Little Busters! Refrain – 03

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Conspiracy-wise, I think this was the episode where the gloves finally came off.

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
do.

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OP2: “Song for Friends” by Rita

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10 comments

  1. F

    I am on the same page as you on this one Enzo. The storytelling in Refrain thus far is really well done – part of me wishes it could have been a 3 cour series with all those other eps one the BD releases; in other words, the series all done in one swell foop (as the time-tested saw runs).

    Still, kudos (no vague pun intended) to the excellent adaptation work thus far, and here's hoping it will continue just as effective to its end.

  2. K

    I really don't get all the surprise at "whoa, JC is actually doing a good job!"; they've always had good shows. o.O I don't think there's anything I've seen from them (which, granted, is hardly everything) that I absolutely hated or cursed the studio on at all, I've always had fun with them to some degree. Wakaranai.

  3. F

    For me it is not quite that. It is moreso "Whoa, this VN adaptation is really good…."

    I'm a sucker for VN adaptations that are well done – stuff like Air, Kanon, Clannad (my personal fave) are exceptions for me rather the rule. There have been other adaptations that were not on the same level for me but also done well, like Mashiro-iro, and then others that were not done so well imo (like Hoshizora).

    What I am happy about more than anything else is a good VN adaptation that is getting better and better, at least for my tastes. :-)

  4. I see more merit to that sort of surprise, but what I'm seeing is very much more focused on that JC Staff part of the equation.

  5. t

    I must say…I love studio JC. but sometimes…there are.."problems" in terms of performance or executions of some anime. for example, toradora or index (especially season 2) that were good…but there were problems there. it wasn't.."sharp" enough. part of it isn't JC fault of course.

    moreover, epsecially after clannad, we have become used to KyoAni's combination with key. so…it is a bit surprsing for JC to do such great things with our lovely LB, so it was also a risk for us the fans. after all…a lot of VN adaptation are..bad. like Danganronpa (yeah yeah not JC).
    though I am not that surprised after S1.
    but this season they…really bring LB refrain into new heights. if I am not mistaken, Key accompained the projects, and we can feel key's presence all along. they adjusted LB VN maybe to even better scenario in the anime-medium.

  6. y

    Gonzo and Studio Deen took more abuse from critics. It's a natural pecking order: after Gonzo imploded, attention shifted to Deen. And after Deen reduced their output, it was JC's turn.

    At any rate, there's a bandwagon effect, and vehement haters tend to be swayed by particular shows (i.e. fantasy/sci-fi light novel adaptations…..A-1 Pictures is becoming a villain here) or time periods within a studio's history (i.e. pointing to a few years of decreased production quality and extrapolating it to everything the company ever produced. Worse still, some "critics" can't judge animation and point to image resolution as an indicator of quality. JC Staff didn't upgrade to full HD resolutions until this year, so anything they made before is automatically cheap crap. Naturally, pre-2008 anime from any studio has "crappy animation" too).

  7. s

    The other VN players are annoying with their complaints about the 13-episode count and the 8-episode count for EX. They should have figured out by now that the story is being changed a lot to suit the TV animation of the story, and to great effect, too. I loved this rendition of Kurugaya's route and I certainly empathized with her emotional problems more. Refrain is probably not going to be the same as in the VN. And that's good; I'm more interested in seeing something new rather than just a 1:1 animation of my favorite scenes. It's one of the lessons of Umineko, too, that if you understand the core, or heart, of the story, then you can amend it however you like in your adaptation and it'll still be fine. I believe that the Refrain team knows what this story is all about, and I'm confident that the rest of this show will be intriguing, if not emotional.

  8. B

    Well as some who played the VN (no i won´t spoil you) i think that this was pretty well done, form my point of Kurugaya rout was a difficult one to do since the ending (it had a normal and a true end after completing the game) didn´t gave much footing to continue the story. About the length, i think it´s okay. I don´t remember the last part being very long, but since i played the VN some time ago i might be mistaken.

  9. C

    As a LB anime hater and a LB VN lover, I would say that this episode was awesomely done and far better than the VN. Though I regret(TO THE CORE OF THE EARTH!) that some parts of Love Love hunters weren't aired at least the ending part made me smile that it was done right even though it was a little bit different. It was a little different but I couldn't help but swallow my pride for my love for the original VN that this anime is making a story on its own in a sense that they have to mix all the route to fit it right.

    D-don't get me wrong. I still hate the anime. If they were able to pull this animation quality why didn't they do this in the first place.

  10. y

    Schedule has a huge impact on quality. You can have the same staff/budget but completely different results, depending on the availability of key animators (good people get hired for shows very quickly, plus they're choosy in terms of budget and schedule conditions), the time allotted to storyboarding/animation, and the time spent on post-production. Persona 4 is a classic example of a marquis production ruined by a screwed schedule.

    On LB Refrain, the budget doesn't really seem to have changed. However, more thought has gone into where to allocate frames (placement of stills and full lengths, etc. This is a storyboarding matter), plus the artwork has undergone more correction for consistence. It helps that they have solid animators on board for important cuts, but the biggest improvements are on the digital end……lighting, VFX and composite, shadowing, shading.

    The first season was likely affected by rushed production – Key/Warner signed a contract at the beginning of 2012 and aimed for a fall broadcast. In that sense, it was a mad rush to complete the episodes, let alone polish them.

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