Saekano 2 – 03

Tomoya and Eriri find themselves suddenly confronted by the Hashima siblings, whose Rouge en Rouge game company put out a demo of a game very similar to their own.

While Megumi does her best to keep things diplomatic, it isn’t long until Eriri and Izumi are coming to blows.

Sure, they’re low-impact blows, and each seems to want to empower the other to do their utmost to beat each other (at art, not physically), but then there’s the fact that, at the moment, I don’t much care particularly how well Blessing’s game does relative to Rouge’s.

Isn’t it enough that the team works hard and puts out a game they can be proud of, into which they put their blood, sweat, tears, and passion?

In between acting like she and Tomoya have been married for years, irking certain male classmates, Megumi is preoccupied and fired up by Utaha’s surprise story revision.

But the only way they’ll know whether it works or not, and which script to choose for the game, is by implementing it. That means a lot of work just to catch up to the Rouge demo, with no guarantee their output will surpass their rival’s.

When one all-nighter involving Tomoya and Megumi only nets 20% of the work, other measures need to be taken. When Michiru suddenly arrives, appalled that Megumi spent the night, Tomoya sees an opening, and asks his cousin to recruit her Icy Tail bandmates into doing the gruntwork necessary to plug Utaha’s new story into the game.

They pull a second all-nighter, and considering how late I’m writing this on a Thursday night, I can’t say I don’t relate to their exhausted state when they’ve completed their task.

All that work makes it that much more harsh a slap in the face when Tomoya meets with Utaha and utters the line above. Apparently, after story, art, music, and programming have been combined, neither of Utaha’s stories cut the mustard; at least not now that Tomoya is convinced Iori has a better story up his sleeve.

He requests a complete rewrite—certainly his prerogative as game director—but I assume Utaha is dismayed by his blunt assessment, as I was. In an attempt to outdo Rouge, could Tomoya be overplaying his hand? By demanding perfection when perfection may be unattainable, will he only end up driving his partners away one by one?

Saekano 2 – 02

Utaha has finished her script, and to celebrate has Tomoya take her out for a day of shopping, dining, and watching films that aren’t poorly-received (i.e. ghosty, shelly) live-action anime adaptations.

It’s a date, no doubt about it, at least as far as Eriri is concerned, observing the couple’s interactions from afar like, well, a stalker, with Megumi forced to tag along for plausible deniability.

But Utaha doesn’t merely toy with Mr. Ethical: she makes it a point to bring up the fact that now that the script is complete, her job with Blessing Software is also done, and she’s looking to the future.

She asks Tomoya his opinion not only on where she should attend university (out in Kansai or fifteen minutes away) as well as to pick which script should be used: she wrote two. She’s basically telling the director to choose a direction; not unreasonable.

When Eriri and Megumi meet with Tomoya (thanks to Megumi having a key to his place!) they see the ending and see Tomoya’s dilemma. Eriri both acknowledges Utaha’s artistry, comparing it to the Metronome of Love series she claims to have never read, while complaining that it’s a lot more work.

Still, she doesn’t automatically reject this new ending, nor does Megumi: they, like Utaha, leave it up to Tomoya. Sorry dude, gotta make some hard choices, and not everyone is going to be happy. Especially with Izumi’s doujin game already out there in demo form, living in the same genre as their game.

Saekano excels when Tomoya is one-on-one, as he is with the lovely Utaha most of this episode. But I also liked how their interactions were shadowed by Eriri and Megumi (especially the difference in Utaha and Eriri’s reactions to the movie, which chose a “childhood friend-friendly”, and thus Eriri-friendly, ending).

I can’t say whether the script of Saekano is cliched per se; all I can say is that it is unafraid of commenting on the very genre and medium it exists in, or of being almost self-back-pattingly self-referential and irreverent of those institutions.

But the dialogue is expertly delivered by the actors, and the character design is strong, so even if this show’s ‘weakness’ is its script (which I’m not saying is the case), it’s more than capable of making up for it in other areas, which makes this show enjoyable to watch on any given week.

But I don’t think it needs a live-action adaptation.

Saekano 2 – 01

“Why are things so bad between them?” asks Mr. Awful Thick-Headed Deaf Protagonist, AKA Aki Tomoya, referring to the near constant bickering and fierce competition between Eriri and Utaha. Cue a flashback to a year ago when the two rivals first meet, and Eriri learns Utaha is not only the author of the “Metronome In Love” novels she enjoys with Tomoya, but that she’s trying to snatch her Tomoya away.

Eriri tries in vain to steer Utaha away from Tomoya, while Utaha is irritated to learn how well Tomoya knows his childhood friend Eriri. Utaha brings Eriri up to Tomoya because she’s “interested in knowing more about her”, meaning she’s eager to gather info on a foe.

For all the contempt Eriri and Utaha have spewed at one another throughout last season, they are nonetheless connected by a strong underlying mutual respect. They’re not just foes, but worthy foes. And however much they may differ in creative philosophy, neither can deny the other’s obvious talent, or even be a bit envious of it, considering they excel in different areas (Eriri art, Utaha words).

Utaha learns that Eriri’s motivated by revenge for all the frustration she’s suffered having to hide her talent away beneath a pristine social facade; while Eriri believes she has the haughty Utaha figured out as a cold, calculating ice queen who looks down upon and manipulates her fans with her technique. Neither is wrong!

So back in the present, while they’re still bickering as fiercely as when they first met (with Tomoya as the totem of their rivalry), they can still acknowledge one another’s skill and passion for their craft, and can agree with Tomoya when he says theirs could be a collaboration for the ages.

The praise and enthusiasm of the guy they both like makes it easier for them to look past their surface hate for one another, and the value in working together, even if it’s not always, or ever, smooth sailing.

When Tomoya requests an illustration by Eriri autographed by both her and Utaha as Kashiwagi Kazumi, Eriri, Utaha, and Megumi also requests autographed illustrations. The apparent mortal enemies proudly hang them in their homes, proving their respect and admiration for one another beyond any doubt, even if they’d never ever say it to each other’s faces.

Saekano 2 – 00

Saekano is back, baby! And it has not changed its ways, no sir. In its Episode 00 special, it doubles down on the enticing Episode 00 of its predecessor, piling on the fan service thick and garnishing with witty banter.

We arrive in the middle of an argument between Eriri and Utaha about an anime they disagree about, and again they seem to be talking about the very anime they’re in, and whether it’s deserving of a second season. After this first taste, I’d tend to agree with Eriri.

Like the hot springs episode 00 of last season, all the girls are after Aki’s attentions in one way or another, and everyone remains consistent in their respective approaches: Michiru with the cousin angle, Eriri with the childhood friend angle, Utaha with the Mr. Ethical schtick, and Megumi with the stealthiness and running commentary. Saekano 2 adds Hashima Izumi, another childhood friend of Aki’s and a fan of Eriri’s, to the mix, because hey, why not?

At a hotel in Odaiba overlooking the Rainbow Bridge and Statue of Liberty (yes, Tokyo has its own small one) the game-making group has gathered, and donned swimsuits because Megumi wouldn’t pose in a bikini unless everyone else was so attired. Aki has zero designs on spending the night, but when all the girls but Utaha end up in the room and she’s nowhere to be found, it’s clear she’s used her power of the purse to arrange things so she’d end up alone with Aki.

She claims to have only poured ginger ale for Aki and herself, but he has the sneaking suspicion it’s actual alcohol, and we know how that turned out for him and the girls at the hot spring. Unfortunately for Utaha (but fortunate for everyone else), while she turned her phone off, Aki’s remains on, and the gig is up. Utaha has not given up, but I wonder how far she realistically thinks she can get with such schemes.

At first Michiru only seem to be here to do pool suplexes on her cousin and put him in holds that mean something a lot different now that they’ve both grown, but it turns out she’s been working hard like Eriri and Utaha, writing not one but ten pieces of BGM for the game so far. As she gives the others a sample, her work has a motivating effect on the artists and scriptwriter, and they whip out their own tools of the trade and get to work as Izumi looks on in awe.

That leaves Megumi free to slip out and admire Tokyo Bay with Aki, among many other couples. For all the attempts of the others in the harem, it’s clear who truly has the upper hand, and she makes it look effortless as usual. For all the inappropriate contact Aki endured from Michiru, the advances from Utaha, the hugs from Izumi, and the reminiscing with Eriri, simply standing close but not too close beside his heroine seems to be ideal for Aki.

The other girls may be shapely and beautiful (and the camera never lets us forget it) but Megumi’s appeal just seems to run deeper and fuller. I look forward to seeing how she, Aki, and the others traverse their relationships with each other as the development of their dating sim progresses. And the only people who would sit there and find faults in someone’s hard work are pathetic losers who have forgotten how to enjoy life!!!

Saenai Heroine no Sodatekata – 12 (Fin)

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This final episode of Saekano that we know of had the air of a show that was merely saying “see you later down the road” rather than a full-on sayonara. So while it crossed its Ts and dotted its Is for the (remote, IMO) possibility that it wouldn’t be back, it made the right move by not trying to do too much in its finale. Mainly, it focused on sealing the deal on Michiru joining the circle.

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Tomoya got Michiru and her three bandmates their first gig, and while it’s not much, they’re glad to have it. Kato is on her way to the venue with a still very dubious Utaha and Eriri, and finds herself acting as mediator between the bullying Utaha and the sensitive Eriri. Both are still sore from their experiences with Michiru and are acting out in their own ways, but Kato is confident in Tomoya’s ability to achieve his objective. Michiru’s going to come on board and the game’s going to be great.

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It’s interesting that Utaha and Eriri grudgingly accept Kato as something resembling a friend, not the threat they may have perceived her as when she first came on the scene. Heck, they even agree with one another in their little faith in Tomoya, but one can hardly blame them for being so unenthusiastic; it’s like they’re well aware they’re dealing with two very potent competitors in Kato and now Michiru.

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For her part, Michiru doesn’t disappoint in proving she’s by far the most overtly physical member of Tomoya’s harem, essentially mounting him out of shock and anger that she has to play her set in cosplay. She’s too ashamed of one thing—having to play with cat ears—than she is about being on top of her cousin, moving up and down rhythmically just as the others enter.

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In what is definitely a forced, unnatural plot twist (Eriri’s words, not mine), Michiru’s three band-mates fess up to being otakus themselves, and all the music she’s played with them have been anime cover songs. They agreed to let Michiru make the music for Tomoya’s game if he gave them the opportunity to come out of their shells and declare their otakuness to Michiru.

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Tomoya then proceeds to offer a still-uncertain Michiru a heartfelt pep talk (while she’s on top of him the whole time), convincing her that they’ll do great things together, and that her affinity for the anime music she’s already played is proof enough of her respect for the world of otaku that she’ll do fine in front of a crowd of same. He even reverses her past insistence grow out of otakudom by assuring her one day she’ll grow into a fine otaku.

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She takes the stage, and suddenly there’s a tinge of Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso in my Saekano. But Icy Tail (which when said with a Japanese accent sounds like “aishiteru” or “I love you”) breaks the ice not with piano or violin, but with Soairo Days from TTGL…nice choice!

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I didn’t catch Michiru’s seiyu Yahagi Sayuri (whom I also loved in Bakuman and Sankarea) being credited for the insert song performance, but whoever did sing it did a decent job, even if the band sounds rather polished considering it’s there first time on stage before a crowd. More than anything though, the episode really captured joy and fun of the concert. Everyone other than Utaha and Eriri looked like they were having a blast.

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And Tomoya’s plot, assisted in no small part by the rest of Icy Tail, works: Michiru agrees to score Blessing’s game. When she draws in far closer than first cousins should for what could be a deal-sealing kiss, then bends over for something even more improprietous, it turns out she’s just pulling one of her patented wrestling moves on him, like her lakeside suplex in the prologue, she’s an athletically gifted girl, and wants to let Tomoya know he doesn’t hold all the cards here, and she hasn’t completely forgiven him for ambushing her with the cosplay.

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From there, the episode starts to wind down, but not before Megumi and Eriri have a nice little talk. Before she knew it, Eriri had Megumi over for all-night game work, so they can’t very well refer to each other so formally anymore, so they agree to start addressing each other by their first names. This is a pretty big gesture for Eriri, who calls Utaha by her full nine-syllable name on purpose.

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After a look at the happy ending of the seemingly completed dating sim, and then the credits, we jump forward to the assmbled group admiring their work, which gets close to Aku no Hana levels of plot compression. But it turns out they’re only done the first route, with two months left till Summer Comiket. So there’s still much work to be done.

It’s as good a stopping place as any, but I’ll gladly join the chorus of voices who look forward to a second season where we see those other routes unfold, both in and out of the game. Throughout its run, Saekano was a smart, sexy breath of fresh air: cheekily self-aware, but never obnoxiously so, and full of so much witty banter and laughs that I wouldn’t rule out a full re-watch as I await a sequel. Until then, matane, Saekano.

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Saenai Heroine no Sodatekata – 07

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A big reason why I’ve enjoyed Saekano so much isn’t just its knack for cleverly inserting commentary about the genre in which it dwells while telling a unique story all its own that benefits from that self-awareness and self-critique. It’s also the show’s knack for getting us to forget all about the future and simply focus on the now, and the wonderful dialogue and interactions between Aki Tomoya and the varied girls in his life.

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This episode was off to another great start. After spending all of his time with Utaha last week, this week it seems to be Eriri’s turn, and she makes the most of it by making Tomoya role-play a sex scene with her. Both of them are well aware they’re merely reading lines to one another, but since both of them put in such good performance., they end up arousing one another, something Eriri probably hoped for.

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I personally wouldn’t mind if that was the whole episode, but there are big changes afoot this week, and in the process of introducing those changes, the show suddenly turns its gaze away from the now and towards the horizon, which I must admit is a little unsettling.

Just as Tomoya is chastising Kato for suddenly sporting a ponytail (my take is that Tomoya really likes it, otherwise he wouldn’t notice it, but he won’t admit it). A discussion ensues, into the cultivation of well-established and time-honed “core traits”—like a blonde twin-tail or long jet-black hair—versus “cheat tricks” like the sudden change of hairstyle.

Those two core traits are brought up by Kato and clearly meant as a commentary on the two other girls chasing Tomoya around. Kato is establishing that she is unique and goes against the grain of the tropes.

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That leads to Tomoya bringing up another time-tested trope: the “little-sister-type kohai”, and hey-presto, Hashima Izumi appears on queue. Of course Tomoya also had, and now has, this kind of girl in his life as well. It’s something that was missing to this point; now all he needs is an attractive relation, which we know to be Michiru from the prologue.

Izumi was prominent in the OP and ED and had the look of a younger, devoted-kohai character, so I knew she was coming. Better yet, she’s voiced by the bright and ever-exuberant Akasaki Chinatsu. Also true to her type, a lot of what she says in praising Tomoya did for her could be taken entirely the wrong way due to her particular phrasing. But her sudden appearance, bereft of a single prior word about her existence in the show itself, is a little problematic.

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Be that as it may. Izumi is definitely a disruptive force that unsettles the status quo, and not surprisingly pisses Eriri off, since she’s already had two other stout competitors to contend with to that point, and she was the only one with a long past with Tomoya. No longer.

Speaking of a past, Izumi’s introduction is paired with her brother Iori, who is Tomoya and Eriri’s age and has a sorted and arguably more interesting history with him. Tomoya rejoiced when he learned that Izumi, the class prince, was just as much of an otaku as him. But their friendship was dashed on the rocks by a clash of otaku philosophies. Tomoya valued the sheer enjoyment and sharing of things he liked; while he saw Iori as “riding the coattails” of creators.

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But in that professing this, Tomoya exposes his hypocrisy. He’s an amateur running a doujin circle, ; by his logic, he’s also guilty of depending on two of the brightest rising stars in the industry in Eriri and Utaha; even if they are his friends.

I think the distinction lies in what Tomoya does offer his creators, though not knowing enough about Iori’s relationship with his famous circle members, these two may be peas in a pod after all. We may see Iori through Tomoya’s eyes as a greedy freeloader, but what if Iori inspires his creators the same way Tomoya inspires Utaha and Eriri?

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It’s probably a coincidence, but it looks like Iori shares a trait with one of his seiyu Kakihara Tetsuya’s more famous roles, that of Simon in Gurren Lagann. Both are good at digging and burrowing, and eventually dig themselves out of obscurity and into the spotlight.

Tomoya often conceals his true feelings about things by discussing them through a protective prism, namely his collective dealings with the girls he’s working with, but also courting, particularly Kato. By that same angle, Tomoya purports to spit upon the way Iori does things, but his own motivations and actions could be construed as just as selfish.

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More than anything, this episode makes me hope there will be a second cour of this show, and not just because I love it. I feel we’ve really only scratched the surface here. The Kato, Utaha, and (semi)Eriri-centric episodes are all to establish what Tomoya means to those girls and what they mean to him. Izumi and Iori are introduced to break up the love-in and create an external conflict that will drive the remaining story.

This is no longer simply about making a dating sim; Iori has officially declared it a battle, and he won’t hesitate to poach Tomoya’s talent, if he can. But after what’s gone down in the last seven episodes, the four remaining are not nearly long enough for a satisfying conclusion. So for the first time I can remember, I’m actually hoping for a second cour when I’m not sure if one is coming. And I’m also hoping that hot spring prologue was only the midpoint of this increasingly complex and entertaining story.

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Saenai Heroine no Sodatekata – 06

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An ongoing theme in Tomoya and Utaha’s friendship has been mutual inspiration. In their first encounter (they’re classmates, but hadn’t interacted before) Tomoya expresses how much Utaha’s work inspires him the moment he steps up to her table at her book signing. His remarks leave an instant and lasting impression. Fast forward to that “fateful” snowy day when Tomoya declines to read her latest manuscript.

Utaha, you see, never come out and told Tomoya inspires her as he did with her. Offering him the manuscript is her way of showing it. But he rejects that approach, and even though it’s for perfectly understandable reasons—he’s a fan, and doesn’t want to influence her creative process any more than he wants a sneak peak at an unfinished work—it still feels to Utaha that he’s rejecting her, which wounds her deeply.

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Utaha had never quite forgiven him for that…until this week, which is another showcase of Saekano’s knack for placing its characters in relatively confined, intimate places. Even Tomoya’s date with Kato at the mall felt like it, since the crush of people made them have to stick that much closer together, and the mutual fun they were having made that crush blur and fade into the background, until it was just them.

The confined space here is more concrete: a hotel room, where Utaha was going to spend the night, but invites Tomoya in when he drenches himself in the rain in the act of what she deemed as chasing after her. It’s an assertion he can’t and won’t deny, though he wasn’t expecting to end up on a bed with Utaha, both of them in bathrobes and nothing underneath. The optics are a constant source of nervous titillation, but I frankly like how it puts the two on the spot.

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Bathrobes concealing nakedness and nervous joking aside, Tomoya cut his date with Kato short because he now knows what doesn’t sit right with him about her first scenario draft. He didn’t like how they left things in the club room, but at the same time, were it not for his date with Kato, he wouldn’t have been able to express his reservations anyway, which ironically reflect the positions Kato and Utaha occupy with regards to Tomoya’s life.

Utaha’s plot is much like her plot with Tomoya thus far: seemingly bound by fate, or from a past life; something sprawling and dramatic and epic, like spending the night in a hotel room (but this is all-ages, so…) And Tomoya likes that, but he’s found he also likes what Kato brings to the table: a steadfast decency wrapped in utter normality; the beauty of the mundane; the way a flat character can draw a reader when suddenly big suddenly happens. Kato isn’t bland; she’s universally relatable.

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God, the timing, framing, and sound effects of this little sequence were so deliciously awesome. Utaha types away in this new direction, but she’s clearly upset by it; it’s as if the romantic ideal she represents has been suddenly usurped by Kato. Reality and the fiction being discussed and created is inextricably linked in this show. But she and Tomoya do work all night, and the fact that she was able to summon this much passion and belt out something both of them can be proud of is a testament to the mutual inspiration I mentioned earlier.

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When Utaha gets dressed and prepares to set out for her busy day, she doesn’t hesitate to make a joke about post-evening afterglow, not to mention the fact she wickedly took a picture of her in bed with Tomoya while he was asleep and made it his background.

But while there wasn’t any of that kind of action last night, it was still a night Utaha will cherish, because it showed her, just as it showed us, that Tomoya is not only her muse, but has the makings of a great creator in his own right. She leaves that hotel room feeling a lot better about the two of them, but not just because of the progress they made with the plot, but in the battle for Tomoya himself.

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Rewinding to yesterday, Eriri “bumps into” Kato at the mall and sketches her, which is clearly her way of commiserating over the fact that Utaha is off somewhere with her Tomoya. Misery loves company, so it gives her great solace to see that when properly stimulated, she’s able to pull back Kato’s stoic mask just that little bit. Like Utaha’s “coup” this week, this not only makes Eriri optimistic about developing a good heroine from Kato, but also that she’s still in the running for Tomoya. Kato is adorable, but she’s not invincible.

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Saenai Heroine no Sodatekata – 05

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Tomoya’s promising dating sim circle is in place and hard at work, but progress is slow. Eriri is frustrated by Kato’s noncommittal expressions (noting that if she was expressionless, they could pass her off as an Ayanami Rei-type), while the only things Utaha types are orders for Tomoya to feed her Pocky sticks.

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What ironically (but also very fittingly) gets things going are Tomoya’s off-the-cuff prods to Eriri regarding what she’d do in a “hypothetical” situation where she’d be on a shopping date. Eriri offers advice—very good advice—and when Tomoya says it sounds boring, it’s because she offered advice for an “away game”, that is, an otaku on a date in the normal world.

When Tomoya inadvertently lets on that the date in question isn’t really hypothetical after all, it’s a creative spark for Utaha, borne out of her intolerance of any such non-hypothetical date not involving her. She begins to fill the white space with words.

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But even as Utaha found inspiration in an unexpected place, Eriri notes how difficult a subject Kato is; perhaps her toughest yet. But it’s precisely because she is a challenge that Eriri won’t give up, especially when it’s looking more and more like her beloved Tomoya is taking a liking to this Kato girl.

In a quiet but extremely sweet scene on the rooftop at night, Kato shows that despite the seeming noncommittalness in her words or expressions, she’s as serious as the other two, and practicing to be the best heroine she can be.

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Tomoya betrays something else when Utaha arrives at school with a thick scenario drawn up, the product of an all-nighter for the sake of the circle. When Utaha falls asleep as soon as her head hits the desk, Tomoya gives her a lingering look of pride and affection the other two girls pick up on: Eriri is suspicious, while Kato is bemused.

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The scenario itself is full of exciting twists, turns, and tropes, and it’s presented exquisitely in a slideshow-and-commentary format. I especially liked when Tomoya would periodically call for Kato to pipe up and say the heroine’s lines, which actually don’t sound half-bad even in her dry-run deadpan.

Also note that the handsomest guy Eriri could think of closely resembles Tomoya, but isn’t quite him, while Kato is Kato even in the scenario, because she is the heroine. It’s as if Utaha and Eriri applied their respective crafts to the basic template that was Kato Megumi to create “Kano Meguri”, through which Kato still manages to shine.

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And yet…while he can’t explain why, Tomoya’s not quite satisfied with the draft, to Eriri and Utaha’s consternation. (Eriri: “Subjective, feelings-based criticism like that doesn’t get us anywhere!” That should be RABUJOI’s slogan!) Utaha’s is deeper, seeing this as another case of indecision and inability to give her a straight answer.

On that note, the show helpfully flashes back to a moment still fresh in Utaha and Tomoya’s memory. If what I think happened happened, “no straight answer” is as good (or bad) as “rejection.” But Utaha seems to be hovering around Tomoya to this day, waiting for a straight answer anyway.

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Tomoya actually seems to become rather down by Utaha making that indecision connection to their past, to the point Kato tells him it’s okay if they postpone their date to the mall, but Tomoya isn’t having it; the date is on, and it’s yet another case of Kato really shining once out of the shadow of the other girls.

The huge, unruly crowds of “normals” throw Tomoya off, especially the proportion of couples (even though like it or not, he and Kato are one of them). In a brilliant turnaround, he decides to treat the shopping trip like a visit to Comiket: he plots the most efficient route to Kato’s stores, avoiding the longer-wait ones until things die down. When the crush of people grows thicker, Tomoya keeps Kato from falling and takes her hand without a second thought.

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While his otaku approach is hardly “normal”, it’s actually a boon to the otherwise normal date. Kato is duly impressed with Tomoya’s ingenuity, and decides to buy him a pair of glasses she thinks he looks good in (she thinks). 

Here, with her tender and very girlfriend-like gestures, all pretense of any kind of “practical experiment for research” falls away. This was a date, plain and simple, and a damn good one. Both parties had far more fun than they’d bargained for, and neither had to be anything other than themselves.

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Somewhat distressingly, the episode doesn’t end there, but pulls the plug on the good vibes when Tomoya laments he must ditch Kato without seeing her home, saying “there’s something he has to do” as we see Utaha waiting along, presumably for him. But whatever could he be leaving Kato for Utaha mean here? I think it’s a matter of obligation. It comes back to him not having an answer for her again.

Even in the midst of his lovely date (which he may or may not have gone into as an empirical and dispassionate exercise but definitely ended up falling for Kato’s charms once again…and who the hell wouldn’t?) perhaps Tomoya found an answer. Not to the past question Utaha asked, but to her scenario proposal. He owes her at least that much for her hard work.

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Saenai Heroine no Sodatekata – 04

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We open in Utaha’s room, where she’s on the phone with her editor Machida, who tells her something so surprising, Utaha moves too quickly and smacks her foot against her desk, hard. This is a mishap that befalls me all too often, and that visceral bang really brings both Utaha and the scene to life. It’s also nice to see that like “Mr. Ethical”—and myself!—she spends much of her creating time…staring at a blank screen.

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Following the credits is a live taste of her work, in which Sayuka chooses her dreams over tearfully clinging to Naoto, even though she truly love him and always will. It’s a nice segue to Tomoya on the train with Kato, who has just blasted through Utaha’s five-volume Metronome in Love series and is impressed with it.

Tomoya couldn’t be happier, as he utterly worships Utako Kasumi, and isn’t afraid to profess it emphatically on the train (Tomoya does a lot of emphatic professing in this episode, all of it good). Notably, he seems capable of separating Utako from Utaha, with whom he shares a past we only see in brief flashes; a past that may have inspired Utako’s work, as well as the Mr. Ethical moniker.

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Utaha’s foot-stubbing shock was a reaction to the news the inteview she didn’t want to do will be performed by none other than Aki Tomoya (I love how diverse his part-time jobs are). Initially, Utaha comes in and puts up a Beast Mode-esque wall, but Tomoya is able to get her to cooperate (sorta) by telling her he took the job so he’d get a chance to learn more about her next book before anyone else.

The interview takes many twists and turns, including Utaha’s assertion that it wasn’t her that made her books take off, it was him. Machida qualifies that by saying Tomoya’s review caused a spike in interest and increased sales at a crucial time for the novel, but I heard Utaha loud and clear: she wasn’t just talking about the publicity or buzz Tomoya provided. I like to think the novels are based, at least in part, on her experiences with “Mr. Ethical”.

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It’s for that same reason that Utaha agrees to show up for their first official circle meeting to talk about the details and responsibilities. Eriri repeats a misstep by going all tsundere at Tomoya before seeing who’s actually in the room with him: Utaha, as well as Kato. Though Kato is mostly out of the frame, I’ve trained myself to keep my eyes peeled for her.

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That’s the last we see of Kato for 90% of this scene. The rest is dominated by Utaha and Eriri alternating between teasing or torturing Tomoya and fighting each other tooth and nail. They turn Tomoya’s lovely whiteboard diagram of the project schedule into a piece of modern art, while Utaha offers to provide funding in exchange for “favors” from Tomoya, which earns Tomoya some twin-tail slaps from an irate Eriri.

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Eventually, they literally toss Tomoya aside and simply start bickering nonstop, with neither girl prepared to give an inch, although Utaha’s calmer demeanor means she’ll have more stamina. Tomoya breaks them up and gets them to work by again appealing to their vanity. Utaha will write up the plot, while Eriri will get some character designs going.

Tomoya asks them if they’re capable of that, and both girls put down their dagger for each other and grab a laptop and a sketchbook. The success of Tomoya’s dating sim depends on how well he can manage/juggle these two undeniably talented but just as undeniably prickly and emotionally needy artists.

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Of course, it also depends, at least form Tomoya’s perspective, on his ability to transform Kato into the ultimate dating sim heroine. Of course, considering she was in the a/v club room that long without any of the other three noticing her, as well as the substantial talent of said artists, I’d argue Kato isn’t really needed for the circle to belt out a decent dating sim. The one who needs Kato, rather, is Tomoya.

At the end of the day, this dating sim is a way for him to make the world care about and worry about and love Kato Megumi just as much as he does. He’s not going to come out and say it, but his actions and demeanor speak louder than words.

The way she affected him when he first “met” her on that hill (and their other encounter, for that matter); the fun they had simply hanging out in his room all night; the way they talk on the phone; and the jealousy he feels when she walks into the restaurant he’s working at with a tall, handsome young man; it’s all there, plain to see.

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I must admit my heart sank a little when I saw Kato with that guy, but it turns out to be her cousin, and they were simply going out to eat because their parents were at the theater. Being an otaku and thus a consumer of media in which blood is not always an obstacle to romance (his voice actor Matsuoka Yoshitsugu also played Kirito in SAO, whose sister liked him), Tomoya is still worried, but Kato makes it clear in her passive way that this is his problem, not hers.

That means, if he feels threatened by the fact she hangs out with her tall, attractive cousin, it’s up to him to step in and take the cousin’s place. So he does: he asks her he can accompany her shopping instead of her cousin, and she accepts instantly.

At that point Tomoya seems worried that it could be construed as a date. As ever, he’s in surface denial about what he has with Kato, even as he embarks on an incredibly tough road to create a dating sim from scratch in time for Winter Comiket that will essentially validate his feelings for Kato to the rest of the world.

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Stray Observations:

  • “What’s with that reaction, like you’re reliving past trauma?” Kato, hitting the nail on the head
  • I was immensely pleased by the fact that Utaha and Eriri drew on each other off-camera.
  • I also enjoyed how they scared Tomoya by telling him just how much they make off their work, with the actual yen figures censored by tweeting birds and gunshots.
  • “I’m gonna take that utterly moe-less heroine and raise her into the ultimate main heroine that everyone will worry about!” Tomoya, not realizing that if Kato wasn’t moe-less, he wouldn’t care about her so much.
  • “Kato, do you understand your position here?”
    “I’m a second-year high school girl with absolutely no agency who was brought into a game circle by the biggest otaku in school?”
    “That’s your pre-transformation, assumed identity! The real Megumi Kato is a pure beautiful dating sim heroine who makes everyone’s hearts beat faster!”

    All of this.
  • Tomoya’s classmates occasionally stopped talking and looked over in his direction, possibly worried that he was raving at himself, due to Kato’s inconspicuousness. Remember Tomoya himself didn’t know she was in his class for a year!

Saenai Heroine no Sodatekata – 03

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Tomoya needs to deliver an awesome game proposal to the tentative circle if he’s to convince them—and himself—that he’s serious about his dream. But as an otaku in a room filled with media to consume, Tomoya finds himself easily slipping from his task of creating.

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The three girls in his circle lend him support in their own ways. Eriri simply stops by unannounced (she literally sneaks in without him knowing) and draws in his room as he works. It doesn’t take Tomoya long to learn his childhood friend’s intent, and her textbook tsundere act only adds fuel to the fire. He’s grateful to her, but he’s also keen on surpassing her one day.

Eriri doesn’t laugh this off, because she’s not sure it’s something to laugh about. Neither do we. Tomoya may be procrastinating, but he’s definitely trying. His heart is in it…his brain and body simply need to catch up.

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To Eriri’s horror, Utaha shows up at Tomoya’s house, first to pretend she’s there to mess around, but then fesses up that she’s merely “visiting a soldier on the front.” I’ve really just met Utaha, but that just sounds like such an Utaha expression. Once she learns how little Tomoya has accomplished (he’s honest, because she’s a creator, but also because he’s serious), Utaha tries to discourage him from continuing and advises him to return to a life of consuming media.

What’s great about this tack is that condescension, while present and accounted for, is not her primary intent. When she goes off on a passionate rant, seemingly channeling Eriri’s energy for a moment (only more frightening since she’s usually so calm), she admits she likes having consumers like Tomoya read her work without trying to attack her with it or analyze her to death. He’ll analyze her work, sure, but not her. He believes she’s at the top of her game, and is above such pettiness.

(Oh, and I was mindful of the fact that a large chunk of the second straight episode was taking place in Tomoya’s room. I was also mindful of the fact I didn’t care in the slightest. After all, think about the rooms you inhabit throughout the day. You’re in those rooms a lot, right? Why should it be any different for Tomoya, especially with the task before him?)

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Once Salt & Pepper peace out, Tomoya gets a call from Vanilla, her second to him in the episode. The first one was quite obviously checking in, albeit in the casual, semi-involved way Kato does most things. Her second call is also checking in, but neither call feels the slightest bit out of obligation.

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It feels like Kato and Tomoya want nothing else than to be talking to each other, here and now. The conversation flows so easily, it almost drizzles like warm honey into a cup of piping hot tea. It’s very much a routine boyfriend-girlfriend chat, right down to Kato being in a loud place where it’s hard to hear, but not hanging up or calling back later.

But it also happens to be extremely well-written and nuanced boyfriend/girlfriend chat, with double significance, as they’re also talking on the level of artist and muse. Saekano likes to joke around with the tropes of its genre, but it is also perfectly capable of being dead serious and sincere when it’s called for.

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Here’s just a taste of the honey, which starts with a few seconds of silence by Kato, indicating even she must steel herself to say certain things:

Kato: What was it about me that appealed to you, Aki-kun? …You know, like, “Boy, it sure was fun when we did that,” or, “Wow, I sure love that about her,” or even the opposite, and something that you didn’t like.
Tomoya: Have you contracted a fatal disease and you won’t live to see me tomorrow?
Kato: It’s nothing that dramatic, but, well, is there?
Tomoya: Let me think…Well, everything was fun. Really fun.
Kato: Then there’s no room for improvement?

Tomoya goes on to say he maybe wished she had been a little more overbearing, though not mean-spirited like the other two girls. Kato doesn’t get the difference, but in any case, signs off for the night. The phone call strikes a perfect balance of honesty, bluntness, relaxedness, and excitement.

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Tomoya proceeds to sit at his laptop and then hastily waste another day, and then a fair chunk of another, and then the voices of self-doubt start to ring in his head.

Returning to the hill where Kato dropped her beret in a desperate search for inspiration, Tomoya finds only a hill, and the doubt continues to build until his eyes water, feeling helpless to stop this whole enterprise from ending before it began…

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…Then a white beret floats into his field of vision, almost like a flying saucer in the sky. The alien before him is only Kato, but she’s been…transformed. The cherry blossom petals return at the sight of her in her super-moe dating-sim heroine outfit. Not only that, Kato is talking and acting precisely the way such a heroine would in a game. Every word; every gesture.

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Before Utaha left Tomoya’s place, she told him if he’s truly serious about this dream, it’s not enough to merely convince her and the rest of the circle of his plan’s merit. He must bring them into it, and get them to want to give it their all, through the sheer force of his will and charisma. Utaha, not surprisingly, wants him to be forceful.

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In her motivational heroine act, Kato is already being pretty forceful. Turns out she went to Eriri and Utaha and begged them to lend her their strength. Eriri perfected her wardrobe, while Utaha handled her dialogue and mannerisms. And by God, not only do they prove they’re the real deal, but Kato proves she’s the ideal blank(-ish) canvas upon which to paint Tomoya’s dream game.

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And while I know part of her is simply putting on an act to inspire him to press on, that act, and the desire to carry it out, comes from a place of genuine affectionate concern for Tomoya; a place of love, just as his legitimate, if not overtly-stated, affection for her is what started him on this path in the first place.

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And there’s no better ‘cover’ to say the things they say and do the things they do with minimized embarrassment, than under the more detatched guise of creator+heroine. It’s not just a guise I see through, but Eriri and Utaha as well. Any girl who can kick Tomoya out of his disappointing sedentary existence to this extent is a girl to be taken seriously.

But the bottom line is, Kato makes everyone around her better. Individually, she, Eriri, and Utaha had a slight motivating effect on Tomoya. Working collaboratively increased that effect exponentially, which in Tomoya’s case, meant he eventually did write something down.

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While negotiating when Kato will be able to leave his place Tomoya agrees to 6 AM rather than 7, not just because “girls take longer to get ready”, but because “it would be crazy to end the same way two episodes in a row!” The meta moments of earlier eps are still here, but they’re more smoothly integrated in the narrative, and when they do pop up like here, they’re a pleasant and hilarious surprise rather than a distraction.

Naturally, Eriri and Utaha lambast Tomoya’s proposal for being too overt and indulgent, which makes sense, considering he’s really telling the story of how he met and fell for Kato Megumi…who he worked so hard last night, she’s asleep beside him in the cafe booth. Those facts alone guarantee Salt & Pepper’s criticism will be tinged with resentment. This show is just too frikkin’ good.

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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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