Reviewby Carlo Santos, Jun 22nd 2007
Yamato Akitsuki is looking for new life experiences, and he hopes to find it when he starts high school in Tokyo. He'll be living at his aunt's apartment complex, but what he doesn't know is that it's also a women's bath and spa! Living next door to Yamato is Suzuka Asahina, a high jump athlete who's also starting school there. As soon as Yamato sees Suzuka, it's love at first sight, but he doesn't make a very good first impression on her. He'll have to work hard to win her heart, but with a philandering best friend, another classmate who likes him, and two crazy college girls bouncing around the bathhouse, Yamato will have plenty of other things to deal with besides just getting the girl!
With the Suzuka manga already established on US shores, getting the anime out to fans should be a no-brainer. But that existing fanbase might be disappointed with what they find here: the TV series is simply a recitation of events, lacking the spirit and craftsmanship of the original. Middling animation reduces Kouji Seo's detailed artwork to mush; half-hearted writing and voice acting turn the characters into watered-down versions of themselves; obnoxious music and antics ruin the humor aspect. But even so, these first five episodes are a gentle start to a heartwarming series—as long as you're not mentally comparing it to the manga every step of the way. Yamato and Suzuka's relationship may not have gotten off to the best start, but watching their love gradually bloom is what makes the anime worth it.
Taken as a whole, this disc is a living example of the "it gets better" principle: anyone judging based on, say, Episodes 1 and 2 might be surprised at the depth that's achieved by Episode 5. After all, a young man arriving at a bathhouse is obviously a setup for raunchy antics—Yamato falls on top of a partially-dressed girl in the opener, as well as getting flashed by her later on—but fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately) the story works itself away from that. Once Yamato starts attending school, the series' true colors emerge: a coming-of-age story where one flaky boy falls in love with one beautiful girl. It's not like Yamato is having six hotties thrown at him and he has to pick; in fact, the only girl who seriously likes him is too shy to admit it anyway! The point is to get Yamato and Suzuka together, and that's a good direction to be going in.
The pivotal scenes of Episodes 4 and 5, both near the end, show what the series is capable of in terms of emotional weight. Whether it's Suzuka sharing an umbrella in the rain, or Yamato thinking to himself about their relationship, there's definitely something there, and it's being handled subtly rather than melodramatically. After all, isn't that what love is really like? This is definitely a patient viewer's series, where it takes a few episodes to even reach a starting point for romance.
Unfortunately, comedic distractions get in the way, and the ratio often feels like 15 minutes of interminable silliness to every 5 minutes of sweetness. Secondary characters like Yamato's womanizing pal Hatori and the college girls at the bathhouse try to carry the humor, but their generic personalities don't cut it in a field where every joke about high-school romance has already been made. It's paradoxical, really: the side characters tried to be funny in the manga but were too annoying; now they're trying to be funny in the anime but are too boring. Maybe that's the real reason why Yamato and Suzuka's romance takes so long to develop—they keep getting interrupted by these unfunny goofballs.
Animation is the other big letdown in the show, regardless of whether it's compared against the manga or not. Dialogue and daily-life scenes allow a lot of leeway for shortcuts and stills, but more difficult visuals result in failure. Suzuka's high jumps, for example, are a cringeworthy sight, not because she has bad form, but because the form is animated so badly—her takeoff, flight and landing are presented as disjointed events floating in time, not the flowing motion that the high jump is supposed to be. Even scenes of emotional expressiveness, like Suzuka casting a glance at Yamato in the gentle breeze (awww), are poorly timed: never has a gust of wind and a tilt of the head looked so awkward. At least the colors are bright and the characters attractive—it's a slight consolation to know that things look okay when they're not moving.
Much like the story itself, the music is good when it's being sentimental, and bad when it's trying to be funny. The "joke tunes" and comedy tracks amount to little more than guys banging away on synthesizers, while the piano-and-string-section melodies reserved for Suzuka and Yamato's special moments carry more depth and feeling. Interestingly, the peppy theme songs focus mostly on uplift and sports metaphors rather than direct expressions of love; the opening and ending animations reflect that with scenes of track-and-field action. The dub track on this disc also features the songs re-written and performed in English, which works better than one might imagine—the audio mix is balanced and the singing is solid, making the songs fairly close approximations of the originals.
Of course, "fairly close approximation" is a relative term when it comes to the English dub. Most of the lines in the script are "sort of close" to the subtitles, other lines convey quite a different nuance, and basically it's like having two versions of the show. Not that there's anything grossly wrong with the English version; just be aware that they're not always saying what they said in Japanese. The performances themselves sound rather flat, in both languages: Suzuka's flashes of anger aren't angry enough, Hatori's smooth-talking pickup lines lack charm; even Yamato himself does little to differentiate his tone of voice from every other teenage boy on the planet. This so-so acting results in a feeling of watered-down characters, as well as dulling the effect of key emotional moments. Other options and bonuses on the disc include a textless opening and ending, as well as a "school yearbook" that basically consists of selected stills. Not exactly the most exciting extras.
These first few episodes of Suzuka prove that no anime can fail too badly as long as there's good source material. This one gets the basics down—boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy slowly gets to know girl better—so that viewers will easily be drawn into a sweet little love story. The series' shortcomings come mostly from the production end, with poor animation technique and second-rate acting dragging things down. Let's just say that anyone coming for a little track-and-field sports action probably won't find the action they were looking for, despite what the credit sequences might show. Fans of laid-back teenage romance, however, will definitely get their fill as the story shows how love really is: a long-distance run that eventually gets there, step by gentle step.
Overall (dub) : C
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B
Animation : C-
Art : B-
Music : C
+ Rewards the patient viewer with gently-paced high school romance.
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