The Summer 2016 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
What is this?
16-year old Naho Takamiya lives her life by a very simple principle: it's always better to endure than to make waves. Naho happens to live a simple and happy life with wonderful friends at a nice school, so she finds it pretty easy to get through each day without causing trouble for anyone else. So of course it disturbs Naho when a letter turns up from her 26-year old self from the future, encouraging her to take risks and erase her regrets while she still has the chance. Some of these regrets seem pretty simple to avoid, but Naho's stomach fills up with butterflies when the letter starts talking about a new transfer student named Takeru. If she wants to change the future for both herself and the boy she's falling in love with, Naho will have to finally start making waves. Orange is based on a manga series and can be found streaming on Crunchyroll, Sundays at 12:30 PM EST.
How was the first episode?
I hadn't read the manga Orange is based on, but it was pretty clear from the get-go that something really inescapably tragic happens at the end.
The show telegraphs it the entire time – even sun-soaked scenes of idyllic youth have a muted shadow cast over them, the camera hanging out in tight corners and below chins, smiling faces framed in claustrophobia to suggest something terrible is just about to happen. It's really effective – this is a gorgeously directed show with an unbelievable eye for shot composition and color. I flat-out loved the way this quiet little drama was visually executed, even if the pervasive depression told me ahead of time what to expect from the story.
The last few minutes spill the beans on what's happening with our heroine's time-travelling letter of warning – her sweetheart is going to kill himself and this is her opportunity for a do-over, apparently – which sounds like a fantastic idea for a drama. I have to admit, though, that the pacing in this episode made me want to just go grab the manga off the shelf (which is only three volumes long, boding further ill for this show's ability to remain entertaining) and flip through it. Happy as I am to wallow in beautifully-rendered scenes of nostalgic melancholy, the story feels a little thin for 12 episodes. Still, this is the best-looking show I've seen so far, and I really love the concept, so I'll give it a few more episodes and see if the pacing picks up. Otherwise, they just sold another copy of the manga.
Orange was likely my top pick coming into this season. Based on a highly regarded manga and directed by the talented Hiroshi Hamasaki, it seemed like one of the clear standouts, even if Hamasaki's eternally color-faded style (he handled the hyper-saturated seventh episode of Paranoia Agent, for example) seemed like a bit of an odd pick for the material. Having seen this first episode, Hamasaki actually still seems like a bit of an unusual pick - but certainly not in a bad way. Lifted by unique compositional choices and lovely backgrounds, Orange is a confident and engaging production.
The conceit here is that high school student Naho has just received a letter from ten years in the future, which details a list of past events she must change in order to avoid having regrets in the future. Right away we're interrogating the nature of nostalgia and ways we parse time and experience, an ambiguous fact of life that this episode represents temporally through its uneven narrative structure. Naho's long afternoon spent with her friends and new transfer student Kakeru passes by like a dream, upbeat music and visual flourishes matching a montage of their breezy day. When Kakeru disappears for two weeks, the time is represented as a brief moment of regret (was it my fault for not following the letter?) until he reappears again. Orange depicts high school not as a progression of days, but a sequence of key moments, appropriate for a show looking back from a vantage point of fondness and regret.
But Naho's teenage days aren't just represented as a distant point of nostalgia - that's the reality this show inhabits, and the combination of sharp direction and consistent writing bring it to life. I was particularly impressed by the banter of Naho's group as they walked together after school; rambling about middle school nicknames and favorite breads, the characters came across far more like a believable group of teenagers than most anime characters. Important incidental details like the fact that Kakeru is perceptive of Naho's feelings came across as natural moments of common understanding, and the show also wasn't afraid to weave its themes directly into the dialogue, with lines like “endure too much, and it'll be your loss.”
Overall, I'm thoroughly impressed with this first episode. It took me a while to get into the show's speedy and somewhat disjointed rhythm, and I wasn't sure every one of the directorial choices worked, but the show is beautifully depicted, focused on a clear set of core themes, and populated with some very believable teenagers. It's a fine starting point for a strong drama to come.
You can't tell from this episode, but I don't want it to sideswipe someone the way it did me when I first read the manga: Orange is as much a story about suicide as it is about anything. Consider this your trigger warning, because things are going to get darker from here.
That said, if you liked the manga, this looks like it's going to be a very faithful adaptation of it. The slightly muted colors capture the idea that this is a story about the past, and the characters sound just like they did in my head when reading the books, especially Kakeru. The only thing thus far that is sticking a bit too close to the source material is all of the lingering shots of the scenery – in the manga, that made for some very nice mood and place setting, but here it just looks like lazy animation. That's true of a lot of still shots which are presumably intended to evoke the manga panels. I don't know about you, but when I watch an adaptation, I don't necessarily need an utterly faithful shot-by-shot rendition of each page; I'd rather see the story move.
This episode has a fairly lazy pace. It opens and closes ten years in the future, when we know that Kakeru is no longer with the rest of the friend group, although we don't know where he is or why. This allows for us to underestimate the story and where it's headed, and it works very well. A large part of Orange's strength is in showing us how important the little details of life are, and that really carries over in the anime. When Kakeru knows that Naho, despite saying she'll eat anything, really wants the curry bread, it's a moment of connection between the two of them that allows us to see how complacent her other friends have become with her easygoing attitude. Kakeru's the one who sees that Naho is holding herself back, but he's also willing to let her do that if it's really what she wants, as we see in the softball incident. It isn't that Kakeru is pulling Naho out of her shell or helping her to speak up, it's that he acknowledges that she gets to make the choice. He's there for her in a way the others aren't, and that will become important as the story goes on.
Despite my very mixed feelings about the entire story of Orange, I felt that this was a very well done introductory episode. While I do wish the main issue was raised a little sooner (as I said, it seriously threw me in the manga, and not in a good way), the timing and emotions of this episode are just right in terms of character interactions. If the trigger warning isn't your trigger, this is probably going to be a very powerful adaptation of an excellent manga.
Well, I guess this is now officially the season of characters trying to remedy their past regrets. Where ReLIFE offered a second chance at high school life through a special pill, Orange gives its heroine a cheat sheet for important decisions in the form of a letter from her future self. It's an intriguing setup, and it makes for an interesting first episode as Naho gradually figures out that the letter's predictions are accurate and that it might be in her best interests to follow her future self's advice. As a slow reveal, it's kind of neat.
On the other hand, that slow reveal also depends on the somewhat contrived plot device of having Naho avoid reading the whole letter until the end of the episode. It seems like a silly thing to do, and I'm not sure the idiot factor is worth the big revelation at the end of the episode. Still, the letter's existence poses some fun questions from a sci-fi nerd perspective. Will the letter become less accurate as Naho deviates more and more from her future self's choices, or will resolving the regrets retroactively modify the contents of the letter since her new future self will no longer have the same set of problems? Maybe I'm thinking too hard about this, but that's half the fun of time travel stories.
For all the intrigue that comes with the central premise, Naho and her prospective love interest Kakeru are both a little bland. Naho seems like kind of a blank slate, with her defining characteristic at the moment being that she doesn't like making trouble for other people. Kakeru has his share of secrets for now, but he doesn't do much beyond reacting reasonably to the other characters' actions. The good news is that their group of friends includes enough colorful personalities to make up the difference, and their merry romp through town proves to be one of this episode's stronger scenes despite having nothing to do with the letter gimmick.
Orange's less stylized look implies that it's taking itself fairly seriously, and I can see the makings of a compelling drama lying around here and there. The writing seems to be on point for the most part, with plenty of good dialogue sprinkled into the characters' conversations. If this series can breath a little more life into its heroine and avoid tripping over its own time traveling premise, it should do just fine.
I reviewed the live-action version of this manga adaptation last week, so this is one of the rare cases where I already know what's going to happen from the outset. Nothing in the first episode of this version indicates that characters and events are going to be handled in any substantially different way than what the live action version did; in fact, the differences between this and the first 15-20 minutes of the movie are largely trivial. That does leave me with some concern about the series' overall pacing, as the movie version, which consisted of the equivalent of about six and a half episode of story content, was a little too languidly-paced for the territory it covered. Some minor signs of padding are already evident, but is the series really going to be able to cover 12-13 episodes without seeming like it's dragging? Or did the movie just skip that much?
Either way, the first episode, at least, is very solidly-handled on both storytelling and production fronts. It presents a diverse and likable cast of both male and female characters who can't all immediately be easily pigeonholed into standard archetypes. In fact, the writing plays a little coy with what central girl Naho's main hang-up is; turns out that she's not so much the typical timid girl as simply not assertive, with a personality inclined to accept things without complaint because she doesn't want to make a fuss for others. That may contribute greatly to her quickly becoming attracted to Kakeru, who seems like he might at least partly be that way himself. These early scenes do a great, low-key job of showing how that attraction develops, as well as showing how smoothly and warmly Kakeru is integrated into the group of five friends. So what happens – apparently to Kakeru – which compels the future version of Naho to somehow send a letter into the past? And why de she warn her 16-year-old self not to let Kakeru come with them that one day?
These are questions that the series will answer in time. Right now it's just fun to watch the relationships developing without any descents into abject silliness and with leaving the sci fi aspect of sending a letter through time lingering in the background. This is a story which takes itself seriously, and that shows well in the first episode. So does the strong artistic element from TMS Entertainment. These are beautiful character designs which provided a mix of light shojo and seinen influences, and the artistry in general is clean and features a great balance of color. Sadly, the actual animation is limited, as the first episode relies heavily on still shots. The musical score, though, is quite promising.
So is the series in general. Despite its flaws, the live-action movie eventually managed multiple emotional moments, so I look forward to seeing what an anime version with this strong a start can accomplish.
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