Reviewby Theron Martin, Feb 24th 2014
Engaged to the Unidentified
episodes 1-6 streaming
In seemingly every respect Kobeni is an ordinary high school girl, one who excels only at domestic skills and feels she lives in the shadow of her elder sister Benio (their school's most idolized student) and the industrious mother who successfully raised both of them alone. Her relatively sedate world is upended when is told out of the blue that her grandfather has arranged a fiancé from the back country for her, and that said fiancé, one Hakuya Mitsumine, is going to be living with them while he attends school in the city. She soon discovers that he has his precocious little sister Mashiro in tow, allegedly to evaluate Kobeni and help make sure that the reserved, expressionless Hakuya makes a good connection with her. While Mashiro struggles to deal with Benio's overbearing affection towards anything young and cute, Kobeni struggles with the concept of a fiancé having been arranged for her and whether or not that is something she actually wants. Hakuya seems unfailingly loyal, though, and there are big secrets in both the past and present which could bind them closer together. Complicating matters further is that Hakuya and Mashiro are also both much more than who – or what – they appear to be, and that may have everything to do with Kobeni's current state of affairs.
The “surprise fiancée” gimmick is common enough in romantic comedies that seeing a series tackle a gender-swapped variation on the norm is a refreshing change of pace; how differently will the dynamic work when the boy is the one ardently in favor of the arrangement and the girl is the one uncertain? However, the first episode gives no indication that the series is going to do anything particularly unusual with the concept beyond examining that. Granted, the revelation that the almost creepily little sister-obsessed Benio successfully pulls off the façade of Miss Perfect at school is stunning, but other than that the series seems on track to be a fairly typical romantic comedy. As the next few episodes play out, though, any presumptions gradually get challenged and ultimately kicked to the curb. This is much more than just a simple romantic comedy, and the secrets at its core, combined with some surprisingly strong and clever writing, are enough to push it well beyond normal romcom doldrums.
Even without bringing the secrets into the picture, the series has a firm foundation on which to stand. Kobeni is instantly likeable as an ordinary girl; she is pretty but not exceptionally so, has solid but unspectacular grades and commonplace friends, is not athletic but not especially clumsy, and is good at domestic skills because someone in her family has to be and it certainly isn't her sister or mother. Most importantly, she is well-grounded, the kind of character who can be the necessary calm at the center of craziness. When the betrothal is brought up, she laments about things being decided without her input but is not completely hostile to it; after all, she never had any strong aspirations in life and even once claimed that her goal was merely to be a bride. While she is not sure if that is what she still wants, she sees no harm in at least finding out what Hakuya is like. Soul-searching to that degree is rare in situations like this and feels remarkably natural here, which only makes Kobeni all the more endearing. Hakuya also works well as her laconic, deadpan betrothed, who has his own expressionless way of showing that he is passionately in love with Kobeni (his aura, rather than his expression, changes, you see) but determinedly wants to win her over without having any sense of obligation impelling her, which is why he keeps big secrets from her at first.
The main supporting characters are shakier but still entertaining. Mashiro can be more than a little irritating as the seemingly grade school-aged sister who wants to act mature and bossy but has her own weaknesses, but she does have her moments; the degree to which Benio terrifies her and her dismay at the stark contrast between Benio's private and public behaviors are amusing running jokes, and one scene where she casually dances along with a TV program is practically cute overload. Benio can come across as a little too creepy for comfort, and playing her predilections and two-faced nature off for humor does not always work, although the way her apparent best friend deals with her is good for a few laughs. She also shows that she can be quite satisfyingly sincere when the story requires her to be – and it does when the hidden truths come out - though never for more than a brief period.
Those truths are where the series decidedly veers away from the norm. Beginning with episode 2, some of the statements that Hakuya and Mashiro make do not completely add up, and brief mention is made of something in the past – something bad – which Kobeni does not seem to remember which might cast her as indebted to Hakuya and his family if she knew about it. Further hints are dropped over the next couple of episodes about that past incident and the peculiar nature of Hakuya, Mashiro, and their situation until a partial reveal comes out in episode 4 and a full reveal in episode 5. While some of the truth can reasonably be anticipated, some will likely be a surprise. These are not secrets inserted just for effect, either, as they are used to cleverly explain some details which had to that point been so innocuous that no veteran anime fan would have thought that they even needed an explanation; for instance, we discover that there is actually a specific reason why Kobeni has long been prone to the common moe trope of falling randomly ill and why no one seems to find it peculiar that Mashiro is attending classes with Hakuya and Kobeni even though she is clearly still a grade-schooler.
So far the writing has been the stand-out production aspect, but the series does reasonably well on technical merits, too. The general artistic style have a soft, engaging look which provides character designs that are distinctive without being too odd; Kobeni, notably, is drawn a bit hippier that anime girls normally are, a fact that is not lost on Mashiro. (She refers to Kobeni positively as having “good birthing hips.”) The animation is not vibrant but provides ample enough sense of movement to support comedic and more serious scenes alike. Fan service is surprisingly mild given the suggestions of it by the opener. To catch an interesting hidden artistic gimmick, watch Kobeni's appearance in the flashbacks in episode 5 very carefully and compare it to her present-day appearance.
The musical score also does a good job of reinforcing the comedy moments, especially the sudden transitions between serious and playful modes. Bouncy, fun-loving opener “Tomadoi→Recipe” gets all but episode 5 off to a spirited start, while playful closer “Mashiro World” is equally good at bringing each episode to a fun end. Both have rewatch value. Amongst vocal performances, newcomer Yuri Yushida gives Mashiro a peculiar inflection which can grate on the nerves at first but may gradually grow on viewers.
The truths revealed in episode 5 raise some intriguing possibilities for where the series could go next, possibilities which it only begins to explore with episode 6 and which the story seems intent on taking at least partly seriously. They certainly expand the potential for Kobeni and Hakuya's relationship development and Kobeni's further introspection on her situation. The writing by Fumihiko Shimo (Full Metal Panic! franchise, Clannad, Kanon) and direction by Yoshiyuki Fujiwara (GJ Club) seem up to the task of carrying that through, making this one of the season's sweetest treats so far.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B
Art : B-
Music : B+
+ Highly likeable lead characters, clever writing, packs some unusual developments by romcom standards.
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