Sorry to be a broken record, but this is a show that demonstrates how easy really talented and experienced writers and directors can make utter quality look. It’s very hard to do what this series is doing, but Nagai and Kuroda-sensei are making it look breezy and effortless. That’s definitely part of the charm here, that Ano Natsu is so easy to watch and to become absorbed in. It’s not pushing the envelope or trying too hard, because it doesn’t have to – it’s very believable and straightforward teenage emotions played out against an absolutely classic fantastical anime premise. If there’s such a thing as anime alchemy that might just be it, because so far this is gold.
For starters, you’ve got a terrific mixed-gender cast that’s a perfect size to build a series around, and all of them are likeable characters. There’s not a clunker in the bunch, and no one here to root against – in that sense it does remind me of Nagai’s Toradora but there were characters there that took me a while to warm up to, and one I never totally did. Here they were all winning right out of the gate, with Kaito playing the same sort of role Jintan did in AnoHana – the anchor, the emotionally turbulent but cautious lead the center of the story. This is not as dark a series as AnoHana so Kaito is fittingly not in the same type of pain, but he’s the same sort of unsung hero.
It doesn’t end there, though. Tetsurou has been the slowest to emerge but he’s growing into a favorite with his wry wit (“she’ll take good care of him – from head to waist!”) and self-effacing kindness, built of denial and self-deception. Mio is the perfect foil for him, given funny little quirks like the naked panda-hugging but mostly staying in Kanna’s shadow, pining for Tetsurou even as he silently pines for Kanna. Does he know her feelings? Hard to say just yet, but the moment when she reached out and grabbed his sleeve, as the soundtrack went silent, was one of my favorites of the episode. Kanna and Remon are showier, flashier but still immensely charming – Kanna is the human special-effects reel of the series with her tortured facial expressions and knee-jerk overreactions. As for Remon, she’s played for straight comedy for now – and brilliantly – but I suspect she knows more about Ichika than she’s letting on.
In the end of course, it all comes down to Ichika and Kaito and they’re a great couple, with real on-screen chemistry. I loved the entire episode – the elaborate fantasy sequences that kept taking over were an extremely funny and clever way to illuminate the characters and their feelings. But the highlight for me was the final sequence featuring the lead pair, which I thought was pitch-perfect. Ichika was largely absent for much of the episode – in fact the longest sequence was the trip into town by Kaito and Kanna after he ditched school and she visited him. But when Ichika bumped into him in town (after Kanna had furiously torn off in pursuit of Remon and her camera) everything clicked into high gear.
I loved the way Nagai slowly unwrapped the subtleties of the scene that ended the last episode, at first showing us memories, than the imagined repercussions of it from Kaito and Ichika’s POV. It gradually became clear that the two weren’t on the same page at all, and we became aware of what each was thinking just before the other did. The “I have a question” hand-raising was a great comic touch but it all worked beautifully, and seemingly ended with each keeping their secret from the other – Ichika that she’s an alien, and Kaito that he was about to confess. But we weren’t left hanging there, as Ichika playfully teased Kai about his supposed rejection, and revealed the truth of the matter without intending to. The repercussions of that revelation will be interesting to see next week.
Of course none of that would matter if the characters involved weren’t sympathetic, but for me they are – I like Ichika and Kai and I’m invested in where their relationship goes from here. There’s been some talk that Kai actually died – or at least was badly injured – when Ichika’s vessel crashed, and it’s only Ichika and Rinon’s magic that’s keeping him alive. I hope that’s not the case, because that would be a heavy and dark turn I honestly don’t believe the series needs. I’m satisfied that between Ichika’s secret and the long chain of unrequited affection amongst the five main cast members there’s more than enough potential drama to drive the show all the way to the finish line. This is one I really wish were two-cour, because there seems to be a lot of story to be told here, and I have full faith and confidence in the men telling it.