OP: “Sonna Koto Ura no Mata Urabanashi Desho? (そんなこと裏のまた裏話でしょ？)” by Megumi Nakajima
I’m getting a bit tired of saying “That wasn’t what I expected” about seemingly every premiere this season, but it sure applies here. But the other thing they’ve almost all had in common is “This could go either way” – and that definitely does not apply to Kotoura-san. Based on the first episode, this is an absolute keeper, with potential to be one of the best series of the year.
The two best premières so far have been Ohta-sensei’s old alumnus, Minami-ke Tadaima (which was great because it recalled the greatness of the season Ohta-sensei directed), and this series. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, directors really do matter – perhaps as much or more than any single element – in the chances an anime will be really good. Minami-ke Tadaima was a great experience, but it was like a happy reunion with a long-lost friend – there’s something special about that first premiere of the season that really excites you in unexpected ways (every season, no matter how weak, always has one) and Kotoura-san was it for me this Winter.
In watching this episode play out, I couldn’t help but think of the famous story of the Greek philosopher Diogenes, known to history as “Diogenes the Cynic”. He was known for carrying a lamp in full daylight, and when people asked him why, he would answer “I’m just looking for an honest man.” The stakes are rather higher for Haruka Kotoura-san (the unsurprisingly excellent Kanemoto Hisako) whose ESP abilities have systematically estranged her from almost everyone in her life from the moment she was old enough to speak – ultimately including her parents.
The emotional tale that takes up the first half of the episode is played out in fairly broad and familiar terms, though for me it was extremely effective. Watching the gradual breakdown of Kotoura from a cheerful, outgoing person to an an outwardly emotionless shell is pretty brutal stuff. There’s a subtler message in her story, though. The fundamental problem for Kotoura is the disconnect in everyone else’s lives between what they think and desire and what they say and do – and no one likes to be reminded of that disconnect. Kotoura isn’t just an esper, she’s also naïve and honest – perhaps as a direct result of her ability, she initially sees no reason why what people think shouldn’t be what they project to the world. It’s the truth, so why hide it? Not surprisingly, this leaves her isolated from the schoolmates she systematically alienates by spilling their secret crushes and grudges to the world. It drives her already distant father out of the house, and after an increasingly desperate search for a way to “cure” her daughter (even extending to Buddhist exorcism) her mother finally abandons her to her Grandfather – the one person who hasn’t retreated from her ability – with the ultimate in motherly curses, “I should never have given birth to you.”
Enter Manabe Yoshihisa (Fukishima Jun – please note that this is not Fukuyama Jun, thank goodness), a boy at the school Kotoura transfers to. If I were to pick one word to initially describe Manabe, it would be “transparent” – and this makes him a perfect match for Kotoura. Unlike all the others in her life, Manabe-kun actually says what he thinks – he’s even open about his ecchi thoughts and realistic about how they’re simply a part of his makeup – and thus, Kotoura-san isn’t a threat to him. Her ability is actually “cool” – and despite her efforts to push him away, he stubbornly refuses to be pushed – slowly breaking down her resistance with goofy humor and sheer persistence. It’s a really winning and likeable relationship, right from the very first moment – both these characters are well-crafted and identifiable, and already form a rock-solid core around which to build the series, which is going to include several other members of the ESP Club.
Ohta-sensei is known almost exclusively for comedy, and with good reason – in Minami-ke and two seasons of Mitsudomoe he’s delivered arguably the three consistently funniest cours of anime in the last five years. So I wasn’t expecting the first half of this episode to be so serious, and in a heartbreaking way – but a closer look at Ohta’s comedies reveals that he’s shown a sure hand at honest sentiment, though never so overtly or for such an extended period as this. Kotoura-san is generally referred to as a comedy and I think that will be its primary mode, but I suspect this will be a more somber type of comedy than Ohta has delivered before. I have absolute faith in his ability as a director if given the right material, and the premiere only confirms it.
There were several moments that stood out for me in this first episode, but I think the most spectacular was when Kotoura first looked into Manabe’s mind and saw no fear or revulsion there, and the dark world she inhabits shattered like a pane of glass – a perfect symbolic representation of what that meeting means to her. That may or may not be in the manga, I don’t know, but it was beautifully shot – and while this isn’t going to be a series that wows us with KyoAni or P.A .Works visuals, AIC has proved more than capable of delivering given the right source material. Ohta has brought some of his Mitsudomoe team with him, including character designer and animation director Ookuma Takaharu, and that may not be to everyone’s tastes, but I like that look (though it took some getting used to with Mitsudomoe). The chemistry between Kanemoto and Fukushima is excellent – he’s a relatively new voice in anime as far as major roles are concerned, and that’s welcome for its own sake, but the fact is that Fukushima-san delivers a likeable and amusing performance here. There’s just an awful lot to like in Kotoura-san, both in terms of the pedigree and the product on-screen. If the source material is as good as the premiere seems to indicate, this has a chance to be special.