Ao Haru Ride – 12 (Fin)

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You’ll probably call me naive or even masochistic for holding out hope someone would confess to someone in this final episode, but I still steeled myself to expect a phone ringing before Futaba could get the words out after that excruciating pause. The interruption turns out to be her stomach growling.

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While that’s pretty dang disappointing, it’s not the end of the world; in fact, it’s probably a good thing: Futaba only just opened up that door; shoving a confession in there on the same night is a bit much. Opening the door at all is still a huge victory for Futaba, who hints to Kou that his brother might need to be told he doesn’t resent him for being away when their mom was sick.

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That leads to a really great scene with the Tanaka men all under the same roof eating dinner together like a family for the first time in who knows how long. With Futaba’s cool rushing-to-the-rescue expression and words of encouragement still ringing in his head, Kou takes small first steps to reconnecting with his brother and dad.

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So now Futaba and Kou’s friendship has deepened and maybe started turning towards something more, so it’s a shame there are no more episodes to see how that goes. As if to acknowledge things aren’t quite the same, the two act very self-conscious and shy around each other, unsure of how to act after all that hugging. But Kou shows again how much of an effect Futaba had on him by agreeing to take the study groups seriously, resulting in him scoring higher than the other four.

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Summer arrives, and with it comes a concerted effort by the show to set up a potential second season, what with the Tanaka/Shuuko/Aya triangle being reestablished, Yuuri reiterating to Futaba her intention to court Kou, and another shot of that random kid Futaba accidentally groped. I know of no firm plans for such a season, but I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to another Blue Spring Ride.

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Ao Haru Ride – 11

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Not sure what this exchange was all about, but I warn you, show: I’m in no mood for new characters!

Most of the first half of this episode expounds upon the daily grief, emptiness, and hesitation to care that Kou has felt every waking day since losing his mother. The manner in which he lost her: very slowly; while he was mostly alone with her; while working so hard to get good grades and a good job that he didn’t spend as much time with her while she was healthy; that he didn’t even catch signs that she might not be well, even though he was doing everything for her; that his brother told him to look after mom, and he failed.

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These are the reasons Kou is the way he is, and the reasons he changed so much from the boy Futaba fell for in middle school. And for once, the show comes up with a metaphor for us: it isn’t so much how Futaba puts it: that the door to his heart is closed and double-locked, it’s that the door doesn’t have a doorknob or keyhole. He’s not just keeping people like Futaba and his new friends out; he’s trapped inside, and doesn’t know the way out of there.

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Doorknob, lock, or no, Futaba is determined to break through that door no matter what, not just to let herself in, but to bust him out of the emotional prison he inadvertently built. Futaba is more determined than she’s ever been, to the point that Yuuri doesn’t really seem to have that much of a chance. She may know about Kou’s grief, but when push comes to shove she didn’t have the guts to do what Futaba does, descend upon him like a storm that will blow the door to his heart open.

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As clouds gather in the sky, it takes grabbing Kou, falling upon him, and embracing him tightly, as well as finding the right words to convince him, but Futaba seems to finally make some progress, giving Kou the “permission” he’d always been seeking to feel for someone or something again. That no hole in his heart can’t be filled, even if it takes more than one, or dozens, or hundreds of smaller things to fill it. It isn’t going to be easy, but Futaba is there to stand with and support him in the gradual but necessary process of forgiving himself and moving forward.

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Ao Haru Ride – 10

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No one likes being left out, especially when it involves two people you’d rather not be together alone, as Kou and Yuuri are to Futaba. The fact that the same weird vibe is coming off them, and they make the same pause before assuring her “it’s nothing”, only make her more suspicious about it being not nothing, which it isn’t.

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“It”, in fact, is the very thing Futaba wanted to know: more about Kou. She didn’t know his mom died, and the shrine is what he showed Yuuri (Yuuri later confesses she was glad she knew something about Kou Futaba didn’t). When Futaba learns what it was, she feels like a selfish, awful person for needing everything to be about her feelings. That leads to tears that Kou can’t help but dry, and they come the closest yet to a kiss before Tanaka pops into the kitchen, ruining everything.

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Kou has to go out for his job, so Tanaka takes Futaba home, and getting the feeling she’s someone who wants to know, he’s very generous in filling in some of the blanks in regard to how the present Kou came about from the one she knew, as well as why Kou is cold towards his older brother. Basically, Tanaka was busy teaching his first year of school, leaving the younger Kou alone in the hospital to sit by their mom as she slowly died.

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Kou bore the brunt of the full force of slowly, steadily losing someone he loved before his eyes, while Tanaka only got the odd glance, busy as he was. That experience made Kou who he is today: someone reluctant to make friends; to get too close; to fall in love again. As much as he may care for Futaba, part of him is paralyzed by that fear: that if he tries to care about something again too much, he’ll lose it.

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Futaba has made it pretty clear: she wants to be with him. She lost him once, and doesn’t want to lose him again. She also sees through his cold act to the kindness he’s always had, which Tanaka confirms. Futaba’s challenge is to get him to believe it’s alright to open up and get close again; that happiness is worth some degree of risk. That won’t be easy, especially with a still determined Yuuri also gunning for him.

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Ao Haru Ride – 09

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“Ya got a little schmutz…”

Futaba’s quest to figure out Kou continues, but she’s having trouble finding a way in. She tries to get him to notice her with makeup, and he does, but he rubs it off her lips and knocks it as “not suiting her.” Nine episodes in, and the guy is still playing his cards close. But he has lots of eyes on him now: the circle of friends forged from that day in the classroom.

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Keep it together…

Opportunity presents itself when Shuuko happens to catch her beloved Tanaka-sensei admonishing Kou on the stairs about his subpar midterm grades. Kou, for his part, is willful, threatening to quit school if his grades aren’t good enough to advance, then laughing it off as a joke. For this, Shuuko labels Kou a brat, and rightly so. Futaba sees it as an in: study session!

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“What’s this “lightly salted” bullshit? Where my Consommé at?!”

She’s not the only one interested: Aya defends Kou valiantly against shit-talking advanced class members, but rather than thank the guy who had his back, he asks why he did that, like an idiot. At this point Kou better do or say something mildly redemptive, because Futaba and Yuuri are starting to look like fools themselves for being so into this guy.

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“H-h-h-hey!”

But they can’t help that, and while Futaba takes a low-key approach to interacting with Kou at the study session in his room, Yuuri, feeling like she’s being left behind, takes the initiative, getting Kou alone, and spending a moment with him we only see the beginning and end of, but not the middle.

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“What’s going on in there…”

More likely than not, it was a wordless moment, so both Kou and Yuuri can tell Futaba “nothing at all” happened…but it was still a moment. I gotta say, I can’t yet endorse Yuuri’s taste in guys, but she comported herself well this week. If Futaba knows what’s good for her, she’d better not let her guard down!

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Ao Haru Ride – 08

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“Today, no matter, what, I will definitely, definitely tell Yuuri properly!” As soon as Futaba said this, we were convinced she’d lose her nerve when it came down to it, a fear reinforced when two seconds later she says “I bet I’ll still lose my nerve when it comes down to it.” The odds of her telling Yuuri drop even more when Yuuri, unaware of the hammer Futaba’s trying to bring down on her, invites Shuuko to join them for ¥100 donuts.

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Prove me wrong, I said to the anime I like to think is based on one of Nozaki-kun’s shoujo manga: show me you can move forward and resolve this shit.” And what do you know, Ao Haru Ride answered the challenge. Even with Shuuko around and Yuuri going on about Kou, Futaba still gets it out; gets it all out, in the first five minutes of the episode. That was as welcome and refreshing as a cold shower on a searing summer day (though we’ve had precious few of those round these parts.)

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And wouldn’t you know it, Yuuri takes it extremely well…at first. Her immediate reactions involve saying “You too?”; noting how she’s not surprised, as Kou’s so totally hot and all; and acknowledging she’s at a disadvantage since Futaba’s closer to him. Then she goes to the bathroom and we get the first of two instances of characters crying for multiple reasons (Futaba’s the other, later on). One could say Yuuri is crying because her friend loves the same guy as her, which means she could potentially lose of them.

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But she’s also crying because Futaba obviously went through hell getting those words out, but she did. As Futaba thinks to herself earlier, this is the crux of her growth as a person: no longer “friends in name only” with anyone, she’s allowed to say what she wants, and in this case, needs to say. She wants to be honest, even if it could create conflict. Having friends you care about opens you up to hurting and being hurt, but the rewards are immeasurable.

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Witnessing a genuine exchange between two friends who love each other has a significant effect on Shuuko, who only tagged along because Yuuri asked her too and she had nothing else to do. What’s amazing about this first act is that this is the first time Shuuko is hanging out with people after school since she started high school. Far from fearing socializing is always this intense, she realizes what she’s been missing out on.

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It’s the perfect environment for her to get something off her own chest: that she’s in love with Tanaka-sensei. Futaba’s utter shock at this confession serves as proof Yuuri never spilled the beans, which comforts Shuuko further. When Aya passes by and happens to spot Shuuko hanging out with friends—and enjoying it—it puts a spring in his step and a tune to hum. He’s happy for her, as are we.

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One of Futaba’s best expressions yet: the “yeah I’m stalking you deal with it” look!

Yikes, I’ve only covered half the episode! That’s not to say the other half isn’t interesting, because it was, but it didn’t have quite the cathartic, warm-and-fuzzy power of the first. That could be because after running into Kou by chance, who is playing with the stray black cat, then says he won’t adopt it because “caring for things brings a lot of trouble” in the most obnoxious angsty way possible, Futaba decides to spend the rest of the night stalking him!

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This is why I like to think Nozaki-kun wrote this manga. He truly understands girls’ hearts, and in shoujo, if you like a guy and stalk him, he’ll eventually like you too! I kid, I kid…sort of. But really, if he doesn’t want Futaba following him he could be more forceful about it, but he’s very wishy-washy about it, and by the end puts on the air of a protector by lecturing her on the risk of being assaulted by going out in the night alone, culminating in the closest they’ve come to a kiss.

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Perhaps its because he was genuinely worried that Futaba would do that to try to get closer to him that he was cross with her. But at least Futaba isn’t just hiding in her head and actually trying to act on her feelings. As Shuuko so eloquently puts it, it’s ultimately up to Kou to decide between Futaba and Yuuri, or to reject them both. But if he has feelings for Futaba (and let’s face it, he does), then he shouldn’t be allowed to get away with toying with her much more.

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Stray Observations:

  • Komatsu Mikako is doing great understated work as Shuuko; her laugh sounds like the first laugh she’s laughed in years.
  • Come to think of it, Uchida Maaya is also showing she can handle non-chuunibyou dialogue with the best of ’em.
  • Aw, why not? Kudos to Kaji Yuki, while we’re at it. No one does sensitive/whiny angst like Yuki. This is Hope we’re talking about, after all.
  • Steelers? C’mon, animators. Surely you can think of a better team to slap on Kou’s t-shirt.

Ao Haru Ride – 07

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If you think this episode felt like stalling or a staving off of Futaba’s upcoming confrontation Yuuri, then this is the wrong show for you. Good shoujo anime often delve deep into the heads of their heroines and make their inner dialogue an interesting and crucial part of the story. What actually happens almost becomes secondary to how the heroine arrived at what to do or say.

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Ao Haru Ride succeeds in making Futaba wrestling with what to do, as it becomes more and more apparent what she must do, an pleasantly entertaining affair. Sure, there are times when it seems she’s going around in circles, but that repetition is helpful to her eventual understanding that she may not be able to love Kou and be Yuuri’s “precious friend.” Her procrastination helps her arrive at this conclusion.

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A good shoujo anime also tries to minimize the utilization of pure dumb luck and coincidence in the heroine’s dealings, or at least tries be subtle about it. But there was nothing subtle about Futaba’s “chance encounter” with her former friend Yumi, who in middle school was in the exact situation Futaba finds herself in now, thus serving as a very convenient cautionary tale.

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What works better is the fact that Yumi’s presence allows us more backstory that deepens our understanding of how Futaba came to be a tomboy in high school. She was once as passive and cute and docile as Yuuri continues to be, but she surrendered when things got tough, and is only now trying to figure out who she is. Yuuri, meanwhile, remains committed to being herself, no matter the social cost.

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Futaba hoists Yuuri upon a pedestal all this time, while her interactions with Kou this week demonstrate that her cute vulnerable girly side is far from gone, and Kou seems to bring it out without trying, even leading her to be self-conscious about her bag and change her shampoo. She’s worried Kou doesn’t see her as a girl…but if he loves her, who cares how he sees her?

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The main issue here is that no matter how loving and kind and sweet and forgiving Yuuri is, Futaba won’t know how she will react to the news she also likes Kou, and furthermore liked him first (though I’m not sure she’ll elaborate). And the harsh truth is, losing her as a friend is a possibility, though not a certainty. What is certain is that she has to tell her. Now she knows that without a doubt.

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Ao Haru Ride – 06

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When Futaba learned that Yuuri liked Kou, it could have been a simple matter of her telling her she likes him too, so of course Futaba lies and says she doesn’t, and everything Yuuri says and does thereafter makes it that much harder for her to recant her statement. Yuuri trusted her, so now the truth will hurt Yuuri and damage that trust, instead of just the former.

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But by lying to Yuuri, Futaba is lying to herself too; something she realizes by the episode’s highly charged ending. Futaba decided to consider whether she actually loved Kou, or was simply charmed by his sparingly-used nice side. She strives to devalue her feelings for Kou compared to Yuuri’s, even though it’s far more likely the opposite is true. It seems to me that Yuuri is the one letting one instance of Kou being nice balloon into infatuation.

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Futaba’s doubts are supported when she has trouble with Kou trivia, but Yuuri knows even less about him, and has no history with him. Not to devalue the strength of Yuuri’s feelings, but from our perspective, Futaba was first, and has just as much right to love Kou as she does. We also don’t see Kou choosing Yuuri over Futaba…not even as a cruel joke.

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Of course, I’m talking about sense and logic, concepts unknown to teenagers with love on the brain. Futaba wants to love Kou, but it makes her feel like crap because of Yuuri. It’s an unenviable position, and she tries to let fate and circumstance choose for her, with Kou himself as the game piece. The result is satisfying because as inevitable as the couple seems, in this instance it really could have gone either way.

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Kou surprises her when he sticks around after she turns in the paperwork, and even when she takes the ridiculous step of deciding to give up on Kou if he doesn’t get out of the train and not giving up if he does, Kou stays right there, by her side, a fairly arbitrary test! Yet, it’s as if he’s just naturally drawn to her, and picking up on what he said, it would be “unnatural” for them to be apart. At the end of the day, she wanted him to step out of that train—to pick her—and he did. So, as Futaba says in her head: Sorry, Yuuri.

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Ao Haru Ride – 05

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Futaba’s team may not have been the most organized or cohesive on the orienteering trip, and they ended up dead last after getting lost, but they did end up sharing happy memories they’ll look back on with fondness, which was precisely what Futaba had hoped for, and which Kou expounded on in the meeting last week.

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Sometimes it’s better if things don’t go so smoothly. Had the Aya not ignored Futaba’s insistence they consult the map, they wouldn’t have gotten lost and had adventures, which included Kou carrying her after she hurt her foot. Futaba also learns a bit more about the new Kou: hates celery, likes cats, superficially teases, is a nice guy deep down.

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While she liked the old Kou, the new one is definitely starting to grow on her, now that she has him a little more figured out…and vice versa. Of course, Kou is also nice to Yuuri, calming her down so she can cross the river, and there’s a cost to that, at least where Futaba is concerned: Yuuri, unaware of Futaba’s feelings for Kou, thinks she’s fallen for him. Dun dun duuuuunnnnn!

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Futaba and Yuuri formed a fast friendship, but no one said that friendship would be easy to maintain. After all, Yuuri is shunned by other girls at school because she’s so cute and girly, attracting the guys. She and Futaba promised never to leave the other alone, both knowing what it feels like. Yuuri and Futaba both liking Kou will put their promise to the test.

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Ao Haru Ride – 04

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The leadership training retreat turns out to be something of a comedy of errors right from the start, but leaving her bag at his place and getting on the wrong train does result in Futaba and Kou spending more time alone together than they otherwise might have. Futaba also gets to see (and feel) Kou shirtless. But they end up being so late to the retreat that they have to write formal apologies.

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They also end up alienating two-thirds of the other three members of their group. Murao and Kou do not get along in their first encounter, Kominato takes her side and leaves with her, but not before taking Yuuri’s cupcake, revealing her dark side. The group is in tatters, which doesn’t speak well for the leadership skills of the reps. Then again, this is training; you don’t just hop on a bike and start riding; you have to skin a couple of knees.

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The thing is, Kou and Futaba are generally quite nice to one another throughout the episode, culminating in a very nicely-staged scene at night where Kou puts his head down on the table opposite Futaba’s, and they both end up turning to face one another. This is while Kou is, in spite of the devil-may-care attitude he tries to maintain, going out of his way to say nice things about her.

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They’ve rarely if ever been as close as they are here, but as lovely a moment it is while it lasts, it’s a bit premature, as Kou isn’t ready to admit how he feels about Futaba; not ready enough to be at the point where she’s nuzzling up to him. It’s panic and his long-honed defenses kicking in at the worst moment; he throws barbs her way, and she gets pissed. It’s a lasting pissed-ness, one the others can’t help but notice.

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Futaba and Kou act very much like an old couple locked into a familiar battle. Futaba snaps out of the funk on her own, realizing that it isn’t that she doesn’t love the New Kou, it’s that she still has a lot of work to do in getting to know him, as well as continuing to improve herself. Which is why it almost seems like we’re going to be subjected to a cliched gut-punch when she goes to make up with Kou and spots him smiling at a girl apparently confessing to him.

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That doesn’t happen, thankfully. Instead, there’s a twist: Futaba somehow thought two third-year boys were trees or something, and ended up clinging to them long enough that they thought she wanted to confess to them. But yet again, Kou steps up to rescue her, even going so far as to tell them she’s his girlfriend. She also starts to suspect that she may love Kou after all, since whatever he says to her affects her deeply and lastingly. He’s under her skin, and she’s pretty much under his too—why else would he keep finding ways to be with her?

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It’s weird watching a rom-com that satirizes shoujo (GSNK) right beside the very kind shoujo anime it enjoys satirizing. Ao Haru Ride has its share of funny moments, but they’re never ironic commentary on the genre the show inhabits. It’s playing things straight and sticking with the fundamentals, which is fine with me.

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Stray Observations:

ahr46Part of Murao’s hostility towards Kou stems from the fact she’s infatuated with his older brother, whom she gets alone and tries to make a move on but is rejected, not for the first time. Falling for a teacher who isn’t going to cross that line…not a pleasant position to be in.

Ao Haru Ride – 03

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As her sophomore year begins, Futaba has pledged to start over; building everything she’d lost all over again, and maybe gaining more than she ever had before. On one level, that means making new friends on more than just a surface level. On the other, it means continuing to chip away at Kou’s armor, worrying less about who he was and learning more about who he is now.

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Before that though, we see a flashback of how she and Kou used to make eye-contact, both “fumbling through” in sixth grade, but fumbling together nonetheless. Even present Kou can’t escape the past early in the episode, as his older brother, a teacher at the school, remembers Kou writing Futaba’s name at his desk one night.

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It all works in both their favors, though, as Kou is forced to lead Futaba away by her hand. Futaba jumps the gun with too many questions at once, but Kou makes her cry by being too harsh, and has to apologize. He also apologizes for not meeting her at the festival years ago. Right now Kou’s cold and warm sides are fighting each other. Futaba sees it too, and she wants in. She’s here for him. Will he let her in?

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Meantime, Futaba also sees to another goal—rebuilding her shattered social life—by trying to set the right “atmosphere” in her new class, which consists not only of Yuuri, but Kou as well; in fact, Kou’s easygoing, almost practiced attitude in interacting with people inspires Futaba to do the same. Funny then, that she manages to make Yuuri look good, but rumors of her dealings with her old friends earn her the “scary delinquent” label. High school. It’s brutal.

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One day in, and Futaba is frustrated and depressed. Enter Kou once more, who tells her in his cryptic, pretending-not-to-be-interested way not to give up, and “do what she wants,” because despite her notion that everything has “started” (and has somehow sputtered) in reality, nothing’s started yet. Futaba starts something by volunteering to be class rep. Kou joins as the male rep; Yuuri and newcomers Aya and Shuuko as event reps. And just like that, Futaba has built a nice-looking circle of (potential) friends. Now she’s getting somewhere.

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Ao Haru Ride – 02

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When I think back on it, this show’s first episode had its protagonist in a very dark place. Of course, high school can be a dark place for a sizable chunk of youths; a place where you compromise and do what you have to do to just get through it; where you take advice given years ago about “always getting along with your friends” and you make that happen at any cost, because the alternative is being all alone.

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In other words, it’s a pact you make with yourself, and it’s a pact we thought Futaba would continue to honor for some time, both much to our chagrin and, evidently to Mabuchi’s as well. While he’s still hard to read, his words to Futaba about Asumi and Chie being “friends in name only” created a small fissure in the “High School Armor” she’d spent so much time and effort polishing; getting lost in its sheen and forgetting important things like emotional connections and trust.

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Those cracks spread when Futaba finds Makita—a girl who acts all cutesy around guys like she used to and pays for it by having to eat outside in the cold, alone—to have a perfectly reasonable explanation for why she acts the way she does—because that’s just who she is. She’d rather bear the petty ire of her peers than cease being her natural self. She doesn’t deserve the treatment she’s getting, but no one said high school was fair.

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That’s when Futaba, with her now badly-cracked armor, sits down with Asumi and Chie, and she suddenly can’t suffer any more bile directed at Makita. The real Futaba bursts out of the tatters of that false armor, giving her “friends” a thorough piece of her mind, thereby losing them in the process. But good riddance: real friends should be able to be themselves around one another. Futaba couldn’t be that around them, so they weren’t meant to be friends.

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She realizes this too, so it doesn’t hurt much when her relationship with the other two girls is officially rescinded. But while she lost those two vapid gossips, she gained a lot more: the respect, attention, and even affection of Mabuchi Kou (who she finally starts calling “Kou” rather than Tanaka, since that’s his name now), a new, real friend in Makita…and our regard as well. I gotta say; girl did good this week. I’m glad Kou realized that too, giving her a cute hug through the window, shielding her teary-eyed face from passersby.

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Her gesture to cast away the artifice of “getting along at any cost” and its fallout may have been modest in the grand scheme of things, but right here and now, in the jungles of high school, it was a significant, life-altering achievement. And no doubt Mabuchi was a catalyst for that change, whether he intended to be or not. I’m now hopeful there’s something about him that she can fix…no need to keep things one-sided!

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Ao Haru Ride – 01

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Futaba and Tanaka were both quiet, shy, unassuming middle school students. Then Futaba assumed that Tanaka would show up for their date after she yelled “I hate all guys!” in the hallway. He didn’t, then suddenly moved away, because of HER his parents moved. Even though nothing ever came of it, Futaba maintains Tanaka was her first love.

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Fast-forward to non-watercolor present, where Futaba is in the third term of her first year of high school. Little does she know her beloved Tanaka is not only there, but has been all year; he’s just not “Tanaka” anymore, having recently escaped from a secret lab that experimented on him with drugs and implants changed his name to Mabuchi after his parents divorced.

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He’s also taller and hunkier, which is one reason why Futaba never noticed him until the third term. Another big reason is that she wasn’t looking for him, and she was too busy reinventing her personality to fit in with her peers. When she was cute and girly, she got dumped on, so now she maintains a tomboyish persona so as not to offend anyone and risk their ire.

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It’s served her well, but it still seems like a goofy performance she shouldn’t have to force herself to do, let alone get used to, to the point when she can no longer separate who she is from who she’s pretending to be. And while she just noticed Futaba, he’s known she was there all along, and while he feigns indifference, he seems to disapprove of what’s she’s doing.

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While we know a lot less about what makes Mabuchi tick, it’s clear he made some changes of his own, ostensibly to fit in better with his peers. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was caught off guard by her hopeful, excited reaction to finding out he was “Tanaka.” His cold attitude could be more a sign of fluster and frustration it took this long than genuine acrimony.

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The road ahead for these two looks rather rocky; with Mabuchi making some very definitive statements like “that was in the past” right out of the gate. The fact of the matter is, Futaba’s pleasant, if somewhat forced, high school life has been upheaved, and I’m sure the more attention she pays to a guy instead of stuffing her face like a clown, the more she’ll see who among the girls is really her friend and who isn’t (hint: probably not a lot of them.)

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Is this a ride worth staying on? Too early to say. There were some decent moments of comedy and teen drama. It’s certainly very pretty, and the character designs are appealing (as long as you’re not weirded out by everyone’s very round, expressive eyes). But this is a jam-packed Summer season. Both this and Glasslip were serviceable but not outstanding. And between Kimi ni Todoke and Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun, I’ve already watched my fair share of above-average rom-coms that enjoyed better starts. So we’ll see.

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