Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Limited Edition BD+DVD
At twenty-seven years old, Arata Kaizaki is feeling like his life is already over. Having quit his first full-time job after three months, Arata can't find any stable work, and now finds himself working part-time while lying to old friends about his blossoming career. But when Arata is approached by Ryo Yoake of the ReLIFE Agency, he is presented with a second chance at life altogether. With just one simple pill, Arata can return to high school, and live out a second senior year in the hopes of reintegrating into society. But will going back to high school really do anything to change Arata as a person? There's only one way to find out, as it's ReLIFE or bust for our desperate young hero.
The allure of a second chance at life has inspired stories throughout history. We all have regrets, and though growing up requires learning from mistakes, it can often feel like we didn't need to experience quite so many of them. If we'd studied harder, would we be happier with our current job? If we'd taken more risks, would we feel better about the place we found ourselves? It's an eternal human anxiety, and in a modern world where steady careers have dissipated and job security is a myth, the fear of simply failing to integrate into society as an adult is more pertinent than ever. Such is the case with ReLIFE's protagonist Arata, who finds himself nearly jobless and without a direction at the age of twenty-seven, before he's given one unlikely chance to make things right.
Approached by ReLIFE Agency employee Ryo Yoake, Arata is given a strange proposition and a second chance at life. If Arata agrees to spend one year living as a third-year high school student, he'll be returned to his own life with a job recommendation already set up. And so Arata agrees to the ReLIFE experiment, returns to a high-school age body, and finds himself enrolled in a local high school. There he'll meet new friends, experience unlikely drama, and hopefully graduate into a happier and more successful second adulthood.
For all that convoluted scifi setup, ReLIFE's actual episodic content plays out a lot like any other high school drama. Arata quickly befriends the smart but romantically ignorant Oga, the hyper-competitive Kariu, and the quiet Hishiro, and the various conflicts of them and their friends occupy the greater part of ReLIFE's active narrative. Arcs center on issues like Kariu trying to manage her competitive nature while maintaining her friendship with her sports rivals, Hishiro learning how to make small talk, and various characters falling in love. Narrative-wise, it's all fairly familiar stuff.
ReLIFE's fairly routine conflicts are somewhat elevated by its strong ear for dialogue and sturdy grasp of character. The show's comedy is pretty lukewarm stuff, but the friendly banter between these teens feels natural, and the various sides of characters like Kariu are sketched with enough depth to confidently propel their individual dramas. As far as adolescent character dramas go, ReLIFE's writing is a definitely a cut above par.
Unfortunately, the show's structural and aesthetic issues fail to elevate it any higher than that. One of the biggest issues with ReLIFE is that it doesn't seem certain what story it's actually trying to tell. The show wanders from small arc to small arc, offering small dramatic pleasures along the way, but failing to build towards anything larger. One mid-season twist does absolutely nothing but remove one character from the active drama, while a later twist regarding the nature of the ReLIFE group is held for far too long to land with any impact. It's only within the second half of the final episode that ReLIFE seems to remember it's ostensibly about Arata's journey, and by then it's much too late to give his story any sense of finality. ReLIFE's lack of narrative focus really hurts both its impact in a dramatic sense and its coherence as a reflection on the nature of growing up. I'm guessing the upcoming four-episode OVA will offer this narrative a great deal more finality, but as of this season, ReLIFE is basically an incomplete story.
It also doesn't help that ReLIFE is one of the most aesthetically bland productions you're likely to see. The show sticks to a very strict palette of baby blue, pastel gray, and egg shell white, with its entire world generally conforming to the colors of its protagonists' school uniforms. There's no dynamic direction, no interesting variations in its use of color, and basically no fluid animation at all. The only visual embellishments are occasional hyper-deformed art interludes, which tend to be framed as passive jokes in their own right. The show's music is equally bland; virtually the entire soundtrack sounds like one guy watching the show along with us, and occasionally adding in plinks and plonks or dramatic runs on his electric keyboard. The strange thing is, ReLIFE ends every episode with a different vocal insert song (covers of classic J-pop singles), which made me wonder why the show itself didn't employ those throughout its episodes instead of relying entirely on piano man to elevate its drama.
Bolstered by its solid character writing but sabotaged by its structural frailty and aesthetic weakness, ReLIFE's final tally unfortunately trends towards the negative. The show's last saving grace are the moments when it escapes from conventional high school drama, and uses its uniquely positioned protagonist to reflect on the painful nature of the adult world, and the ways even high school's small struggles echo professional conflicts. The show's slow reveal of Arata's relationship with one of his superiors at his first job is easily one of its strongest narratives, eventually leading Arata to razor-sharp thoughts like “if I'd suppressed my emotions and tried to fit in, would I have become a productive member of society? Would that have been better?” A version of ReLIFE that tethered that sharpness to Arata's less cutthroat high school conflicts could have been a truly great show. This ReLIFE is structurally messy and aesthetically lackluster and on the whole somewhat disappointing, but I do appreciate the glimmers of that stronger show that it still contains.
Funimation put out all the stops for their ReLIFE release, housing the disc on blu-ray and DVD inside a folding case that itself fits inside a sturdy chipboard case. That case also contains a cute envelope that seems designed to mimic an in-universe ReLIFE Laboratory pamphlet. The envelope contains a set of cards with pithy little quotes like “talent isn't everything” on one side, and main character profiles on the other. The actual discs are fairly light on extras, containing the usual trailers and clean opening, along with a commentary track by the dub cast for the show's thirteenth episode. That commentary track is most notable for its number of participants - Funimation pulled in half a dozen or so of the main actors, which results in a conversation that isn't exactly focused, but is certainly full of energy, as well as commentary on the many existing varieties of nachos.
The dub itself is very strong, from Micah Solusod's very energetic Arata to Alexis Tipton's stern yet still vulnerable Kariu. Jeannie Tirado's Hishiro is likely the most different from the original take, as Ai Kayano's near-monotone doesn't really translate into English. I thought Tirado did a fine job of replacing Kayano's tone with an appropriately subdued substitute, though whether her still more-emotive style is better or worse will likely come down to personal preference.
On the whole, I'd probably recommend ReLIFE to people who really enjoy high school dramas, but even that recommendation comes with some reservations. The show's substantial aesthetic failings and structural messiness are one thing, but as of now, the ending is also pretty much just “that's all for now, wait for the OVA.” ReLIFE's naturalistic character writing and occasionally sharp reflections on its premise are a strong pull, but there's too much holding this show back for it to really grab or impress me. Sorry Arata, I think you might have to go back for try number three.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : B
Animation : C-
Art : C-
Music : C
+ Strong character writing and solid dialogue, Arata's unique life situation is often very compelling
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