Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Episodes 1-6 Streaming
Ah, college. Perhaps the preeminent place for young love, unhinged parties, and personal reinvention. Certainly that's true for Tada Banri. A seemingly ordinary young man from an ordinary town, he's moved to metropolitan Tokyo to attend a nice, solid law school. There he befriends Yanagisawa Mitsuo, a young man from a privileged background who's on the run from his past. Specifically, on the run from his insanely persistent and possessive would-be girlfriend Kaga Koko. Koko is strong, beautiful, smart, and loyal to a psychotic fault, but Yanagisawa wants nothing to do with her. She enrolls at his and Tada's school anyway, and Tada is immediately smitten—and hard. Which puts him in a pretty pickle. Not that Tada doesn't bring his own pickles to the table. Though apparently normal, Tada has total retrograde amnesia. He remembers nothing from his first eighteen years of life. And at least one of the things he's forgotten—a cute, complicated, and very female thing—is waiting at college like an emotional landmine.
Golden Time has an execution problem. And not the one you'd think it has. It isn't ugly or ill-animated (though it can be kind of underwhelming visually). The problem it has is directorial in nature. The show's blessed with strong characters and bristling with dramatic possibilities, but director Chiaki Kon is an impediment every step of the way. She screws up hard and often, making it painfully clear that if Golden Time is to succeed, it's going to have to succeed in spite of her. And, at least here, it does exactly that.
There's nothing particularly promising about Golden Time's setup. It begins with two albatrosses firmly hung about its neck. One is Tada Banri. He's mild and kind and rather boring—exactly the kind of sweet-natured loser who afflicts shonen romances like some kind of personality-impaired pox. The other is Kaga Koko. While she's strong-willed and unafraid to be unsympathetic, she's also a dispiriting female stereotype: the girl who lives to love a man. The introduction of Tada's amnesia gimmick only adds a third albatross. You can count the number of good amnesia stories on the fingers of a careless chainsaw operator.
The show unfolds pretty much as you expect it to. Tada hangs out with Yanagisawa, which exposes Koko to him and him to Koko. They go to club recruiting meetings and party and hang out together. As Yanagisawa vehemently repels Koko's advances and Koko uses Tada to get close to her beloved, the inevitable begins and the two lonely souls start to connect. Boilerplate rom-com through and through.
Something odd happens along the way though. The cliché characters and their cliché situations start to alchemize, reacting together, pulling each other in interesting directions. Tada's amnesia gives him a compelling reason for his blank(ish) personality. He isn't dull. He's a blank slate in the process of filling itself in. Koko's obsession with getting her man proves progressively less healthy, a romantic psychosis that is clearly eating her away and turning her into someone that she doesn't like. Somewhere along the line you realize that she isn't the lives-for-love cliché girl; she's Golden Time's answer for what happens to that girl when she grows up and the love she's living for doesn't materialize.
In the meantime, Tada's feelings for Koko cause him to re-evaluate his memory loss. He decides to brace his past, but in doing so uncovers some things—specifically about a goodhearted sempai who's befriended him—that start to erode his fledgling happiness. His relationship with Koko turns serious as her relationship with Yanagisawa dies spectacularly, and everything collides messily in a (mid-season) finale that is everything that a romantic climax should be: heart-rending, sweet, and beautifully satisfying.
We realize much of this only in retrospect however. The character evolution, the calibrated arc of the plot, even the emotions along the way—while we're watching, we miss so much of it. Partly because Chiaki Kon screws it up, and partly because we're busy gritting our teeth at her screw-ups. This is the rare series whose directorial issues aren't vague and theoretical, but concrete and often very, very specific.
Take the episode where Tada and Koko get bamboozled into a cult indoctrination session. And yes, that happens. Kon completely misses the surreal hilarity of the situation, trying instead for tension (which, to be fair, is also part of the mix). But more tellingly, when Tada throws himself under the bus to save his fellow cult victims and Koko follows him under for his sake, Kon presents their actions with a kind of affectless flatness. It's left to us to parse what they're feeling and the effect they have on each other, which means the sequence hits us in the head instead of in the heart.
And that's more or less Kon's pattern. Too often she just shows and tells, pushing neither visuals nor actors to pull us into the moment. We observe events when by all rights we should be living them. When in episode four Koko accidentally wounds Tada during an ugly fight with Yanagisawa, her tears shifting poignantly from tears of anger to tears of regret as she realizes her mistake, the moment should have instantly carved our hearts out. But Kon misplaces a single insert shot—a single shot! (specifically of Tada's reaction to Koko's words)—and we're left to figure the sequence out after the fact instead of living through it with the principals.
And that is a serious, serious problem. More serious than the pedestrian animation, which doesn't try nearly hard enough to convey character or feeling through motion. More serious than the clean, but bland background artistry. More serious than Yukari Hashimoto's unremarkably competent score. More serious than the forgettable (non-Koko) character designs. More serious than any technical shortcoming or, for that matter, any failing of the script or the actors. It's a failure to realize the show's potential.
And because it's obvious, at least after the cult episode, we spend more time fretting over lost potential than the potential that persists. Until it bursts into an impossible-to-ignore conflagration. The potency of episode six comes almost as a shock. The pangs we feel, and the wonderful, warm satisfaction afterwards, force a full-on re-evaluation. It's then that you notice how every element of the (mid-season) climax is in place and waiting its turn from episode one. It's then that you realize how much you've come to like and root for Koko and Tada. It's then that you appreciate Koko's strength and complexity, and Tada's secretly wounded kindness. It's then that you forgive the series its every trespass and look forward, hungry to see where Tada and Koko are going next.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B+
Animation : C
Art : B-
Music : C+
+ A sneakily well-built romance fashioned around a pair of pretty great leads; Koko is especially great; episode six is an eye-opener.
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