Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Episodes 1-13 Streaming
The student body at Fujisaki Girls Academy has two idols. Known as the Fuji Princess, student body president Natsuno Maki is the girl everyone wants to be: beautiful, smart, poised, and capable. Known as the Wild Kid, Riko Kurahashi is the girl everyone wants to be with: boyish and outgoing; untamed and yet gallant. Unbeknownst to their admirers, however, neither actually conforms to their public image. Riko wants to be girly and attractive, and Maki… Maki is nuts. Specifically she's nuts about romance. Raised in all-girls schools, she has no experience with boys and is full of all kinds of bizarrely misguided ideas about love. She's the kind of girl who gets her advice from shojo manga and studies kissing by snogging with a hugging pillow, which is exactly what Riko walks in on her doing one day. Though understandably weirded out, Riko eventually understands where Maki is coming from—after all, she's a beginner at love as well—and agrees to keep her secret. Unfortunately in the process Maki mistakes Riko for a master of love, and asks Riko to teach her about romance. And thus is born the Love Lab.
First off: Love Lab is not yuri. The opening sequence, the girls-school setting, the premise, and even some of the events in the first few episodes conspire to give that impression, but it is not so. The girls' relationships stay firmly within the realm of friendship and their romantic aspirations are strictly heterosexual. There are even some guys brought in as potential romantic interests as the show proceeds. Secondly: Love Lab is not a romance. Oh, there's a touch of romantic comedy in the later running, and some romance sneaks its way into one of the extended arcs (extended in this show means any story that outlasts a single episode), but the only relationships that matter are the girls' friendships and the series overall is best categorized as pure comedy.
And as a comedy, it works pretty darned well. Love Lab is at its best when devising weird new delusions for Maki to explore, violating characters' established personalities in strange and inventive ways, or just lining up gags about family, friends, and schoolgirl life. And luckily for it, it spends most, or at least a good deal of its time doing exactly that. From around the time that Riko walks in on the purportedly perfect Fuji Princess deep-kissing a (very) poorly illustrated hugging pillow, the series is never more than a few minutes away from a good laugh and usually only an episode or so away from a genuine gut-buster. The slapstick can be particularly murderous—as you'd expect from a physical humorist like director Masahiko Ohta. Maki's frightening takes on romantic tactics account for many of the series' best jokes, but Riko gets in on the act occasionally (her reaction to discovering her schoolyard nickname is downright lethal) as do supporting characters like Sayo, the council's acid-witted, pragmatic treasurer, who is at one point forced into some truly awful date-prep.
Of course, the gags aren't always designed to bring down the house. The humor can be cute as well, especially where klutzy council secretary Suzu and wannabe tsundere VP Eno are concerned. And especially when Suzu gets together with newspaper-club klutz Nana, who spends part of the series as an extremely loveable antagonist. Their scenes together could give a decathlete diabetes. Many jokes are more warmly uplifting than outright hilarious, designed to illustrate the girls' friendships rather than floor us with fits of the giggles. Particularly effective is the straight-faced bickering of longtime friends Sayo and Eno, as well as the nonstop tsukkomi-boke rapport of Riko and Maki. Adding to the variety are the occasional rom-com moments (the travails of the mildly mean guy who has the misfortune of being paired with Maki are particularly fun) and the periodic dip into bad taste (episode eight's blackface joke). It's a wide-ranging brand of silliness that's well-suited to the show's joke-a-minute 4-koma rhythm, as well as to the essentially softhearted skills of director Ohta.
If only Ohta had been satisfied with that. Unfortunately, the series wants to be something a little weightier than a comedic romp. It sets up (approximately) three extended dramatic arcs—about the meddling of Sayo and Eno, about the meddling of the newspaper club, and about Riko's Big Lie—each with their own big emotional payoff. We know Ohta can do emotional payoffs; he proved that with this winter's Kotoura-san. But the poke-in-the-eye emotional manipulations that worked so well in tragicomic Kotoura fit poorly into Love Lab's world of wacky sugared fluff. Ohta can't seem to resist that extra shot of shock-blanked eyes, that lonely tinkle of piano keys, that slow drip of tears, despite the fact that events rarely justify it. And despite the fact that a little bit less almost always—in this context—does a good deal more. When at the end Riko cries that she doesn't want to leave the Student Council, the impact would have been infinitely greater had she choked the words out instead of, as she does in the show, shouting them to the skies.
Now, Ohta's shots of emotional drama aren't all bad. When his punch-to-the-heart style finds the right target (secretly self-sacrificing Sayo, say; or Riko and Maki's pivotal friendship) it can play a right decent tune on the ol' heartstrings. And the cohesion that the overarching plots give to the 4-koma silliness is welcome. But the fact is that the show is clearly better at using its romantic ignoramuses to deliver stomach-knotting sight gags and mildly deranged send-ups of rom-com tropes than it is at using them to grease our lachrymals. And given that, the rest is simple math. The more time a given episode spends on the fallout of a disastrous snafu at the student council meeting or trying to raise the stakes for a school-wide broadcast of romantic advice, the worse the episode drags. And a few too many of the episodes drag for Love Lab to be the nonstop delight that it could have been.
Given Ohta's lopsided skills, it's no surprise that Love Lab is most memorable—visually speaking—when it's being funny. And particularly when it's animating Maki, who is a one-woman arsenal of hilariously weird movement: whether she's trying out a near-lethal version of the toast-in-mouth romantic collision, ostentatiously sneaking down a school byway, doing a freakish human version of the “swan's legs” maxim, or transforming into “Makio,” her smarmy male alter ego. Riko's attempt to turn girly-girl is also animated just right, and the recurrent anthropomorphization of Maki's hugging pillow (“Huggy”) is a masterwork of hilarious ugliness. Ohta also has the good sense to keep his score, by longtime collaborator Yasuhiro Misawa, mostly quiet and to the back, lending generally comely support without calling attention to its manipulations.
Except when the show waxes dramatic and breaks out the trusty old piano, laying down some sonic depression. It matches Ohta's directorial approach to those sequences—which is all brazenly calculated camera angles, bluntly obvious facial expressions, and unnecessarily vocalized feelings—but that isn't actually a good thing. Thankfully the show is smart enough to cut even its heaviest material with good old-fashioned pratfalls (as it does with Maki's wonderfully odd trip-and-fall problem in the fraught final episode). Too bad it wasn't smart enough to cut the heavy stuff altogether. Or, better yet, to supply an emotional underbelly that is subtle and unobtrusive enough that it doesn't weigh the series down. Even weighted down, though, this is a very funny comedy: easy to get into and easy to enjoy. It just isn't quite so easy to love.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B-
Animation : B+
Art : B-
Music : B-
+ Fun cast; fun show; Maki is pure comic genius; loads of fall-out-of-your-seat slapstick; occasionally an emotional jab will land the way it was intended to.
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