Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Aug 15th 2013
Sub.DVD - The Complete Series
Risa and Otani have height problems. Risa is mega-tall and Otani is mega-short and both of them hate it. A particularly perceptive and sarcastic teacher has labeled them “All Hanshin Kyojin,” after a popular comic act with a distinctive height gap. The two fight constantly and frequently hilariously, which doesn't help. In their own way they're good friends though, and they have weirdly compatible tastes, so their friends are always urging them to get together. But that seems unlikely. There's the height difference of course, but also they just don't see each other that way. Until, that is, Risa does. And then everything changes.
Discotek, under its Eastern Star label, has carved out an interesting niche in the American anime market. After years of oddball licensing decisions and an increasingly ambitious spate of oddball anime releases they've become the go-to guys for old, forgotten, or plain weird and under-the-radar series. And bless them for it. Not because it's a kind thing to do for fans, especially the older ones—though it is—but because it has made this box set possible. Even if Discotek did nothing else, even if the rest of its catalog was garbage, even if it was run by Nazis, its existence would still be justified by the fact that it gave us Lovely Complex.
In outline there's nothing particularly special about Lovely Complex. Risa and Otani are quintessential mismatched lovers. Neither can imagine going with the other for essentially shallow reasons: in this case because of their uncharacteristic height differential. They're initially at odds, participating in that brand of rom-com antagonism that is all about secret (or not-so-secret) compatibility. They go through the requisite pact to help each other's love lives and the inevitable tightening of bonds that it causes. Eventually Risa realizes her feelings and frets about how to make the leap to romance. There are confessions and heartbreaks and shifting feelings and—and it's not giving away too much to say this—ultimately our heroes end up where everyone knew they would: together and in love. Not a particularly striking example of rom-com plotting.
But the amount of pure feeling—of warm fun, aching hurt, and heart-busting fulfillment—that the series crams into that framework is quite striking. The show is ridiculously touching. We feel Risa's emotional highs and lows with an acuteness that is downright embarrassing. That's a tribute mostly to Risa. As written by Aya Nakahara, acted by Akemi Okamura, and animated by Kônosuke Uda, Risa is a hugely likeable, monstrously sympathetic presence. She's beautiful, funny, and strong; goofy, awkward, and easily hurt; sensitive, energetic, insecure, determined, and in some ways thick as bricks. When her friends point out what a great gal she is, it's easy to see what makes her great; and when they get fed up with her stupidity, it's just as easy to see why. She is, put a different way, a teenaged girl. Not some idealized female construct or convenient cog in a story: a messy, flawed, damnably loveable girl. It's frighteningly easy to see yourself (or some portion of yourself) in her, and thus feel the agony of her first full-on heartbreak, the satisfaction of her recovery, and the glory of her hard-earned happiness.
It's important to note here that Love*Com is also ridiculously funny. It isn't afraid to finish off a story about a romantic rival with a triangle-destroying gag. It makes a pastime of converting heartbreak into hilarity. And it loves nothing more than adorning whatever Risa's going through with uproarious character byplay. The series is awash in the laughs sparked by Risa and Otani's interactions with their wonderful cadre of friends—top among whom is Risa's hard-nosed but secretly sentimental best friend Nobu—and with an ever-widening circle of delightfully odd supporting players. Rare is the minute that passes without once or twice plastering a big dumb grin across your face.
If this makes the show sound kind of bipolar, swinging between heavy emotion and fizzy lightheartedness, that's unfortunate. Because that's a fundamental misrepresentation of what Love*Com is doing. Humor and pathos aren't separate things in Love*Com; they're intimately intertwined and interdependent. Natural comedienne that she is, Risa often reacts to romantic desolation in gut-bustingly weird ways. In one instance she turns herself into a romance-hating spook; in another she buries herself in creepy schoolgirl adoration of the class's supremely cheesy heartthrob of a student teacher. In both cases she turns anguish into hard laughs, all while her pain bubbles beneath the humor, breaking through in the occasional burst of aching honesty. The whole series is like that. Don't be surprised if you find yourself laughing through your tears, or cheering through your giggles.
The contribution of Kônosuke Uda to that particular feat is not to be underestimated. Taking a rare break from steering the One Piece juggernaut, Uda brings a honed sense for both heavy-duty fun and heavy-duty emotion to the series. He has all manner of fun with the series' visuals, from Risa's delightfully goony body language to all of the fanciful little touches—some familiar, many totally unique—that add color to the episodes. His comic timing is razor sharp and his pacing fast and energetic without tipping over into hyperactivity. He maintains a distinct shojo feel with hyper-stylish clothing and clean-lined, rosy-cheeked shojo designs, while using those designs, and a subtle facility for emotional expression (especially where Risa's scribble-pupiled eyes are concerned), to hit us hard with whatever the cast is feeling. He's assisted in both pursuits by Hironosuke Sato's score, which does a shockingly good job of being fun without being annoyingly obvious about it and is positively lethal when wielded in support of Risa's romantic travails and triumphs (there is one composition, “Orchestra na Risa,” that sounds just like a heart soaring and another, “dry tears,” that sounds exactly like one breaking).
If you're looking for some criticism to balance out the heaping on of praise, it'd be easy enough to oblige. The show peaks early, hitting the series' logical conclusion in episode eighteen and then strolling through six episodes of side-stories and one-episode romantic rivals before finishing with Risa and Otani's graduation. There are lapses in visual control and dips in animation quality throughout, and poor Otani has a real job maintaining his likability while unwittingly (and later wittingly) putting Risa through hell. And while we're nitpicking, there's also Eastern Star's release, which takes bare-bonedness to new extremes of bareness and boniness. The series is presented with no extras, no dub, no sub-menus, and purely utilitarian packaging.
But none of that matters. This set needs nothing but its content to be one of the best on the market, and for every in-show weakness spotted there's a much more prominent strength waiting somewhere to be discovered. Like the series' refusal to villainize, well, anyone. Or the quiet intelligence it shows by using friendship—as opposed to the usual plot contrivances or, again, villains—to keep its made-for-each-other leads apart. Lovely Complex is the romantic comedy that all rom-coms should aspire to be: poignant, uplifting, riotous; a seamless fusion of romance and comedy. There are more intelligent, better-written, and more important romances out there, but for sheer joy in the watching, Lovely Complex is king. (Or queen, if you prefer).
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A-
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : A
+ Risa is knock-down great; consistently hilarious; loaded with all the bittersweet pain and stirring joy of young love.
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