May 16, 2013

Anime Review: Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun

tonari1She is an introverted loner who cares only for her studies and grades. He is rambunctious, random, naïve, honest, and dangerous when he's mad. It is a clashing of two totally opposite personalities as they form hijinks and love.

Rom-com is a difficult genre to be original in. And to be honest, pitting total opposites together is an easy and frequently used tactic. It takes almost no effort to then craft humorous juxtapositions, to force your protagonists to react, decide, and change due to their world being mixed up by this alien personality. And, well, contrived or convenient or not, it does work…

Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun (sometimes titled My Little Monster, though a more direct translation would be The Monster Next Door) works well enough as a rom-com. It's fun, it's touching at times, and it's interesting seeing our little ice queen girl open up to this crazy boy. The dynamic feels contrived but still manages to be fresh, if only perhaps because the two leads are unusual archetype choices despite still being pigeon-holed personality-wise. There’s little that you’ll discover along the way that will surprise you about them and after the first episode introduction you’ll have them both mostly figured out. And yet even so, the fact that our female lead is cold but not just another tsundere makes a huge difference it seems. She’s not denying her love or herself in that cliché “it’s not like I like you or anything” way so much as she genuinely has had her mind elsewhere her entire life. She’s been obsessed with exceling academically and romance and personal relationships have just been ignored as useless towards her goals. If you’re thinking of Kare Kano (aka His and Her Circumstances) right now, well… kudos to you for at least knowing of that great series! Yes, the similarities here in the premise are there, but really the tone and the direction end up being much different. Especially when it comes to the male lead; Souichirou in Kare Kano wasn’t a total opposite like Haru is here. Furthermore, Shizuku isn’t cultivating an elaborate lie with which to build her life around all in the pursuit of adoration and praise. Her motives are far more pure: she merely wishes to focus on being really good at something, in this case school studies.

Front view of main character Shizuku walking through the city in her school uniform reading a book and not paying attention to the many amidst other walking classmates

The twist comes in that Haru, a care-free dervish of a fellow who seems to run solely on instinct and emotions, happens to be just as good (if not better when he gives an ounce of effort) at school as she does. Naturally this infuriates her, but in expected fashion he has a lot to teach her about letting go sometimes, opening up, and living a little. Like I said, it’s the unusual choice of personalities that go a long way to helping this series be a lot better than it might have been otherwise. Plus, the lack of any egregious fanservice helps, too.

While the plot is predictable it’s not your usual formulaic shoujo material either. A lot of the usual staples are skipped or twisted in favor of a more unusual sequence of events. Usually, this is due to Haru being a “wild and crazy guy!” so of course he wouldn’t follow the social norms of courtship. Like I said, it all feels contrived but nevertheless fresh enough. The characters don’t ever surprise much but they certainly feel like solid characters, which coupled with the non-standard narrative makes for a delightful little diversion. It’s just too bad that Shizuku tends to be a bit too dull and Haru’s antics somewhat fill that void but the show focuses far more on her than him.

Haru stands over Shizuku who is sitting at her desk intently reading a book and ignoring him while he hits her on the head with a school book

TnK has a somewhat interesting paper-texture style to its backgrounds, with very clean and sharply drawn characters over it. It looks quite decent, animates just fine, but it isn't ever all that impressive when compared to modern fare (mind you, it is still light-years ahead of a lot of older stuff). Music is not too bad and the voices are all just fine. Mostly it is a perfectly adequate show, production wise.

Unfortunately, the series is hamstrung by being way too short with clumsy pacing. There is a slow burn as the romance develops. It’s usually a good thing to not rush into a relationship and to let the characters grow and develop, but when you consider they have a measly thirteen episodes to work with this becomes nothing short of frustrating. Not only do we get a mostly unsatisfying ending, we also get several major threads left dangling. What's the deal with his family and why does he hate his brother so much? What will become of her friend and the store owner? And will she and this monster ever, like, get together for real? I get that there’s probably a lot more (ongoing) manga source material but that doesn’t excuse the clumsy pacing and lack of a complete story (or story arc even). I’m not saying they had to try to rush it or fit everything in but at least find a decent stopping point.

A side shot of Haru and Shizuku on the stairs overlooking the city during the evening with a gorgeous sunset on the horizon

I wanted to like TnK a lot more. It has so many little quirks and things that I actually rather liked but mostly they go underutilized. Some of the side-characters were promising, like the odd Natsume or the decently nuanced bad-boy-but-is-he Yamaken or even the shy class-president girl. The peculiar leads and the much more mature take on relationships without sacrificing fun or resorting to a lot of melodrama… oh well. In the end you’ll get yet another high-school romance with a mix of pretty good and pretty meh. A lot of its problems could be solved by a second season, but as far as I could find out there isn’t even so much as an official hint one will be made. You could certainly do a lot worse in the romance genre and hell, it’s different enough that it’s worth checking out for that alone. You might even be able to better ignore the frustrating aspects than I. Still, maybe this is one that (even without having read it myself) maybe it’s better to check out the manga instead.

As of this writing, you can watch Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun for free on Crunchyroll.

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