Reviewby Carlo Santos,
Haganai: I don't have many friends
BD+DVD - Complete Series [Limited Edition]
Ever since Kodaka Hasegawa transferred to his new school, he's been having trouble making friends. His classmate Yozora has a similar problem: she doesn't hang out with anyone and only talks to her "air friend" Tomo-chan. One day, Kodaka catches Yozora in the act, and they realize they're both victims of an unfair social structure. Yozora and Kodaka start the "Neighbors Club," a school club for other outcast students to meet up, but their first recruit is an unlikely one: popular and pretty Sena Kashiwazaki, who has plenty of guys chasing her but few legitimately close friends. Contrary to the club's goals, Yozora and Sena begin hating each other almost instantly. Later, the Neighbors Club roster expands to include effeminate first-year boy Yukimura, socially inept scientist-in-training Rika, and a ten-year-old nun and schoolteacher, Sister Maria. Will Kodaka have any luck making friends with these strange folks?
What is Haganai supposed to be about? Is it a critique of how the standard school environment unfairly pushes out those who are "different" from the crowd? Is it a heartwarming tale of socially awkward kids finding an unlikely bond with each other? Or—for the truly cynical—is it a fanservice-driven harem series, where an ordinary guy wins the affection of multiple cute girls (and one guy dressed as a girl)? The series tries to run with each of these ideas, but never develops any of them fully. Instead, Kodaka and the cast simply fool around in various situations, making dumb jokes but not achieving much of anything. That's the tragic truth of Haganai: it's a group of wacky characters trying to act out a storyline that doesn't exist.
To be fair, there is one legitimate storyline: a connection between Kodaka and Yozora that's hinted at near the beginning, and resolved in the next-to-last episode. The sentiment behind it is genuine—a message about how true friendship can be terribly fragile, but also highly rewarding. However, this one subplot isn't enough to carry the entire series, and the rest of the show is propped up by mindless fluff. The supporting cast consists of flimsy one-joke characters like Yukimura, who strives to be more manly by wearing a maid outfit (Yozora's loopy logic will explain that one) and serving his "big brother" Kodaka. There are also some brilliantly insane moments from the dirty-minded, robot-porn-loving genius Rika, but her bizarre act soon wears thin. And the token pint-sized characters—Sister Maria (how does a little kid even join a convent?) and Kodaka's vampire-delusional little sister—basically run around screaming for attention as an excuse for humor.
In the end, Haganai only achieves true comedy when it steps out of the school-club setting and enters the realm of parody. The series cracks some pretty sharp jokes about role-playing video games, dating sims, and BL—and the final episode, where the club members concoct a story together, takes this humor to its limit. But spoofing other genres is no basis for an actual story, so the fundamental flaw remains: what are any of these characters doing? Sena and Yozora bicker constantly, but apart from trading clever one-liners, their battle for dominance goes nowhere. The other characters don't get much development either—we never see if Yukimura succeeded at being more manly, or what great strides Rika makes in the fields of science or yaoi manga. These characters could be struggling for social acceptance in different ways, but instead of exploring that drama, the storyline jams them into stock situations (after school, the beach, the pool) and spits out predictable results.
The parody sequences, by the way, are good for other things besides comedy: they also end up as a goldmine for slick animation, with elaborate outfits (sometimes with a humorous twist) and over-the-top giant robot action stealing the show. A bright color palette enhances these visuals—and the occasional, sentimental moments between Kodaka and Yozora are also helped by nuanced colors and lighting. However, these highlights are the exception rather than the rule, and the rest of the series is animated on the cheap: plain classroom backgrounds, lots of static dialogue scenes, and unimaginative directing. Really, how many times can they pan across the club room with a shot of everyone lazing around? The camerawork only gets creative during tawdry fanservice scenes that fixate on Sena's chest. If it's any consolation, the character designs are at least unique and eye-catching—but credit for that goes more toward the light novel that the anime was adapted from.
In a series that's aiming straight for average, it's no surprise that the music is ordinary as well, with lots of repetitive, single-instrument tracks to set the school-life atmosphere. The only time the soundtrack shows much of a mood change is when the tension ramps up between Sena and Yozora (a striking saxophone duet), or when Kodaka drifts back to his wistful childhood memories. Fortunately, the energetic theme songs show more personality, and a different ending in the twelfth episode hits the right emotional notes with cheesy but sincere lyrics about friendship.
Although the characters in this series are often found sniping at each other, that spirit of contentiousness fails to carry over to the English dub. Instead, the actors often sound half-hearted, afraid to deliver these lines with full vigor. It's a shame, because the English rewrite of the script has some pretty clever turns of phrase—but it's a coin toss as to whether the line is delivered convincingly. A couple of quality performances do stand out: Whitney Rodgers as Yozora captures every bit of her sneering sarcasm, and Alexis Tipton nails the manic, sex-obsessed nature of Rika's character. But an ensemble comedy is doomed to fail if only a fraction of that ensemble is actually doing their job.
This Blu-Ray/DVD combo package comes with a healthy helping of extras: reversible covers for the cases, commercials and trailers that ran in Japan, textless credit sequences, and English commentary tracks for Episodes 2 and 8. When the storytelling in those episodes falters, at least the entertainment value from the commentary makes up for it.
Haganai is everything that a school comedy series should be ... if one were trying to show how not to produce a school comedy. The idea of outcasts and misfits joining a "friendship club" could have been a forum on how school social structures are unfair, or a drama about overcoming personal struggles, or even an comedy about strong personalities clashing—but Haganai either misses these points, or handles them poorly. Instead, the series falls back on stock comedy situations, one-joke characters, and occasional scraps of fanservice to keep itself going. Only two of the thirteen episodes are a legitimate storyline, and even the animation isn't strong enough to keep one's eyes glued to the screen. If this is what it's like to make friends, maybe it's better to be a loner.
Overall (dub) : D
Overall (sub) : C-
Story : D
Animation : C
Art : B-
Music : C
+ A heartwarming subplot between the two main characters and lively genre parodies are the few saving graces of this series.
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