Number of Episodes: 24
Production Company: Kyoto Animation
Brief Overview: Despite planning to stay away from extracurricular activities, Houtarou joins the classics club on his sister's request so that the club isn't abolished. Though he'd rather not be there, he seems compelled to attend by Eru, another member of the club. They begin to discuss the mysteries that surround the school, and only Houtarou seems able to solve them.
Episode 1 Summary: Houtarou is normally the type to go straight home and does what he can to expend the least amount of energy, but his sister has talked him into doing her a favor - joining the classics club so that the club won't be dissolved. It doesn't sound like such a bad deal, since he'll be the only member and will be able to do as he pleases. When he goes to check out the club room on the first day, however, he discovers that he's not actually the lone member; he's joined by a pretty girl named Chitanda Eru.
It's clear right away that Chitanda has a knack for convincing Houtarou to do what she wants, since he hangs around and helps her to solve a mysterious situation before leaving for the day. Next time, he finds himself involved in what turns out to be an elaborate plan to entertain her by recreating one of the school's mysterious personal "myths." Though he's loathe to admit it, Houtarou seems to be enjoying his time in the classics club.
Thoughts: Admittedly, I originally thought that this was supposed to be a supernatural mystery series, and I was quite confused to discover that at least the first episode is more what I would call a quirky slice-of-life drama.
I normally try not to make the visual quality of an episode the focal point of a review, but this being a Kyoto Animation series, "production values" are the name of the game. Having recently (as in, within the last several months) finished watching Nichijou, it's interesting to see some of the same visual techniques reappear here in more mature, broader-used forms. I'm fascinated by the ways in which some animators will use the animation medium to mimic the type of shots which normally be the result of dealing with physical camera lenses. This episode features a lot of interesting focal techniques, including what I can only as an amateur describe as being similar to tilt-shift and selective-focus photography. The use of selective-focus in this case is used to emphasize the appearance of the main character in many scenes.
One could certainly argue that using animation, a medium which can be employed to show all sorts of things that are impossible to bring to life using live actors and practical special-effects, to mimic physical media is a waste of time (I'm betting that people who are sick of the abundance of slice-of-life anime are pretty fond of that argument). This episode confronts that complaint head-on by embellishing some scenes with some absolutely gorgeous lighting and fanciful visual elements which could probably not be reproduced in a live-action medium. There's one scene in particular that sticks in my mind, in which Chitanda uses her peculiar charms to ensnare Houtarou; her hair grows into a giant web studded with bright green flowers, and the room is bathed in a glowing green and purple light. The fact that much of the plot activity takes place after school also provides ample opportunity to flood many scenes with light from the sunset. This is the kind of visual creativity I like to see, especially in series where one wouldn't otherwise expect it.
Creative visual design and strong character animation are good aspects to be able to fall back on, because the actual content of the series isn't particularly enthralling or memorable, at least right away. I'm a little bit hung-up on the fact that the characters seem so one-note. Houtarou is just the latest in a long line of anime protagonists whose one distinguishing factor is that they happen to have a personality trait that goes slightly contrary to the expected norm for a Japanese person. Houtarou isn't interested in joining any after-school clubs, an activity which is practically a requirement for any student who wants to fit in and have a social life. This is such a big deal that when he decides to continue with the "classics club" it comes across as a major plot development, when in reality it's just sort of silly. With twenty-four episodes planned, there's certainly plenty of time for real character development to occur, but right now it's the use of this overused characterization device that's irritating to me. It's also not helpful that Chitanda isn't much more than a "quirky girl moeblob" at this point.
I suspect that this series has some stories to tell and that its characters are in for some more fleshing-out before everything is said and done. Its only major hook at this point, though, is its visual quality, which does, admittedly, border on the cinematic at times.
Follow-up Episodes: The first couple of episodes give the illusion that this series is focused on episodic mysteries with lighthearted explanations, but it's not too much longer before a subtle plot begins to develop. The members of the classics club take an interest in releasing a student anthology as the club has in years past, but they can't seem to find any earlier examples from which to work. As they struggle to locate the copies that were once stored in the club's former meeting area, Chitanda comes to Houtarou with a request that involves discovering some information about her uncle, who's been missing for several years. The group soon discovers that Uncle Jun was involved in an event which former students described as "epic," and they decide to research his past and have that serve as the focus for their anthology.
What's interesting about these episodes, especially the fourth, is that the characters spend quite a bit of time researching and analyzing information. There's an entire episode devoted to their factual discoveries and speculations regarding the reason for Chitanda's uncle's fame as a student. Conceptually this sounds pretty boring, but in practice the show's interesting visual design and the subtle injections of character development and strong character animation provided by these scenes work together well to help maintain interest.
I mentioned this at length earlier, but the show continues to utilize some very unique visual elements to help tell its story. This show contains lengthy periods of exposition, which is something that I'd normally consider poor form - too much "telling" rather than "showing" certainly tends to make watching something seem tedious. In this case, the production team uses these moments as an opportunity to demonstrate their most creative design tendencies. There's a scene in the second episode (I wish I could find a video clip of it, but there are none on Youtube and the show isn't streaming anywhere) in which Chitanda's memories of her uncle are presented in the form of a pop-up book; the effect is so enthralling and beautiful that I'm having a difficult time equating it with anything else I've watched lately. The show makes heavy use of filters and different animation styles during similar scenes, and while some viewers might find this to be a bit overbearing, I really enjoy seeing them.
Searching for clips of the show on Youtube has alerted me to the fact that there are a lot of people out there who find this show incredibly boring, and while I can see how that could be the case for some viewers, I'm finding that I disagree. This certainly isn't an action series, and most of the comedic content is very brief and understated. What interests me, though, is that, while the main character certainly does have almost a supernatural knack to piece together information and find solutions to the mysteries that he and the rest of the classics club encounter, there's a lot of time devoted to the fishing-out of this information. This isn't so much a "whodunit" sort of mystery as it is a procedural starring young characters, and I'm finding that aspect to be the most compelling, even considering how nice-looking the show is. This isn't for everyone, but I'm finding it very worthwhile.
- The visuals are gorgeous and manage to keep even the most brazen info-dump scenes interesting.
- The first plot arc reveals itself naturally in a way that's very compelling.
- The pacing is very reserved and there isn't much in the way of action or comedy for fans who prefer those things.
Recommended? I'm certainly onboard with the series, and would recommend it to anyone able to enjoy slower-paced dramas and mystery stories.