It’s sleeper time.
OP: “STARTING NOW!” by Nana Mizuki
The anticipation for the top tier premieres of a season is always intense, and it’s a big relief when they turn out to be what one expected of them. But in a way, I think I find the sleeper process even more fun. Nothing in anime gives me more pleasure than sniffing out a hidden gem before I’ve ever seen it (or read the source material), and turning out to be right. That’s purely subjective of course, but as long as you enjoy a series who cares what anybody else thinks?
Enter Kono Bijutsubu ni wa Mondai ga Aru!. It’s a “pure” sleeper in the sense that not only had I never read the manga I’d never even heard of it, and that no one seemed to be paying this show much attention (it got only six votes in the LiA preview poll. Six!). But something spoke to me – in the synopsis, in the concept art, maybe even the title. Who knows in a case like this – it’s just a radar kind of thing, and it’s either right or wrong. For me, it seems to involve comedies a disproportionate amount of the time – the kind of easy-to-like series that are the backbone of any really good anime season. So I had a lot vested in Kono Bijutsubu turning out to be a keeper.
Well, this art club may have a problem, but trying to be funny and vastly entertaining isn’t it. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but this was pretty much it. This is both the studio and director that did the last two seasons of Minami-ke (the last of which was especially stellar) and there’s definitely a hint of that bloodline in the tone and direction here. But I’ve never seen a feel series that looked this good – it’s gorgeous, quite frankly. What kept running through my mind i that if Kyoto Animation and early-2000’s Gainax had a love child, Kono Bijutsubu would be it – it feels like a KyoAni series with a Gainax B-12 shot. I went back to the staff list searching for a Gainax connection, and sure enough there is one – character designer Otsuka Mai is a Gainax staple from that era, and this show does have a distinct Gainax look to the faces. But if there’s a direct Kyoto Animation link anywhere, I can’t find it.
Another plus is that this is set in a middle school, which I’ve come to believe is a more fertile setting for interesting character stuff in anime than the overplayed high school locale. Art clubs have a good history with manga and anime, and so far so good with this one. It’s a small group – only four kids (one of whom, Collette, we only see as eyes peering out of a locker) – but they make a big first impression. The narrator is second-year Usami Mizuki (Ozawa Ari) who’s generally likeable apart from her violent streak. She’s in love with fellow second-year member Uchimaki Subaru (Kobayashi Yuusuke), who’s a massively talented artist but only interested in drawing 2-D waifu. Finally there’s the President (Tone Kentarou), who seems to spend most of his time sleeping, but strikes me as a guy with hidden depths.
As you would more of less given the premise and pedigree, Kono Bijutsubu is a series that leads with comedy, but it doesn’t only have that arrow in the quiver. I really enjoyed the chemistry between Uchimaki and Usami – his commitment to his 2-D fantasy seems totally genuine, and Usami obviously disapproves. But she also likes that it gives her an excuse to spend time with Uchimaki – she even models for him a couple of times, with hilarious results (he can “barely tolerate” looking at her). I like the president too, a guy who seems to know a lot more about a lot of things than he’s letting on. Kaichou is a definite troll, but it’s mischievous rather than cruel.
The real question here, if one chooses to look at Kono Bijutsubu at all seriously, is just how much Uchimaki understands the deal with Usami. He’s seen her cry at the notion that he might leave the club (after finishing his ultimate waifu masterpiece). He draws a faithful sketch of her after she reacts badly to his otaku-fying her. And he decides to stay on in the end after seeing those tears. We’ll see how all that plays out, but at the very least this series seems to have plenty of fertile ground to thrive as a quirky and slightly ecchi comedy. It’s so nice when it happens good…
ED: “cubic futurismo (恋する図形)” by Sumire Uesaka