Reviewby Carlo Santos, Jun 6th 2007
DVD 1 - New Feelings
Hiroyuki Fujita's high school career has just reached the halfway point: it's the start of the second term in his second year, and childhood friend Akari still stops by his house to make sure he's up on time. It's a tumultuous first day back at school, with new seating assignments and everyone just wanting to get the rest of the day off. But Hiroyuki's friends are there to help him get through life—dependable Masashi, bratty Shiho, and of course, Akari. Whether it's getting tickets for a big concert, making friends with a rich and mysterious third-year girl, or helping a mixed martial arts hobbyist prove herself to her karate peers, Hiroyuki is in for lot of new experiences.
Talk to any fan of renai/bishoujo/gal/dating-sim games and you'll learn about the importance of To Heart, which revolutionized the genre and catapulted the "gal game" to new levels of expressiveness. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the corresponding animated series, which, if anything, probably dragged anime down a few levels by locking us into years and years of half-hearted cash-in opportunities based on romance games. Looking back on it now, the first few episodes of To Heart happen to be an interesting historical document, a quaint prototype of the "heartful love-love" concept—but as actual entertainment, it is amazingly, incredibly boring.
Right from the first scene, the series plunges into cliché territory: the childhood friend stopping by to wake up her buddy on the way to school. Okay, so maybe this wasn't as much of a cliché in 1999, but there you have it—the mac-and-cheese of anime, pure comfort food that will win fans over because of its homegrown familiarity from scene to scene. Helping with classroom cleanup duty? Waiting for your friend after school? Picking new seats? Getting involved in extracurricular activities? Making new friends? It's all here, a complete account of the social aspects of high school life.
A gentle, laid-back atmosphere hangs over the entire experience; even fights and disagreements have a jaunty air about them. ("Let's settle this at the arcade!") It makes for pleasant viewing, but not exciting viewing. Where's the conflict? Where's the ongoing drama? The rock concert episode is the most egregious offender in this respect: when a group of friends are planning to see a rock band, one would expect the climactic scene of the episode to show them actually watching said rock band. Instead they spend the entire episode hemming and hawing over who gets the tickets. Ridiculous.
Bland characters are another contributor to the series' overwhelming mediocrity. When gimmicky supporting characters like occultist Serika and martial artist Aoi are more interesting the leads, then something is seriously wrong. Look, I'm sure Akari is a sweet girl, and a good friend to have in real life, but as a story character, she accomplishes nothing ... unless making polite comments and pining for one's childhood friend count as accomplishments. And Hiroyuki is the emptiest shell of all—he is, after all, supposed to represent the player of the video game, and that means making him as nondescript as possible. His sarcastic attitude is mildly fun, but not enough to carry the entire story. In fact, with each episode so far being a stand-alone affair with a canned feel-good ending ("Aoi, the important thing is that you fought in your own style"—what kind of fluff is that?), the story can barely even carry itself.
The one saving grace of this disc is the restoration of hand-drawn footage and conversion to digital content, and that's mostly through the efforts of distributor Right Stuf, not the original creators. What may have once been a grainy, jittery VHS rip is now touched up for a cleaner, smoother viewing experience. The vivid colors and sharpness of detail might be surprising (oh, how they do those flowing locks of hair!), and the pastoral charm of watercolor backgrounds has clearly become a lost art in the digital age. Technical aspects aside, however, the actual artistry isn't much to get excited about. Character designs are entrenched firmly in the mainstream—or, perhaps, was it these character designs that established the current mainstream? In any case, they probably looked fresher back in 1999, but not so much anymore, after seeing years of Hiroyuki and Akari clones in other, similar series. Animation is a lazy man's job here, as most of the action involves walking around school and talking with other people, although there are some good displays of fluidity and gesture during Aoi's fighting match in Episode 4.
Background music is something of a rare commodity in this series, and it's probably just as well, since most of the melodies accenting Hiroyuki's life are just as dull as the story. Sure, they try to sound inspiring—rich string passages, touching ballad melodies—but the emotion is laid on so thickly as to sound fake. Meanwhile, the opening theme is an instant crash course on how to write seriously bad pop numbers, although the ending is more likeable, with its acoustic-tinged sound.
The English dub features some pretty solid directing and casting—Veronica Taylor's Aoi, for example, matches the original voice so well it's scary. The lead characters perform well, with Hiroyuki nailing that slightly sarcastic tone and Akari sounding appropriately sweet, even if she's a few pitches lower than her Japanese counterpart. The only real problem is with energetic characters like Lemmy and Shiho—apparently, screechiness is now synonymous with high spirits, and with Shiho playing a regular role, this could get annoying pretty quickly. The dub script drifts a little from the subtitles, but both translations accurately convey the meaning of what is said—no offhanded rewrites here.
Extras on the disc include a lineart gallery and character bios, but the real bonus material is in the translation notes, which thoroughly go over puns, cultural concepts and even cross-references to Comic Party. The case also features a reversible cover, so there's enough in this DVD package to make it feel like you're getting something when you pay for it.
Maybe, as fans love to say so much, "it gets better." Maybe the real drama and conflict show up later on in To Heart and this first volume is only setting the stage. But things don't look encouraging so far, and when the early episodes are this boring, it makes it hard to want to continue with the series. The characters and their stories are barely tolerable right now—and that's because they're so bland and inoffensive that it's hard to find anything seriously bad about them. But at the same time, it's hard to find anything seriously good, either. They're just there, living their high school life, and anyone who's ever actually attended high school (or is attending high school) has got to be thinking: That's it? Don't these kids ever do anything?
Overall (dub) : C
Overall (sub) : C-
Story : D
Animation : C+
Art : C+
Music : C
+ A solid restoration job brings this hand-drawn work to the digital age.
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