Dec 10, 2014

Anime Review: Nogizaka Haruka no Himitsu

Nogizaka Haruka no Himitsu title/logoTime and time again, I feel like I end up defending myself a little bit in these reviews, desperately scrounging at times to justify why I watch (to completion) and subsequently review (no small effort) so much transparently commercial otaku-bait. I get it: the anime genre itself is, on the whole, fairly niche and uniquely pandered to. Most production companies know they aren’t going to score widespread appeal and so deliberately opt to zero in on their reliable base market of late-teen-to-twenties males who already watch and, perhaps most importantly, buy anime merchandise. It’s why anime home releases are so expensive. And so it’s also little surprise you see so many clichés that never seem to die. I’ve been wallowing in the weeaboo now for about fifteen years and I’ve pretty much seen it all. There are countless samey-shows and me-too series. And yet, here I am… about to spend ~3300 words on yet another one.

Haruka and Yuuta walk together through the city on a date, Yuuta trying to find their way with a map in hand

Nogizaka Haruka no Himitsu (Haruka Nogizaka’s Secret) is another in, apparently, the long line of the otaku-fantasy genre, although given its publication date (and even adaptation air date) it might be a bit of a precursor to the others I’ve reviewed. This one, however, is… kind of a mixed bag. The premise is patently pandering to the point of being facepalmingly dumb and the execution is as limp as a yaoi wrist. It’s the kind of by-the-numbers been-there-done-that drab that you inevitably watch all of anyway in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, it gets better. For all of its good parts there are too many boring parts and way too many poorly titillating fanservice bits. NHH plays out exactly like every cliché high school rom-com ever made and it doesn't deviate in the slightest. At least the MC has a glimmer of a personality and does eventually start to mature a little, seems to possess a backbone, and manages to hold his own as he’s thrown into every. token. scene. ever. (Also, I’ve never really cared for Hatano Wataru, although he was tolerable in Papa-Kiki I guess.) But still, Yuuto is barely more than every other walking nice guy, except that he has glasses… which I guess makes him kinda like Keitarou from Love Hina. Actually, yeah, he’s exactly like Keitarou except slightly younger. (The resemblance is so uncanny actually that I’m fine with assuming that post high school Yuuto here tries to enter Tokyo University and fails to pass the entrance exam and takes up residence at his hitherto-unmentioned aunt’s old inn.)

Haruka sits with Yuuta on a park bench in the warm late afternoon light as he tries to cheer her up with a pep talk

Worse, our lead boy is flanked by trite bit players at every turn: his crude tomboy older sister, a drunkenly-affectionate “sensei”, a super-otaku BFF, a team of maids, a fang-imouto, and so on. A decade ago I would have been all over this like I was with similar fare such as Happy Lesson, but these days I’m so jaded I just grumble and take it like some sort of seasonally required moe-medicine for my terminal weeaboo disease. Speaking of, it's a bit aggravating how they treat Haruka’s anime hobby as like the worst thing ever. I know, I know, of course I would say that. But beyond the insulting factor it makes all of the "drama" seem particularly forced and silly. Not that the show bothers to linger on that much; after the initial bit it meanders around in an episodic fashion with side-stories like it has nothing better to do and the “otaku scandal” angle fades into the woodwork despite her little “secret” being in the title of the show! I’ve never seen a series be so lazy and negligent with its narrative hook! But, really, that’s just it: it’s a plot gimmick to contrive a reason for the two to meet and hang out and to that end, well… it certainly succeeds I guess. Once its usefulness is all dried up though the show leans back and rests on the haunches of time-honored clichés and developments.

Haruka smiling sheepishlyIf there is a weak point (other than dozen or so I already rapid-fire mentioned) it is probably the eponymous heroine, Haruka, who, while stereotypically cute in her ojou-sama school girl form, feels incredibly contrived, carefully designed by consensus to be an unrealistically “ideal” girl. Rich but still incredibly warm and kind, her only “faults” are token charming things like naiveté and clumsiness. Did I mention she’s also got long perfect hair, big eyes, a soft voice, and a perfectly sculpted body? And don’t you worry, the show won’t let you overlook that last fact, as she’s half-naked in every goddamn opening, never mind that she’s probably barely sixteen. I wish her design was the only problem, though. She’s also never given a chance to do much other than to placate the viewer’s (supposed) girlfriend desires. They trot her out in the first couple of episodes to hastily deliver fantasies one after the other: the surprised bump-in, the embarrassed avoiding, the late-night school adventure, the first-name basis request, the not-date-shopping-together… I think you get the idea. By the third episode she’s walking around with a giant “I am totally into Yuuto” sign that she apparently can’t read. I get that she’s supposed to be the typical sheltered rich-but-not-stuck-up girl, but… Haruka is hard to get excited about. She lacks that human quality, in fact so do most of the characters. They all feel like archetypes (because they are) without that spark of relatability spawned from convincing dialogue. Coupled with the predictable storylines it’s all just… meh.

Haruka gushes over a vendor table at a busy anime convention as Yuuta is comically left behind

But in a show that relies strongly on wish-fulfillment and propping up the main leads together, this is at best disappointing. Even the eventual romance feels clunky since other than they’re both nice, polite, and friendly to each other they don’t really have any clever banter nor even shared interests. That’s right, the MC isn’t actually an otaku at all, shockingly. (How will I identify with him now?!) If there is a silver lining, I was pleased to see that despite the show half-heartedly trying to introduce a love triangle, it never really matters too much and they don’t even end up with a lot of the typical misunderstandings or jealousy. It isn’t like they try, as even the love-triangle-to-be-girl Shiina manages to be supportive of them pretty much all of the time. Or perhaps Haruka really just is that naïve. Still, it was nice not to have to sit through the same “will she steal him?!” angst. More curious even than that is how the opening depicts them almost-kissing despite them being nothing more than nervously-flirty-at-times friends.

NHH is also eclipsed by vastly superior shows like Toradora! which not only have a very similar rom-com style, similar leads (right down to hair color), but also aired around the same time in 2008. Avid readers of my reviews (of which there are probably none) will note that I even gave Toradora! a mostly positive but reserved reviewed (unlike the sweeping praise I generally observe it receiving) and here I am using phrases like “vastly superior”. And maybe that should tell you something: if you’re in the mood for a late 2000s era rom-com maybe you should just (re-)watch Toradora! and be much better off. For all of its problems, Toradora! managed to pull off some heartfelt highs that NHH seems not to even want to attempt. Okay, maybe it just wants to be a super-fluffy rom-com… fine.

Yuuta stands stunned and embarrased, flanked by the two main Nogizaka family maids, as Haruka's little sister Mika hangs off of his back in a glomp

Allow me to back up for a moment and give a brief synopsis, not that you probably couldn’t have guessed by now. Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Lead Yuuta discovers that Haruka, the beloved “perfect girl” of his school complete with a mademoiselle-esque French nickname, is secretly a big anime nerd. Actually, she watches like basically one show, which apparently is enough to brand you as an otaku and force you to change schools. Yeah, that happens. It’s supposed to be tragic but it’s mostly just silly. Anyway, Yuuta is only barely into watching it, mostly to appease a friend, but finds himself getting thrown into things headlong as he accompanies Haruka as her sole confidant. Unsurprisingly, this effectively breaks the ice between him and the unattainable princess, making them fast (if not forced) friends and eventually becoming very close due to hanging out all of the time. His dream come true! Well, except for the fact that he doesn’t seem all that smitten with her. Yes, again, I’m baffled at the parts of the formula they did decide to change. Sure, he likes her and thinks she’s sweet and cute but he wasn’t pining away for her or anything prior to their crossing paths nor is he particularly fired up about getting to be more than friends once they are. He’s just kinda along for the ride and enjoying things casually… which means there’s zero tension and drama and little to no rom in this rom-com.

Speaking of, NHH really does harken back to a lot of the so-so rom-coms I used to watch by the truckload so… to say that I disliked it would be a lie. But I’ve matured enough in taste to at least acknowledge that this is barely average. Or maybe it is perfectly adequate, it’s hard to tell… Perhaps if I rewatched a lot of that junk from ages ago I’d be surprised at how shitty they were but my teenage rom-com-addled brain just couldn’t tell. But on the other hand, I did enjoy them at the time… and, yeah, a part of me feels right back in a sort of nostalgic comfort zone with NHH. Maybe that’s why despite being able to tear it apart like this now, I sat through all of it. Or maybe I’m just stupid and masochistic. Or maybe I’m actually a simple creature with very simple tastes.

Yuuta and Haruka listen intently to Shiina's problem as she nervously fidgets and talks

The animation quality is never impressive but it is definitely serviceable, surprisingly consistent, and it does what it can, plus it leans toward a slightly more classic style like that of early 2000s material like Comic Party, which has a bit of nostalgia factor to it for me. But it definitely won’t win any awards as it is entirely too safe and ordinary. The OP/ED are, at least, kinda neat with the Photoshop speedpaint and the mid-2000s-typical rotoscoped dance routine (think Haruhi’s first ED), respectively. Music is generic but largely unobjectionable. And the voice work…? Well, while I recognized a few, mostly they are as generic and bland as the music. Noto Mamiko does what she can with the mediocre dialogue but I know she’s capable of much more (see her star role in Kimi ni Todoke for instance, which I also already reviewed).

And yet… I dunno. As much as I am bitching it’s only really because I’ve seen so many better shows. Here’s where I start to furiously back-pedal on everything I’ve just said. In actuality, NHH is kinda alright. It never does too much wrong and it’s mildly enjoyable the whole time. Haruka is generically cute but she’s effectively (if predictably) so, the maids have a nice rapport (with one being mischievous and gravitating to the equally sneaky younger sister and the other being severe yet thoughtful), and the friendship between the two leads is nicely laid-back and genuine enough at times. Maybe it’s intentional, I can’t tell, but NHH is extremely consistent but never more than mediocre, like they were shooting for “just don’t suck”. As a result, it’s really hard to hate it so maybe that’s why it was easy enough to just keep going and finish it out despite never being surprised or wowed. And, like so many things in life, the series fares much better watching while a bit tipsy, as you’ll likely gloss over the meh bits and focus more on the vanilla cute stuff. I like the references to Evangelion with Haruka’s dad Gentou (he has the same VO and similar appearance as Shinji’s dad Gendou) and I can’t not think of Kero-chan whenever I hear Haruka’s mom talk since it’s the always delightful veteran Hisakawa Aya. I also give it bonus points for everyone having continually varied outfits (well, except for the maids). As simple and plain as it can appear sometimes, it does try to have an attention to detail with clothing and I’ll applaud them for that at least.

Mika, flashing a peace sign, and her primary maid Nanami on the ground after toppling over when the door they were listening to was suddenly opened

Aaaand that about sums up the first season.

Oh, wait… there’s an entire second season, too? Okay, here we go…

Nogizaka Haruka no Himitsu: Purezza title/logoNogizaka Haruka no Himitsu: Purezza continues right where the first season left off. I guess the subtitle is supposed to be the Italian word for pure but this continuation is anything but that. The animation quality is just slightly better, though this might just be due to Crunchyroll having season one in 480p and season two in 720p. I wish I could say something other than the animation quality has improved but in some ways this second cour is a step back. The fanservice reaches stupidly obnoxious levels, although I suppose it never gets as bad as soft-core porn series like To Love-Ru. And if the first season meandered a lot then this one is just episodic as all get-out. Seriously, Haruka — the title character!! — is barely in this it feels like.

Gendou stands dramatically in the doorway with katana directed forward as the maids and Mika eagerly watch from the edges

I dunno, I’ve already rambled a lot on the first season so I won’t as much time here. Suffice it to say that it’s a bit dumber, a bit more cringy with the fanservice (the number of times someone trips and falls into an erotic position is stupidly often), and still little to no progress in the romance territory. There’s a new maid, Alice, a little timid blonde loli that doesn’t speak much but is tasked with basically the job of “bouncer” because she’s extremely violent when called to action. There’s one good episode that focuses a bit on her but otherwise she’s relegated to being a background character, which is probably for the best. At least Yuuto and Haruka are more reliably flirty and cute together but it’s all still in the “we haven’t admitted anything” stages for the whole damn season. Despite the first season’s opening teasing a kiss and the second opening using the phrase “best couple” these two are still mostly friends and just nervously flirting a lot but never really realizing that everyone around them sees them as lovey-dovey.

Haruka waves her arms flustered as Yuuta turns red in embarassment

Oh well. You know what? It’s cute, I admit it. After so many episodes with the gang they start to grow on me, even factoring in all of the newfound dumb shit and fanservice. And it’s nice to see the two leads so nice and happy together. But… it’s still not a satisfying kiss-under-the-moonlight ending. There’s little to no pay-off here and it will leave you blue-balled but it will also deliver on some nice events at least, I guess. Mind you, it’s still just an incredibly average show but, man… I can’t hate it. It’s consistent, at least. The jokes are mildly amusing, the maids are further expanded on, and even Shiina is good enough that I’m torn a little due to the mild romantic triangle. Things are starting to feel more and more haremy though, and I don’t like that little sister Mika is increasingly lecherous but, oh well. They even spend an entire episode out of nowhere focused on a new character (a painfully cliché tsundere voiced by, you guessed it, the Queen of Tsundere Kugimiya Rie) who just basically disappears from the show after that with the exception of one brief mention late in the season.

Mika smiles as she shows Yuuta a family photo album as Haruka looks on with obvious concerned embarassment

But like I said, it’s not really an improvement or anything but it is more and if you didn’t hate the first season you’ll definitely get a second helping of the same with the second season. So don’t feel like you have to stop with just one season, I guess. The last few episodes are alright and have a slightly sweet climax but you know what’s missing amidst all of this frustratingly slow build-up? A real ending, a big crescendo of romance, their first kiss, you know… a finale.

Oh. Hey. I guess that’s where the OVA picks up, maybe?

Nogizaka Haruka no Himitsu: Finale title/logoNogizaka Haruka no Himitsu: Finale continues with their final year at high school. According to Haruka herself, she and Yuuto have now been friends for three years. What’s kinda nice is that, yeah, I do kinda feel like they’ve matured both slightly in look but also in demeanor and attitude. They’re even more at ease and natural with each other and the rest of the crazy gang. Maybe some of that is also me having stuck with them this long. I did mention they grow on you, didn’t I? Yeah.

Yuuta and Haruka walking together on a school trip, with her homemade guidebook in his hands

Speaking of three years, this OVA was released about that long after the last season. Combine its direct-to-video release with just four episodes and I’m pleased to say that the animation quality is significantly improved. Somehow the feel and the ambiance is what I’ve always wanted them to have but they never really had the budget or execution to pull it off previously. Things are just as silly and fanservice-heavy, but whatever. As much as I scoff and complain, I would be lying if I said I didn’t kinda like seeing all the panties and cleavage, even though it terribly ruins the mood and any real romantic investment. Shiina is more charming and sympathetic than ever, Haruka is still adorable enough at times, and Yuuto is feeling more and more grown up and rapidly ascending to being exactly Keitarou from Love Hina Again. Things feel nice. It looks nice. It even sounds nice, dare I even say. What the hell…

Shiina in profile, dramatically lit by the fountain and lights behind her

This time, knowing its material and chances for continuation are basically done, it finally gets its act in gear and attempts to bring some much needed closure to things, starting with the third-wheel Shiina. And damn if she isn’t just a nice girl. I’ve been saying this whole review that NHH’s attempts at a love triangle were half-hearted and mostly that’s because Shiina has always been so nice, so supportive, and so respectful of the two leads. She never resorts to true antagonism, never tries to drive a wedge between them, and is if anything friends to the both of them. She admires Haruka and she secretly loves Yuuto. She’s pure and honest and it’s impossible to hate her. But, maybe that’s also a bit of a problem… like so much in this show, the romance is entirely lacking in any tension since everyone is so damned polite and friendly. There’s like zero angst in the over two-dozen episodes. It’s so weird. Kinda refreshing, but also there’s that lack of true drama. Oh well… I’m not really sure what’s worse: going the truly cliché route or doing this kind of laidback thing.

Shiina, in hat and coat, speaks from the heart outside in the evening

I still maintain that the rom-com with the best slow-build-up and immensely satisfying endings is easily Kimagure Orange Road (maybe someday I’ll do a retrospective review of it like I did with To Heart). NHH is far from being that good but it’s still good. And this Finale? Well, it does a lot to redeem the series as a whole… was it worth the long trek, though? Hmm… it might be too little too late. I still maintain there are much better rom-coms to spend time with but, you know what? For all of the complaining I’ve done… you could do a lot worse than cozying up with Haruka and her little secret. It is safe, it is predictable, and it is uncomplicated. But it’s also easy to watch… simple, straightforward, and satisfying enough. You know exactly what you are getting and you know exactly how it will end so it’s just a matter of sitting back and enjoying the easy, familiar ride. As clumsy as it is, even it, eventually, managed to stir something in this grumpy bear’s chest.

A wide group shot of a part with most of the primary and secondary cast all at Yuuta's house before their school trip

As of this writing you can watch season one and season two for free on Crunchyroll. As for the finale OVA, you’ll have to find that elsewhere.

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