Reviewby Theron Martin,
Haruka Nogizaka's Secret (+ Purezza)
Yuuto Ayase is a normal high schooler who has to be responsible because he lives with his heavy-drinking sister. One day he accidentally bumps into Haruka Nogizaka, the daughter of an extremely wealthy family and the school's most idolized student. In the process of returning a bag she dropped, he accidentally discovers her secret: she's an otaku who especially adores the magical girl series Clumsy Girl Aki-chan. Though Haruka is initially mortified, the two bond over keeping her secret, even though Yuuto has little interest in “Akiba life” himself. Keeping Haruka's secret from his full-blown otaku friend Nobunaga proves to be a challenge, not to mention meddling maids, Haruka's precocious younger sister, their menacing father, and plenty of other prying eyes. Even though Haruka exists in such a different world from Yuuto, can he still make her happy?
In terms of U.S. releases, Haruka Nogizaka's Secret may have been the victim of bad timing. Its first series came out in 2008, right after ADV collapsed and many other anime companies were starting to encounter trouble due to the anime bubble-burst. It also hit right before titles like Queen's Blade and Qwaser of Stigmata dramatically ramped up expectations for fanservice shows. It was still successful enough in Japan to warrant a sequel in 2009, and Crunchyroll did pick it up for streaming back then, but those factors probably at least partly explain why it went unreleased for almost a decade. Now Discotek has finally picked up both the first series and its sequel Purezza on subbed-only Blu-Rays, and this review covers both of them.
Female otaku had been depicted in anime for years before this title, but Haruka Nogizaka's Secret is one of only two series I can think of from the 2000s that centered around a female otaku's relationship with a non-otaku boy. While the slightly earlier Hayate the Combat Butler took a more comical look at the situation, this series more heavily emphasizes its romantic side and occasionally engages in drama along with its comical tomfoolery. More importantly, it emphasizes how socially ostracizing being labeled an otaku can be, which was a more prominent stigma in Japan a decade ago compared to now. As a result, having a central relationship built around acceptance of one's hobbies – and thus effectively acceptance of the person – was enormously appealing.
However, calling the series ground-breaking because of that premise gives the series too much credit, as this is still a blatant male wish fulfillment story even down to Haruka being an otaku; she is more accessible to male otaku this way, and Haruka herself couldn't possibly be more appealing as the ultimate waifu. She's got looks, a charming personality, great wealth, good grades, almost oppressive popularity, incredulous levels of talent (she's supposedly a world-class champion piano player but we never see her practicing or taking lessons), and an unbelievably innocent nature. Her only flaw seems to be an inability to draw above the level of a child's scribblings, but that's still cute. Being an otaku on top of that isn't a hurdle, it's just the icing on the cake.
While that is doubtlessly a big part of why the series was successful in Japan, there's still more to the story than that. For all her improbable perfection, Haruka is still cloyingly appealing, making for an absolutely adorable couple with stereotypical nice-guy Yuuto. Their tentativeness in romance can get annoying after a while, but that is at least partly offset by running jokes about how they innocently word things so that it sounds to observers like they're doing something dirty when they're actually not.
Whether the supporting cast is a complement or detriment will entirely depend on individual tastes. Haruka's saucy younger sister Mika fills the role of provocateur while flirting just enough with Yuuto to be a nebulous romantic interest on her own. Then there's the two maids, combat-capable busybodies who seem to get their kicks from pushing Haruka and Yuuto together and then spying on them. Yuuto has a friend named Nobunaga who occasionally pops up but just exists to fill the role of the dedicated male otaku, while Haruka's father is the typical overprotective dad and her mother's comedy revolves around being the one person who can cow her father. Shiina is the girl Yuuto keeps coincidentally bumping into who eventually becomes Haruka's love rival, while Yuuto's sister and homeroom teacher are the lascivious, hard-drinking bane of Yuuto's existence. The second series adds in a third maid as a recurring character, a few other maids for more limited appearances, a recurring idol, and a few guest stars who seem like they should be regulars but end up being single-episode additions. Mix in an over-the-top rich boy and unscrupulous idol producers as antagonists and you have a cast primed for a mix of fun hijinks and light dramatics, though the bulk of these antics are baseline standard fare for anime romantic comedies.
Another feature attraction is the numerous anime, manga, and other pop culture references that the first series in particular is littered with. The most frequent one is Shakugan no Shana, which pops up in various forms, but I also noticed subtle or not-so-subtle references to Boogiepop Phantom, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Kino's Journey, Bludgeoning Angel Dokuro-chan, Ai Yori Aoshi, Gunbuster, and Lucky Star, among others. Add in borrowed musical themes and signature phrases used in the next episode previews and the number of call-outs doubles. The sequel series moves away from the otaku emphasis but still retains homages; multiple references to Toradora! stand out, one entire episode is basically a parody of Hayate the Combat Butler, the whole Nogizaka Maid Brigade thing is a clear parody of Hanaukyou Maid Team, and a few other series get snuck in, including Ladies versus Butlers!, A Certain Magical Index, the Please Teacher! franchise, and Neon Genesis Evangelion. Some of these references are predicated on voice actor connections between roles, so those who know their seiyuu may well get even more out of the easter eggs.
There's also the fanservice as a draw, though that aspect is tame compared to what we might expect today. Most of it consists of random panty or lingerie shots, with a handful of near-nudity scenes mixed in, but only in the final episode of the sequel series do things get remotely as raunchy as modern fanservice romcoms. The fanservice commonly acts more as an enhancement than a focal point and the series in general prefers to tease things; all the episode titles are more suggestive than their content, with the exception of a certain chocolate banana incident.
The visuals are certainly not a draw for modern viewers. Aside from Haruka, characters are pretty much stock anime designs, with too many female characters sharing the distinctive anime snaggletooth. The series fare a little better on costuming, with both Yuuto and Haruka getting some sharp outfits and a wide variety of undergarments being carefully detailed; the stage costume for the idol singer in the second series is also eye-catching. The animation effort is otherwise wholly unremarkable. Both series shine more in their musical score, with excerpts from several classical music pieces scattered throughout and the bulk of the soundtrack being composed of orchestrated or piano pieces. It's nothing spectacular but it is effective. Of the two openers, the hard rock-styled “Chohatsu Cherry Heart,” which opens Purezza and is sung by the series' featured idol singer (voice actress Hitomi Nabatame), is the stronger number and better fit for the series, while both closers are suitably cutesy affairs.
Discotek is releasing each series separately on Blu-Ray. Each comes on a single subtitled-only disc with clean opener and closer for extras. Purezza also includes a few bonus SD shorts that originally acted as advertisement blurbs. Conspicuously absent are the four OVA episodes from 2012 subtitled Finale, which to my knowledge have never been available on Crunchyroll either.
I wouldn't say that Haruka Nogizaka's Secret is a must-watch series for harem anime fans, as it can be rather saccharine at times, strays away from its titular character too often in the second series, and is more commonly goofy than funny. Whether or not it even should be called a harem series is also up for debate, as its first season in particular is a more straightforward romantic comedy. However, its story should easily appeal to devoted harem romcom fans, and it has just enough charm to also find a small audience outside its base.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B-
Animation : C+
Art : C+
Music : B
+ Appealing central couple, unique angle to its premise, some good fanservice
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