The Winter 2016 Anime Preview Guide
Haruchika - Haruta & Chika
How would you rate episode 1 of
Haruchika – Haruta & Chika ?
What is this?
With a flute in her hands and a skip in her step, Chika Homura is ready to make a change. Ever the tomboy growing up, she's gotten tired of people associating her with rough pursuits like volleyball and tree-climbing, so she's determined to impress her new crush (her music teacher, Mr. Kusakabe) by expressing her sweeter side through song. Unfortunately, her past follows her right into brass band anyway when Haruta Kamijou, her childhood friend and a boy as tender and feminine as she is brusque and masculine, appears wielding a french horn and musical skills that far outstrap her own. No sooner are they butting heads again than an ominous "bloody" message appears on their music room chalkboard. Can they solve this school mystery (and many others to follow) while keeping their rivalry in check? HaruChika - Haruta & Chika is based on a series of mystery novels and can be found streaming on Funimation, Wednesdays at 1:05 PM EST.
How was the first episode?
P.A. Works has been trying to snuggle up alongside KyoAni in the hearts of otaku for years now and never really succeeded outside of a few rogue hits. The big problem seems to be that they don't have a great track record for picking material. (We don't talk about GLASSLIP.) So color me surprised that I liked this shamefully blatant off-brand blend of Sound! Euphonium and Hyou-ka as much as I did. (It sure is convenient that there were a series of mystery novels set in high school band for them to plumb!)
While HaruChika can't compare with either of its most obvious influences on a production level (it's a competently animated show, but it's decidedly C-list for P.A. Works), I'm already more engaged by the honesty and charm of its cast. Haruta and Chika instantly click as old frenemies in a surprisingly natural and subtle way for an anime mystery show. The dialogue is just unusually strong, and I don't really know how to describe why except that every exchange sounds sincere, like the author just recorded conversations between two former-friends-reconnecting-awkwardly and polished them down into quick motivated scenes that ooze just the right amount of character. Cartoonish overreactions and generic archetypes are more common for these Sherlock and Watson series, and the mysteries are usually unrelated to their relationship or personalities right from the start (with maybe some half-assed Moriarty shift toward the end). This isn't the case with Haru&Chika, whose first mystery springs from the conflict that will drive their whole awkward friendship going forward.
The episode starts gently, escalates with grace, and ends in a clever little twist that makes the unique relationship between its two leads even stronger. This isn't the kind of show that's going to set the world on fire, but I definitely enjoyed the whole experience more than I would have expected. It's a mystery show that's actually clever and thoughtful outside of its episodic puzzles, with a likable duo that communicates through genuine-sounding dialogue that fleshes out their relationship as much as it points out clues to the (fairly benign) mystery. Provided you're down for a very mellow and visually unimpressive half-hour, the strong chemistry of this pair really made this show stand out to me. It does make me wish the story was more of a romance or character drama than a lackadaisical mystery show, but I'd recommend giving it a shot to see if you jive with its titular odd couple as much as I did.
There's a subgenre of mystery known as the “cozy.” Typically in English mysteries that refers to a book or series with a cute theme, amateur sleuth, love interest, adorable animal, and a title like Knit One, Kill Two. HaruChika feels like the anime equivalent. It's got the theme (sporty girl wants to be cute via flute playing), the sleuth (high school boy), the love interest (band teacher), the animal (Chika's cat), and a title that combines the two leads' names. And, like most cozies, it also lacks a serious mystery.
That's not to say that the mystery is bad – it isn't. It follows a basic cypher pattern using musical notes, the Japanese phonetic alphabet, and the German alphabet and manages to throw in the QWERTY keyboard as a clue. It's sufficiently challenging for a cozy and even moreso for someone not fluent in Japanese, but not impossible to solve, so it presents a nice little challenge. Chika is our point-of-view character, so it's the same level of challenge for her, given her ignorance/very basic knowledge of music notes. I can't say that the payoff is hugely rewarding, but it suits its subgenre.
Unfortunately it's also kind of slow. This isn't a murder mystery or a thriller by any stretch of the imagination, and along with the puzzle it's also an introductory episode trying to get us to understand the protagonists and their dynamic. It has some nice moments, like when Haruta (inadvertently?) blows Chika's new image to hell in front of the cute music teacher or when the episode has the most realistic depiction of a cat ever, with Chika's cat walking casually away as she tries to pet him. Whether or not this is enough to compensate for the sort of “eh” resolution to the kind of lame mystery will depend on how much you like the characters and how intriguing you find the twist on the typical romance plot. It is kind of refreshing, and I hope it doesn't turn out to be just a one-off gag, because it really could help to make HaruChika more than it otherwise might be, if only in terms of the characters' dynamic. This has potential to work well within the frame of a cozy, especially since it isn't pretending to be anything more than that, and I'll definitely be checking out some more of it, even if I do find something weird about Chika's character design.
HaruChika is the kind of show that makes me nostalgic for the old preview guide format, because once you get past the synopsis, dear lord is there not much to say about this show. The first episode is basically all introductions, and the mystery message left on the clubroom wall only gets less and less interesting the longer it goes on. This isn't the worst episode I watched today, but it was certainly the most boring.
That's not to say there's absolutely nothing worth noting, though. Homura Chika makes for a reasonably satisfying lead character, with her petty aspirations of cuteness and underlying boisterous personality making her relatable and endearing. There are some nice scenes of her being a classic lazy teen throughout, in a context that's normally reserved for a male lead. It's also very refreshing to see an adolescent drama with a mixed-gender lead pair who are existing platonic friends. Normally romance is the automatic assumption in situations like this, and opposite-gender characters often have difficulty having real conversations even if they claim to love each other. But the banter between Chika and Haruta comes off very well here, even if the dialogue isn't that great.
The episode is undeniably slow, though, with very few hooks to drive much interest. Normally, a show with a meditative pace leads me to focus more on the visual storytelling; but in HaruChika's case, the less said about that, the better. HaruChika looks bad, with basically every element of its visual design failing to impress. The character designs are awkward, with their overdesigned eyes making them come across as both too similar too each other and not particularly emotive. There's very little animation, and the direction sets basically every interaction from the same mid-distance perspectives, making pretty much every scene feel emotionally flat. And even the backgrounds and color work are mediocre, with the show's school ultimately coming across as a generic setting like pretty much any other.
If HaruChika succeeds as a show, it will be because of the storytelling working in spite of the visual weaknesses - and so far, that storytelling is not strong enough to carry it. The relationship between Haruta and Chika certainly has plenty of potential, but so far that's about all it is. I wouldn't condemn the show based on just this episode, but it'll have to do better than this to offer much of a reason to continue.
HaruChika is the first two of mystery series planned for this season. While ERASED seems to promise a time-traveling murder-mystery, HaruChika's sleuthing has much lower stakes in its opener. It also suffers from a tell-not-show format that the many recent entries into this genre keep falling into time and again. At the risk of sounding like a broken record from last season's preview guide: mystery shows aren't fun when there's a genius-insert character whose only job is draw all the lines for the viewer to reveal the picture. This is Haruta's purpose, while Chika is the viewer insert that needs everything spelled out.
This usually would draw a lower score, since I wasn't thrilled with the mystery aspect of this show, but its other parts are charming. Chika is an excitable freshman determined to reinvent herself into a “cute girl” by dropping volleyball in favor of the flute. She and Haruta, who is a little insufferable but otherwise well-meaning, play well off each other. The jokes aren't gut-busting, but they squeezed more than a few smiles out of me. I don't exactly see the appeal of their mutual love for their soft-spoken teacher heartthrob (who I was expecting to get murdered, oh well) but the promise of a larger cast will hopefully push that subplot by the wayside.
Student-teacher crushes are treated like a milestone to growing up in fiction. Mr. Kusakabe even alludes to as much at the end of the episode. However, unless the feelings are used as a seed for both character's emotional growth, and the writing staff handle it with that in mind, there's really only two possible outcomes. One is an exercise in patience since it's a romance subplot that will never actually develop while the other option is something I'd rather not watch.
This episode's mystery introduced ciphers. Without giving too much away, the resulting message is rather anticlimactic, but on the other hand this makes the explain-as-you-go mystery solving seem forgivable. Yes, I wasn't able to get deeply involved in cracking the code, but the answer wouldn't have been satisfying if I had anyway. If this is setting the pace for the types of “mysteries” the audience can expect from HaruChika, then it's probably better to approach it as a romantic comedy with some mental exercise diversions that a proper mystery series.
Review: Last year, Sound! Euphonium proved successful enough to warrant a compilation movie and a second series later this year. Does the appearance of this series mean that we are now going to see a wave of school band-themed series trying to ride on its coattails?
If so then this will be a different breed of such series, one which crosses over with the decided Fall season uptick of mystery series. Whereas Euphonium focused on the high school band experience, HaruChika instead looks like it is going to use the band merely as a setting for an unorthodox love triangle and some sleuthing power; in fact, it is based on a series of mystery novels. The tone of the first episode and the tenor of the mystery in the first episodes suggests that we may not be looking at a “high crime” style of mystery but instead more sedate ones, like a message which turns out to be a sort of love letter being given in musical code.
Frankly, I'm having trouble at this point seeing how the writing is regularly going to fit in mystery elements without forcing matters, especially given the characters, setting, and apparent gradual upcoming expansion of the Brass Band Club alluded to by the closer (which is apparently going to be the normal opener) and the Next Episode previews.. Fortunately the two leads introduced so far are plenty promising enough that the series could be just fine even without the mystery element ever being emphasized much. Chika is the classic spunky girl, one restrained just enough to sensible levels that she is dynamic and fun to watch as she tries to leave behind her tomboyish ways and become more girly (a path which looks like it will be loaded with light jokes), and she quickly gets into a great, natural-feeling byplay with former childhood friend Haruta. The strong suggestion at the end of the episode that Haruta is going to be Chika's rival in love for the male band teacher, rather than a confidant in her quest to win him over or a direct love interest, definitely shakes things up, too, and provides some interesting potential new romantic angles.
Production comes courtesy of P.A. Works, which delivers some nice artistry even if it is flatter and less vibrant than the concurrently-airing KyoAni effort. The most striking feature is Chika's disconcerting eyes, which seem out of place with the overall artistic scheme (unfortunately this doesn't show well in the screen shot), but otherwise her design succeeds at making her look distinctive. Haruta, contrarily, is more reminiscent of other recent male leads in both stature and demeanor, while the band leader could practically be the twin of the one from Euphonium in both appearance and demeanor.
Despite a couple of unusual angles, HaruChika has yet to fully distinguish itself. There's some promise here, but it's going to have to do a little more with the next episode to keep me coming back.
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