We got some interesting news today when the home video schedule for Refrain was finally released. Apparently Refrain is going to be 13 episodes, with EX being 8 BD/DVD eps (the final volume will have two EX episodes – after that, pray for Kud Wafter). I’m mildly surprised as I expected Refrain to be two cour – Little Busters! is a money-maker for all concerned, after all – but the general sense among the VN veterans seems to be that 13 episodes is enough to do Refrain justice. I have no basis to judge that, so I’ll leave it to those who do.
From my perspective as an anime-only viewer what this does, if anything, is lend a sort of immediacy to the proceedings. There simply isn’t going to be as much for dallying around with the “secret of this world” as I thought there might be, given that we only have ten more episodes to go. And boy, the tone of this episode is fully aligned with that – there wasn’t much attempt to do anything but wallow in the strangeness of the situation, which Riki has become truly aware of. We’ve had many episodes where the conspiracy was part of the equation, obviously more and more as the show progressed, but I think this was the first time it was basically the entire episode. The character drama was a secondary player – even Anego’s – and the humor basically non-existent.
I’ve been seeing a lot of “Hard to believe this is J.C. Staff!” and “Is this really the same studio as the first season?” comments about Refrain, and while those opinions are certainly valid, they definitely don’t align with mine. J.C. Staff takes proportionally more abuse than any studio as a relation to the quality of their output, I think. I agree that Refrain has been excellent, but not with the surprise – not only do I think they did a very good job with the first season of LB (at least from an anime-only perspective) but also that they’re historically a very good studio. They’re huge, and produce so many shows that there’s obviously going to be a wide range of quality, but not many studios can sign their name on more really good series than J.C. Staff can. They’re most at home with material like Golden Time – which I’d argue they do better than anyone else – but I think their sensibility is well-suited to Little Busters! as well. And I think we’re seeing that proved out with Refrain.
I have a pad full of notes on this episode, but the fundamental truth is that every speculation I make is invitation for people who know the answer to confirm or deny it (please don’t!). And I think the larger point is that the ep works so beautifully on an emotional level. One of the things that’s striking about Refrain is that Little Busters! is doing exposition by emotion better than almost any show I can remember. It’s Riki’s feelings that are guiding the story – and we gain awareness (I think “understanding” is too strong a word for the moment) of the secret by being swept up in Riki’s emotions. We discover as he does, and I think this is a really good piece of storytelling that isn’t nearly so easy to pull off as Refrain is making it look so far. In a sense that should be the prime directive of every visual novel in this class, to fully absorb you in the experience of the main character, but not many can pull it off – and even fewer could see that experience translated to anime form as well as it seems to be happening here.
The sense I’ve had (I referenced the ST: TNG ep that evoked a similar response last week) for a while is that Riki is in a world that’s slowly shrinking. It seems to me as if Little Busters! started off as a very big world, boundless from Riki’s perspective, with the full range of possibilities that life provides. We had funny slice-of-life moments, adventures, meeting new friends. As the story has progressed the world feels as if it’s gotten progressively narrower, both through the focus on individual “arcs” and in a more general sense. This has gone to a different level with Kuragaya’s arc, where we’ve seen the story literally become a time loop, the same day repeating itself over and over. That this is “wrong” as Riki puts it is obvious, and in itself a partial answer to what’s happening in this world. But it raises the question of how Kuragaya’s scenario fits in with the larger conspiracy. It seems she wanted so badly for her good times with the Little Busters (and especially Riki) to continue that she effectively wished all of them into a single, repeating day. Beyond the obvious question of how the hell someone could do that, you have to ask: is Kuragaya responsible for the entire “secret of this world”? Or, as I expect, is she simply aware of it in a way Riki (and we) aren’t, and allowed her emotions to exploit it in a way she knew was wrong?
There’s one inescapable image in Refrain that keeps repeating itself over and over: Kyousuke by himself, separate from everyone else. It’s in the OP and ED, and it’s in the episodes themselves, and I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that he’s the one at the center of everything. Even in the more carefree moments in the first season there were strong hints that he was the “other” in this cast, the one that was pulling the strings. The how and the why is the mystery of the story more than that fact itself, but again I sense that emotions are the key to everything. Riki speaks this week of the ibasho – “the place where I belong” – and Kuragaya picks up on it. In this context it’s not so much a physical location as a spiritual one – at the side of the other Little Busters. The desire to be in that space is very strong, for Riki and for the others (Anego being the key example in this instance).
What seems to be the key to everything here is that this is a world where emotions, if powerful enough, can effect physical reality. To some extent this is the essence of magical realism as a genre but even more, I’d argue that it’s the core of the Key mythology and runs through all of their most well-known works – starting with Hisaya Naoki’s Kanon and running through Maeda Jun series like Clannad and now LB. We certainly see it as a recurring theme in this show – time after time we’ve seen characters want something so badly that it warps the reality around them, and seemingly has the ability to pull others into that altered space. The overriding emotional pull that seems to drive the story in LB specifically is something along the lines of “I want these happy times to last forever”. This is what I wrote in my final post on the first season:
While I don’t know enough about The Secret to say for sure, it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s metaphorically tied in to the inevitable loss that the end of childhood brings for all of us… Childhood is impermanent – it’s been at the heart of stories and fables since man first began to tell them – and adulthood brings with it pains and sorrows which children cannot possibly understand. All one can do is enjoy the days of youth as much as possible, and create as many memories as you can to sustain you through the long days of your life.
While there are certainly different practical elements at work here, in symbolic terms I believe this is the heart of the matter for Little Busters! In Kuragaya’s story we see a girl who was never able to be a child at all – she was preternaturally gifted both in academics and athletics, someone who “could do anything” – yet she never smiled or cried as a child should. What the Little Busters gave her was no less than the childhood she never had in the first place – and who would more strongly wish to delay the end of childhood than someone like that?
Angeo’s final benediction to Riki was that the “fated time” would begin once he was freed from her recurring dream, and that he must promise to “take care of Rin”. Whether this was a final goodbye for Kuragaya as a character remains to be seen, but clearly we’re at long last going to see how Rin fits into the larger picture. She’s been always at Riki’s side, but her role in the story has been something of a mystery – the one element that obviously ties Riki and Rin together is of course Kyousuke. How those ties are connected to the secret of this world – and in what way the five core members of the Little Busters are different from the rest of the cast – seem to me the critical questions as the secret is slowly uncovered.
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
OP2: “Song for Friends” by Rita