I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve cried watching anime. The end of the first Gunslinger Girl series made me tear up a little bit, the realization of the last story in Kino’s Journey wrung a few half-formed tears from my eye sockets, and each episode of Aria and nearly every one of Natsume Yuujinchou left me a blubbering mess unable to function. I’m far from an impenetrable, emotionless stone wall. Now with all that said, Saikano didn’t come close to making me cry. There are several reasons for this, which I’ll get to shortly.
On the cusp of war, two students named Chise and Shuji start dating. While they’re not particularly eager to progress their relationship or get to know each other, their feelings for each other eventually start to bud once the initial hesitation is moved past. However, all is not good in the hood. What starts out fairly ordinarily quickly takes a turn for the worse as war begins its slow climb up the Japanese islands, slowly creeping up to our ill-fated lovers. While this is going on, Chise is slowly modified into the only successful counter against the invading forces. As the series progresses, she becomes more and more inhuman and Shuji has to puzzle out whether he’s able to be with her through all that’s going on.
The first thing that’s noticeable is that the animation hasn’t aged well. It isn’t terrible or sloppy, but the colors look muted and washed out. It’s not anything to gripe about, but it bears the telltale mark of being made during that strange anime period that wasn’t particularly concerned with vibrancy. Aesthetics aren’t the series’ strong suit, but they do the job well enough to not be a hindrance.
The second, much less forgivable thing that I noticed was that the voice acting is well below average. I was lucky to have both the dub and the sub available, and they had the exact opposite problems; the former had two well acted leads, but everyone else was too wooden to take seriously. The latter had fairly good acting across the board, with the glaring exception of Shuji, whose VA emotes with all the intensity and passion of somebody who accidentally dropped their toast butter-side down. The performance is rarely convincing for the majority of the series, creating the odd scenario where he’ll be lamenting something that he’d done to Chise, tears streaming down his anguished face, all the while saying everything in a depressed monotone.
Considering that a significant portion of the series focuses on his various dilemmas and emotional breakdowns, he ends up being the lead weight that brings the series down to mediocre levels. A good portion of the time, I found myself laughing at his delivery more than sympathizing with the emotions he was supposed to be expressing. It’s quite the shame, especially when everything else is fairly decent at its absolute worst.
Despite the garnish of encroaching war and death, it’s the romance between Chise and Shuji that’s the real meaty content. As far as romances go it’s pretty well done, balancing angst and tragedy with the occasional ray of hope to create a relationship that has realistic ups and downs given the situation that the two find themselves in. Yet, this isn’t enough to save it from its significant problems, namely the plot and the aforementioned horrid voice acting of Shuji.
The plot is a series of peaks and valleys, moving between effective soul crushing and dry dialogue with the flip of a hat. Particularly in the middle, it feels like too much of a drag to carry on. Ground is retread more than it should be and there’s a hiatus put on the focus between Shuji and Chise. Together, they’re a strong unit that carries the show. Apart, their struggles aren’t interesting enough to do the same and it simply becomes a slog. Even the growing number of deaths doesn’t spice things up; mostly because they’re incredibly predictable once you get a feel for the series’ formula.
It’s for these reasons and many smaller ones that Saikano didn’t make me cry. Hell, it didn’t even make me feel morose. It’s not for a lack of effort, since the series does all it can to make you care for these characters, and it does it with the same bravado and skill as some of the greatest emotion manipulators. Yet no matter how much effort it puts in, it’s a tragedy that’s simply unable to move me in its animated form. It proves that no matter how perfect the concept, the execution of each element is crucial to enjoyment.
Oddly enough, the last few episodes are probably one of the biggest turnarounds I’ve seen. The plot tightens up, the suspense is heightened, Chise’s declining humanity accelerates at a heartbreaking pace, and even Shuji’s emoting improves considerably. However, even a sharp increase in quality does little to make up for the middling quality of the rest of the show.
To summarize neatly, Saikano is a fantastic concept with a compellingly tragic relationship let down by a minute number of significant problems. From shoddy voice acting in important places to a dip in pacing around the middle, there are enough glaring flaws to make me hesitant to recommend it to anybody. I imagine if I read it in printed form it would be much easier to digest the way it was intended, but its success as an anime is arguable. It’s easily the biggest disappointment I’ve had all year for these reasons.