Number of Episodes: 17 (Episodes 14-17 BD-exclusive)
Production Company: Silver Link
This anime is licensed for DVD by Sentai Filmworks
Brief Overview: A group of students in the Cultural Research Club begins to experience a phenomenon in which they randomly switch bodies with one-another. This causes their friendships to be put to the test.
Episode 1 Summary: At this private school, all students are required to join an after-school club. Taichi, Iori, Himeko, Yui and Yoshifumi all have the bad luck of choosing clubs that either don't actually exist, or which have recently disbanded, so they end up grouped together in the Student Cultural Society. Though their combined interests sometimes tend to clash (as do their personalities), they've at least found a home.
One day, Yui and Yoshifumi arrive to tell the rest of the group about something strange that happened the previous night. They claim that they both woke up in the middle of the night, and realized that their minds were in each-other's bodies. The idea seems hard to believe, until Taichi and Iori experience the same phenomenon. Could this be a one-time occurrence, or are the club members doomed to repeat this transformation?
Thoughts: At times it seems that anime has an answer to just about every different story concept, so it comes as no surprise to me that there now exists what I would describe as an anime version of Freaky Friday, though given the anime-centric spin of being wholly focused on the high-school set. The characters, through their club-seeking circumstances, exist in the same place but are disparate in their interests and personalities, which creates a situation ripe for this sort of magically-enforced understanding of one-another. Though this type of body-swapping element has been used in several TV series and movies, it doesn't really bother me to see it crop up again here; it's an easy and amusing way for characters to learn about the struggles of those around them. In fact, the show's title, Kokoro Connect, does more than just suggest a connection of souls.
This specifically interests me, because it's often said that Japanese culture sometimes forces individuals to have two faces, one which is presented to the outside world and which is meant to be more agreeable and harmonious with the group mentality, and another which reflects an individual's true feelings. Called tatemae and honne, this separation has always fascinated me, since it codifies and formalizes something which I think we all experience to some extent no matter what culture we're a part of. My interpretation of the show's purpose is that these characters will become closer as they learn more about one-another's experiences, and prove that group harmony can be established even when people's fundamental differences are known and expressed. It flies contrary to what would probably be considered culturally conventional, but I think that's the point.
Of course, the first episode spends a lot of time on character introductions before introducing the magical body-swap element, and because of that it isn't exactly compelling entertainment. I probably wouldn't blame someone who saw the first episode and thought it wholly conventional, because it really is. The characters all seem to fit snugly into various archetypes and there are a couple of very obvious gags that turn out to be kind of a turnoff, including the typical "a male in a female body must fondle his/her own boobs" bit and a lesbian gag that reinforces a stereotype that homosexuals can't control themselves.
That said, I can also see potential for some interesting forays into character exploration in the future, especially with Iori. In two very brief scenes that take place while she's at home, she's shown to hide what are probably her true feelings in an effort to be agreeable to the situation, and I'm really hoping that this is expounded-upon in more detail as the show goes on. I suspect that the other characters are all harboring their own secrets as well; if this series manages to be a vehicle fore some compelling character development, then I would consider it at least somewhat successful.
Follow-up Episodes (2-7): After the initial introduction episode, things immediately begin to turn dark as the puppet master behind all the soul-swapping reveals himself, in the guise of the club advisor Mr. Gotou. He calls himself "Heartseed," and explains that all this mischief is merely for his own amusement, the protests of the group falling on his intentionally deaf ears. Things get awkward as Taichi in particular learns about some of the other group members' internal emotional trauma, and eventually they're all faced with the possibility that one of the members might die as a result of Heartseed's whims. Just when everyone seems to think that their body-swapping experience is over, the second round begins; Heartseed causes the group members' innermost desires to be outwardly reflected in their actions, many times dramatically and in embarrassing, harmful ways.
There are several things about this series that become apparent after several episodes, and not all of them positive. For one thing, I wouldn't hesitate to call it unbalanced; the juggling of both humorous and dark elements, as well as an indecisiveness surrounding the overall tone, can sometimes (ironically) make it difficult to connect with the show's emotional component. There are times when it seems as if the series is going for pure melodrama (the fifth episode, in which one of the characters ends up in the hospital is a good example), and there are others where it appears to have a much better understanding of the way in which most people actually experience emotions. It makes a lot of the content difficult to criticize, because when it's good it can be very good, but when it misses the mark it can be painful and frustrating to wrestle with.
I will admit beforehand that this particular story element was pointed out to me beforehand by a commenter several weeks ago, so I was able to prepare for it a bit better than I would have otherwise, but the resolution of the third episode is something I find largely problematic. During the episode, Yui admits to having been nearly raped in the past, an incident which has subsequently left her fearful of men ("androphobic" according to the show. Is that actually a thing, or just an overly-simplistic anime plot device?). She's a karate expert, but still reels from the fact that she was unable to defend herself against her attacker and just barely escaped. Taichi takes Yui aside one night (while both are in the other's body) and teaches her a foolproof method of fending off any man - kicking them in the balls. After letting loose with a kick, experiencing the pain, and swapping back into their own bodies, Yui seems cured of her androphobia.
The real problem I have with this is that the situation is dangerously simplistic when compared to real-life examples of sexual assault. Suggesting that rape-prevention can be boiled down to committing a violent physical act against one's attacker is downright disgusting and puts the responsibility of stopping the attack on the person being victimized, which only reinforces our victim-blaming rape culture. This tactic also assumes that someone who's being raped would have the presence of mind and the physical ability to let loose with such a specific attack move, which doesn't take into account the paralyzing fear that accompanies sexual assault and the difference in physical power that exists in many cases. And to then suggest that the effects of a trauma this deep could simply melt away after one therapeutic act of violence (and to be clear, I watched several more episodes to see if this was addressed again in any capacity and it really wasn't) is just irresponsible and diminishes the situation of real-life victims. I think it might be tempting to say that exploration of this specific type of emotional trauma isn't the focus of the series, but then, what is? And why choose something so specific and so raw as a story element if unwilling to apply it responsibly? This has become a real thorn in my side, and if this had happened in the first episode I probably would have stopped watching.
There are other moments, though, where little rays of truth break out from within the teen melodrama, and these help to rescue the show from some of its deeper problems. As I sort of expected, Iori's story became the most interesting to me because of her struggle to find her own identity when so much of her past was spent forming herself to the expectations of others out of self-defense. I think that any of us who have been in a toxic relationship, romantic, familial or otherwise, can sympathize with the experience of coming out the other side and being unable to remember just who we are as a singular entity, especially when compounded with the fact that adolescence is a time during which we often have to fight to discover our true selves anyway. Likewise, Himeko's struggle with the fact that she has no real past trauma to explain her lack of trust in others also feels based in some place of truth. The only characters I'm really having problems relating to are the guys; Yoshifumi still seems too much like the goofy comedic sidekick to me, and Taichi, despite being the primary point-of-view character, hasn't received enough development in my opinion. His emotional stoicism and propensity towards selflessness is brought up several times but never really addressed to my liking. Perhaps this is something that happens later on.
This is kind of a complicated series to enjoy, and the first couple of episodes provide several opportunities for viewers to throw up their hands in frustration. I wouldn't blame anyone who wanted to stop watching it, honestly. In spite of that I still find the series to be kind of a curiosity, and I'm interested to know whether it does manage to fall more on the side of emotional truthfulness as more of the story unfolds. Despite some ill-placed ecchi gags and an occasional sis-con gag involving Taichi and his sister, I think its heart is fundamentally in the right place even if its manner of addressing some issues certainly isn't. It is, at the very least, not just another teen love comedy.
- The follow-up episodes do a good job of fleshing-out the core concepts and making one forget about some of the goofier gags and ecchi jokes in the first episode.
- Some of the characters' stories ring very true to real-life.
- The way the show addresses sexual assault is truly lacking in many ways.
- There are times when the plot is too melodramatic.
- The primary character doesn't receive enough development.
Recommended? I would recommend this with the caveat that it has some major problems that would turn off specific groups of people. I found myself alternating between feeling moved and feeling emotionally thwarted, but I think that there are some positive aspects that make it at least work a look, assuming that interested viewers are able to largely ignore the blandness of the first episode and the fundamentally insulting nature of the third.