My reaction after two episodes of Natsuyuki Rendezvous is exactly the same as it was after the first. There’s really nothing spectacular happening here, but the series is slowly creeping into my consciousness and the impact of each episode is a slow build rather than a high-speed collision. Josei adaptations will tend to be subtle by anime standards anyway, but even for josei this seems very restrained despite the fantastical premise – not much BGM, not a lot of traditional pre-relationship theatrics. Things just sort of get to the point and you see the chain reaction that follows in an almost editorial style, with very little value judgment added by the director.
I confess I’m a bit surprised by the somewhat mixed reaction to Natsuyuki from quarters where I would expect it to find a friendly audience, and I’m wondering what it is about the show that’s putting off the normal NoitaminA and josei fanbase. Many of the complaints seem to be about Hazuki-san, and I’ll admit he’s not a traditional romantic lead. I like Hazuki because of how non-traditional he is though. What I get from him is a classic lost boy – too old to consider himself a kid any longer, but uncomfortable in the skin of an adult. Hazuki comes off as someone who never cared that deeply about anything – that is, until he met Rokka-san. And a big part of the story is how he deals with feelings that are unfamiliar to him, and in a understandably awkward fashion (even when Atsushi-san isn’t involved).
One sign to me that the writing of this series is emotionally true is that the dynamics of the main relationship were so obvious even before having been spelled out. There were no overt signs of the age difference between Rokka and Hazuki – physically she could easily pass for his age, or close. But the subtle signs – the way he carried himself generally, his manner of speaking as compared to hers, the way they interact – all told of a younger man in love with an older woman. I like the fact that the little details were just right and nothing had to spelled out for the audience in clumsy exposition – the situation was merely presented as it was, and we’re trusted to figure it out.
That detachment is a common theme running through the show so far, and may be a reason it’s not connecting with some of its target audience. While the central conceit of the series is a ghost story, that element too is played very straight. There’s some humor mined from it, but basically Atsushi-san is just another character, and his situation just another plot point. This matter-of-fact approach is interesting, and as a result I find myself thinking about the practicalities of the situation more than the metaphysics of it.
At this stage of the series, it’s actually Atsushi that’s the most complicated character (my favorite line of the ep was when Rokka said that he was “the first person she knew who arranged flowers like they were still flowers.”). To what extent his current situation is agonizing for him really hits home with this episode – how helpless he is to impact anything directly in the life of the woman he still loves. The irony here is that when he was alive he did everything possible not to be a burden to Rokka, probably to the extent of naiveté, but now that he’s dead he’s become the possessive husband he doesn’t seem to have been in life. It seems that when the time came his spirit couldn’t bring itself to ignore her pleas that he not leave her, but now he’s stuck being exactly what he hadn’t wanted to become – an obstacle to her future happiness.
Again, all of this comes across in a very matter-of-fact way, without histrionics. Rokka muses quite openly (to herself, anyway) about having a physical relationship with Hazuki, and about their age difference. A sort of battle of wits develops between Atsushi and Hazuki (with Atsushi seeming to have the upper hand so far) with Rokka as the object. We’re not being given a lot of direction about what we’re supposed to be feeling as an audience, but that’s fine with me – I think a dispassionately-told love story can be extremely effective as long as the characters behave in a true-to-life fashion. The inherent emotional tug of the story will grow from that as long as it remains the case – and so far, so good.