Reviewby Theron Martin,
episodes 1-13 streaming
27-year-old Arata Kaizuki lost his office job, something he hides from his high school friends. Unable to find better than a part-time convenience store job and due to get cut off from his parents' financial support, he jumps at a strange proposal from Ryo Yoake: join the ReLife program for a year and be guaranteed not only a full year's salary but also a job at the end. As part of the program, he takes a special pill that makes him appear to be 17 again and lives as a high school student under near-constant observation by Ryo, who joins him in the classroom. The only catch is that he cannot tell anyone about ReLife or who he really is. Although Arata quickly discovers that the academics and athletics of the school are a real challenge, he has much less of a problem integrating smoothly into the social scene. His experience allows him to help his new classmates solve an array of problems, from being unable to make friends to relationships fractured by jealousy to realizing romantic yearnings. In the process, he learns to break out of his own cycle of depression and expand his own horizons.
The Summer 2016 anime season has given us a number of unusual releases – one series that's only five episodes long (planetarian), two concurrent series from the same franchise meant to be viewed simultaneously (the Danganronpa franchise), a series that airs as shorts five days per week and then as a full-episode collection (The Disastrous Life of Saiki K.) – but of all those, ReLIFE may be the most unusual, since its entire 13-episode run was available to stream up front instead of week-by-week. Presumably this is some kind of experiment, and if so, then I have to wonder why this series was chosen for it. After all, this is hardly a story with stunning cliffhangers or the kind of intense viewer engagement that would encourage marathon viewing.
Instead, this is a straightforward “youth drama” – or at least that's the way it's advertised. It would more accurate to call this a slice-of-life dramedy, somewhat along the lines of a Toradora!, where the comedy and drama elements throughout the series are equally substantial and thoroughly integrated to create a tone that switches gracefully between laughs and poignancy. The comedy sets the tone for the less weighty elements by emphasizing bemused reactions, comically inappropriate expressions, and people just goofing around like teenagers are inclined to do, and while it may not induce many laugh-out-loud moments, the comedy is nonetheless surprisingly effective. The drama elements mostly depend on typical teenage life crises: the struggle to make friends, the jealousies that arise between rivals, the pangs of fledgling love, and so forth. However, there are some darker and heavier issues brought up too, mostly involving how Arata ended up in his current situation. Understanding these depends somewhat on understanding the concept of a “black company,” a term for companies in Japan that exploit their usually-young employees through unethical or even outright illegal practices, which results in a toxic work environment. The companies bank on getting away with it by keeping employees uninformed about grievance mechanisms and emphasizing the damage to one's work reputation for quitting or complaining.
Many recent anime series have discovered the hard way that effectively mixing comedy and drama like this can be tricky. Get the balance off even a little and the two clash in tonal dissonance. However, director Tomochi Kosaki pulls off this balance well, which is all the more remarkable because this is his first directorial effort. (Based on this project, it definitely shouldn't be his last.) He gives both elements their proper time and space, with neither being a distraction to the other, and keeps a smooth flow going back-and-forth between the two.
Of course, it helps greatly that he had some good source material to work with. The core cast is a strong mix of lighthearted and more serious types, some with obvious issues (the friendless and morose Hishiro), some with problems that are buried deeply (the ditzy super-athlete Tamari), but no one is purely a joke character (though An comes close). Watching Hishiro in particular work her way through problems thanks to Arata's help is quite satisfying, as she then goes on to help others she comes to befriend. The show also wisely uses the circumstances of the high schoolers Arata befriends to delve into his own backstory. When the flashbacks finally come, the timing is excellent because they can be used to illustrate where Arata learned the lessons that he applies to his current school life. If there's a weak point here, it's that the underlying premise of the story is a stretch, as the whole arrangement seems impractical from a business standpoint.
Director Kosaka leads a TMS Entertainment team in the production effort. The animation quality is not spectacular, especially late in the series where the consistency noticeably slips, and the dependence on still shots grows to an annoying level. Base character designs are appealing, however, and fanservice is virtually nonexistent. The visual differences between the adult and 17-year old versions of the characters shown going through the ReLIFE process are kept subtle, to the point that you have to look closely in some cases to even tell that there is a difference; the sole exception to this is test case 001, Arata's predecessor in the program.
The musical effort is also more serviceable than special. It relies heavily on piano ditties for both lighthearted and dramatic effect, with occasional synthesized numbers, for a net effect that does somewhat support the content but often feels like it could have been doing more. The opening theme “Button” is a fitting but unremarkable number, but the closer is far more involved. The base visuals remain the same from episode to episode, except for a still shot featuring the most relevant characters of the episode, but the song is different each time. All are at least good songs and some are great ones, with the musical style varying significantly over the course of the series, featuring groups ranging from L'Arc-en-Ciel to Porno Graffiti to T.M. Revolution, along with some anime newcomers.
One mystery that lingers throughout the series is the identity of case 001, which is indicated very early on to have been considered a failure. This does not get resolved until one of the last scenes in the final episode, but the reveal is a surprising but also very logical revelation that proves very satisfying. That also sums up the production as a whole: it may not be one of the truly great anime series out there, but it is satisfying. While the story definitely doesn't feel complete yet, the place where it ends is nonetheless a good stopping point, as the story has resolved most of its plot threads. Besides, given that only five volumes of the manga have been released in Japan, there may not be any more story to animate at this time. If a continuation ever does get made, it will be welcome.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : C+
Art : B
Music : B-
+ Both comedic and dramatic aspects are effective and well-handled
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