Let’s face facts: slice-of-life high school comedies are a dime a dozen nowadays. They’re easy to make, easy to market and they’re almost always guaranteed money for a production studio, new or old. So whenever I hear about a new slice-of-life with a decent twist, I get pretty excited to see if it’ll be one of those slice-of-life shows that actually shakes it up. It is for these reasons combined that Kotoura-san is without a doubt the biggest disappointment of the season, and maybe even of all of 2013.
Let’s start with the premise. Kotoura Haruka is 15 years old and has psychic powers. These not only allow her to read minds, they seem to make everyone’s thoughts audible as speech, thus forcing Haruka to hear everyone’s thoughts as she would if they were normally talking to her. As a young girl this causes mountains of trouble for Haruka, as she is unable to tell when people are speaking and when their thoughts are being projected. The first episode of Kotoura-san opens with a montage spanning the entire first half, consisting of Haruka revealing her grade school friends crushes, being ostracized at school and at home, her parents divorcing and ultimately her mother abandoning her to live with her grandfather, seemingly her only relative left, all happening by the time she is about 8 or 9 years old. Quite a heavy opening for what appeared to be a light-hearted comedy! The rest of the episode is Haruka starting at (yet another) new school, this time a high school. She is cynical of everyone and speaks to no one, as she assumes they will hate her. Because this makes her appears standoffish and creepy, the prophecy is self-fulfilling and no one likes her. Enter male romantic lead, Manabe Yoshihisa.
Manabe-kun is the only person to try speaking with Haruka, and she is at first confused and bothered by his advances. This quickly creates an interesting dynamic of Harkua, who has only ever experienced the eventual abandonment of everyone she ever cared about, having a friend who doesn’t care about her psychic powers. Manabe-kun is impressed by Haruka’s mind reading, and promises to be her friend and to never let her down or leave her, as long as Haruka can ignore his constant fantasies (involving her). Right here was where I felt like the show had room to impress me over the coming episodes. I was excited to see what would come of their relationship, like if Manabe-kun would learn to stop fantasizing over Haruka as they got closer to each other. Once the show introduces the first major arc along with the first antagonist, Moritani, I was really liking what I was seeing. The show does not make light of Haruka’s PTSD nor does it make everything easy to swallow for the audience. Parts of this show are very emotionally difficult, but never did it seem exploitative or melodramatic. I was hooked. Then came episode 4.
Backing up slightly, remember that Haruka was left with her grandfather. The first episode clearly depicts her as living alone, in the city where she goes to school. It is not clear why exactly this is, it’s easy to assume that it’s because her grandfather lives far away, but it is not touched upon. Episode 4 reveals that her grandfather does live very far away, in a mansion estate. But this is not why Haruka lives in the city. Her grandfather is a disgusting man who thinks of nothing but touching his granddaughter in actually surprisingly gross ways, and here is where the show had a choice, and took the wrong option.
Up until now, Haruka experiences and is shown to have experienced numerous hardships and tragedies in her personal life. We are presented with her final relative who has not estranged themselves from her, and they are a lecherous scumbag. If the first arc demonstrated anything, it’s that the show’s writers can do a good job of taking something truly tragic and letting Manabe-kun show Haruka that despite all she has seen, there is still someone who truly cares about her. Her abusive grandfather’s actions can be viewed as disgusting by Manabe-kun, and he can be left in the past as Haruka and Manabe march forward to a better life for Hakura. Or Manabe and the granddad can laugh it up as they discuss what parts of Haruka’s body turn them on more.
It is safe to say that episode 4 is where the show lost me. The writers have done something very crass in portraying Haruka’s emotional trauma as tragic sometimes and comedic other times depending on their whim. How absolutely crushing would it be if your last remaining relative was a sexual abuser? And how much more upsetting is it to make light of that situation? This cheapens all the abuse that Haruka has experienced and turns the show’s mood completely on its head. Why make the viewer care about a character’s trauma when you as a writer clearly don’t? It leaves the audience wondering what the point of the show is, not to mention making Manabe-kun fully unlikeable, changing him from a loveable goofball with a heart of gold into a gross motherfucker, out-grossed only by the granddad of his girlfriend.
The feeling I was left with once I’d dropped Kotoura-san was one of disappointment but also one of resignation. I started telling myself that even though the show seemed to have such promise, I was still foolish to think that I would get something truly satisfying out of what was still probably gonna be a low-to-middling comedy. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed and continue to enjoy many other slice-of-life shows. However, save for two exceptions to the rule, I’d hardly say any of them were meaningful or had a story or concept that engaged me. In the ever-growing field of moe/school comedy anime, only Nichijou and Hidamari Sketch held my enthusiasm or at the very least had something to say that resonated with me.
I guess ultimately what I’m getting at is that if creators want people to give a shit about the genre anymore, then they need to step up their game. Hidamari Sketch reduced the visual language of a slightly-above-average 4-koma moe show to its absolute basics and thrived on abstraction and experimentation with the depiction of its otherwise incredibly normal subjects. Nichijou analyzed the tropes and elements of slice-of-life anime and shoved them in front of the viewer’s face so we could learn to laugh with and at the conventions of school life anime. All of this leaves me completely unable to recommend Kotoura-san to anyone, as even fans of mediocre comedic anime will find funnier and less jarring examples with little to no effort.