The Winter 2020 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Hatena Illusion ?
What is this?
How was the first episode?
Ah, the shenanigans that come along with a language like Japanese, where I suppose it is at least possible to spend extended periods of time with a childhood friend without any specifically gendered pronouns popping up to clue you in to whether said friend is a boy or a girl. It's funny that Hatena Illusion is the second series to premiere this season to center on a female protagonist who is utterly shocked to find out that the person they fell in love with as a child is actually the opposite gender than what was assumed. Maybe this is a more common trope than I realize, but in any case, Hatena Illusion pushes the contrivance about as far as it can go. The titular Hatena is mighty confused when she learns that the Makoto that is coming to live in her family hope as an apprentice to her magician father is, in fact a boy; so confused, in fact, that it basically destroys all of the affection Hatena had for her friend, turning her into a tsundere supreme who is determined to keep Makoto out of her life entirely.
Did I mention that Hatena is apparently a magical girl, and that her mother is a master thief that uses artifacts that possess actually supernatural powers? You'd think this twist would feel more important, but it feels more like an afterthought compared to all of the romantic miscommunication stuff going on, which is a shame. Hatena and Makoto are, by themselves, fairly bland and inoffensive, but their dynamic actually makes the two of them worse characters than when they're on their own. Makoto comes across as wimpy and ineffectual when he simply goes along with all of the nonsense thrown at him by Hatena, and Hatena just seems mean, to the point that her character feels very artificial. Having Makoto save Hatena from a pack of dogs when they were little is already silly, but to make their entire relationship feel like a lazy sitcom plot is too much.
The genre elements are present, though, and they give me some hope that Hatena Illusion will come into its own down the line. This is a decent looking show with a cast that could grow into their own given the time – I may not be invested in the main couple yet, but the maid and butler that are scheming to hook the two up make for a great pair. I won't be following this show weekly if I can help it, but I'll probably check in after a month or two and see if the show has conjured up a more interesting version of itself.
Hatena Illusion seems designed to answer a question I don't think anybody really asked: “what would Hayate the Combat Butler be like without any jokes?”
Centered on former childhood friends Makoto and Kana, Hatena Illusion's premiere illustrates their reunion after many years apart, where Kana is shocked to learn that Makoto is actually a boy. Getting through that introduction takes us about eight minutes into the episode, a period of time which contains virtually no other dramatic content, and no comedy at all. From there, we move on to Makoto's integration into life at Kana's mansion, where he takes a butler-in-training position in spite of Kana's protests.
It seems like Hatena Illusion's actual gimmick is that both Kana and Makoto are attempting to become great musicians in a world where there's real magic, but that gimmick added little personality to this totally derivative and largely lifeless premiere. What jokes exist here are lazy, tired, and frequently repeated; “oh my god, Makoto is a boy” is mined for full minutes of comedy, and the gags actually get less interesting from there. The characterization is also utterly boilerplate genre material - Kana and Makoto are generic childhood friends, Makoto's personality is “nice,” and Kana's personality is “tsundere.” Even down to the various roles performed by Kana's sister and staff, every single character and beat within this episode plays out precisely the way you'd most expect it to.
Shows like this are one of the curses of reviewing anime seasonally; they will always exist, and they will never evolve, because they're aiming at a transient audience that hasn't experienced a critic's oversaturation of cliche. But as someone who's been mired in the cliches of anime for years now, Hatena Illusion does absolutely nothing to rise above the pack, and can't begin to compare to any genuinely inspired romantic comedy. An easy skip.
I'll be honest here: the first episode of this one so completely failed to hold my interest that I nearly dozed off in the middle of it. Hence it's possible that there are some merits to it here that I may have missed. What I do recall about the episode doesn't inspire me to want to watch more.
That's not because the content is necessarily bad, and there are some interesting twists to it. The initial implication is that Makoto is into traditional magic (i.e., the sleight-of-hand variety), so he is hoping to get trained to be that kind of magician by Hatena's father. By the end of the episode, however, it's becoming increasingly clear that at least some of the magic in Hatena's family is actually real; in fact, both Hatena and her mother could, in a sense, be called magical girls. To reinforce that impression, Hatena gets a very magical girl-like transformation scene, though her outfit at the end is not at all the traditional magical girl look. That would further mean that all of the Artifacts that are referred to are genuine magical items. The “fake magic is actually real magic” gimmick is hardly a fresh angle, but at least it's something.
The more tiresome part to me was the central relationship. Makoto didn't look girly at all in that flashback, so Hatena has no one but herself to blame for her mistaking Makoto for a girl back when they were kids. This is also about the 10,432 nd iteration in anime of love being sparked by protecting someone from a dog as kids; writers really need to try to come up with a fresher trope here. I can understand why Hatena is crabby over this, but her tsundere shtick is not refined enough yet to be appealing. The maid is also the standard devious schemer, although she is a little more interesting for the roundabout ways she's using to try to set up Makto and Hatena as a couple, presumably for her own amusement. I actually feel sorry for the butler for having to put up with her. The one other slightly bright spot is the younger sister, and even she is just playing a standard role. And really, naming the butler Jeeves and maid Emma? Were those intended as homages, or was the writer just not trying?
The technical merits of the first episode aren't bad, which is why I'm not rating this lower, but nothing in this episode clicked for me. The name is fitting because it's just an illusion of a good series.
I've had a soft spot for magical mysterious thieves since Saint Tail, so Hatena Illusion was definitely on my radar as something to watch out for. This first episode isn't quite what I was hoping for, but it still does have potential, with the main issue being that the heroine, Kana, who is also Mysterious Thief Hatena (because the kanji that makes up her name can be read as both “Kana” and “Hatena”), embodies some of the more irritating tropes of a shounen female. Primarily that means that she follows the template firmly established by Naru in Love Hina – she blames Makoto for things that aren't his fault (and she perceives as somehow “perverted”) and reacts by punching him and she seems to just hate boys in general. She also appears to have a very difficult time admitting when she's at fault, as we see in both her anger at Makoto for not being the girl she thought he was and also when she insists on drinking her coffee black, snipping at her younger sister when she tries to pass her cream.
That some of this may be due to anxiety over her missing mother could turn out to be a saving grace here, because as is established in the opening minutes of the show, mom Maeve is a mysterious thief who uses what appears to be actual, not stage, magic. Her magic looks as if it might be rooted in Irish folklore, which is even more intriguing – she has a familiar named Findabair, who is a figure in Irish mythology and one of the origins of Guinevere in Arthurian legend. It's also specifically mentioned that the house the family lives in was moved over from Europe and has been in Maeve's family for centuries, which opens the door for other figures of Irish folklore to pop up as the series goes on. Whether or not this means that Dad really is only using stage magic and that only blood descendants of Maeve's family can use true magic could be another interesting thing to watch out for going forward.
As a whole, the episode is strongest in the start and finish than in the middle. That's where the mysterious thief bits are, while the rest is Hatena being bratty, Ema the maid scheming, and Makoto just being generally confused. (Yumemi barely figures into this at all.) There are some sense-defying moments, such as no one having corrected Hatena about Makoto's gender before now or why in such an enormous house where he's to act like one of the family Makoto is put in a tiny attic bedroom, but mostly it feels like the episode is struggling with what it needs to do to both establish the characters and intrigue viewers. I'll probably give this another episode, because it does have potential, but right now it's about equally hit and miss, even if it has a butler named Jeeves Wodehouse.
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