Reviewby Theron Martin,
episodes 1-8 streaming
Five students at Yamaboshi Private High School, left with no other clubs to join, decide to form their own Student Cultural Society, which is primarily a social activity which occasionally involves publishing newsletters. The five – easygoing Club President Iori Nagase, more serious-minded Vice-President Himeko “Inaban” Inaba, selfless problem-solver Taichi Yaegashi, former karate expert Yui Kiriyama, and Taichi's porn-trading friend Yoshifumi Aoki – were spending their time idly socializing and building the impetus for romantic relationships when, suddenly one night, they started finding themselves randomly body-swapping with each other for 30-40 minutes at a time. They soon learn that it is all a scheme concocted by a mysterious being who calls himself Heartseed and talks by possessing one of their teachers (and, on rare occasion, one of the five of them). Heartseed is intent on studying how the body-swapping affects their interactions and being entertained by what he sees, even if that means resorting to drastic measures when things get too boring for his tastes. Though the five are able to pull together and learn a lot about each other in the process, even that still leaves them unprepared for the second and far more potentially damaging phenomenon that Heartseed unleashes on them a couple of months after the first completes.
Body-swapping stories have been staples of sci fi, fantasy, and horror literature for decades, whether as central themes (the American movie Freaky Friday) or as one-off stunts (one episode of the American TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, several vignettes from the To Love-Ru franchise). When not used purely for gag value, such stories typically focus partly or entirely on the characters involved gaining greater insight into the life of the person that they body-swap with. The story arc composing the first five episodes, which adapts the first light novel in the source series, does exactly that for its middle three episodes. Through a combination of noticing normally-hidden details while in one another's bodies, confessions made to reassure each other that they can be trusted not to misbehave while in the bodies of their club mates, and Taichi's creative problem-solving efforts, the series shows us in great detail the core personalities, hang-ups, and predilections of its central cast as more minor development of a couple of side characters; the first episode reveals that the Class President for Taichi, Inori, and Inaban is secretly an aggressive lesbian, for instance. All of the key cast members have some kind of major problem that they are knowingly or unknowingly dealing with, too; one suffers from androphobia (and not without good reason), another fears that she has spent so much time adapting herself to situations that she has lost sight of who she truly is, another has deep-seeded trust issues, and so forth. Revelations of a lighter note also come out, and the series is refreshingly frank about admitting things like the fact that some of its cast members not only masturbate but have other cast members in mind when they do it. And really, who wouldn't expect that to be the case given that the cast consist of three girls who are at least moderately pretty and two guys who are at least modestly handsome?
For as serious as the content in the first four episodes can become, the series does use humor effectively to keep things from getting too heavy, even to the point of disarming otherwise-weighty situations with well-placed comic relief. The aforementioned masturbation revelation scene is a classic, as is the way that a body-swapped Taichi shows the androphobic girl the swiftest and surest way to put a man down – which is funny not only because the girl in question gets first-hand experience on how effective it is but also because the audience knows that Taichi is also going to be feeling it later when he switches back. In fact, this kind of light-hearted spirit predominates during the first episode, although it gets entirely set aside in the gravely serious episode five. The consequences of mixing this humor in are not always positive, as it sometimes results in content which should be weightier seemingly getting resolved too easily, but for the most part the comedic touches help prevent the series from descending into numbing blandness.
A seemingly permanent tonal shift arrives in episode five as the first arc is brought to a climax, with the feature story element being a stunt pulled by Heartseed that smacks of outright cruelty and puts the series in a gravely serious mood. The series does not lighten up much as it progress on into its adaptation of the second original novel, which begins with episode six. Rather than return to the body-swapping, which had pretty much played out all of its possibilities anyway, Heartseed comes up with a new and rather mean-spirited gimmick designed specifically to put the main cast members through the wringer – and boy, does that happen over the arc's first three episodes. Though the club members know that they are being played by Heartseed, it does not prevent or even assuage the kind of strife that can arise even amongst close-knit friends when the things that would normally be repressed are forced to the surface and exposed for all to see. The tensions that develop over this steer the drama in a heavier direction, and watching how each of the core cast members deals with the situation (or, in one case, fails to do so) can be deeply involving. As a result, the second arc is stronger so far than what the first arc was.
Despite an entirely different staff, the look – and, to a lesser extent, the feel – of the series invites inevitable comparisons to K-ON!, especially in the character designs. (Anyone who somehow still thinks that K-ON! isn't one of the most influential series of the past few years need only look to this one for another solid counterexample.) The core characters all look distinctly different enough that no one should have trouble telling them apart, yet at the same time they show little spark of inspiration. Current-standard-quality background art supports the designs, though some inconsistent quality control in the character rendering hampers the overall aesthetic. The animation is good enough to support the content but also takes typical shortcuts. The way it does this, though, can sometimes be quite amusing.
The musical score is likewise good enough but rarely distinguishes itself. It does get good mileage in some places out of running silent, but neither it nor the unexciting opener and closer make much of an impression. Much more impressive is the Japanese voice work, as the series relies heavily on adjustments to characters' speaking patterns and inflections to convey the sense of a different personality in the wrong body, and for the most part the seiyuu tackle this challenge quite effectively.
Kokoro Connect is not an outstanding series so far, but it exploits its defining gimmicks effectively enough to avoid being labeled as a heavily-derivative, run-of-the-mill one. Some solid characterization combines with a good balance of light humor and varying degrees of drama to create an entertaining variation on slice-of-life series.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B-
Art : B-
Music : B-
+ Good characterizations, interesting use of central gimmick for each arc, likeable cast.
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