Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Dec 18th 2012
Pet Girl of Sakurasou
Episodes 1-6 Streaming
Sakura Hall is a dorm for weirdoes. Everyone in the hall is a bizarre genius of some sort: a programmer who only interacts via the AI he designed, an animator whose eccentricities prevent her from working in any conventional field, a womanizing screenwriter seemingly destined to die a syphilitic wreck. So how is it that an everyday schlub like Sorata ended up there? Well, he adopts cats. No other dorm will let him keep them, so Sakura Hall it is. Being an everyday schlub, he's constantly being dumped with the dorm's chores. Which is how he ends up the guy in charge of Mashiro Shiina. Mashiro is the biggest genius and the biggest weirdo of them all. A brilliant, acclaimed painter from Britain, she has moved to Japan to become a manga artist. The problem is that she's been so pampered that she literally cannot do anything herself. Not dress, not eat, not clean, definitely not attend school. Left to her own devices, she becomes a naked garbage-dweller in no time. So Sorata becomes her caretaker. Good thing she's super-cute.
Shows don't begin with expectations much lower than Pet Girl of Sakurasou's. The name alone is enough to swat our hopes down and stomp on them. “Pet girl” conjures visions of anime girls that anime guys cultivate and nurture like video-game pets because, well, that's what they are, usually in a porn game somewhere. And hearing the series' premise doesn't make the images go away. A bad-luck everyboy waiting hand and foot on a nubile genius who's as helpless as an infant without him? That's a male fantasy of a particularly icky sort. If the manly desire to protect grew uncontrollably until it became a kind of wish-fulfillment cancer, it might look something like that.
Add in ye ol' dormfull of talented wackjobs, stir in a torturously familiar love triangle, and you get expectations low enough to limbo under your couch and collect dust bunnies. So saying that Sakurasou exceeds expectations isn't saying much of anything. It could be a wart on the industry's behind and still exceed expectations. But that's not how it plays out. The series defies expectation in enough crucial little ways that it's actually quite the pleasant little comedy/drama, made all the more pleasant for emerging from such a sucking dearth of promise.
Of course, in some ways it plays out exactly as expected. The arc of Sorata and Mashiro's relationship is as inevitable as the progression of tides: they meet in a cherry-blossom-swept park, go live in the same dorm, and grow ever closer over the course of many familiar escapades. They have the requisite misunderstandings—with Sorata's friend Nanami usually doing the misunderstanding—as well as the naughty situations promised by the series' premise. When Sorata is first sent to help Mashiro, she's buried buck naked in a pile of lingerie. She runs around half-dressed, wets her T-shirt whenever she spills anything, and demands that Sorata get nekkid so she can learn to draw male bodies. There's a love-hotel snafu and lots of misleading statements by unworldly Mashiro in front of credulous strangers. Mashiro's personality is designed for such fan-service nonsense, and she delivers.
In the meantime, girl buddy Nanami is brought in to form the third leg of the obligatory triangle, whose points—if you care to count them—include Sorata the normal guy, Mashiro the alluringly strange interloper, and Nanami the secretly-in-love Girl Next Door. It does not inspire confidence. Ye ol' nutty dorm is filled with quirky standbys, including Jin the womanizer, Misaki the crazy animator, Ryunosuke the shut-in programmer, and of course the lady teacher who is thirty and going bananas trying to snag a husband. There isn't a person in the show who wouldn't fit, without any adjustment, into one prefab character mold or another—not even Mashiro, whose oddities cannot hide how familiar her whispery delivery and affectless demeanor are.
And yet she's quite an appealing heroine. The show goes out of its way to demonstrate how naïve and careless she is, but she's also a sharp observer and a hard but loving friend, willing to slice Sorata right to the heart when his self-pity grows too acute. She's a fast learner and demonically driven—reworking her comically bad (but magnificently drawn!) manga obsessively, drawing day and night and never blinking at raiding love hotels or molesting Sorata if it means improving her art. She may not know how to care for herself, but she's far from helpless.
The rest of the cast follows suit. Sorata is a born nice guy armed with a fast-retort sense of humor and a quick grasp of his own shortcomings that sometimes blinds him to others' troubles. He's a Joe Schmoe too, but of course he's painfully aware of that. Jin is a jokey womanizer who womanizes to forget that he's failed to keep up with the woman he loves. Misaki is a nut whose antics form a manic cover over a badly fractured heart. Nanami is hard-working and sensitive, even if she's given to clichéd outbursts and tired tsundere posturing.
It's a surprisingly deep cast for a profoundly shallow kind of show, and the show knows it. It's frankly uninterested in the naked cavorting and romantic-comedy pandering that it originally promises. The fan-service is surprisingly light, the harem aspect downplayed, and the focus more on the fears and pains that accompany young dreams than on the lusty complications of young love. Sorata sees in Mashiro the passion and drive that his Joe Schmoe fears of failure won't allow, and is first pained and then inspired. He is currently not in love. When the series does delve into romance, it's for glimpses of the secretly sad romance beneath Jin and Misaki's overtly silly rapport.
Atsuko Ishizuka directs Sakurasou with a sensitivity that belies her relative inexperience. Though quirky capering and frantic romantic misunderstandings are a big part of the show, she manages to pitch its tone somewhere lower, quieter and more pleasant than it has any right to be. The characters are as likely to sit around a table discussing their problems or gaze with unutterable sadness at something they don't want to see as they are to bungee-jump into a downstairs neighbor's window or coat themselves in icing and offer themselves up to their objet d'amour. Pervy comedy turns introspective without missing a step, and a let's-stalk-our-friends-on-a-date lark veers into gentle heartbreak with a grace that is utterly at odds with the script.
Cute, rounded designs, an effectively emotional score, a colorful palette, and an ensemble cast whose whip-cracking comic repartee is equal to its periodic depth of feeling all help Ishizuka along. She also has a habit of personalizing background movement that is quite charming, as when a row of cats nods along to the rhythm of Sorata's hammer or a random passerby's body language tells an ad-libbed story of in-school sickness. It's smart filmmaking, adding a lot of life for a minimum of animation investment, and with none of the pain to the eyes or brain that can accompany cheap energy.
There are hitches of course. Ishizuka isn't that good at antic humor, and neither is the score—which frankly is awful when waxing overtly humorous. As Nanami, Mariko Nakatsu pushes her scenes way too hard. Misaki sometimes crosses the line from endearingly odd to annoyingly hyperactive, though that is as intended. Generally Ishizuka's atmosphere is subtle, her settings effective yet unobtrusive, but occasionally she'll let it get away from her, as when she smothers Mashiro and Sorata's first meeting in cherry blossoms and fuzzy pink light.
And, of course, there's the big kahuna: the script. Or, more accurately given the work Mari Okada does to steer the story right, the source material. Even if it's better than it should be, it isn't exactly good. Many another series offers the same charms, with more craft and imagination. Here's hoping that Ishizuka's next project pairs her with a story to match her skills.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C
Animation : B+
Art : B
Music : C+
+ Surprisingly sensitive take on a potentially exploitative concept; good depth of cast and feeling at important junctures.
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