Make no mistake about it, Sakurasou is a pretty interesting series. As far as I know the novelist Kamoshida Hajime has never written anything else, and you have a first-time director working with the ultimate screenwriting wild-card in Okada Mari, whose work has been all over the quality spectrum from ridiculous to sublime lately. As the biggest name involved it’s tempting – and probably unfair – to say she’ll have the biggest impact on how far Sakurasou can go in extending its solid start, but the early returns suggest she’s found a vehicle that’s well-suited to her talents.
I’m certainly not going to be the first person to suggest that Sakurasou is very reminiscent of Toradora, but it can’t be avoided – and it’s not just the commonality of Okada adapting the work for J.C. Staff. Director Ishizuka-sensei – though she’s never worked with him as far as I know – seems to be very much a fan of Nagai Tatsuyuki, the director and Okada’s partner on Toradora as well as AnoHana. She’s glommed onto his style – casual, naturalistic dialogue peppered with manic outbreaks, background commentary from the ensemble cast, ED music framing the final lines of dialogue – to the point where if you’d told me Nagai was directing this show I wouldn’t have had any reason to be skeptical. Throw in the classic washed-out pastel look that all J.C. Staff series (with the qualified exception of Ano Natsu – another Nagai series) have, and the reminiscence to Toradora is strong even without the content-based similarities, which are numerous in themselves.
I’ll give Sakurasou a lot of credit for cramming an enormous amount of content into three episodes, and it has that classic Nagai quality of every episode seeming to be paced perfectly, with a slow build to a powerful finish. In a way though, I was a bit disappointed by the ending of this episode because it felt as if the series pulled its punches a bit. It appeared to be an episode that was taking a lot of risks, and it certainly upped the emotional ante for several cast members, but in the end it seemed to take the safest route and leave everyone in a fairly settled place – effective as exposition and moving the character arcs forward, but ultimately not the game-changer I thought it might be. It was a very dynamic episode, though, and it was only because my hopes were raised so high that I felt a bit let down when it was over.
As expected, the issue of Sorata’s quest for identity is starting to take center-stage. We still don’t know what he wants in life – the only clue being his timid probing of Akasaka about game design – but what’s bothering him about Sakurasou isn’t the weirdness, it’s the fact that everyone there has a purpose that he seems to lack. The scene where Jin confronts Sorata was an extremely Toradora-esque one, with a sort of matter-of-fact emotional directness that bordered on brutality. Jin points out that Sorata’s depression at finding out Shiina’s genius was based on the fact that the girl he thought needed him to exist had actually been getting along pretty well without him. And, of course, that his quest to escape Sakurasou was a quest to escape the daily reminders of what he lacks.
Jin is a fascinating one, free to be more interesting than the lead in the way supporting cast members often are in this sort of show. He’s too smart and seasoned to be a believable teen but that doesn’t make him less intriguing – there’s a darkness to his soul that manifests in his demeaning lifestyle and dysfunctional co-dependence with Mitaka. The love hotel “research” trip was loaded with potential, with Mitaka openly stressing over Jin going there with Shiina and Sorata lamely trying to pretend his interests were purely protective. I was on the edge of my seat wondering how things would turn out, but the resolution of the episode felt a lot more conventional than the events leading up to it. In short, I dared hope that something might happen in that hotel room one way or the other that might totally shake up the series, though it would have broken every rule this sort of show is supposed to follow. Instead we had a rather pedestrian snit between Sorata and Shiina, with him spending the night on the floor.
At the least, though, we see some signs of an emotional pulse from Shiina now – and Sorata is no longer free to pursue his own delusions in peace. And as for Jin and Mitaka that’s a huge mess, and I’m not at all sure where Jin stands on that relationship – his “If I see her sad I’ll want to fuck her silly” doesn’t lend itself to easy, neat interpretation. With Sorata seemingly in a shit-or-get-off-the-pot situation I’m hoping Sakurasou can escape romantic comedy convention and do something really interesting with his relationship with Shiina – the potential is certainly there. Something like have him actually acknowledge her feelings (and his own) and have them be a couple for most of the series, or have one or both of them (presumably her) end up with someone else if he doesn’t. One of the reasons I count Toradora as a series I like rather than love is because after so many unconventional turns, it ended in a very conventional way. I see signs in Sakurasou that this is a show with an odd sensibility and the capacity to surprise – rather than cautionary impulses, I hope it’s that side of it that wins the day in the end.