Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
Kodaka wants to make friends, but he has a hard time of it because of the overpowering hard-ass vibe he puts off. It's not really his fault. His blonde hair is an inheritance from his English mother, and his expression is just naturally intense. Pretty classmate Yozora wants to make friends too, but her black moods and eviscerating tongue more or less prohibit it. Together they decide to form the Neighbors Club, a club devoted to making friends. Before long the lonely and isolated begin to gravitate towards them, beginning with friendless queen bee Sena...whom Yozora naturally hates with a cold passion. Not the most auspicious start, and it only gets more dysfunctional from there.
Romance gets all the love. There are thousands of romance shows, but how many are there about friendship? Okay, so there are all of those shows about girl friends goofing their way through high school, a number of kiddy shows, plus the more comrade-minded parts of the Shonen Jump empire—but other than that, how many? Besides NANA, I mean. At any rate, they're rarer than romantic comedies. Which is why it's nice to see a school comedy that puts the focus on friends...and awful to see it devolve into yet another show about a guy and his smorgasbord of girls.
Things get off to a pretty good start. Who doesn't love stories about misfits finding friends? The show's core cast is prickly and awkward and likeable, their dilemma easy to identify with, and their solution inspired—in a loopy kind of way. It has a decided preference for humor, as Yozora's bizarre recruiting poster can attest, but never forgets the soft underbelly that makes misfit-friend stories so alluring. The premise's greatest joke is that the club's members have already found friends in each other (albeit very bad ones in some cases), but are completely blind to it. None of it is exactly fresh, but it's plenty fun, and neither syrupy nor mean spirited—either of which it could easily have become. And best of all, it's unfettered by romantic entanglements. No puppy-love crushes, no angst, no cohabiting transfer students, no love-triangles; just outcast teens trying to have a normal high-school life.
The change, when it comes, is less a precipitous drop into romantic goop than it is a sickening slo-mo slide. At first there are just some worrying signs: Kodaka being the only guy in the opening sequence, for instance. By episode three a swim lesson has Sena's feelings for Kodaka leaning in a romantic direction. By episode four Kodaka has acquired an effeminate freshman underling and helped out an eccentric girl genius, whose forthright offer of sexual repayment has the rest of the club seeing green. By episode five he's befriended the club's ten-year-old staff advisor, Sister Maria, and caused his somewhat delusional little sister to leap into the fray. At this point, your harem alarm should be at DEFCON 1. Every addition to the cast is another step towards full-blown wish-fulfillment, another step away from misfit friendships, and another step down in quality.
As deflating as it is to watch the series taking on harem baggage, it's hardly lethal. The show has a way of riding out even the most dispiriting developments on the power of its characters (and maybe a tweak or two). Yozora's poison tongue turns the inevitable fight with Sena over bust size into a verbal disemboweling. When Kodaka is forced to rescue Sena from the obligatory pool punks, he reveals a hard streak—towards both the punks and Sena—that suits him well. Kobato, Kodaka's little sister, turns out to be just screwed-up enough that her inevitable brother complex doesn't feel out of place or even that creepy. And so it goes for pretty much any decaying rom-com cliché that the series cares to pump out. Just when you think that the whole thing is going to collapse into heap of empty-calorie romantic nonsense, Yozora will lash out with unexplained passion, revealing previously unseen depths of feeling, or Kodaka will peel back a layer of his life to expose unexpected personal complications beneath. And failing that, the show can always distract us with a sharp stab of wicked humor. You can almost forgive Rika (the girl genius) for being a sex-crazed mad scientist when she transforms an innocent mecha manga into literal robo-porn. Someone should have done that years ago.
Haganai has a clean, straightforward look that is attractive and consistent without being particularly impressive or distinctive. It never looks cheap, though it has its share of simplified backgrounds and budget-friendly animation, and hasn't an ugly bone in its body. Which is at least in part because it isn't a very active show to begin with. It can be a bit cheesy looking when it dives into one of the many video-game worlds that the club members practice their social skills in, but that's perfectly appropriate. If the series can claim any artistic distinction, it would be for its lovely character designs (by Denpa Onna to Seishun Otoko's Buriki) and love of cheeky visual references (The Sacred Blacksmith and Shana get nods, among many others).
Viewers may note the TV-MA rating and the presence of Hisashi Saito, director of Heaven's Lost Property, and rather understandably come to the conclusion that Haganai is a fan-service orgy. And they wouldn't be entirely wrong, though the service does take a different and decidedly less vile form than it did in Property. Visually, it focuses on faces, eyes and, especially, lips. (You really have to see it to understand.) The truly raunchy stuff is strictly verbal. Rika's robo-porn is pretty much pure dialogue, and it is nasty. Ditto the prank Yozora plays on Sena when the latter makes the mistake of claiming that eroge can be high art.
Oddly-named composer Tom-H@ck supplies Saito with a simple soundtrack comprised mostly of one- and two-instrument compositions. It is used with similar simplicity—quietly, effectively, and without much in the way of imagination. It won't sell many CDs, but it gets the job done.
A lot of Haganai is pure fluff—the Neighbors Club playing video games for instance, or doing nothing at all—and even more of it derivative drivel, but if you put all of the bad on a balance across from the show's strong cast and imaginative humor, it would always tip towards the cast. It may disappoint sometimes but it's a good show—in the balance.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B-
+ Solid characters; interesting initial premise; sharp sense of humor.
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