Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Feb 3rd 2010
Honey and Clover
DVD - Box Set 2
Morita has left for American frontiers unknown, leaving the four regular members of his entourage—if a group of people who try valiantly to tolerate you can so be called—to fend without their resident loony-bin escapee. Not that they haven't better things to worry about. Takemoto is agonizing over his future as graduation looms, Hagu is having a creative crisis, and Mayama and Yamada...well their love lives remain pure hell. As Mayama joins the workforce—and separates from scarred beauty Rika—and Yamada accidentally starts her own business while trying to let him go, Hagu copes as best she can with the pressures of being brilliant while Takemoto, thoroughly tenderized by fate, gets on his bike and starts riding. And doesn't stop.
There are many ways to use the time allotted your average 26-episode anime series. It's a massive amount of time. Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, for instance, was about the same length. Given the enormous potential of that time-span, it may seem terribly wasteful that Honey and Clover opts to use it to detail the eating, drinking and partying habits of five college students, allowing reams of run-time to be consumed by strangely repetitive excursions—to festivals, to parks, to drinking parties—and by reiterations of feelings that seem hardly to change. That is, until the sheer, seemingly incongruous poignancy of it hits you. You see, Honey and Clover isn't wasting its time, merely using it in a different way than most, building a warm, stable environment for its principals before slowly and inexorably eroding it away, leaving something entirely different in its place, and in the process evoking the most powerful in-series nostalgia since Maison Ikkoku.
That is, of course, not all there is to the series. Its approach would mean nothing without its hugely sympathetic cast, or its unsparing eye for their faults and complexities; a cast that benefits greatly from the temporary removal of Morita, who is strong medicine in the best of times, and the addition of Mayama's co-workers, who are to a man hilarious, and one of whom, Nomiya, also provides an intriguingly mature alternative to Yamada's irrevocably unrequited Mayama-crush. The series uses that triangle (rectangle? polygon?) to rough out a story arc which, along with Takemoto's graduation anguish, provides some of the structure that the first set lacked. And let us not forget the series' riotous sense of humor, always on hand to provide oft-insane counterpoint to the wrenching romantic angst of the series' darker hours.
But every one of those strengths—humor, angst, likeable ensemble—is strengthened, heightened by the series' evocation of the inexorable march of time. Unrequited love (and it's really the only kind here) is common enough, and so is the self-flagellating introspection that accompanies it, but combine them with the certainty that even pain and love will pass and fade into memory and you have a romantic ache to rival any in anime. And that ache, and the knowledge that the time these friends have together is limited and precious, makes the antic humor all the funnier in contrast. Almost frantically so. However, the ultimate tribute to the series' subtle stratagem comes in discrete moments, when the little accumulated changes finally hit full force, imbuing scenes that in a lesser series would be mundane with unexpectedly irresistible power. They can be lethally destructive, as when Nomiya exposes the petty selfishness that has invaded Yamada's feelings for Mayama, or warmly fulfilling, as when Takemoto returns from his journey tanned and tempered, but all are unforgettable.
The importance of director Kenichi Kasai in achieving all this cannot be overestimated. He fills the series with motifs of time, movement and change: seasonal trees, tires, Ferris wheels, weathervanes, clocks, and in perhaps his most obvious moment, a Ferris wheel that is a clock. He evokes emotion with empty space, eye-matches and expressions as much as he does with Yuzo Hayashi's wonderfully melancholy piano score or Chica Umino's poetic monologues, using restraint to magnify emotions by making us dig, ever so slightly, for them. He makes full use of Umino's simple, wide-mouthed characters and even makes surreptitious but striking use of 3D CG. But most of all, he orchestrates. Intercutting crackpot jokes and emotional brutalization so that both hit heights they wouldn't otherwise. Building emotions from glances, words and expressions collected over the course of many episodes. And of course, draping with lighting, composition and nearly unnoticeable shifts in character design that mantle of transience and nostalgia that gives the series its enduring power.
A good rule of thumb: the better the series, the harder a dub has to try. Viz's dub isn't trying hard enough. Conscientious and solidly professional, it hits the right notes: fidelity in casting, acting and scripting, but with enough liberties taken to establish an identity of its own. It just hits them less vigorously than it should. In most other cases that would be enough, but Honey and Clover is a very delicate affair, heavily reliant on its superb Japanese cast for its charm—particularly in the case of Morita, who is sympathetic really only because Yuji Ueda voices him. The mild ennui of the English cast is enough to knock some scenes completely off the rails and more than enough to wet-blanket the most emotionally charged scenes. Not a disaster, but not an unmitigated success either.
Honey and Clover's extras are plentiful, if not exactly spectacular. Clean versions of the fine new closer and the bitterly stop-motion-free new opener are welcome, as are the videos of various promotional events, though the latter are less remarkable for their content than they are for the question they beg: How can something so massive and heavily marketed feel so personal?
As concentrated in the second half as the series' most powerful moments are, there's a temptation to talk of the show's improvement. But it hasn't really improved. The opening episodes were raucous, bittersweet fun, but more importantly the series at large is a highly unified work, a single seamless whole that flows, with all the eddies, detours and tributaries of life, straight to its hugely satisfying conclusion. And if that's too abstract for you, try this: more killer Twister games, more evil poodles, and more heartbreak all around. Think of it as a surreal yet real confluence of trendy slice-of-life whimsy and bleak but hopeful romantic comedy. And a damned good time all around.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A-
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Funnier than most comedies, more touching than most romances, more powerful than most tragedies. Better than most series.
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