There is a secret of this world – but it isn’t that Kuragaya is a badass. That was already pretty obvious.
OP: “Boys be Smile” by Suzuyu
Here we are again, beginning another go-around with Little Busters! (though not the last, as Ecstasy has already been announced, with Kud Wafter likely to follow). It’s a funny sort of show, this is – I noted that many times during the first season and it’s certainly no less true now. Let me state for the benefit of new readers that I haven’t played the VN and thus remain largely (though not totally, thanks to an insensitive few commenters) unspoiled about both the secret and the other mysteries at place in Little Busters!, and for the sake of discussion it should be assumed that everyone reading is in the same boat (and would like to stay afloat in it).
There’s a strange dichotomy to the experience of watching the first series, one which became harder and harder to ignore as it progressed. That is, the overall tone of the show was mostly light and comedic, and the focus mostly on slice-of-life stories. Yet even when LB wasn’t making its occasional forays into serious territory (which became more frequent as the season progressed) it was impossible to totally forget that something else was lurking, like a shadow at the edge of your field of vision that was always gone when you jerked your head in that direction to find it. It’s to the credit of J.C. Staff that they managed to make the first season as heartwarming as they did under those circumstances, and it was clearly a quite intentional decision – to build up our emotional investment in these characters before the series takes a much more savage turn in Refrain.
That kind of warm the heart, then rip it out approach isn’t entirely unusual for Key, but I don’t think the tonal contrast is as stark in their other adapted properties – or at least, there wasn’t so much of a sense of two overlaid narratives playing out at the same time, like the conscious and unconscious parts of our minds. It’s in this sort of context that it’s obvious that Little Busters! is indeed a VN adaptation, because Riki very much fills the role of both on-screen character and audience stand-in. Riki is aware of this hidden world in exactly the same way we are – he senses it, but can’t quite grasp it with his five senses. In that way he’s very effective as a character, because it’s so easy to empathize with what he’s feeling. It was my growing belief during the first season that his narcolepsy was a kind of defense mechanism/circuit breaker – whenever he gets too close to grasping the true nature of his reality, the circuit trips and he blacks out. The question is just why this happens – is it for his own protection, or is there a darker purpose at play? The answer, I suspect, is a little of both.
Knowing there’s so much hidden truth out there and not knowing what it is, it’s impossible not to see conspiracy in every shadow and significance in every detail. It strikes me as very significant, for example, that the penultimate shot of the OP is a lingering one of Kyousuke on his own in a field of light, and that he’s shown at a distance from the rest of the Busters in the ED. That he’s at the center of the secret is no, well- secret. I don’t think LB tries to pretend otherwise. It’s more of a question of just how everyone else fits in. It certainly seems that everyone knows more than Riki does, but there’s also a strong sense that not everyone in the group is on the same level of reality. There’s the obvious divide between the five original Busters and the others, but there’s more here too – strange character disappearances and reappearances, the story-within-a-story of each of the accessory characters (sorry, Kud – you’re first in my heart but in this sense, you are an accessory). If the first season was, effectively, shaking out all the puzzle pieces onto the table, Refrain will surely be about putting them together.
Refrain begins, more or less, with a story surrounding Kuragaya Yuiko, who didn’t have her own arc per se in S1 but rather functioned as a mover and shaker in a few of the others. She was the tough-as-nails, cold-blooded assassin of the group – a deadpan enforcer always ready with an insult and a little bit of muscle and no-nonsense advice. But if she’s any indication, the second season is going to see everything magnified and intensified from the first. This Kuragaya is genuinely scary, and the vehicle to revealing that is a group of students led by Takamiya (Okada Eimi) who played a very small role in S1. She holds a serious grudge against Kuragaya for supposedly publicly humiliating her as a first-year, and along with her friends – the eager Katsuzawa (Aoki Noriko) and the reluctant (likely future Busters-ally) Mutsumi Sumigami (Hanazawa Kana) – plots revenge against her tormentor by targeting her friends.
This all plays out against the backdrop of a hotcake party thrown by Kud, Komari and Rin that serves as a sort of stealth reminder of the more carefree first season (most interesting potential clue here is the seeming change in Kengo’s personality, attributed by Kuragaya to his having “hit something” when he fell from the roof). Mutsu and her henchlings put tacks in Kudster’s shoes and bag (boo!!!) and rip up Komari’s notebooks (yawn). It’s obvious that the story is taking a darker turn here, but it becomes clear soon enough that this isn’t going to be like most of the developments in the first season. Riki – forever the moe mini-knight – follows Takamiya and discovers and confronts the trio, who arrogantly deny everything. But Kuragaya shows up having recorded them plotting everything (well, she is in the broadcasting club) and Mutsu not being sufficiently cowed by that, unleashes a terrifying display of martial arts and yandere expressions that would make Gasai Yuuno blush. It’s a pretty shocking sequence for its (and her) sheer ferocity, and while Mutsu and Katsuzawa flee in terror one suspects we haven’t heard the last of them and their lust for revenge.
It’s interesting to speculate just what sort of narrative form Refrain will take. I can’t imagine we’ll see many upbeat and light episodes reminiscent of the first cour, but the entire series clearly isn’t going to revolve around the mystery – will we see mostly eps like this, a mix of a seemingly stand-alone story and glimpses of the larger secret? When Kuragaya and Riki go to the P.A. room for tea he has one of those moments of awareness when the memories threaten to break through the wall, and falls into a narcoleptic sleep – and it seems clear that this is a sign that he’s getting closer and closer to the truth. Whoever constructed this illusory world, likely for Riki’s benefit, it’s obvious that the center cannot hold. The situation is not sustainable and he can’t be kept in the dark for much longer, and what happens as that truth asserts itself more and more seems likely to drive the story from here on out.
Author’s note: It shouldn’t be necessary to say it again, but I will – please refrain from posting any VN spoilers (or hints, or confirmations or denials of guesses, or clever spoilers disguised as jokes) into the comments section. I don’t want this experience ruined for me, and I don’t want it ruined for any other new viewers. Read the comments at your own risk, because I make no promises about catching every spoiler soon after its posted. All I can do is delete the comments as soon as I spot them, but that might be after you do.
ED: “Kimi to no Nakushi Mono (君とのなくしもの;The Thing I Lost With You)” by Ayaka Kitazawa