What an excellent start this series is off to. It’s definitely quite different than what I was expecting, but that’s perfectly fine. It appears that the premiere is going to be a model for the overall tone of the series rather than an aberration, because this week’s follow-up was another deep dive into some pretty dark waters. This is a comedy, but it’s a black comedy that isn’t afraid to expose some painfully raw nerves among the cast and make a few observations about the uglier side of human nature at the same time.
While AIC is no guarantor of quality, they don’t get the respect they deserve – this is a studio that can really do some fine work, and they put their best series in the hands of really strong directors like Ohta-sensei. As with Jinrui, Kotoura-san is impressive visually not so much because of lavish detail and fluid animation but because of creative flair and splendid facial expressions. There’s certainly a hint of the creative team’s past work with the two Mitsudomoe series in the character designs, but it works perfectly with the material here. I’ve been impressed with Ohta’s comedic sensibility more times than I can count, but this is a different sort of show for him – he’s handling the emotional barrage as well as he handles the light moments, which thus far are the change-of-pace, rather than the other way around.
At first, it appears as if things might be quite a bit less intense than in the first episode. Kotoura and Manabe continue to get closer, and what really comes across at the beginning is Kotoura’s sheer joy at having human contact again. We don’t see who she’s speaking to at her seemingly empty house – Grandpa, perhaps – but she’s smiling. What’s clear is that this is her true personality – bright, cheerful, open – and it’s only the pain and isolation her powers have caused her that have imposed the cold and brittle shell she’s been forced to wear for the past several years. Meeting Manabe has revealed her true nature like sunlight causing a flower to open, and it’s lovely to see – surely the happiest moments of the series so far are the first five minutes of the episode.
The introduction of a couple of new characters brings a change to all that. After an odd introduction, it seems for a while as if Mifune Yoriko (Kana Hanazawa) is only going to add to Kotoura’s newfound happiness by bringing her into her ESP Research Society (with the creepiest clubroom ever – probably a poor choice if you’re seeking acceptance). There we also meet Vice-President Muroto Daichi (Shimono Hiro), a seemingly sensible and mild-mannered fellow who happens to look like a 4th-grader (as Kotoura-san rather tactlessly points out). Manabe-kun tags along of course, though he has no ESP abilities himself – he’s simply there in his self-appointed role as Kotoura’s protector. But it quickly becomes clear that there’s another side to Mifune-san, and that it’s going to spell trouble for Kotoura-chan.
Also causing trouble for Kotoura-san is Moritani Hiyori (Kubo Yurika). She’s an osananajimi of Manabe-kun, and she’s carrying a blazing torch for him. You can see the trouble coming from a mile away here, and this whole scenario feels very much like something out of a shoujo romance – the jealous girl with the two henchwomen who cause trouble for the heroine. If it follows that course we’ll see Moritani redeemed soon enough, but for now she’s a real terror – her vitriol against Kotoura for “stealing” Manabe seems to be paired with a genuine revulsion at what Kotoura is, and she and her friends quickly descend into genuine bullying against Kotoura. This eventually prompts the best scene in the episode, as Manabe-kun proves his worth as a character once more by dithering and dallying not in the slightest – he springs to Kotoura’s defense as soon as he discovers what’s happening, and lays into Moritani with every bit of ferocity that she deserves.
The funny thing, though, is that Moritani was absolutely right about one thing – her “poor thing” remark while Kotoura was telling her fortune. Mifune-san is in fact using Kotoura for her own ends – in fact, she’s quite literally turning her into a sideshow freak. Mifune has her reasons, and they’re rooted in her own sad story – her mother was a clairvoyant who became famous, then was declared a fraud by the press and hounded into suicide. That, however, doesn’t justify the fact that she knowingly exploits Kotoura and puts her at risk of bullying at the worst moment – she forces Kotoura into the worst possible situation for her, with predictable results. Kotoura knows this instinctively but she’s so grateful to have “friends” who don’t judge her as a freak that she plays along against her (and Manabe’s) better judgment. It’s really tragic, but it says a lot about her nature and just how lonely she’s been – and while Moritani is the villain in terms of plot device, for me it’s Mifune who’s the real villain of the episode because she’s someone of all people who absolutely should have known better.
This is all exposited splendidly, and on balance the episode is excellent, but I was struck by how rapidly all this happened – this really felt like it should have been at least two episodes worth of conflict. I think that’s especially true of Mifune, who goes from friend to villain to redemption with whiplash-inducing speed – I really think the whole “forgive, forget, hug” cycle with her was rushed (frankly, she deserved to suffer a little more for what she put Kotoura through). I also wonder what role Muroto-kun is going to play, as he’s basically a virtual narrator here – he passively stands by and watches Mifune screw up, comments on it, but does nothing about it. I’d also rather have seen different seiyuu for the two sempai in the club, though that’s personal preference. Shimono Hiro doesn’t bring a lot of credibility to chibi teenagers at this point, and as for KanaHana, it’s just that she’s in so damn many shows. She’s very good, but one of those seiyuu that’s more of a personality than an actor – she pitches most of her characters within a narrow and recognizable range, and as a result it’s hard to escape the awareness that you’re constantly listening to KanaHana do a KanaHana voice. It’s a bit of a distraction for me, especially in a show like this one, but I’m sure that will lessen with time.
The heart of Koutora-san, certainly, is the relationship between Kotoura and Manabe, and that continues to be a marvelous thing to see. While the larger theme of the series seems to encompass an almost “X-Men” like commentary on the way people with unusual abilities are treated, for Kotoura this is a very personal story – and Manabe-kun is an antidote to everything she’s suffered in her painful life. He’s honest, direct and loyal – someone who isn’t ashamed of who he is and what he’s feeling, and is perfectly willing to let Kotoura-san see his true nature. I can almost see a Nazo no Kanojo X vibe here in a very broad sense, where we see magical realism (call it paranormal here if you prefer) used as a catalyst to shed insight on the nature of communication between boys and girls. Kotoura-san is a comedy and it’s certainly funny, but make no mistake – this is a serious show too, full of serious ideas and complex emotional development. After two episodes, it looks as if it has a chance to be one of the best series of the season.