May 1, 2014

Anime Review Retrospective: To Heart

To Heart title/logoIt’s been well over a decade since I was a fairly hardcore To Heart fan. I had the whole series, the omakes, all of the soundtracks and singles, and even the making of interviews and stuff. I still have both of the official TV series art books on my bookshelf right now. I even drew fanart — yes, honest to god-awful fanart. Have I mentioned yet this was over a decade ago and I was barely out of my teens?

I’m going to try something here. I’m going to try to do a retrospective review of something I saw a long time ago and, maybe more importantly, was very fond of. I’m going to try to be as objective as I can while still being honest with my obviously still-rose-colored view of it. Because in case you don’t already know, To Heart is rather infamous in the eroge/harem world, and its appeal is more than a little polarizing. More so especially its TV animation adaptation.

Akari with her arms around Multi, both in cute summer clothes and smilingI still to this day have a huge soft spot for this series. While looking over some of the art in those books as well as on GIS, the nostalgia was drowning me. But, I’m older and wiser and I’ve seen way more shit since those days. I like to think that I can be a bit fairer about its many, many shortcomings. I’ve read highly critical reviews by folks I respect and I can’t say I totally disagree with them, either. But, just in case you’re oblivious or (more likely) a younger lad who can’t remember anything older than Naruto Clannad, let me explain the premise and characters before I go any further.

To Heart is based on a popular-for-its-time eroge that got several platform releases over the late nineties and early aughts. It spawned a bit of a following and was eventually re-released in erotic-less form which was the basis for the TV animation adaptation in 1999. (That’s right, fifteen damn years ago!) Honestly, I’m not really sure why it was ever that popular. It isn’t a remarkably good VN and it doesn’t really do anything all that special in terms of writing, plot, or characters. It’s a lot of clichés mixed with the standard high school tropes. But… it did have pretty good art. And the TV series is generally regarded even by detractors as having some great visuals for its time. Produced at the tail end of the “hand-drawn” era before everything became digital (but before they actually got good at doing all-digital animation somewhere in the last seven years), it sports a very “old-school” feel while still being very detailed.

Akari and Hiroyuki standing together on the sidewalk in winter clothes smiling up at the viewer as snow fallsThe story is a fairly standard harem with Hiroyuki as our male lead and a gaggle of diverse girls at his school. Hiroyuki is… well, bored is probably the best description of him. He’s slow moving, not an excited talker, and usually complains of being tired. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t make for a particularly good lead but he’s also not a bad guy and even has a sort of calm warmth to his interactions with the various girls. It’s comforting and subtle but rarely engaging; for the most part he’s a barely likable limp lead.

Most episodes tend to heavily condense what I imagine is the much longer route in the game for a particular girl. The majority of the show then tends to be a “girl of the week” kind of affair and unfortunately mostly they become background characters after their time in the limelight is over. This is an extremely common problem with harem game adaptations but that doesn’t make it any less lame here. It’s especially unfortunate since some of the girls aren’t too bad but they get dumped by the plot just as things get started with them.

I can’t explain it. The show is incredibly episodic with subtle hints of continuity for a long while before it sort of combines things into a semi-sweet ending. It is meandering, churns through girls with alarming speed and regularity, and its pace is at best plodding, but… it has a calm sense of stability that is boring to most but still manages to be relaxing and warm. It is slow, it is slice of life, and it is subtle. The charm is entirely in its characters and languid pace and you either (mildly) enjoy that laidback ride or you get bored extremely quickly.

Akari from the chest up in her school outfit holding her bag while brushing her hair over her earBecause there’s no dramatic climax, no big romantic d’awwplosion, or anything resembling drama really. It’s slow, subtle, and semi-sweet at best, and boring, monotonous, and bland at worst. But it does have some great quality pre-digital hand-drawn filmed animation. And it’s worth mentioning that the soundtrack is one of the best orchestral sets out there for any show. Seriously, it combines live instrumental pieces (not MIDI), with cohesive melodies that form leitmotifs and such, set the mood perfectly, and are generally just very sweet and well done. It’s still to this day one of my favorite anime soundtracks, one that can be enjoyed by anyone. “Ever Green Days” and “Yoake” are the very definition of heart-warming.

For me, I guess the massive appeal at the time was mostly my youth and ignorance of better shows, but also my strong desire for the childhood friend romance and subtle relationship building. I also really liked the style and animation and it was impressive for the time, as I already mentioned. As a result of my limited access to other things and my longing for romance, I’ve probably seen the entirety of it at least a half-dozen times.

It is a show that over the years has been easily out-classed by much better romance anime, making it impossible to recommend. But I still to this day have a huge soft-spot for Akari, damnit.

To Heart is by today’s standards a rather old show but I’m sure you can watch it someplace if you search around for it.

I know there was a sequel of sorts later in the mid 2000s but… I vaguely recall watching part of the first episode and then immediately stopping. I can’t remember anything about it anymore but it was enough to make me not want to see the rest. So, there’s that.

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