Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
It's official now, Honoka and Akitsuki are an item; everyone knows it, and the two don't particularly care that they do. Akitsuki tries hard to do right by his new sweetheart, but he keeps getting thrown into situations—shopping, staying over at his parents—with former flame Suzuka that have him questioning whether his feelings for the frosty high-jumping beauty are really over. Does he really love his shy new girlfriend or is he just using her as a refuge from his painfully unrequited true love? Not even Akitsuki knows for sure and he reacts against that uncertainty is ways that hurt Honoka more than reassure her. Their imperfect relationship is poised to either blossom or crash, its fate heavily dependant on Akitsuki's true feelings for Suzuka.
Suzuka is a real love/hate show. Not in the sense that audiences will either love or hate it but in the sense that it can inspire both reactions in the same episode, at times in the same moment. It's a mixed reaction peculiar to the series' mix of the moving and the hackneyed, one that makes it difficult to know whether you're enjoying yourself or not.
The Honoka arc provides the series with its most emotionally successful volume to date. Honoka may be a doormat, but she's far and away the series' most sympathetic character, and the vagaries of romance are far more affecting when she is at the center. The complex, ambiguous relationship she has with Akitsuki, with its undertones of emotional exploitation, is far more interesting than the boring will-they, won't-they silliness of the Akitsuki/Suzuka pairing. Its potentially devastating effects on Honoka provide for some nail-biting sequences and a few genuinely emotional payoffs (helped immensely by the director's sensitive use of gentle piano solos). However, the value that the show places on "true" love (something that will warm some viewers and leave others sneering) virtually ensures that this plot will be short-lived, and it often feels—despite being far superior in most respects—like a device to further Suzuka and Akitsuki's relationship.
The volume also benefits from an accumulation of miscellaneous additions and subtractions from the series' previous formula. Moving away from Akitsuki's obsession with Suzuka helps one forget that Suzuka is cold and kind of bitchy, something that no amount of "she's not as strong as she appears" drivel has been able to erase. His desire to be a good boyfriend and look good in the eyes of Honoka adds a desperately needed layer to Akitsuki's flat good-natured-goof personality. The laughable attempts at ribald humor are now only a bad memory, and there isn't any poorly-animated sports action to distract from the central romance. What hasn't changed is the insultingly lazy plotting. No matter that the emotions manage to touch the heart with little bolts of sad energy, it's still hard to enjoy being moved when the machinations leading up to them are so baldly contrived—and shopworn. Suzuka and Akitsuki just happen to get stranded by the track team (while picking up spilled cans of juice no less) at a train station that just happens to be in his hometown and just happen to be out of money and just happen to have no choice but to contact his parents, who just happen to insist that Suzuka stay overnight at their house. There is porn with more probable chains of consequence. And more originality. If you can't guess where Suzuka and Akitsuki's well-intentioned shopping trip to find Honoka a birthday present is going from the moment it is proposed (or even before), then you've been living in some sort of cliché-proof romantic-comedy bubble.
With sports eclipsed by the evolving love triangle, the limitations of the series' animation are less apparent, without being any less severe. It is animated, so things move, which is probably the kindest thing that can be said for it. Even the simplest of movements are clunky, stiff and unnatural. Faces, the very basis of emotional expression, are minimally animated, with a rigid angularity—and occasional sloppiness—in the eyes and profile that doesn't complement the personalities of the characters or the tone of the series. Backgrounds are sufficient, when used at all, approaching attractiveness where important settings (like a rural bridge swarming with fireflies) are concerned. Character designs are too generic and inconsistent to convincingly communicate Honoka's cuteness or Suzuka's beauty, and Akitsuki and other romantic shounen leads are as distinguishable as cockroaches to the entomologically uninitiated.
Suzuka's dub has more in common with Funimation's subdued work on Peach Girl than their fast and loose English interpretations of other shows. It shoots for naturalistic but comes across more limp and underplayed. English Akitsuki is even softer than Japanese Akitsuki, and many scenes lose their spark in the translation. The script never seriously changes the direction or purpose of a scene, and isn't nearly so loosely adapted as some of Funimation's other efforts. It may still be too loose for some, even while minor rewrites and occasionally solid acting elevate some of the more flawed scenes above the original. The opening and closing songs are also dubbed, the new versions lacking some of the vocal range of the originals.
Meager extras include a series of stills (framed as photographs) and clean versions of the opening and closing themes whose pleasant sound complements the conservatively utilized score, with the exception of some of the clowning humorous music.
The stewing of clichés and touching romance together is nothing new to fans of shounen romances. But where, for example, the interactions of Aoi and Kaoru in Ai Yori Aoshi were made all the sweeter for being strategically placed in a sour soup of cheesecake boob jokes and moldy harem hijinks, Suzuka builds the very foundations of its most important sequences with romantic tropes that should have been forcefully retired decades ago. Any emotional involvement comes at the price of being treated like an anime romance ignoramus.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C
Animation : C-
Art : C
Music : B+
+ Honoka carries the story with several moving sequences; sensitively scored.
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