Saenai Heroine no Sodatekata – 02

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Aki Tomoya is in a tough spot. He finds himself at a cafe with the girl who inspired him to finally start his grand dream of creating the ultimate dating sim, but while just about everything about Kato Megumi is perfectly fine, he is confounded by her utter lack of presence. The camera continues to be shy with her, focusing on just about anything but her, while her seiyu Yasuno Kiyono gives her a soft, measured wisp of a voice.

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Kato is utterly unremarkable, but so utterly unremarkable that an incredulous Tomoya simply can’t stop obsessing about her. But while she doesn’t have braids, glasses, or freckles like Tomoya’s fantasy, what’s so great about Kato’s character is that she’s really not as “normal” as Tomoya deems her to be; otherwise, she wouldn’t react so calmly to his many outbursts at the cafe. Dare I call her…meta-moe? Para-moe? A more attractive Ann Veal?

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Kato even assumes Tomoya is dating Eriri or Utaha (or both), since she sees them both through the window, looking none too pleased. They’re even more outraged to find that Tomoya ditched them for someone so…Her. This is the circle (sans Tomoya’s cousin) together for the first timebut neither of the two school beauties can behave themselves in front of Kato, and start leg-sparring under the table.

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In other words, she fades away and lets the louder girls take over the scene, to the point where she disappears completely without them (or me) even noticing, demonstrating her Stealth Mode for the first time. By golly, that girl can get lost in a crowd! And she didn’t even leave out of disgust; she just wanted another drink! Nothing fazes her!

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Still, as awesome as you and I already know Kato to be, Tomoya is still under the misguided impression he needs to “fix” her by imbuing her with moe conventions. The next day, a Saturday, he invites her to his house for “Dating Sim Heroine Boot Camp,” apparently completely unaware what he has on his hands here is a relationship with a 3D girl in the works. Naturally, Kato agrees to come without any reservations.

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Kato is further unflustered by being in a notorious otaku’s room (it’s exactly what she expected) and dutifully plays a dating sim he highly recommends all the way through while enduring his constant spoilers and commentary. That means they’re alone together in his room all day long. It’s astonishing how quickly time passes, and yet the amount of fun they’re both having simply hanging out together doing not much of anything is clear to see.

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Fueled by the fun he’s already had and the complete passivity Kato has exhibited (albeit a passivity laced with quick, sharp deadpan retorts), Tomoya decides to be a little adventurous and see just how far that passivity goes, by asking her to spend the night and play the sequel to the game she just finished.

His proposal, complete with him eliminating any need to worry about the ramifications (there’s no school tomorrow, his parents are out) plays both like an innocent request to keep hanging out, and something a little more adult. Kato, of course, is fine with whatever, though we do see her finally blush at Tomoya’s choice of words.

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Of course she is. Nothing fazes her. Perhaps that’s because, well, she simply likes Tomoya. Tomoya clearly likes her too. What Kato is, then is a very “boring” girlfriend in the making, but a damn good one, too. His night with her gives him the clarity and inspiration to know precisely what to tell Eriri and Utaha what he envisions for the game, next time he sees them. More importantly, gets a sleep-deprived Kato (and the change in her voice in this state is priceless) to agree to join his circle.

I foresee big, exciting things on the horizon for the game, for the relationship, and for this show, which, a prologue and two episodes in, has been above reproach. Kato may not stand out in any conventional way, but so far she’s the shining light bringing warmth to my Winter.

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Stray Observations:

  • I don’t want to understate just how well the show kept things interesting through character and dialogue in the most humdrum settings: a cafe and a bedroom.
  • n ongoing joke is the fact Tomoya is constantly acting like he’s just met Kato, while he’s actually known her more than a year.
  • Depsite his low opinion of himself, her opinion of him is quite high, naming him one of the school’s three celebrities, along with Eriri and Utaha.
  • One of the reasons for his popularity is the fact he screens anime at school…and we see that anime includes the prologue of the very show they’re in! Nice.

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  • Tomoya’s “Fantasy Kato”, who acts in all the ways he expects an ideal dating sim heroine to act, is also a nice cutaway touch.
  • Kato isn’t just a great character in her own right, but a symbol of the show’s raison d’etre, presenting all the conventions but subverting them wherever they can. It’s immensely refreshing
  • Throughout her long Saturday with Tomoya, Kato starts occupying more and more real estate in the frame until she’s sharing pretty much equal space with her host, and gets a lot more close-ups.

Saenai Heroine no Sodatekata – 01

Morning, alarm clock, slow to rise, quick to leave, Ittekimasu!
Morning, alarm clock, slow to rise, quick to leave, Ittekimasu!

It’s an oft-used quote, but apt: “And now for something completely different.” Though Saekano’s zeroth and first episodes aren’t quite completely different. Let’s slightly modify the quote: “And now for something mostly different.” In anime, you must Slightly Modify or Die, be it existing stories, settings, characters, or all of the above.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: I’ve watched high school rom/coms before. Dozens, spanning the entire spectrum of quality and seriousness. So if something hasn’t been slightly modified enough to be worth watching, believe me, I’ll know, and probably not watch.

So believe me when I say Saekano has got it goin’ on

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Episode 0 can be seen as collection of delectable hors d’oeuvres, but also a taste of dessert, as it takes place in the future, once Tomoya has already gathered his team. Here in episode 1 we backtrack, but all of our “first encounters” with the characters come with built in knowledge of who they are, thanks to Episode 0—and thus built-in interest.

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TWIN TAIL ATTACK!

Saekano already sold be the characters; all of them, and it did so with admirable efficiency. Last week we saw the shiny, completed Lego project on the box; this week we see the foundation bricks being set into place.

Like last week, the super-moe, light-and-dark, blonde-and-black Eriri and Utahu dominate the frame throughout the episode. They are objects of universal worship at school, and are elevated even higher when Tomoya so passionately asks them to join them, and being the tsunderes that they are, refuse, out of some unsaid past between them.

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Still, I like how Tomoya is neither wimp nor suck-up in the face of such intimidating beauties, because, well, he has dirt on them both. And yet, he’s not a manipulating prick, either. He comes to the two girls because he needs an artist and scenario writer, and they’re both at the top of their game. There’s no blackmail, only respect and enthusiasm. Eriri and Utahu are the two who can realize his dream.

But like I said, these two girls are front-and-center. Last week they, along with Michiru essentially canceled each other out, allowing the calm, quiet, barely-visible Kato Megumi to swoop in and steal the show. That happens here too! This week we learn that a chance summer encounter with the noise-cancelling Kato was the genesis of his desire to realize his dream, and thus recruit Eriri and Utahu.

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And what an encounter! In romantic anime terms, it’s about as cliche a meeting as you can get; chasing down the girl’s beret and an explosion of cherry blossoms as they meet face-to-face. And yet, we don’t see the face. Tomoya says he’d never be able to capture its beauty with his own paltry rendering skills; it appears even his memory was somewhat overloaded or inadequate. Such is the power of Kato.

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Eriri and Utahu make it seem like they’re doing Tomoya a huge favor by showing up where and when he tells them to, and when they meet each other there, they attack each other for what they are: an artist and an author, respectively. And yet they are the ones stood up by Tomoya, as he happens to bump into Kato in the hall and forgets about the other girls completely.

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The episode’s camera does a phenomenal job keeping Kato’s face out of sight right until Tomoya lays eyes on her himself. Even he didn’t notice he was the girl with the beret at first, assuming it was just some random classmate. The camera’s reluctance to center or focus on her built tension for the FLCL-style 3D fly-around and ultimate reveal of her face in all its serene glory.

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So cute

Meeting Kato and catching her beret wasn’t just the start of Tomoya finally coming up with an idea for a game. That alone isn’t the “destiny” he spoke of. While he’s been a 2D girl kinda guy up until now, Kato authoritatively pulled him back into the third dimension, just by being the girl she is. She is his destiny and his muse. And after just one prologue and one episode, I think I’m in love too.

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Ya'll been stood UP.
Ya’ll been stood UP.

Saenai Heroine no Sodatekata – 00 (First Impressions)

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Man, considering Violin Girl had a down week, I kind of regret not watching this last night instead. Saekano is rip-roaring fun, a show that has the audacity to analyze and review itself as it’s going on. I know what you’re thinking: “It self-references itself? Zane, that sounds awful!” But here’s the thing: it just isn’t. It’s glorious. 

The episode begins with character decrying a “lame harem anime with loads of panty shots and nudity”; the anime’s advocate praises its consistent artwork, fluid motion, and cute characters; then the first girl says “it’s the people who worship any anime with good artwork as a classic who are behind the decline in the anime industry”.

I don’t think I have to point out that this is a harem anime with good helping of fanservice, but also looks frikking fantastic, as A-1 anime are wont to do. But it’s not lame. Saekano has LEGS.

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What so great about this show is its LAYERS. There’s the standard harem surface layer; there’s the fact that they’re all very talented members of a doujin circle that have come to a remote, serene hot spring for inspiration; there’s the layer of all the girls going after him (or not) in very different ways; there’s the fact that their intricate discussion of the dating sim they’re working informs anime they’re in.

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Saekano isn’t just throwing skin at you (though the skin is plentiful and lovely), but it’s also reaching through the screen into your brain and heading off whatever reservations you may have for it. It also lays bare its process, and yet wields a kind of inscrutable magic in entertaining you. This is a show that wants you to love it. And I do.

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But my love extends far beyond the bones of the show or its deliciously meta technique, to the brilliant cast. We have the half-British loli childhood friend (Eriri Spencer Sawamura), an exacting painter; the elegant raven-haired maiden (Kasumigaoka Utaha), the scenario writer; the athletic, flirtatious cousin (Hyoudou Michiru), the musician; and the rather plain, quiet one (Kato Megumi), the heroine.

The episode shuffles the protagonist Aki Tomoya’s encounters with them nicely, fleshing their specific personalities, roles in the doujin circle, and particulars of the harem dynamic with a seemingly effortless deftness. Not a single line of dialogue or scene is wasted.

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The four girls express their hots for Tomoya in different ways: Eriri by pining for her one true love, stolen by the interloper Utaha; Michiru gets super physical, but in a teasing way; and Utaha hides her sweet nothings behind the conceit that she’s only using him and her in order to come up with scenarios, and can thus be forthright and fearless in going after him.

These three girls are certainly the loudest and most flirtatious through most of the episode, essentially cancelling each other out when they accidentally get drunk on alcoholic chocolates and in their shameless state, prepare a sexy prank for Tomoya.

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And even this has a practical purpose: they’ve been worked to the bone for six months without a kind word from Tomoya, the game creator, and they’ve come to collect their due, ignoring his impassioned speech about his dreams for the doujin circle as they play rock-paper-scissors to determine who takes what position (though Eriri is a sad drunk, and so just watches and broods all the more).

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Eventually, it’s the calm, sober, sensible Kato who saves Tomoya; a character who had so nimbly lurked within the background of the frames, not making a bit production of her presence. Machiri calls her “stealthy”, which is apt, especially since she shares her name (if not the spelling) with the Pink Panther’s wily assistant.

Kato is the titular “Boring Girlfriend”, and Saekano’s secret weapon. She’s is the heroine of the dating sim because, well, she’s Tomoya’s heroine. He never looked as natural or comfortable as he does strolling down a gorgeous bamboo grove, their wooden shoes softly clop-cloping, complimenting her longer hair.

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These two are on an entirely different wavelength as the other three, and they both like it there, Kato is also patient, not really paying the other three girls any mind and even letting them have a bit of fun with Tomoya, knowing when the dust settles he’ll want to walk and talk with her and her alone.

This just a brilliant, funny, and touching twenty-two minutes of rom-com goodness…and it’s just the damn prologue. I assume episode 01 will rewind to the time Tomoya first assembles the doujin circle. If it can keep up the quality in its less secluded school setting, I will be a very happy camper.

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