Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Sep 28th 2012
Episodes 1-11 Streaming
Hazuki loves Rokka. Rokka is a widowed florist and Hazuki a considerably younger, unemployed loner. It isn't the most logical match, but Hazuki's in love and he's decided to make it happen. So when a position opens at Rokka's shop, he applies and gets the job. They're both single, he's in a position to woo, and Rokka doesn't seem opposed to the match. The stage is set for romance. Just one tiny problem. Rokka's dead husband is still very much around, both in Rokka's heart, and as an overprotective spook that only Hazuki can see.
Ever been watching a show that has everything going for it, that hit on virtually everything that you like in a show, and yet somehow just left you kinda “meh?” That's Natsuyuki Rendezvous. A strong second half eventually rescues it, but the meh-ness haunts it to the end.
Of the things Natsuyuki has going for it, the first is simply that it's an adult romance. In the boob- and angst-infested waters of anime romance, a show about adults with adult romantic issues and adult ways of solving them is an incredible advantage. It's a nice changeup just to have characters who speak their minds and act on their desires. When Hazuki makes his feelings known in episode one or Rokka tries to seduce him, out of pure loneliness more than any genuine affection, it's hard not to be intoxicated by their (admittedly quite normal) decisiveness. You know it's your harem-lowered romance expectations doing the intoxicating, but that doesn't make it any less real.
From that intoxication we move next to intoxicating emotional potential. The series' premise is a thing of elegant beauty. Built into its little supernatural conundrum is a whole universe of potent feelings. Hazuki's desperate love of a woman who is not just older, but in love with a man he can never compare to—mainly because the man is dead. Rokka's still-powerful grief at losing the man she loved far too soon, and guilt for accepting Hazuki's overtures while those feelings still ache. Ghostly husband Shimao's despair at being able to see and hear his true love while never able to touch or speak to her, to comfort her or let her know she's not alone, even as another man moves in to take his place. Hazuki's shame for trying to take Shimao's place as Shimao despairs. The tug-of-war between Rokka's feelings for the dead and her earthly desires… We could go on forever.
And to the series' credit, it embraces most of those feelings. It understands its characters feelings, and gives them the space they need to flourish—delving in with restraint, respect, and even a little poetry. Never forgetting, in the meantime, to push hard enough to twang those heartstrings as it passes by.
And yet, still: meh. The reason is pretty simple. The series is something of a chamber play, an intensely focused romantic drama with a cast of essentially three. Four if you count Shimao's sister, though she's given so little to do that that's stretching. That kind of focus isn't a bad thing—except when you don't much care for the people in question. We're told Hazuki is a sensitive young man, but he's given to acting like a possessive ass, and treats tortured Shimao like he's dung. We're told Shimao was a gentle yet passionate artist, but mostly he's a petulant child—with occasional flashes of possessive assness. This isn't the messiness of real-life people either; more the messiness of characters whose personalities change at the plot's convenience. As for Rokka, she's an adorable nonentity, given little to do but provide something attractive for the men to fight over.
With a cast like that, focus becomes a very bad thing. We spend every waking moment with these characters, soaking in their inconsistencies and enduring their creepy attempts to dominate the woman they love—though as their competition goes on it starts looking less like love and more like wanting Rokka just so the other guy can't have her. Rather than reeling us in, the series' laser focus suffocates. We'd do anything to spend some time with Hazuki's parents or Rokka's old classmates, but no luck. Hazuki and Rokka might as well be orphans from single-child families, and social lepers with total amnesia to boot, for all the attention that is given to the pasts and families and friends. The only break from the Hazuki/Rokka/Shimao trifecta is Shimao's awesome sister, whose every visit is like a cool drink of kindness in a desert of selfishness.
Worse still, though, is what happens to all of those delicious emotional opportunities. Quite of few of them die outright; murdered in cold blood by Hazuki and Shimao. Specifically anything requiring sympathy for each other. They hate each other so thoroughly that they hardly bother to consider what the other must be feeling or going through. When empathy does blossom—as it does for both on occasion—they're quick to kill it off. It makes them highly unlikeable. Most of the emotions built into the premise don't die however; they're just greatly lessened by the fact that we don't give a hoot how things turn out. We don't particularly want Rokka to hook up with either of these guys, and we couldn't care less if Hazuki or Shimao gets hurt.
That starts to change about halfway through though; specifically when Shimao hijacks Hazuki's body to court his wife and then refuses to give it back for the remainder of the series. It's a transparent device to get Shimao and Hazuki to understand each other better and settle their differences, and contrary to expectations, it does help. Honestly, it isn't any more natural than when the series forced them to be heartless to each other—it's just the writers again bending the characters to the will of the plot—but it does take them in a more pleasant direction, towards empathy and kindness, so it's welcome nonetheless.
And anyway, it isn't what happens to the guys that turns the series around; it's Rokka. The body-swapping episodes delve deep into Rokka and Shimao's long-gone relationship, and into Rokka's feelings for these two men. Whereupon something odd happens: Rokka becomes a person. Not an object to be won; a living, breathing woman with feelings and desires and a past. We see her as a strong, cheerful girl; married young and living life to its fullest. We see fragments of that girl beneath her poised surface, flashes of the sometimes deeply odd woman who won Shimao over all those years ago. Suddenly the outcome of their strange triangle matters—not because we care one whit for who wins her over, but because we care what happens to her. It is thanks to her, and her alone, that the last few episodes are as fraught as they are, and their conclusion as satisfying as it is.
Of course, it hurts nothing that she's also brain-fryingly cute. Just as it hurts nothing that Hazuki and Shimao are convincingly handsome, or that Shimao's sister rocks a pair of librarian's specs. As for the rest of the production, it's frankly beautiful—especially the gorgeous flower arrangements at Rokka's shop. Director Kou Matsuo doesn't handle motion so well, resulting in a few too many awkward “camera” movements and intimate contact that feels less intimate than it should. He knows how to do tears though, even if his handling of other, more complex emotions leaves something to be desired. No fear, though; Ken Muramatsu's sweet, sad, understated score picks up most of the slack. It's the kind of score that really heightens feeling—even when you wish it wouldn't. Even so, there are enough kinks in the production to say with confidence that it isn't all Hazuki and Shimao's fault that what could have been a fantastic little romance gem is instead a very pretty chunk of romance rock.
Though mostly, it is.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C+
Animation : B-
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ A tightly focused, gently underplayed supernatural romance that finishes strong and leaves a sweet, lingering sadness after it closes.
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