Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Episodes 1-12 Streaming
Kouta Hase is a high school second-year who has never quite felt like he fits in. In order to facilitate that, as well as a way of coping with his guilt and grief over his grandmother's death, Kouta has been actively denying his love for the Sanrio character Pompompurin, for which he was bullied in the past. But when he realizes how much he loves the stuffed toy she gave him, Kouta starts to think differently – and once he does, he finds four other boys who also love Sanrio characters as he realizes that gender doesn't need to dictate what you love.
Sanrio Boys, the latest marketing scheme from the seemingly endless Sanrio company of mascot characters, at first seemed all set to defy expectations. Despite the obvious product placement, the story's first half revolves around the idea that social and gender norms do not have to define you to the point where you deny the things you love. It's a story that, in the West at least, we see much more frequently in terms of girls who play traditionally male sports or on male sports teams, so in that regard it's very nice to see a story that takes a different perspective – that it's all right for boys to like something traditionally regarded as feminine, in this case, Sanrio toys and characters. It's a strong set up, and the first six episodes work well.
Things begin to fall apart once the main cast is assembled, however. Once primary protagonist Kouta has befriended the other four boys in his school who love Sanrio characters, the plot takes a nosedive, reminding us all too clearly that this was initially conceived as a way to sell more toys to a new audience. It almost feels as if there are two completely separate series here – the first half is a touching tale of Kouta finding out he's not a freak while the other boys all learn that they, too, don't have to go it alone, albeit in different contexts, while the second half is the zany adventures and teen angst of stereotypical anime boys, complete with fanservice, random moments that feel as if they were ripped from the otome game version of the franchise, and devolvement from emotional engagement to flat-out corniness.
What's more concerning is that upon reflection it appears that this may have been the plan for the series all along, which shows a remarkable lack of care when it comes to telling a consistent and engaging story. The series opens with the boys putting on a stage play where they're all thinly veiled versions of themselves from Sanrio-themed countries, and this ultimately becomes the focus of the last third of the show. From the five-minute mark of episode one until then, however, there's a major shift in the narrative focus, which not only makes the return to the play feel awkward, but it also allows the audience to be lulled into a false sense that they are watching a different show. In creative writing terms, this is an example of the writers not trusting their audience: bait and switch can work, but it's mostly effective in a mystery-style story, and here it instead feels like a dishonest attempt to lure viewers in while still being able to say, “No, look at the first five minutes of episode one! We told you!” Almost more troubling is the deliberate way in which it feels as if this were done, which indicates some idea that the cheesier version of the show might not be enough to hold viewers.
It's a shame, because that first half really is good. While Kouta and his insecurities are at the forefront – and that first episode about his relationship with his grandmother comes perilously close to tear jerking – the other boys also have very real problems of their own, and their love of their specific characters has somehow helped them to cope with them. Yuu feels rejected by his younger sister, for whom he's the chief caregiver, Shunsuke has a hard time expressing himself, Seiichiro takes too much upon himself in a bid to live up to his father's expectations, and Ryo feels smothered by his family and his own pretty looks. All of their issues are given thoughtful exploration, with Ryo's coming in a close second to Kouta's in terms of screen time, and while their favorite characters may help them, it's their new (human) friends' acceptance of them as whole people and willingness to help out that is emphasized. That none of their issues are ever fully resolved is also a nice touch – they're still just teenagers, and life's going to throw a lot more at them. Now, however, they'll have better support and coping mechanisms.
Things start to derail when the group gets together and goes to Sanrio Puroland, Sanrio's theme park. It's at this point that the series begins to feel like an overt advertisement, an issue which persists from this point on with constant shots of the goodies they buy on their adventure. Then it's off to the cliché races with training camps, the school festival, and obligatory beach scenes. The problem isn't that these standards are included in the story, but rather how they are: it's such an abrupt shift in tone and style. Even when the final two episodes attempt to get back to the emotional core of Kouta's character, the damage has been done.
That there is that attempt is noteworthy, because once again it speaks of the planning that went into the series. Kouta has a noticeably plainer character design than the rest of the main cast, and that clearly was on purpose for his late emotional issues, with him feeling inferior to his more popular friends. That Kouta basically dumped his former friends in order to hang with the Sanrio Boys is never fully addressed, although he does appear to realize what he's done towards the end of episode eleven. As in the beginning, there's a nice attention to the emotional details of being a teenager, especially when Kouta struggles to tell his new friends what his problem is, because he can't really verbalize it. Had the middle episodes been toned down, this could have made for an effective denouement to the show.
Apart from Kouta's character design and the inescapable Sanrio imagery, the art for this series is pretty good. There are no scenes devoid of background characters, most of whom are unique in appearance, and a very nice job is done with the settings. The animation, unfortunately, takes a downturn in the second half alongside the plot, but the first six episodes look very good. Music is fairly neutral in the usual poppy way – it works, but it isn't particularly remarkable.
Sanrio Boys is a sad case of “almost.” After a strong start it makes some major missteps in the middle, rendering the return of the better content in the final two episodes much less effective than it should have been. That the final two characters from the franchise are introduced briefly in the very last episode feels like either an afterthought or a hopeful bid for a sequel (or a “read the manga, kids!” moment) doesn't really help the overall show's cause. It's worth watching those first six episodes. After that, cut your losses and move on.
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C+
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : C
+ First six episodes tell a good story, many aspects of the series are thoughtful early on
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