I’m still with MAPPA and Uchikoshi here, but I’m beginning to see cracks in my patience. Unfortunately (for me) the high-water mark for Gainax influence on this show was the premiere. Ever since then, with each week it’s been successively less like a Gainax series and more like a VN – as if the writer were the dominant gene and the director/animator the recessive. I’m an unrepentant Gainax fanboy so no apologies there, but I think the problems go deeper than simple personal taste.
Here’s the thing: for all their insanity and fanservice, those old series were character-driven – specifically, protagonist-driven. Gainax was very traditionalist in-fact, taking the old-age approach that a story needs to be built around an engaging main character who has a dynamic personal journey in order to work (especially with coming-of-age stories as many/most of those Gainax series were). VNs for the most part (read, with exceptions) are built around a structure where what matters is the routes, and the protagonist is usually left intentionally unformed enough to disappear into all of them. That works to a certain degree in visual novels, but I would argue that in artistic terms it almost never works in anime.
That brings us to Punchline. The best anime-LN hybrids – stuff like Steins;Gate and Robotics;Notes – did in fact buck the trend and have distinct and relatable protagonists. Okabe was obviously a one-of-a-kind, but underrated R;N gave us a great lead in Kaitou who was as Adachi-like as any character not written by Adachi – and Adachi writes male leads as well as anybody in manga ever has. In Yuuta Punchline has the engaging part down pretty well – he’s a likeable kid with a great character design (they’re all great here) – but it’s punted the dynamic part. There’s no arc here, no story – it’s clear Yuuta doesn’t matter to the larger narrative one way or the other except as a device. And even if that changes now and Uchikoshi shoehorns something in, I would argue that it’s too late. The series is half-over, and the damage is already done.
Within that framework, even though the individual routes do hold interest, the overall interest level of the story is undercut by the obvious dismissal of the main character by the narrative. That points up a fundamental difference between anime and VNs, in that in the latter each route is given its full treatment – something that doesn’t happen in an anime unless it chooses the omnibus format (which rarely works well). VN routes can carry a story, but truncated VN routes are too weak to carry an anime – they need a viable protagonist to bolster them. And what we’re seeing for the girls of Kourai House feel very much like VN routes more than full character arcs.
For what it’s worth, there’s certainly a lot of VN-type exposition for those routes going on here. We discover that the lab Mikatan grew up in was called Yuba (tofu skin), and that the kids’ special ability was called “Yubafy” (well – that’s imaginative). Mikatan had two fellow inmates, a boy (who she fell in love with) and a girl. Ito was the one who sent out the “Ring” video, as a way to scare the bullies who tormented her out of school – which started because she accepted a ride home from a teacher she had a crush on. It was after the fact that her name was added to the list in the video, by whoever edited it – and that seems to be Turtle Man, for whom making Ito dead is a very important thing. And “Miyazawa Kenji” gets shot (by accident) when the plan his spirit form concocts to try and trap Turtle Man via Maika and Rabura goes all wrong.
In a vacuum, all of that is fine – maybe even better than fine. I mean, the Ito school stuff is well-presented even if it is pretty standard-issue. But it’s not adding up to a viable whole for me. I think Punchline is a spectacularly good example of why what makes a great VN is different than what makes a great anime, and that makes me very sad indeed. Why? Because I think the potential is here for that great anime, and even with one hand tied behind its back we’re still seeing that shine through. At this point I think that ship has sailed, but what happens from here on out is still capable of making a difference in how much of that untapped potential gets a measure of realization in the final half of the series.