Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Episodes 1-6 Streaming
In his darkest hour, just after his parents died, young Riki Naoe is befriended by a group of kids who call themselves the Little Busters. Led by an older boy named Kyousuke, the Little Busters run around having random adventures that slowly heal Riki. Years later the Busters are in high school and still together, though Kyousuke—the group's sole senior—now spends a goodly portion of his time away, job-hunting in the city. Saddened by the prospect of the Busters busting up, Riki suggests they go on an adventure like in the old days. Kyousuke, rather randomly, decides that they should start a baseball team. Never mind that they don't know the first thing about baseball and that there are only five Busters, one of whom refuses to join the team.
Some shows achieve excellence as if born to it; others have to claw their way to quality. Curiously, the same can be said of mediocrity. Some shows come by it naturally; others have to work at it. Little Busters is one of the workers. Much of it is quite commendable, but it so frequently spoils its own charms that the end result is pretty much neutral.
Little Busters is adapted from a visual novel by Key, the group behind triple hanky tragedy-fests like Clannad and Kanon, and the first thing it does right is to play against type. Its opening episodes are light and silly, with a surprising aptitude for humor. The Busters are a rowdy group whose collective IQ tends towards amusing idiocy, led by a mad mediator whose decisions are more passing whim than considered action. The resulting chaos can be pretty darned funny. When Masato and Kengo, the group's martial artist and swordsman respectively, get in a fight, Kyousuke suggests that they fight using random objects that the class throws at them. The result is a squirt-gun vs. kitten showdown. When they decide to go about collecting new members for their team, they send their sole female member—Kyousuke's cat-loving little sister Rin—into the girls' dorm armed with an earpiece through which the rest of the Busters whisper awful social advice.
It's telling, however, that both of those examples come from the first episode. Like a kid who's just told his first joke, the show repeats the same gags over and over again, with predictably diminishing returns. It becomes obvious that the random-object fights were some kind of mini-game in the original visual novel, as again and again characters pair off and the class tosses them things to battle with. The show mixes things up a bit by having the girls grab lethal weapons (three-part staff, katana) while the guys end up with things like eel pies and Pop-Up Pirate games. Still, the gimmick quickly wears thin. Likewise the show repeats earlier successes with Rin's lack of social skills, new member Komari's godlike lack of coordination, Masato's idiocy, Rin's lethally uncontrolled fastball, and Kyousuke's unleaderly weirdness with ever-decreasing effectiveness. Humor: neutralized.
And so the show goes. We're impressed early on by the Busters' guy-to-girl ratio. Key series usually feature one or two guys and a veritable sea of moe girls, but Busters has four, count 'em, four male characters. But it's ultimately clear that the only guy with any in-show agency is Riki and also that his recruits—and yes, he's the only, or at least the main, recruiter—will be exclusively female. Similarly, we like Rin because she's spunky and fun and not too moe-fied. Naturally she's quickly sidelined so that the show can focus on the intolerably phony Komari. We find Kyousuke to be interesting: a quietly but deeply strange young man whose charisma earns him great popularity but whose peculiarities limit his circle of friends to his childhood buddies. Naturally the show chooses bland Riki to be the main character.
Eventually Busters moves into more familiar territory for its creators. Komari's arc is exactly the kind of tragedy-inflected, help-the-heartbroken-girl story that Key is famous for. The familiarity is a bit of a letdown of course, but after the show's spotty success with character-based fun, we're glad to see it move on to something that its creators traditionally do well. And indeed Komari's story is every bit as sad as you could ask, pivoting on a novel mechanism for coping with tragedy that becomes a tragedy unto itself. It gives cheery Komari an extra, potentially heartbreaking dimension, and the resulting drama gives the rest of the cast a chance to prove its mettle. Rin gains a sweet vulnerability, muscle-bound Masato reveals a surprising sensitivity, and Kyousuke shows that, when the chips are down, there's a good reason he's the group's leader.
The story would be right on par with, say, one of Kanon's lesser arcs, if only it weren't for one itsy-bitsy little problem: Komari. She's awful. A veritable moe parody who takes cutesy affectation to cringe-inducing heights of cloying fakeness. It isn't her character per se that makes her so painful to watch. As she's written she's no better or worse than any other secretly damaged girl with a cuddly collection of personality quirks. The problem is Natsumi Yanase, who turns in a performance so affected, so unnatural, that not one of Komari's big scenes—and she has a couple of real doozies—hits with even a fraction of its intended weight. Key's patented emotional punch: destroyed.
Which pretty much leaves eye candy. Unfortunately, JC Staff has taken the place of Key's usual collaborators, Kyoto Animation, and the studio brings its usual unexciting professionalism to the project. Which is to say, lots of shiny, reasonably attractive character designs, background artistry a shade better than absolutely necessary, and animation that is only good enough to avoid looking cheap. The show never looks worse than medium-nice, but it cannot summon the kind of ravishing loneliness that Kyoto Animation cultivated for its Key adaptations, nor has it the facility for body language that let Kanon and Clannad's moe girls cut our hearts out. It does do cute reasonably well (and would do it even better if director Yoshiki Yamakawa could get more realistic performances from his cast), and its comic timing and eye for gags is a cut above average.
Yamakawa handles big emotions with workmanlike skill, helped by some effectively sad piano work by the usual Key musical team. (Their compositions for the show's lighter and more humorous portions are, on the other hand, merely competent. You'd be hard pressed to remember anything that doesn't try to play your heartstrings.) You can easily see the show's emotional attack succeeding—maybe not powerfully, but well enough—if it were to base itself around someone like Rin. And it's pretty likely that sooner or later it will; the show's game-based structure (player recruits female teammate; player helps female teammate through crippling emotional crisis) pretty much guarantees it. Of course, you get the feeling that the show would find some way to botch it. Or at least offset it with enough negative qualities to make the end result a wash.
Overall (sub) : C
Story : C
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : B-
+ Quite funny initially; good guy-to-girl ratio; switches easily to Key's signature emotional attack when its light tone wears thin.
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