Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Mitsuki is desperate to forget Takayuki, the shock of the truth has temporarily slipped Haruka back into her coma, and Takayuki is a confused mess. What better time than now for a conclusion? Mitsuki's bid to leave Takayuki behind drags Shinji into the fray while Haruka tries, with all her fragmented still-16-year-old heart, to come to grips with the reality of her suddenly adult circumstances. As Takayuki comes to slowly realize that his desire to be kind to everyone is the cruelest punishment imaginable for all involved, he begins to turn towards the only path of action that can begin to undo the cruelly cutting web of emotional entanglements that has ensnared them all since the moment of Haruka's reawakening: a decision.
Stripped of all of its trappings, Rumbling Hearts is at its core a love triangle, albeit one shaped by tragic happenstance and the inexorable effects of passing time. The entire series boils down to one choice, as Takayuki must eventually choose between Mitsuki and Haruka, and the emotional toll that the need to make that decision and the decision itself takes on all of the participants. And choose he does. Depending on which character one is most emotionally invested in, the results will range from bittersweet to plain old bitter, but regardless of one's satisfaction with the outcome, the emotional power of it is undeniable: a show whose cruel twists of fate and unpleasant yet powerfully affecting character dynamics will linger in the memory long after the end credits roll, no matter how desperately one might want to forget.
After a volume's worth of Mitsuki slowly melting down, this volume's emotional weight is placed squarely on Haruka's frail shoulders. And surprisingly, given how little she has been given to do so far, she carries it effortlessly. It takes a hard heart indeed not to be moved by the sight of her trying desperately to walk, to not agonize right alongside her when she rails against her fate as she punishes her wasted legs in a bout of midnight anguish. All of the characters, even the woefully neglected Shinji, have moments of resonance as they come to important realizations about themselves and each other, but it's the Haruka moments that linger.
Some of Rumbling Hearts best moments are it's subtlest, as when two devastating realizations—for both the audience and the characters—are allowed to slowly sink in as the metaphors behind a pair of children's stories are made explicit. However, the show isn't so restrained as to refrain from taking a cheap punch at the emotional kidneys when given the chance; it can't even begin to approach the maturity and meticulous realism of, say, Koi Kaze. The extremity with which the characters react to their romantic predicaments, as well as feeling somewhat forced (especially Mistuki's meltdown), sometimes feels at odds with the overall quiet tone and adult focus.
It would be convenient to blame the staid visuals on budgetary shortfalls, but that would overlook their true shortcomings. The problem isn't the unconvincing way that characters move on occasion, nor the every-anime character designs, but rather the stodgy artistic choices made by the director Tetsuya Watanabe (Zone of the Enders). The more detailed backgrounds are wasted on all-too-familiar settings juxtaposed in uninteresting ways with the character designs. A prosaic eye for compositions, uninventive editing, and an insistence on close-ups and stolid, centered shots, recalls nothing so much as made-for-TV movies of the week. The script and acting receive little support from the visuals and must fight to create empathy and emotion entirely of their own accord. Luckily they succeed most of the time, helped by the soundtrack and a few visual elements—especially Haruka's atrophied physique—that work well, but the lack of visual invention, purpose, and poetry lends Rumbling Hearts a blunting dullness that sets it apart from its artier, and superior, compatriots like SaiKano and Koi Kaze.
Visual prowess aside, the director does have solid grasp on the use—or more accurately, the lack thereof—of music in supporting drama. What little music there is tends towards quietly depressing piano solos, but the real advantage of the soundtrack is its long stretches of excruciating silence, during which the only sounds are voices of the characters as they converse. The scene in which Takayuki and Haruka talk by the beachside with only the lonesome calls of the gulls for accompaniment is a masterpiece of spare audio design. It takes great confidence in one's actors to let them emote without musical cues, and all else aside, it appears that Watanabe had enough sense to do just that.
Funimation's propensity for rewriting their shows usually isn't an issue as they are fairly careful not to make offensive or artistically unsound alterations, but there is cause for trepidation with Rumbling Hearts (starting with its unfortunate renaming). The delicate balance of emotion required and its absolute reliance on its actors makes Rumbling Hearts potentially unsuited for Funimation's usual brand of hands-on script alteration, and sure enough there are several examples of questionable choices. Shinji's confrontation with Takayuki loses some of its emotional implications in the rougher, cruder rewrite, some lines from the Japanese are excluded altogether, and for those of us too stupid to figure out who symbolizes who in the children's-book metaphor, the sex of one character is changed so as to simplify things. On the other hand, the emotional core of the series is beautifully preserved, and the performances (particularly those of the female cast) are excellent, packing just as much of a wallop as their Japanese counterparts. It isn't a perfect adaptation, but just be glad that the bull only squashed a couple of plates while passing through the china shop.
The characters have come a long way since the demure girlfriend/feisty best friend stereotypes of the opening episodes; Mistuki isn't nearly so strong, nor Haruka nearly so fragile as they both initially appeared, all of which makes the inevitable heartbreak even harder to bear. That the eventual resolution feels somewhat arbitrary, and that those who found themselves backing the weak point of the love triangle will find themselves bitter at the undeserved pain she receives, are simply the results of the show falling victim to its own skill at constructing a heart-wrenching romantic conundrum, a corner that other romantic dramas only wish they could paint themselves into.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Animation : C
Art : C+
Music : B+
+ Powerfully affecting romance that is this year's romantic drama to beat.
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