This was a pretty wonderful episode of Little Busters!, but that’s been the exception more than the rule as the series has progressed. Was this the best episode yet? That’s up to individual tastes, but in terms of execution, as an anime-only Buster I thought it was close to flawless. The sense I have in watching Refrain is that everything is magnified, intensified – this is like Little Busters! distilled into cask-strength form. Everything I liked about the first season is better than ever, and the spectre of the secret hanging over everything gives the entire experience a much weightier feel. It’s a powerful combination.
There’s another thing I thought of when watching this episode, and that was the “Remember Me” ep of Star Trek: The Next Generation. If you recall, (spoiler alert for a 23 year-old show) Beverly Crusher was trapped inside a warp bubble, which is constantly shrinking – and as this is Beverly’s reality, the world she perceives around her is slowly shrinking too. It was hard not to envision Riki trapped in his own version of that, except that it’s not his space that’s shrinking – it’s his time. Riki having the feeling of deja vu is nothing new – Riki re-living a day immediately after having lived it is (at least for the viewers) a new experience. And for Riki, not a pleasant one.
One of the many questions hanging over everything is who among Riki’s friends knows more than he does, and how much they know. With “Anego” Kuragaya it’s hard to tell, because her basic personality is to act like she knows stuff no one else does. Her arc – and indeed, it seems we’re formally inside it – is tied together with the larger plot perhaps more directly than any of the arcs we’ve seen so far. The scene which begins this episode is groaning with the weight of significance, right from the moment Riki opens his eyes and Kuragaya tells him he “looks as if he’s still dreaming”. Riki, it seems, has never had a stronger sense of wrongness than he does here – his suppressed (or repressed) memories seem more detailed than at any previous time.
There’s another sort of significance to this scene too, and that’s the chemistry between Riki and Kuragaya. Ultimately it’s the bonds between the Little Busters – all of them – and the way they interact that give this show its poignancy. Kuragaya isn’t someone who I immediately thought of as a romantic partner for Riki, but the two of them are pretty great together here. Kuragaya tortures the younger boy, but she does it affectionately and with humor – from her suggestive recollections of the time Riki was unconscious to her habit of blowing on him and freaking him out, “Onee-san” is clearly feeling something no matter how much she makes light of it as a joke.
For all that, it’s still a bit of a jolt to see Kyousuke get the bit and his teeth and take off the way he does, confronting Riki head-on about his supposed love for Kuragaya and even demanding to know if he’s ever been in love before. The “millionaire” scene in Riki and Masato’s room is stylistically the camp silliness of S1, but like all the scenes of the Busters screwing around it takes on a stronger emotional bite now. And apart from that it’s genuinely funny, especially the “loli-loli” bit and Kyousuke’s startled realization that “21” looks a lot like ろり(loli). Masato is into maids, apparently, and Kengo, miko (me too). This all leads to a hare-brained scheme to set off fireworks to give Riki the right environment to confess (it’s almost as if Kyousuke is trying to force Riki to experience as much as he possibly can) – which eventually becomes a thank-you gesture to all the girls who threw the pancake party.
Not all the girls, in fact – and the off note in all this youthful irreverence is Rin, who’s clearly displeased with her brother’s antics and what follows. It’s simplest to see this as jealousy over Riki seemingly falling for Kuragaya (and he did look at Rin when Kyousuke asked him the “have you ever loved?” question) but I sense something deeper here, a different sort of disapproval. It’s also impossible to ignore the fact that Kyousuke was way too confident that the rain would stop in time for the fireworks. And while Kud was “Waka-waka nano desu!” in anticipation, Rin is nowhere to be seen when the fireworks finally do get launched – she’s off by herself, and definitely not in a celebratory mood.
I’m pretty confident that Riki and Kuragaya aren’t going to end up as a couple when this is all said and done, but that doesn’t really lessen the effectiveness of what we’re seeing. There seems to be a general undercurrent of everyone wanting things they can’t have that’s running through Refrain, but the living for the moment is definitely an important part of the story – and Riki and Kuragaya making this connection is still a fine thing to see. Another element that really works in this episode in the BGM, which I haven’t singled out for praise often enough. It’s mostly carried over from the VN, and while it suits the material perfectly it’s also a fact that Yamakawa Yoshiki is doing a masterful job of using it judiciously to set the mood at just the right moments. Watching Refrain right now is a process of seeing all the elements come together to take Little Busters! to another level, a confident and focused series that knows exactly where it’s going and how it plans to get there. It’s hard not to be excited at the prospect of where Yamakawa takes us from here.
Author’s note: 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.