Friday, April 14, 2017

Kokoro Connect: The Anime Equivalent of the Somme




Okay so I know that title is a bit click-baitey, and why in the hell would I be comparing what you see pictured above to THIS

Well, read on, and you shall discover the answers you seek. Or not. We'll see how this goes.

Now I can already hear you saying, "Jim, why would I EVER take an anime recommendation from you? Aren't you that total and complete degenerate who likes Monster Musume no Iru Nichijou and literally never shuts the fuck up about how much you like monster girls? Isn't your taste in anime completely tarnished by levels of degeneracy that shouldn't even be possible?"

To which I would respond, "That's fair. And true." Here's where I get to say "however."

HOWEVER (man I love that part)

This anime is, shockingly enough, not about monster girls. It doesn't even feature them a little bit. So you're 100% safe from my degeneracy so far as this show goes. In future recommendations you might not be so lucky. Count your blessings.

Also, this is more of a recommendation than a review. I know precious little about the history of anime, how tropes developed, how the art style developed, or even what was popular in what time period beyond what they played on Adult Swim and Toonami back when I was a kid. I'm just a fan. So I am in no wise qualified to actually review an anime in regards to its merits compared to the rest of the stuff in the genre. But, I do know what I like, and I figure if my half-assed rambling can get a few more people to watch this show, I'll have done my good deed for the month and can go back to calling politicians, journalists, and random famous people cunts on Twitter with a clean conscience. I just want to make it clear that I'm speaking from near-total ignorance of the history of the overall genre I'm talking about, and will be evaluating this show on its own merits rather than how it fits into the general anime zeitgeist. Just so we're all on the same page about how ignorant I am, here.

I also make no promises to keep this spoiler-free. Frankly, to talk about why I love this show so much properly I'm gonna have to get into some plot points, but this is one of those shows where, to quote Gerald from Hey! Arnold:


Anyway, back to the topic at hand and my frivolous use of horrible WWI battles as a means of comparison to the trauma a bunch of Japanese high school students go through. This anime can be summed up in this sentence that I stole from my friend Newbluud (who also sat me down and forced me to undergo the meat grinder warfare that is this show): Omniscient demon fucks with high school students. That's pretty much the overall premise.

Okay, so to summarize in a hopefully more coherent fashion: The show starts off with five friends, three girls and two boys, and establishes the fact that they created a club together because they didn't really fit into any of the clubs that actually existed. So they created the Student Cultural Research Club because god forbid any of these misfits and social defects actually try to fit in for once in their lives. Basically the club is an excuse for them to hang out with each other, eat snacks, and talk shit. They also publish a newsletter, but that kinda gets lost in the scrum of the general rush of the plot, and to be honest it's no great loss. The club itself is pretty boring, but the people who make up the club are insanely interesting.

Which is why they attract the attention of this...entity, I suppose, named Heartseed. If you watch the subbed version, it might alternate between "Heartseed" and "Balloon Vine." I haven't done the research, but given my limited knowledge of the Japanese language I have to assume that "Balloon Vine" is the literal translation, while "Heartseed" is actually what it's meant to be called, given the general theme of the show as expressed in the title. For the uninitiated, "kokoro" is the Japanese word for "heart," and can also be used as a plural. So the title of this show translates as "Heart/Hearts Connect." Given that I think it's safe to assume that "Heartseed" is what's meant, while "Balloon Vine" is merely the work of pedantic autist translators. That's also what it's called in the dubbed version, so I think I might be on to something here.

In any case, Heartseed is this strange entity who has decided that these people are so very interesting that he just has to fuck with their heads. And when I say fuck with their heads, I mean brains in a blender type shit. He's able to do astounding things to them, and the whole show is basically them dealing with the bullshit that Heartseed puts them through. Sometimes they do well, other times not so much, which is one of the really good parts of this story. These characters are already kind of misfits; although not necessarily in popularity, one of the characters is very popular in the school they attend; so they're already set apart from your background characters. But each of these characters is so...original, I suppose is the word I'm looking for, that their internal conflict spurred on by what Heartseed does to them as a group is intrinsically tied to them as a person.

It would probably help if I described the characters a bit. Likesay, this is supposed to sell the damned story, so that would probably drive the point home. And I'm not getting paid to do this, I just like the show that god damned much. But if this does interest you, it is available on RightStufAnime, and you can get there through my affiliate link on the side of the blog (shameless plug). But back to the thing, here.

So the first character is Taichi Yaegashi. He's on the far right in the picture above. He's a guy who loves pro wrestling to the point where he put that down as a club preference despite the fact that club doesn't exist. He's also completely altruistic, and is more than willing to sacrifice himself if it means other people don't have to suffer. This actually gets called out in the show, as several of his friends bring up the fact that he's doing this to feel better about himself, rather than out of purely selfless interests. He thinks he has to do this, because that's what you do for people you care about, and thus winds up stroking his own ego in the process, which gets him into more than a little trouble. His arc is kind of centered around him dealing with his pathological altruism, as well as a love triangle with two of the female characters.

Going from right to left in the picture above, our next character is Himeko Inaba. Inaba is a girl who puts up a tough front to distract people from her vulnerabilities. This tough front comes in many ways, from being violent with the boys in the club, to seemingly shrugging off things that bother her deeply, to trying to be the "mom" type of character that takes care of everybody but has no one to help her deal with her problems. This adds a lot of weight to a scene later in the show where she literally breaks down, collapses, and sobs uncontrollably when the male character she's come to love has been hurt and she thinks he's dead until she sees that he's okay. Honestly Inaba has the best arc in the series, in my opinion, and definitely fills out the role of "best girl" in a way that transcends simple interest in a character.

After letting my friend proof this, he had something to add, so I'm just going to copy and paste that because it's more articulate about it than I could possibly be and if I tried to reword or rephrase it I would just wind up making it sound stupid so here's his addition. Correcting for spelling because he's a Britfag:

 Inaba [also] isn't a traditional tsundere. She will shamelessly display emotional attachment and care to those she is close to, be it squealing with delight over her ability to confess to opening up her most embarrassing secrets just to have fun and bond with her friends. Ice queen with a warm and chewy center is a trope at this stage, especially in this type of show. Inaba is certainly inspired by this archetype, but comes across as much more realistic as her reactions vary given the situation. Also a couple of things she does will have you screaming at the other characters to pat her head.


On to the next, we have Iori Nagase. Iori has an identity crisis that features prominently throughout the show. She's been playing roles her entire life to please her various father figures, and she doesn't exactly know who she is. On the surface she's bubbly, kind, warm-hearted, always there for the other characters, and does her best to keep things light. Then, things get a little too heavy for her, and she just breaks at a certain point and becomes a completely different person. She thinks that her friends don't understand the real her, and starts evaluating all their interactions based on their understanding of how she's been in the past compared to how she's acting now. She kind of takes over the show near the end, but it's completely justified given her deep emotional and psychological issues that she tries to protect her friends from by suddenly putting them at arm's length. Which doesn't work at all, so far as strategy goes. Despite her not being best girl, she's a fiercely interesting character that at times you just want to hug. Because god knows she could use it during this ordeal they're going through.

Next, we have Yui Kiriyama. Yui is a former martial arts champion with a dark secret that she doesn't even tell her best friends. She's strong enough to the point that she can break a table in half, or put some thugs in the hospital thanks to her martial arts expertise. However, she has a serious problem. She's androphobic. For those of you that don't know, that means she's afraid of men. She was almost raped while in junior high, and this led to a deep fear of men that she has problems overcoming even while talking to her friends in the club. Once again, this ties deeply into her character arc, and part of the point of one of Heartseed's tricks is helping her to overcome this. She also runs into an issue in the course of the show where she attacks somebody, and sequesters herself in her room because she's afraid she might hurt people. Another very altruistic character who lets her good nature get the better of her.

Then we have Yoshifumi Aoki, a total goober. Aoki has devoted himself to living in the moment and having as much fun as possible, because he had a traumatic experience with a girl he knew who worked very hard to get ahead in life getting hit by a car and all her hard work essentially coming to naught. This instilled in Aoki a lust for life that would make Iggy Pop say, "All right dude, you probably need to calm down a little bit." He's obsessed with making the most out of every day, and he's also in helpless love with Yui, which leads to more than a few funny incidents given his honesty about his feelings. His character arc centers around his commitment to living in the moment and the similarity of Yui to a girl he'd dated in the past.

There are also incidental characters like Mr. Goto, who is the most frequent conduit for Heartseed to interact with the main characters through. These characters don't get much focus, and are honestly just there to move the plot along, but they do come into their own at a certain point, especially near the end, which is very powerful.

But back to Heartseed and what he does to these insanely interesting characters. Ostensibly, this is a slice-of-life anime, but it's really more like what would happen if a demon decided to fuck with you and your friends, and following how you all dealt with that happening. And as I said, they don't always deal with it in the best ways, to the point of hating each other, breaking down crying, and completely reversing their personalities. So what does Heartseed actually do to them?

Well the first thing he does is relatively benign. He just makes them change personalities. So Aoki is now in Yui's body, or Inaba is now in Taichi's body. This leads to many embarrassing and funny hijinks, as you can imagine, but shit starts to get serious when Heartseed possesses Iori and forces her to jump off a bridge, then puts the rest of the characters through an ordeal where they all think Iori is about to die and have to decide who's going to die with her body.

Yeah. Like I said, shit gets real.

Then he starts unleashing their deepest desires at the moment. Basically at this point they have no impulse control, so if they want to eat they will steal food from one another and consume anything in their reach with a zeal that would make the worst foodie glutton blush. This also has other effects, including the sexual and the violent. I'll say that this show never devolves into ecchi shit, and there are only two instances of what could be charitably (or uncharitably) called fanservice. But the whole "unleashing desires" thing does involve one character basically trying to jump another character's bones in the club room, which leads to a deeper understanding between these characters and a furthering of the romantic subplot, which was very nice and has an incredibly satisfying payoff at the end. Just saying.

Heartseed also screws with them in other ways, including time reversal, where they will spontaneously revert back to childhood, not just in body but in mind. He also uses emotion transmission, which randomly reveals their current thoughts to random members of the group. So basically they have no reliable privacy at this point in the story. This is part of what leads to Iori's breakdown, and only exacerbates the situation. She doesn't even know who she is, and now she has to deal with her best friends knowing her innermost thoughts? That kind of thing would kill your average high schooler, and Iori's reaction is 100% organic, barring willfully throwing herself off a bridge again.

This is one of the most powerful things about this anime, in my opinion, and the reason that I compare it to The Somme. The guys in the Somme had an advantage over the characters in Kokoro Connect. They could be sure that eventually they would die, or that the war would end, and that would be the end of it. The characters in this show have no real choice but to continue to be tortured by Heartseed until he eventually gets tired of fucking with them. This could very well go on until they die, either through Heartseed's machinations, suicide, or sheer old age. They have no idea when this will end, and the possibility that it could go on forever is one of the things that leads to several of the characters having total mental breakdowns. So maybe not quite the equivalent of WWI trench warfare, but close enough to warrant the comparison in my opinion.

This show is, at its heart, about taking these interesting characters and pushing them to the breaking point, then going beyond and seeing what happens. They're put through things that the UN human rights council would classify as cruel and unusual, and through these ordeals they all grow as individuals and as a group. This anime actually has satisfying character growth, makes the slice of life genre interesting to someone not that into the concept, and honestly it's just fucking heartbreaking.

To be honest with you, I don't cry about media. I'm not that type of guy. It takes a lot to get me to even consider crying due to an emotional moment in a thing I'm watching. Movies don't usually have enough buildup, but a tv show with enough episodes can work me up to that level.

This show did.

There were parts of this show that I had visceral emotional reactions to. It tugged at my heartstrings teasingly, completely ripped them out, then replaced them with a loving kiss at the end. I'm not lying, if you guys are looking for a good romance plot in your fiction, you could do infinitely worse than Kokoro Connect. The love triangle is handled expertly, and by god if the resolution didn't bring a tear to my eye. I don't want to give too much away, because I really do want you all to go and watch the show, but I will say that despite the twists and turns this show does have a very happy ending, and it delivers on just about every single thing set up through the course of it. The writers of this are extremely competent, and they know what they're doing.

Fair warning, you never get an explanation on what Heartseed is and where he comes from. But honestly, I kind of like that. It preserves a little bit of mystery, and buys into that very pulpy notion that not everything has to be explained for it to be enjoyable. There's a certain amount of uncertainty in this show, and that only adds to the mystery and fun of it all. So don't come to this show expecting everything to be laid out nice and easy for you. This show expects you to think, and fill in some blanks on your own. It has a certain level of respect for its audience that isn't found too frequently in televised fiction nowadays, and it's very refreshing to see.

Another thing I'll say in this show's favor is that the voice acting is incredible. Both in the Japanese and English versions. I've watched both, and can say with 100% certainty that not only is the English translation and dub faithful, there was only one single discrepancy that I noticed, and it's not a major one. The characters already sell themselves, but it's worth noting that both the Japanese and English voice actors did incredible jobs with this show, and you're definitely in for a treat whichever version you decide to watch. 

But I'm about lit as all hell, and I think I've pretty much run out of steam on this. I really do hope you'll go watch the show, however you find the means to do so. I would also say that it's worth a buy, and if you do watch and enjoy it I hope you'll support the creators by purchasing it. I fully intend to, it's just that god damned good. If you do decide to, I also hope that you'll use my RighStufAnime affiliate link (shameless plug again), but even if you don't, at least go watch the show. It'll be time well spent, as well as a good example of how to do characterization properly.

In any event, thanks for your time, and I hope this has proved that I actually have decent taste in media and I'm not just recommending stuff based on how many monster girls it features.

2 comments :

  1. I discovered your blog today after listening to geek gab. I scrolled down and skimmed over something about your recommendation for kokoro connect. I am generally ignorant about anime and my knowledge is limited to basically cowboy beebop and ninja scroll.

    I decided, what the hay, I'll watch part of the 1st episode to see if it's worth watching. 17 episodes later that night I finished the show. I can't remember the last movie, show, book or anything that had that much of an emotional effect on me. It was amazing. Thanks! You have gained a follower.

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  2. Thanks, man! I'm glad that I could recommend something that you enjoyed! That makes me insanely, incredibly happy, and it's seriously good incentive to keep doing this, because I know someone out there is enjoying it!
    And Cowboy Bebop and Ninja Scroll are fucking incredible! You're talking some of my favorite shows/movies right there. I grew up on stuff like that, and Trigun, and Fooly Cooly, and the other stuff they showed on Adult Swim back in the late 90's early 2000's.
    I hope that you'll stick around, because I've got plenty more defocused rambles on anime that I'm planning, as well as some audiobook reviews and regular book reviews that I can't wait to get out the gate.
    Thanks again for the encouragement, and I hope you enjoy the stuff I'm putting out!

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