The Summer 2016 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
What is this?
Things aren't going so well for Arata Kaizaki. At twenty-seven years old, he has no steady employment and no real prospects. At job interviews he has to explain why he quit his first job after three months, and at social gatherings he lies to friends about how well things are going. With his parents cutting him off as well, it seems like Arata is running out of options - until a mysterious man offers him a chance to participate in the ReLIFE program, where he'll revisit high school for one last year. Arata drunkenly accepts this opportunity, but his first day on the new “job” doesn't exactly go swimmingly - he forgets his supplies, is surprised by a series of tests, and even gets yelled at for bringing cigarettes to school. Arata's trying to stay positive, but it seems a little doubtful this new chance will actually put his life on the right track. ReLIFE is based on a web manga and now available in its entirety streaming on Crunchyroll.
How was the first episode?
Although not common, stories where adults are, though some machination, transplanted back into high school to relive those days are hardly that rare or new. However, this variation on the concept has some promise, enough so that I am definitely going to be watching more.
Nothing is really all that novel about the concept; the only real twist here is that protagonist is essentially escorted back into high school age by Ryo, who has also reverted back to his teenage self. However, that's a pretty meaty twist. He claims to be just an observer and that this is standard practice for this kind of experiment, but the end of the episode suggests that there is a whole lot more to it: that he was the first person that the experiment was tried on, and that he is seeking to coach Arata through the process so that Arata will have a more successful experience than he did. That has the potential to give the concept some depth.
But the first episode has other positive points, too. I actually found it to be surprisingly funny (especially the whole exchange about the cigarettes and the probably-irony-laden lecture the teacher gives him about them), but the writing deftly mixed it in with the more serious content, hence making everything more effective. The cast of supporting characters introduced, though seemingly nothing dramatically out of the ordinary, hold some promise, too, and the musical score was also used well. Probably the biggest plus for me, though, was Arata's very self-conscious stream-of-consciousness narration. His introspective delivery is somewhat similar to The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya's Kyon, albeit with far less snark and a much more ingrained sense of dissatisfaction and discomfort with his life; this is a man who went through all of the procedures to have what would ordinarily be a successful life, but for some reason it didn't come together for him – or, perhaps more accurately, for as-yet-unspecified reasons, he couldn't tolerate it. That being said, though, he is hardly jumping at this opportunity, either. He is (understandably) very wary about the whole project and clearly not comfortable with it, even though he does briefly consider the one big plus of his situation: that he can show interest in high school girls without it being regarded as improper (or even illegal). Where the series goes with that could be interesting to see, but I wouldn't expect it to be a focal point.
Overall, I guess my main point is that the first episode, despite its occasionally comedy moments, has a sense of sincerity to it which sets it well apart from the “meta” otaku-focused effort one might normally expect it to be. And sincerity can go a long way these days in anime.
I have to admit that I do not understand nostalgia for high school. The only time that was worse was middle school, and if someone offered me a magic pill to regress to age seventeen with the caveat that I would have to redo a year of high school, I'd give them a firm “no.” That's not the case for twenty-seven-year-old Kaizaki Arata, although that could be because he was approached by the decidedly suspicious Yoake Ryo while he was drunk and reeling from the dual blows of a failed interview and his parents cutting off his financial support. At that point, high school might seem like a golden option.
Once he's actually there, however, it's clear that he's not thrilled with his decision. That's a large part of why I found this episode appealing – Arata isn't excited to be reliving his senior year, he's scared, uncomfortable, and having a really hard time remembering that he now looks seventeen and that he had damn well better act like it. This leads to a few nice little jabs at high school life, like the expected informality and the realization that he hasn't used trigonometry or algebra since he graduated, with the implication that no, you aren't going to need to know this later. He finds himself being disciplined by a woman three years his junior and worrying whether or not he's allowed to be friends with high school girls. The fact that he's worrying about these things, as well as just living his normal adult life outside of school, really adds to the appeal of this episode, and the blank, horrified faces he makes are also big draws, if only because for a change a show isn't glorifying high school.
Of course, there's something darker than mere school at play here. Yoake (whose name, I believe, means “dawn”) deliberately approached Arata, possibly at a vulnerable moment on purpose. At the end of the episode, he makes a comment about Arata being “rehabilitated,” a word which has connotations of renewed productivity rather than increased happiness, and his report makes mention of a failed previous test subject. That Arata is only subject number two is also a bit worrying – is Arata a guinea pig for more than just age regression? Is he ever going to be allowed to become his real age again physically, or will a year of the drug keep him younger for good? And is An, the other transfer student, another test subject?
There's a lot that's intriguing here underneath a veneer of second chances. It may be a much less dark story than I'm foreseeing right now, although it would still have slightly depressing implications for any relationships he might form at school, but I'm kind of hoping that it's not. It should be easy enough to find out – the first eight episodes are up now, so once preview guide is over and I have time again, answers can be quickly obtained. As of right now, that feels like a real possibility, because there's more to this than a more masculine version of Arina Tanemura's Idol Dreams or a glorification of high school. There's more going on at Aoba High School than meets Arata's eye – or at least, I hope there is.
Oh good, an anime series about a guy struggling to muddle through his 20s. Thanks, ReLIFE, I really needed an extra reminder that a quarter of my life is already in the rearview mirror. Personal gripes aside, the first episode of ReLIFE makes a solid first impression with an intriguing if familiar “life do-over” premise.
I like the fact that this series doesn't try to drum up some extra drama by trapping its main character in a teenage body. By placing Kaizaki in an actual program with a fixed end date, ReLIFE gives itself a chance to focus more on its themes and characters and less on the supernatural shenanigans of trying to go back to normal. This has some immediate benefits, as this episode is able to move quickly through the mandatory “this is real and it's too late to back out” scene and jump straight into Kaizaki's attempt to blend into his high school class. That spare screen time is put to good use, with the show already going out of its way to offer some musings on the topics of youth and personal ambition.
Kaizaki himself makes for an intriguing main character, as he's a bit more levelheaded than I expected from the protagonist of a “do-over” story. He isn't beset by panic attacks or crippling anxiety, nor does he seem particularly inclined toward drooling over his female classmates. He's just sort of an average guy, though we're given a few hints about his troubled past to keep him from seeming too bland. His “handler” Ryo looks like he could be an amusing comedic foil, prodding at Kaizaki's weak points with humorous results. It's hard to judge the rest of the cast from their brief appearances, but it looks like ReLIFE has assembled a decent variety of personalities to fill out the class.
Perhaps the most encouraging news is that the show seems to be reasonably funny. While the episode's opening scenes don't leave much of an impression, Kaizaki's disastrous first day at school provides a few good laughs. More importantly, there's a relatable authenticity to the way in which Kaizaki realizes just how unprepared he is for what he's gotten himself into. The series also appears to have a couple of storylines already in the works, with a rivalry brewing between a pair of honor students and a vaguely ominous reference to a previous test subject.
Nothing about the first episode of ReLIFE marks it as a definite must-watch, but the show does seem to know what it's doing. The premise is interesting, the production values are solid, and the series can tell a joke without trying too hard. A lot will depend on what ReLIFE does with the building blocks it's assembled so far. If it can find a good balance between teenage hijinks and grown-up insight, it could be a winner.
ReLIFE starts with a very classic premise: if you had the chance to do your formative years over again, would you be able to find a better life? ERASED put a murder mystery spin on that idea just this winter, and it's a favorite of western movies too. What makes a story like that work or not is how dedicated it is to exploring its thematic significance and how well it defines its characters. So far, ReLIFE is succeeding on both counts.
First of all, Arata makes for a far more relatable protagonist than many anime heroes. At twenty-seven years old, he's not a dedicated otaku or anything - he's just a young man who made a couple bad decisions and isn't sure what he wants to be. Arata's internal voice reflects his relatively mundane personality, as he stresses over keeping up appearances around friends or uses mnemonic devices to try and remember his classmates. Arata's interiority is flush with the kind of well-observed mental details that really make characters come across as human, making him a very strong central pillar in the story so far.
On the thematic side, the crux of stories like this is pretty much always “our nostalgic impression of the past versus the way life actually passes us by.” Anime is a uniquely appropriate venue for this theme, as the medium is already heavy on high school nostalgia, and so it's nice to see a show that addresses the naivety of believing everything was great in high school, or that your older self could fix things your younger self couldn't. Arata doesn't feel excited about returning to high school; he feels like the outsider he is, an insecure adult surrounded by people bright with the light of their possible futures. In the end, the person he most directly connects with is his teacher, who he respects for finding a job so young.
ReLIFE's visual design is mostly serviceable, outside of the nice painted backgrounds. The direction is more impressive; full of dynamic match cuts and gag cutaways, it adds a lot of energy to the base material. The comedy is mainly constrained to silly reaction faces, and most of the gags are pretty on-the-nose, but everything moves at too snappy of a pace for the humor to drag. And the music is a mixed bag as well; on the one hand, I appreciate that the score is composed of contextual instrumental pieces that actually match the movement of the show, but on the other, those pieces can actually get kind of overbearing. Still, the strong direction and generally clean visual design make ReLIFE's aesthetics a notch in its favor.
Overall, ReLIFE's writing seems strong enough to make it well worth a look. It seems likely the show will be winding into relationship drama between the various high schoolers, which could result in some awkward material given the adult protagonist, but this episode at least was full of strong dialogue and compelling personal reflections. I'm on board so far.
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