Nov 26, 2012

Anime Review: Kokoro Connect

Kokoro Connect title/logoWhat if, randomly, you and your friends suddenly began to switch minds? One moment you were you, another moment you were in the body of your friend and they in yours. What if you and your friends had sudden flashes of no self-restraint, and your secret desires and urges suddenly came rushing forth without you able to stop yourself? How would all of this affect your lives, your psyches, your relationships?

Kokoro Connect is an ingenious little series that takes the above premise and cleverly uses it to tell a very dramatic and moving story of five friends. One day they are just normal pals in a little student club of their own making, the next they begin experiencing the mind swapping. A mysterious being, who can at any time inhabit their bodies or, more usually, that of their home room teacher, reveals itself as the one causing these strange phenomenon. It is this science fiction element that quite literally gives the story the creative license to pull off some amazingly dramatic highs.

The main cast of Kokoro Connect sitting at a table in their club room

Because think about it: suddenly your body at any time can be controlled by one of your friends. Trust becomes more valuable than gold, because any one of them could do something to ruin the reputation of another, beyond simple mistakes like entering the boy’s restroom out of habit despite being in a girl’s body at the time. Plus, secrets, home life, and one’s past are no longer kept passively hidden. Now at any time your privacy could be revealed to a friend. Everyone is already on edge dealing with this phenomenon, they aren’t mentally prepared for the rest.

It is genius, really. When critiquing works of fiction, it’s common to complain of contrived drama and circumstances. We want our stories to feel real and organic. The irony is, of course, that being works of fiction means they are 100% contrived by an author and we know it. But we don’t want to be reminded of that while experiencing it! Furthermore, most dramas struggle with this problem. How to make interesting and larger-than-life moments and situations feel plausible and real? They aren’t, because it is fiction, but they also aren’t because they are way more sensational and exciting than real life ever actually is. After all, we don’t read about or watch boring normal folks. There’s always something special and stupendous about it that makes it worth experiencing, right? That seems to directly conflict with our desire for it to be believable.

Kokoro Connect basically solves this problem by, ironically, contriving of the sci-fi element. By having a mysterious being cause these strange mind-swaps and uncontrollable urges, he is like an author pulling the strings and creating tension, drama, and pushing them to extremes. Why does he do this? Time and time again, his answer remains the same: to make things interesting.

Isn’t that exactly what we, the viewers, demand and desire, too? I did say this show was quite clever!

But a lot of that theorizing is not necessary to enjoy the show. In fact, the sci-fi element is underutilized, in my opinion. True, it is a sort of MacGuffin that drives the overarching plot, but the real core of it all is the characters. This is a drama, after all, and overwhelmingly they focus on them, their feelings, their relationships, and how they get through this crazy and tumultuous time together.

And it is a hell of a ride.

The screenplay and directing is extremely good, way beyond most anime and even a lot of live action stuff. In fact, it may be too good. Things are always so dramatic, so often, as each episode keeps trying to take things further, that reality starts to feel left behind. Nobody talks like this, has these kinds of amazing insightful epiphanies, discussions, or fights. It’s so perfect and well done and the lines are too good, it’s impossible to actually happen like this!

But, really, that’s about the worst I could say of this, that the writing and dialogue is so good it’s unbelievable at the same time. Perhaps the later episodes, too, aren’t quite as strong as the earlier stuff, but that may just be because it lacks the same sense of mystery and suspense now that the characters are more accustomed to the phenomenon. That and the mind-swapping is the more interesting of the three phenomenon that will occur.

The backs of Taichi and Iori as they sit before a city river in the golden afternoon light

Animation is pretty damn good, with nice use of color and contrast, really good cinematography and visual layout. Backgrounds are very crisp and detailed without being so good they are sterile like some of PA Works’ stuff. Characters have realistic hair colors and so on and aren’t overly cutesy, either. The actual quality of the character drawings can be dodgy at times, but the show more than makes up for it in all other aspects and it is never bad enough to pull you out of the moment. The music is also above average and the sound work is used to very good effect, especially the timing during the next-episode previews. And veteran voice actress Miyuki Sawashiro gives an incredible and moving performance as Inaba, who is by far the most interesting and standout of the bunch.

As a character-driven show, they’ve done a stupendous job to avoid archetypes and create real and nuanced people. Sure, they sort of seem to fit some stereotypes at first, but they quickly reveal a lot of distinction, which is important both for interesting characters but also important because they are so frequently swapping minds and bodies. I promise by the end you will feel incredibly attached to these well-fleshed out folks.

If there is another big complaint to be had it is the length. A half-season of thirteen episodes is just not enough. The story keeps good pacing and is broken into several mostly self-contained major arcs, no doubt based on distinct novels in the original series. But it didn’t surprise me to find out that the novels are still ongoing and that this barely covers the first few. Four more episodes, comprising of another separate major arc (and novel), are due next April or so with the home video releases. They will be quite a welcome addition though I doubt they will really be able to resolve much, given that another five novels follow and the author isn’t done yet.

Still, these are all barely nitpicks. This was the best little soap opera I’d seen in a long time. If you like character driven dramas, or hell you just like really good human stories, do give this a shot. It’s really good!

As of this writing, you can watch Kokoro Connect for free on Crunchyroll.

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