Reviewby Carlo Santos,
DVD 2 - Finding Courage
Hiroyuki Fujita's high school life continues as he has more good times with friends new and old. A sports festival is the next thing on his schedule, but he seems kind of irritated about it—in fact, it's up to Akari and Shiho to awaken his competitive drive. Then Hiroyuki meets Rio, a shy, clumsy girl who seems to compare everything in life to manga. Can he help her pick out a present for her brother? On the more mysterious side there's also Kotone, a girl whose psychic ability has left her alone in life—until Akari extends a hand in friendship.
There may be hope yet for To Heart. For those who survived the romanticized, idealized high school snorefest in Volume 1, the next block of episodes actually picks up a little in the character department. Hiroyuki's bad mood reveals another side of him, Kotone's aloofness presents a true challenge, and Rio's blatant but silent crush on Hiroyuki should earn at least a sympathetic "Aww." Who are these mildly interesting characters, and why didn't they show up in the first DVD? Why, it's almost enough to make one believe that the series is getting better.
Unfortunately, the main problems of the first volume still prevail in this one: no real conflict, no overarching plot, and no signs that high school is anything other than a perfect, sunny-day paradise where all the kids are cute and everyone wants to be your friend. The level of tension is so low, and the pacing so lethargic, that any sign of life could be considered a plot development. Does it count as a "flag" when Hiroyuki touches a girl's hand? Some might call it subtlety, but it's really just an excuse for lazy storytelling, where the writers are so afraid of taking the plot in any direction (aside from reciting events from the original game) that everything moves in baby steps.
And yet those baby steps seem to be headed the right way. The sports festival episode picks up at the end when Hiroyuki decides to enter the class relay last-minute and makes a thrilling footrace out of it. Hey, when the series is this low-key, you take any excitement you can get. The episode with Rio seems like the usual sentimental junk at first, but as the events chain together, they form a sweet portrait of unrequited love, with a montage at the end that really brings it home. The strange case of Kotone has its charms as well: her aloofness makes her the first truly challenging character in the series, and getting her to open up is a minor victory in itself. These characters are not the most interesting or dynamic, but over time, they end up being likable anyway.
A slow-paced slice-of-life series isn't really the place for dazzling, eye-popping animation, but there's still room for attention to detail here. Subtle gestures like a turn of the head and a twiddle of the fingers are all handled smoothly; it's only in big crowd scenes like the sports festival that shortcuts become obvious. Even the animation of a kitten in the Kotone episode reveals (pardon the pun) catlike fluidity. The art and design isn't particularly original—this one practically has a monopoly on funny-hair-colored bishoujo—but the sharpness and vivid colors are definitely there, even in the hand-painted backgrounds.
The soundtrack continues to be a quiet one, only saving music for the pivotal scenes. (The sports festival does feature constant martial music piping out of the P.A. system, which creates a uniquely campy school-event atmosphere.) Syrupy, string-laden ballad pieces are the dominant mode of expression, but they do add feeling to the accompanying scenes, like Rio's end-of-the-day reverie. Even Hiroyuki's "running music" carries that sense of athletic triumph. The theme songs, however, just get increasingly dull with each listening; they do nothing but emphasize the bland, empty cheeriness of the series.
The voice acting takes a conversational tone throughout, with the English dub being less subtle than the Japanese track. Hiroyuki continues to get his notes of sarcasm right, and the rest of the cast performs with confidence. However, resident screech owls Shiho and Lemmy continue to grate on the ears, and the new characters Rio and Kotone seem to share the same generic schoolgirl tone (a high-pitched twitter in Japanese; a candy-coated mezzo-soprano in English). Translation and adaptation are glitch-free, and some of the rewriting is surprisingly smart—the Japanese idiom "We're like air to each other" becomes "We're a part of each other's lives" in the dub, which is about as correct as you can get it in English. If only the big-box companies were as attentive as Right Stuf's staff.
Translation doesn't just stop with the subbing and dubbing, though—liner notes are also included on the disc, explaining the language and cultural details of Japanese high school life (no references to Comic Party this time, apparently). Lineart and character profiles also fill up the bonus section, along with two "mini-episodes" that basically show the characters in chibi form getting into some amusing, off-tangent scenarios.
In a perfect world, every anime show would have all the characters we want: funny, weird, charismatic, admirable, dynamic—but To Heart shows that if you can't love the ones you want, your learn to love the ones you're with. The characters here aren't instantly appealing, yet they grow on you, just like friends in real life. Not everyone can hang out with the great bounty hunter or the sports hero or the action-adventurer, but spending time with a sharp-tongued schoolboy, his childhood friend and their schoolmates can lead to fun moments too. Yes, To Heart is still plotless and slow and in need of a defibrillator charge. But that slow day-to-day rhythm is exactly what it's like getting to know someone in real life.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C
Animation : B
Art : B-
Music : C
+ Like a faithful group of friends, these characters gradually grow more endearing.
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