Reviewby Theron Martin, Dec 26th 2006
High school swim jock Mitsuki originally befriended Takayuki because her timid friend Haruka had a crush on him and she wanted to help her make a connection, but over time she, Takayuki, and Takayuki's friend Shinji became the best of pals. Despite her own interest in Takayuki, Mitsuki pushes him and Haruka together, and ultimately they become a couple. Just as they are starting to get serious about their relationship, though, tragedy strikes, leaving Haruka in a coma for three years. Though torn up for a long time over what happened to Haruka, Takayuki is eventually forced to cope, and ultimately finds love again with Mitsuki. When Haruka finally awakens, she is unable to comprehend that, while time has not passed for her, it has for the other people in her life. But turning the clock back three years is not so easy a thing to do, not with everything that has transpired since.
Kimi ga Nozomu Eien (aka KimiNozo), which was based on an erotic computer game, has been a fan favorite in otaku circles since its late 2003 premiere in Japan, but serious doubt was also raised about whether or not it would ever get licensed because it's not the type of series which normally sells well in North America. It doesn't have any weird sci-fi, supernatural, or magical elements to it, it isn't centered on its fan service, and while it has some comic relief, by no stretch does it qualify as a romantic comedy. Nor is it truly a story of tragic love, although such elements do figure into the plot. Instead, what starts out as a staid teen romantic melodrama transforms itself into a hard-hitting real-world dramatic love story about how a bad accident can change the lives not only of the victim, but those around her as well. Thankfully FUNimation finally decided to take a chance on the series, thus producing the title known in North America as Rumbling Hearts, for it is certainly a series worthy of attention.
Both the grace and the curse of the storytelling is that it takes its time to develop things, with nearly two full episodes of set-up passing before the defining accident. On the upside, this slow approach helps clearly establish the characters, the relationships, and the circumstances before delving into the much more complicated issues brought up by the accident, thus allowing a viewer to understand fully why events progress the way they do after the accident. On the downside, though, the set-up takes too long to get to the pivotal accident, especially since it is widely-advertised as a key story component. It doesn't help that the central conceit of the high school episodes lacks freshness: a girl hooks her timid, lovestruck friend up with the guy she also likes and resists the urge to make a move herself out of a sense of loyalty to her friend? Sounds an awful lot like Saikano, as does the tentative way that Takayuki and Haruka get together.
The slower pace works much better in the after-accident scenes in episode 3-5, where the overworked teen elements are replaced by a more complex and mature relationship between Mitsuki and Takayuki, one where a slower pace feels more comfortable and the overtones are less soap opera-like. In fact, it's such an improvement that the first volume's last three episodes seem to fly by compared to the first two. At the core of the post-accident story are the fascinating and difficult issues brought up by the circumstances, such as: how long is a person expected to remain faithful in a situation like this? How long must grieving go on before one starts to get on with his life? Can it be considered a betrayal for Takayuki to take comfort in, and ultimately form a relationship with, Mitsuki while Haruka still lies in her coma? Haruka's sister Akane certainly thinks so, which transforms her from the smart-mouthed comic relief role she plays in the first two episodes to the glaring, hard-edged voice of damnation in the post-accident episodes. As the flashbacks (relatively speaking) in episode 5 make clear, though, there were circumstances involved that Akane wasn't privy to, and Mitsuki hooking up with Takayuki was unquestionably his salvation during his darkest hour. There was no telling when (or if) Haruka would ever awake, so should either of them really be feeling guilty about what they did?
The drama gets onto such a good roll in episodes 3-5 that the comic relief bits involving the two waitresses at the diner where Takayuki works in the post-accident era feel discordant and jarring even while being entertaining. Waitresses Ayu and Mayu also claim the Next Episode bits for their very out-of-place silly chibi antics, in much the same way that the also-very-serious Koi Kaze used its Next Episode bits for comedy relief. The story would have been better without them, but it's only a minor flaw in what is otherwise very strong writing.
The time-and-story shift caused by the accident also affects the artistry. In the first two episodes the character designs retain the same cutesy look one would expect of a high school-based romantic comedy, especially Mitsuki with her improbably long ponytail. Although Ayu and Mayu maintain that look in the post-accident era, aging the core character designs to adulthood gives them a fresher, more interesting, and more handsome appearance; even the now-high-school-aged Akane, whose smarmy expression made her the most distinctive-looking “high school era” character, is more visually appealing. The visual effects of her prolonged comatose state are also evident in the way Haruka is drawn, which is a very nice touch. Background art is uneven – sometimes good and sometimes a bit rough – and the animation is no better than adequate, but it's not a bad-looking title overall. A few bits of fan service are included to entice in male viewers who may need a bit of extra encouragement to check this one out, including some brief actual (and more extensive implied) nudity and sexual situations. Whether or not the content merits only a 14+ rating is debatable, however.
The soundtrack to such a series goes a long way towards shaping it more as a gentle, heartfelt story or a more melodramatic piece, and the former is the case here. Understated piano and symphonic melodies form the core of the soundtrack, which carefully and wisely avoids dramatic peaks in helping to fashion the series' low-key approach. Only in the comic relief bits does the music truly get livelier. The smooth, easy-listening tones nicely segue into the pleasant closer, although it doesn't come into use until episode 3; for the first two episodes, events continue to play out as the credits roll. The first two episodes also lack an opener, but when it does finally see use in episode 3 it's a dramatically unmemorable light J-pop number.
A story entirely dependent on character interactions for its entertainment value requires great voice acting to succeed, but FUNimation's English dub proves up to the task. Colleen Clinkenbeard's reserved rendition of Mitsuki sounds more mature and a bit less peppy than the original Japanese performance, which may not impress in the high school episodes but is arguably an improvement in the post-accident episodes. Carrie Savage and Leah Clark are right on the money as Haruka and Akane, even mimicking the original performances as close as is reasonable, but it's Kevin M. Connolly, who to this point has only done bit parts, who turns in the highest-quality work in his interpretation of Takayuki. Though he takes a bit different approach than the original seiyuu, it sounds and feels right. And who else but Luci Christian and Monica Rial would you want for the Ayu-Mayu waitress duo? The English script glosses over the crudest dialogue (young Akane's comments to Takayuki are toned down a bit) and is every bit as interpretive as FUNimation dubs normally are, but it never strays far enough to be a problem.
The weakest aspect of the first volume is its shortage of Extras, as none are present beyond company trailers and clean opener and closer. Despite a somewhat slow start, though, the first volume of Rumbling Hearts proves to be an involving and compelling look at how tragedy can impact matters of the heart. If the circumstances set up about Haruka's post-coma status are played out properly in future volumes then the series has the potential to be one of 2007's better anime dramas.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : A-
+ Strong storytelling after a slow start, good music, capable English dub.
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