Reviewby Theron Martin, Apr 11th 2013
episodes 1-12 streaming
Haruka Kotoura first showed mind-reading capability from an early age, but neither she nor her parents correctly understood what she was doing for many years. Her inability to distinguish between what people were thinking and saying eventually cost her many friends, made her a pariah at schools, likely contributed to her parents' divorce, and ultimately alienated her mother so much that she abandoned Kotoura to her grandfather. By high school Kotoura had become cynical and withdrawn, trudging through a lonely life as her abilities forced her to regularly change schools. Then she meets the lovable idiot Manabe, and her world changes. While he may fantasize more about her than she'd like, Manabe openly rejects the advances of another girl in favor of wooing her and isn't fazed at all by her mind-reading ability; in fact, he uses it to his advantage at times to freak her out with his lascivious thoughts about her. Between him and a duo that runs the school's ESP Research Club, Kotoura starts to find a level of friendship and acceptance that she has not previously known. Not everyone is happy to see Kotoura getting cozy with Manabe, however, and one such person is willing to resort to drastic measures to interfere. Even once that is resolved and Kotoura starts to have fun with both the original club trio and a new fourth friend, there is still the matter of Kotoura's absent mother to deal with, and Kotoura's desire to use her psychic abilities to help out in a criminal case puts everyone to the test.
Kotoura-san is based on a four-panel manga series, which makes the fact that it actually turns out to be a character development-driven dramedy all the more surprising. The anime version wastes no time in clarifying that it is not going to be just a full-out comedy fest, as its first 10 minutes are grimly dramatic, and despite occasional infusions of silliness, a serious tone continues to dominate for the first four episodes. The rest of the series alternates between silly and serious stretches, and despite an occasional stumble along the way, it finds a remarkably comfortable balance between the two elements. That helps make it one of its season's unexpected gems.
The most controversial part of the series is its opening 10 minutes, a montage which carefully delineates exactly how Kotoura ends up as the shut-off, dead-eyed girl who we see when she first encounters Manabe. It takes the unusual (for anime) approach of emphasizing the downside of being born with always-active mind-reading ability, such as the way she drives people away by constantly responding out loud to unspoken thoughts that might be embarrassing or troublesome without realizing what she's doing. (The approach is similar to some things shown in the early stages of Telepathy Girl Ran, but it gets explored in far greater detail here.) Those scenes suggest that she does not figure out what's going on until her upper elementary or middle school years, which may strain credibility but is not entirely unbelievable; since she has always been like that, she has no frame of reference for normality and no one to explain to her what she is actually doing. This stretch does lay on the “be mean to Kotoura” content very thickly, to the point that some may find it comically absurd, but the deliberate, measured approach does work well to establish a decided contrast between Kotoura's pre-Manabe and post-Manabe days, to the point that the artistry even applies a world-shattering visual gimmick at the point where she first sees Manabe's thoughts. Subtle it isn't, but it does make for a nice dramatic effect.
The transition to a more comic approach is not an instant one after Manabe appears, despite the very disarming scene where Kotoura first gets to see his daydreams, and weightier elements always linger in the background even when the series turns silly. Pushing Kotoura into a comfort zone about her powers, and getting her to trust and accept others, takes considerable effort by Manabe and the ESP Research Club duo, and the effort is fraught with problems such as a nasty backlash of bullying when Moritani, who has been trying to get Manabe's attention for some time now, regards Kotoura as a romantic enemy. This is all handled with great care and some potent scenes as characters start to realize their mistakes and Kotoura gradually starts to accept that, just maybe, she can finally have a life. The sense of a loving, protective, and loyal circle building around Kotoura in this and later arcs is powerfully endearing, and seeing Kotoura come out of her shell and actually be happy is a treat to watch.
Characters with unexpected depth also contribute. Manabe may be a lascivious idiot, but his absolute loyalty to Kotoura and the shockingly brutal frankness with which he defends her against all attempts to belittle her proves his worth, while Moritani's struggles to reform, give up on Manabe as a romantic interest, and treat Kotoura as a friend are admirable, and the writing does not easily let her off the hook for everything she has to regret, either. Club President Yuriko Mifune's internal conflict over her ulterior motives vs. being a friend to Kotoura mixes nicely with her frustration over her inability to get her childhood friend/club vice-president Daichi to notice her romantically, while the bright and perceptive but romantically clueless Daichi scores points over his occasional expressions of absolute loyalty to Yuriko. Even Kotoura's rotten mother ultimately proves to have a bit more complexity to her than is initially apparent.
For all of its serious content, the series is also quite frequently very funny. The way Kotoura occasionally picks up on Manabe's lascivious daydreams about her becomes a running joke usually good for a laugh, especially when Manabe cleverly uses it to get her attention or test her perceptiveness, but humor comes in other ways, too. The more comedy-focused middle episodes deliver a pleasing flow of jokes ranging from standard breast-size concerns to a certain picture Manabe gives Kotoura to lighten her mood to Kotoura's grandfather's encouragement of Manabe to bed Kotoura to basic slapstick like Kotoura rolling across the floor into a stack of boxes (repeatedly). Not all of it works, as one set of jokes concerning a Kotoura-themed amusement park set up by her grandfather falls flat and her grandfather's own pervy nature is more creepy than funny, but even the more serious episodes usually manage at least a couple of good laughs.
Fortunately the writing and story execution courtesy of director Masahiko Ohta (Brighter Than The Dawning Blue, Minami-Ke,Yuruyuri) is plenty good enough to carry the series because the artistry will not. The visual production effort by AIC offshoot AIC Classic is entirely a mediocre one, with good background art paired with rather plain character designs and an unimpressive rendering and quality control effort. Its only visual strength shows in the way it frames certain scenes, such as one excellent early shot of Kotoura walking isolated despite being in the midst of a crowd of students, though some of its visual gags do contribute nicely to the humor. Animation is better, with a satisfying effort in content that does not require extensive animation. Despite above comments about prurient content, the fan service in the show is rather light and tame; even Manabe's sexy daydreams do not go too far.
The musical effort impresses much more. Yasuhiro Misawa has done the music for most of Ohta's other directorial efforts, and the smooth working relationship they apparently have shows here. Whether comical or poignant, the music invariably hits the right note, especially some delicate piano work and gentle orchestration. The silly, peppy “Sonna Koto Ura no Mata Urabanashi Desho?” used throughout for the opener, with its emphasis on chibi animation, makes for a stark contrast to the serious content but feel right at home in the more light-hearted episodes. Three different closers are used: the gentle, melancholy “Kibo no Hana” is used for most episodes (with alternate artwork for the last episode), the peppy “The ESP Club Theme” sung by all of the club members is used for episode 5, and the comical “Flat Chest” is used for the beach-focused episode 6. Amongst Japanese vocal performances, Jun Fukushima makes the most of his first co-starring role as Manabe and the more experienced Hisako Kanemoto acquits herself impressively well in the title role.
Aside from the failure of the amusement park joke sequence and the overly-pervy grandfather, the weakest part of Kotoura-san is arguably the handling of the climax of the serial attacker arc in episode 11, which feels a little too mundane compared to what the series accomplishes elsewhere. That is by way of comparison to some otherwise-excellent writing, however, and the rest of the content – including a potent final episode – is plenty strong enough to overcome those flaws. The series will also disappoint if one is looking for a more thorough exploration of the nature of psychic powers in this setting, but again, it does too much else well for that to be more than a minor annoyance. At turns funny and sincere, the series' heart is always in the right place as these twelve episodes turn what should have been a very ordinary premise into something extraordinary.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Animation : B
Art : C+
Music : B+
+ Great mix of effectively funny, sincere, and heartfelt content, well-used musical score.
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