The Fall 2017 Anime Preview Guide Just Because!
How would you rate episode 1 of
Just Because! ?
What is this?
How was the first episode?
When I first heard about this anime-original project, I thought Just Because! was an odd and rather dull name for a series, even if it is pure slice-of-life light drama. Somewhere past the halfway point of the first episode though, the title gradually started to make sense, and by the end I was certain that it was the right choice. After all, for a Japanese student, the last semester of the senior year is perhaps the ultimate time to do things “just because”, and it looks like we're going to see a lot of that theme playing out going forward.
The first episode takes a rather meandering approach as it gives us snippets of what each character in the main ensemble is up to. There's nothing terribly interesting or compelling about any of this, although the writing does firmly establish angles to work from, and I was struck by how naturally the character interactions flowed compared to a lot of slice-of-life titles. These are grounded, unexaggerated characters who have at least some sense of realism to them.
Right about at the point where I was ready to label the episode “low-key to the point of boring,” the story elements gradually started to come together. Even though the events were utterly ordinary, there was still a sense of forces gathering as Haruto and Eita carried out their game. The crowning moment isn't actually the home run Eita hits, but what it triggers him to do; he apparently promised himself that he was going to ask a girl out if he did it. Vague hints had been dropped in this direction prior to that point, but only in the moment where Haruto connects the dots does the careful setup hit. Pulling this off so unobtrusively requires a deft touch, which was why I was shocked to discover that this is Atsushi Kobayashi's debut as a lead director. (He was the Episode Director for the strong third episode of The Ancient Magus' Bride OVA series.) There's a great use of the song performed by the school band members too.
Overall, the vibe of this episode is very much in line with titles like Sound Euphonium! or last year's Tsukigakirei, and I feel confident that viewers who liked those titles will be amenable to this one. If you do decide to check it out, be sure to stick it out through the last scenes, as you really need to see the whole thing for it to achieve an impact.
Maybe I'm just too jaded by my own awful memories of high school, but I have a hard time getting behind gentle high school slice-of-life shows. If I'm going to relive the horror, I need it to be as melodramatic and unrealistic as possible. Just Because's first episode is pretty much the opposite of that—it meanders from character to character, briefly touching on each one's particular realistic issue, and although it's definitely moving toward a couple of romantic revelations at the end of the half-hour, it lacks a sense of forward motion. That may absolutely capture the feeling of seniors whose graduation looms before them, but it doesn't make for thrilling viewing.
The show is purported to have five main characters, whom I assume to be Haruto, Eita, Mio, Natsume, and Komiya. There are, however, about ten named characters introduced, all of whom interact with each other enough to make it a little confusing which ones we're supposed to care about. Eita is the one major certainty – he's just moved back to his hometown after four years away and is now faced with the unenviable task of fitting into a new school environment in the final semester of his senior year. He spends most of the episode texting back and forth with a friend from his previous high school, which is a bit of an irony since he tells us that he and Haruto fell out of contact fairly soon after he moved the first time, despite the fact that he still has Haruto's number in his phone too, as he proves at the end of the episode. Perhaps the whole thing is meant to illustrate the nature of friendships—good friends can reconnect easily after time apart, or something like that.
The main problem here is that I just don't have enough reason to care about any of these people. Yes, it's only the first episode, but all of them feel so bland that I can't bring myself to wonder where the story is headed. The one character who isn't boring is obnoxious: Komiya, the girl who is incensed about a club that she'll no longer be a member of shutting down, who takes pictures of people despite their express desire not to be photographed. Since I have the terrible feeling that one of those unauthorized photos is going to win Komiya a prize, that just makes her even worse.
In Just Because's defense, it does have that soothing thing down pat. The muted colors, realistic backgrounds, and generic character designs make this visually easy to look at, even if there's something off about the faces at times, especially Haruto's. There's a good chance that once this actually gets going, it could be a nice laid-back story about the difficulties of transitioning from high school to the world beyond, but right now it's not giving me any reason to find out if it can pull it off.
I feel like someone overheard me accusing last spring's Tsukigakirei of being absolute kryptonite for anyone who wants their puppy love schoolyard romances to have distinguishing characteristics of some kind and decided to punk me extra hard by making Just Because! I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry. Bring back Tsukigakirei. Not only was it more entertaining, but at least I could describe its premise easily. (Nice bland boy and nice bland girl slowly begin their first bland romance together in middle school.) I had to write the plot synopsis for Just Because! at the top of this page, and trying to figure out this show's central conceit was like pulling teeth. Whatever I wrote up there, it's not what the show feels like it's about. It feels like it's about cardboard teenagers quietly caring deeply about absolutely nothing for twenty minutes.
The whole episode is made up of vaguely connected scenes of wistful teens with flat personalities doing bland club activities amidst washed-out scenery, like undiluted mono no aware given life in the most boring way possible. I have never not wanted to try and summarize an anime for preview guide more, because I was almost afraid I would be making up a premise where none actually existed. My eyes were constantly sliding off the screen during this episode, and my brain was starving for a hook—any hook, even if it's King's Game-level stupid—to yank me out of the deep ocean of doldrums I was sinking into.
I have no idea where this show came from, but it fits the same profile as Tsukigakirei, so maybe if you loved that show (not liked, loved, since Just Because! is already not as good), you'll enjoy this one too. I do hope "anime-original rose-colored school romance by kinda familiar scriptwriter and art designer that just adds up to adolescence-sure-is-temporary-huh" is not a growing trend. Two of these kinds of shows per year is just the right amount, especially if they all start blurring together into a big snoozy stew. This stuff isn't bad, it's just so painfully uninteresting.
What I'm saying is: "Just Because!" is not a good enough reason to make an anime.
The far edge of high school is an inherently fraught time in anyone's life. While there's anticipation for the adventures to come, there's also great melancholy at the thought your whole world is ending. Yes, high school was a burden, but it was also a kind of home, and the friendships and identities you've kindled across those years now all might disappear in the wind. The end of high school is a brisk winter breeze, both invigorating and stifling, a cold wind telling us to keep those we've come to love close at hand.
Just Because!'s first episode perfectly captures the atmosphere of high school's ending, among other things. The show's first few minutes are a slow montage set against a beautiful instrumental track, panning across a variety of the show's protagonists as they dawdle at study sessions, stare out train windows, shiver in the winter breeze. There's a sense of restlessness and clear, tangible place to these moments, something that carries through to the episode proper. As minutes unfold, we come to know a variety of students all making the most of their final high school semester, be it through defending a beloved club, hanging out with friends, or finally asking out the girl they like.
The actual narrative this episode builds slowly towards a reunion between two old forgotten friends, gracefully transitioning between seemingly idle but character-establishing sequences at school. The smart direction and clever scene transitions work hard to build up the sense of this school as a contiguous whole, and these students as a group with a wide variety of different relationships. The boy who's transferring in will be startled by a commotion in the next room, and we'll then jump to the head of the photography club making that commotion. After being told the photo club will likely be merged with the broadcast club, an idle conversation later on will give us the broadcast club's own mixed feelings about that union. Characters say goodbye and head off to the bus, only to appear rushing in the background of the next focus segment. Every scene builds on the one before in a creative and often not directly narrative way, ultimately leading to a thrilling crescendo involving two former baseball players, that hopeful young photographer, and the trumpet section of the school band.
Just Because!'s subtle narrative approach likely wouldn't work if it weren't also so very good at establishing characters. Though the show's dialogue could use a little polishing, Just Because! is more than capable of building up characters through body language alone. The show is awash in flavorful little physical gestures, with everything from characters' expressions and hand movements to their overall posture and physical reactions letting us further into their world. This character acting combines gracefully with the show's tendency to show rather than tell in narrative terms - we learn about characters' interests and former selves at the pace they actually come up in conversation, making us feel even more like visitors into a living world.
Overall, Just Because!'s first episode offers a nearly perfect platform for a satisfying character drama. A few cuts of animation were a bit rough, and there were a couple lines of dialogue here and there that felt a little awkward, but the show on the whole is a remarkable effort. From its brilliantly employed character acting to its confident narrative structure and already likable cast, there's a whole lot to love here.
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