei Toume, the manga author, chose this coloring style is a mystery to me.

And I don’t object to it either, if those two paragraphs make it feel that way. I really like it here. The whole show feels calm and cozy somehow due to the coloring, despite the aforementioned supernatural feel. The art in general supports the characters and the story in a remarkable way. For there to be so little motion overall (which is to be expected in romance), there were times when I found myself super focused on the visuals themselves. I’ll actively look for things as I watch anime anyway, sometimes consciously so, sometimes more subconsciously. But I rarely feel so drawn into the action, the animation itself, that I feel like I’m locked in on it. It was like “the zone” people get in sports, for those of you who’ve experienced that. Perhaps a more general example is appropriate, like how it feels when you direct some strong emotion at an individual. Everything else disappears and there’s just that person. Needless to say, if you’ve ever been in love, you’ve probably experienced this at some point looking at the person you love. This was a small but powerful part of the way this story was portrayed through its artwork.

The natural extension of this line of thought is to bring up the subject of falling in love with a 2D character. I won’t get into all that here, don’t worry! But if there’s any unforeseen effect of whatever is going on in this artwork, it’s how just seeing these characters draws you to them in this human way. It’s very remarkable. Hence my repeated question, how could anyone not fall in love with Haru? The artwork plays a strong role in this effect.

I would rate it 10 out of 10, but I can’t quite go there. It’s fairly normal apart from the peculiar supernatural effect. I will never fault normal anime art, but I must allow for the exceptional, as you have probably heard me say before. Still, it’s spectacular, particularly these unusual effects. I can only say it was extremely pleasant to watch.

Story

Rating: 9

Basically, at a low point in his life, Rikuo meets Haru, and she sets everything in motion. This is my favorite part of the story. In all love stories where there’s some competition, we always find ourselves wondering if it makes sense for the couples to end up the way they do. We wonder if different pairings might make more sense. We have fun second-guessing the author, or agreeing with him or her. In this case, it makes sense for Rikuo and Haru to end up together, and it’s a very happy sense too.

First, Rikuo and Shinako don’t belong together because they are extraordinarily different. One of the cleverer parts of this story is how these two are portrayed as very similar, but based on the explicit evidence itself are demonstrably very different. I won’t go through every facet of this, but I’ll give some examples. Watching both of them, we see a lot of hesitancy. Something always holds each of them back from each other. At first glance, this could be thought of as a similarity between them. On closer examination, we realize their reasons for hesitating are nowhere near the same. And if we think about it, of course they’d have different reasons. Their respective paths in life have brought this uncertainty about, and those paths have been quite obviously very different. But they’re not feeling that unshrinkable distance because they’re hesitant. They’re feeling it because of two things.

One, they don’t realize how different they are. They think they need each other. They think they’re both shy and uncomfortable with the physical part of romance. They think they’re both in need because of the troubles they find themselves in. They’ve both been there for the other, in some way, when they needed it most. They think their meeting and friendship was not by chance, something lots of people experience in relationships. It feels like they should be together. What they don’t realize is that their differences are irreconcilable. I could point to a ton of things that evidence this, but I think the best example is this: Shinako is pretty selfish, but Rikuo is not. Shinako really is trying to maintain the lie, that she can remain faithful in her love to Rou’s deceased brother, knowing she cannot hold on to that forever. She really is holding onto Rikuo as a backup plan, so to speak. At the same time she’s recognizing that Rikuo is applying pressure to her reality, pushing her to let go of the past. She both wants him to do that and also doesn’t want him to succeed, but she’ll have him around in case of either result. Hence when she sees Rou actively trying to push her out of the past, she wishes Rikuo would do the same thing. Or she thinks she does. She wants him to change to fit her demands.

None of this is to say Shinako is wrong for any of this. It’s a mild kind of selfishness, and very understandable given her circumstances. But this defines the difference between the two. Shinako must have things a certain way. When people start to pressure her out of that comfort zone, she tries to resume control of the situation. She’s very stuck in her depressed situation. And for whatever reason, she wants to control how she manages that, whether to remain stuck in it or to come out of it, she wants to maintain control over how that happens. She wishes someone would try to take that control from her, as it is very burdensome, but she won’t easily let them. All of this justifies her very honest statement to Rikuo saying she wished he was more assertive.

Shinako tries to change herself. It’s no more than a gesture. She can’t change herself anymore than she can change the past.

Rikuo is not selfish on the other hand, and is not trying to control the situation. At every turn he lets Shinako make up her own mind, and actively attempts to not put pressure on her. He’s very sensitive to her and to what she’s feeling, or he tries to be. It’s this glaring difference that puts a lot of distance between these two. You’ll easily notice during this show that Shinako doesn’t resent Rou’s blatant insensitivity, as he regularly says whatever the hell he thinks without a second thought for what Shinako is going through. Yet Shinako never holds this against him. This might not be remarkable until you contrast Rou’s insensitivity with Rikuo care and concern for Shinako’s feelings. Say what you will about Shinako just having special feelings for Rou since he’s the brother of the man she loved, I think it doesn’t matter to her that Rikuo shows sensitivity towards her feelings. Again, this isn’t a black mark against her. It just shows that she cannot connect with Rikuo on this level. She can’t recognize how sensitive he’s being, even when presented with such an obvious example of insensitivity from Rou. She doesn’t recognize his lack of selfishness. This greatly demonstrates how much distance really exists between these two.

But beyond all of that even, there’s a greater reason for their immovable distance. Above I said a lot about Rikuo putting pressure on Shinako. He does so gently when he’s aware of it, but mostly it’s simply happening because he’s around her at all. It’s involuntary. But that involuntary pressure only begins once we launch into this story. Before that, he never thought to pursue Shinako, despite his feelings. What happens at the outset of this story? Haru appears.

It comes down to this. The only reason Shinako even feels the pressure to change is because of Rikuo, and the only reason Rikuo is applying that pressure, involuntarily or otherwise, is because of the effect Haru is having on his life. And Haru isn’t changing him. She’s simply helping him realize himself. Her light helps him see what he is, what he was, and what he could be. It’s because of her that Rikuo and Shinako can even attempt to close the distance between them. And beyond any intricate argument I could form, it’s easy to recognize that if a relationship is enabled because of the appearance of a rival, that hardly bodes well for that relationship!

This had to happen. There was no other way, and we all knew it. Sitting in shadow looking out into the light, they both know what they must do.

Remember during the last episode, Rikuo and Shinako both finally realize things aren’t going to work out between them. After all the uncomfortable attempts they’ve made to get closer, they realize the impossibility. It’s pretty sad for us watching Shinako, because we realize that all the effort she’s put in, regardless of her motives, is all about to fall apart. We realize it, she realizes it, and she cries because of it. But at this moment, they both finally move on. Here, we see an interesting bit of evidence that Haru is fully behind everything. Her influence on Rikuo’s life is at its height right in that moment. He sees the truth of it all. One of the last things he says to Shinako is “We’re too similar.” But he knows that’s not true. He lied. He lied, just like Haru lies. Out of the best of unselfish motives, hoping to lighten the burden in someone else’s life, he lied. Just like Haru.

But Shinako realizes her influence too. During that final conversation, when Rikuo randomly states that if it weren’t for his guy friend, Fukuda, he’d still being doing part-time work, Shinako realizes that’s not true. She looks at the ground and says “I’m sure you wouldn’t.” She knows he’s lying. She knows it’s not because of Fukuda. It’s because of Haru.

Everything is because of Haru. All the good, all the realization, all the healing, all of the strongest feelings, are all because she showed up in Rikuo’s life. In his final conversation with Haru, we see the unselfishness shine through again. He initially won’t even admit he was the one breaking things off with Shinako. Yeah maybe he’s just uncomfortable saying that. But I think he just doesn’t want it to seem like he’s putting pressure on Haru this time. If she knew he intentionally broke up with Shinako, then she’d realize he wasn’t coming to her because Shinako was the one to dump him. She’d realize he was coming to her because he loves her.

But Haru won’t accept that lying. She knows him too well. She gets in his face and more or less forces him to tell her exactly why he and Shinako broke up. When she gets more of the truth behind this, she predictably asks Rikuo what he expects of her as a result. This is what he wanted to avoid, putting pressure on her to conform to some expectation of his. But she loves him too much. She won’t let him shoulder that alone. She makes him come out and be perfectly honest with her. This is what follows (translations via Crunchyroll subtitles).

Initially he still lies.

“I told you I couldn’t explain. I don’t have the brains to think deeply about love and feelings and all that.”

But he realizes he can’t maintain this. He lets the dam break.

“But I like when a woman’s nice to me. It’d be awesome if that went on forever. That’s what I though love was. But guess what?

“That’s when this incomprehensible, obviously bothersome chick came along. And I couldn’t help but…I couldn’t help but…think she was cute. I think I’m here because I realized that.”

He didn’t think she was cute. He thought she was obviously bothersome.

“The point is, I think…”

What he really thought was:

“I’m in love with you.”

It’s all because of Haru.

She makes him be honest. She says she’s a liar, but she can’t possibly be. She can’t tolerate lies. They can’t remain in her presence. She is the light of his life. There’s no way Rikuo could ever be with anyone other than Haru. And there’s no way her light could ever have a better influence than on Rikuo.

If I had to quibble about anything in all the simple complexity of this story, it’s how the random meeting between Rikuo and Haru first caused her to love him. But I can’t complain too much. Even there, she picked up some item he’d dropped, and he says to her “Thank you! This is the most important thing I was carrying!” She already shined her light there. Some random ID card or whatever it was couldn’t possibly be of any great importance. He would realize that of course in time. She simply sees the importance that he can place on even that which is unimportant. It’s kind of sweet, even if it’s just random and convenient to the plot.

I guess a lot of what happens in this story can be thought of as normal. I think that’s part of its effect. It feels very familiar. Most of us have been through romances with various levels of turbulence, and this never feels so dramatic that it’s unbelievable. Not that those kinds of super sad dramatic romances never happen, but they’re not the norm. They’re not your average romance, so to speak. Hence this mildly dramatic but still very heartfelt romance we see here is easily relatable to audiences. And particularly, as I mentioned earlier, this is so for young adults. The story does a great job portraying a very familiar scene to this young adult audience.

Overall: 10

That final episode is very heartfelt. Everything comes to a head and closes out happily. That final conversation between Shinako and Rikuo is very sad, but we realize it had to happen. The only reason I bring this up is because, as touching as the anime is at so many points throughout, it never makes your heart feel strained and doesn’t really make you cry a lot until that moment. You first realize that everything these two went through is about to end, and it makes you cry just as it does Shinako. But almost immediately you recognize that it hasn’t all been for nothing. This conversation had to happen, and it works out exactly as it should have. Two adults face their problem, come to the correct conclusion, and continue to treat each other as human beings afterwards, without any youthful awkwardness.

That’s primarily where this anime succeeds. It portrays young adult romance as appropriately more mature than youthful romance. We all know how confounding and dramatic that can be. These people try their best to avoid those mistakes, having learned from their own pasts (makes us wonder about Chika and Rikuo’s relationship from the past). It makes sense that they’d treat their romances differently. And while not all people at their ages are as mature as these characters are about romance, it’s good to see them behave so. I would expect that of people their age. We know how it is as we get older. It’s like how when you’re a little kid and you scrape your knee and the world is going to end as a result, but when you’re older obviously such things don’t bother you much at all. Romance is usually the same way. To see it portrayed so thoughtfully and carefully shows how insightful the author is about life and human nature. That artistic care is not lost on me.

But the reverse applies as well. If you’re less than 18, you’re not going to like this show. Like Rikuo says, it’s hard to explain. I guess I should just sum it up by saying you don’t know what you don’t know, and more mature people fall in love in different ways than young people who haven’t lived a lot of life yet. So as much as this show resonates with me and my age demographic, and probably those even in older age brackets, it will probably be very foreign to younger audiences. So wait until you grow up, as they say!

Very short, very easy to watch, and so very beautiful. Toradora! still holds the number one place in my heart for a romance where everything is finally revealed at the end, but this one is right up there. You really didn’t know how everything would work out. And yet when it does resolve, you realize it makes perfect sense, despite how your feelings might have misled you during the show. It’s very powerful in that sense. It’s not so much an anime just to be watched as it is an anime to be experienced. That’s kind of nuanced, but it’s a high compliment for a work of art. For above all else, this is a work of art. A very human, yet so very non-human, work of art. That is the best of the art form known as anime.

Always try to find a way to laugh, no matter where you find yourself. Be a light in dark places.

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