Anime Review: KOTOURA-SAN, Episodes 1-4

Best. Opening. Ever. Well, maybe that's a little hyperbolic, but not nearly as much as you're probably thinking. I queued up Kotoura-San because hey, why not: a light anime comedy about a girl who can read minds, and the way her psychic powers invariably get her into trouble? Might be good for a few laughs until I get tired of the fanservice, I thought, and then suddenly I was flat on the floor, crushed under the weight of some seriously dark, weapons-grade melodrama as the heroine's ability to overhear what people would rather she didn't know ripped her life apart over the course of a single ten-minute montage.

Obviously it's not as if this was the first show I'd ever watched to speculate about how mind-reading might well be a curse, rather than a blessing. And I could see it was swinging the horrifying plot developments around a little too freely. But taken in isolation Kotoura-San's first pre-credits sequence was still one of the most captivating pieces of exposition I'd seen in years, a mostly pitch-perfect, beautifully succinct little bit of scene-setting that got more storytelling done in those ten minutes than many shows accomplish in an entire season.

The heroine's schoolmates hate her because she unthinkingly spills their secrets; the teachers think she's a compulsive liar; the doctors who take a look at her think her parents are making it all up; their marriage slowly falls apart, with neither mother nor father wanting to take their daughter into custody - Christ, the feels! I can't breathe! If the entire show ran at this emotional pitch it'd have to carry a health warning. But then Kotoura meets Manabe, the amiable lech at her new school who's the first person to react to her power with anything bar fear and mistrust, and she starts to wonder if just maybe things might get better.

Kotoura-San is a fairly odd genre mashup, then, one plot strand a What If straight out of overwrought 1950s science fiction, the other your typical oversexed high-school comedy where a horny nerd teaches the nervous, uptight female lead how to love. The real surprise is that, four episodes in, it seems to have managed to combine these two into something worth watching. It's an awkward mix, admittedly, one that makes some frustrating missteps and raises nagging doubts about how much longevity it's really got. For the moment, though, this is a genuinely funny little dramedy where the jokes mostly hit home and the moments of reflection prove unexpectedly moving.

Which is not to say this is about to win a whole slew of new fans from people who wouldn't ordinarily touch Japanese animation with a ten foot pole. Slim chance of that: the comedy trades in the same kind of boob jokes, spit-takes and switchback changes of perspective animation studios have been using for the past twenty years. Manabe distracts Kotoura from her angst because she can't concentrate on what people think of her when he's leering over some new rose-tinged erotic fantasy where she's front and centre. The only school club that'll take the two of them on is dedicated to the study of ESP and convenes in a dungeon slap bang in the middle of otherwise perfectly ordinary classrooms.

Yet the softcore self-indulgence is - for the most part - never malicious or predatory. When the cast attempt to manipulate Kotoura one way or another (emotionally, fantasising about her, so on) it's never glorified in the way so many other shows resort to. The perv with a heart of gold is a troubling archetype, but Kotoura-San comes a lot closer to making Manabe a believable character than you might first expect. The lechery is a part of him - he's a teenage guy! - but it's not his raison d'etre, and it's both comical seeing how obvious he is and genuinely emotive seeing him rise above his baser impulses, if only for a while.

I have my doubts whether the show can keep its balance - again, it's an awkward mix as it is, switchbacking a little too abruptly between pixelated softcore and the heroine agonising over how everyone hates her. There are definitely signs that it could stay the course: the melodrama is relatively believable, and the first couple of minor character arcs progress much better than most of the competition. Tsui Hark this ain't; still, there are moments, even when the writing gets particularly manic-depressive, in which you realise the story just touched on something remarkably subtle and barely called attention to it at all.

At the same time there's already a sense the show could easily get a little too episodic. The first four episodes see a number of pressing questions largely wrapped up, and it seems a little too plausible the writers might just decide to go for a new hilariously incongruous emotional dilemma week after week - sort someone's problem out with some homespun wisdom, see Kotoura blush some more, no further overall plot development, Bob's your mother's brother. Not to mention the introduction of a creepy old man, cracking wise in a manner that borders on making jokes about child abuse, is not really what I wanted to see.

Despite these flaws I'm still after giving this one the benefit of the doubt for a little longer. In a season plagued by yet more dull, generic genre productions where you could swap the protagonists around en masse and no-one would notice, Kotoura-San stands out. It lacks the refinement or the intelligence to really handle the themes it brings up as well as they deserve, and the humour's constantly in danger of veering a little too off-colour, but it's both funny and genuinely affecting in a way very few anime shows have been of late. I'm not holding my breath it can keep this up, but I really, really want to be proven wrong.

Kotoura-San is currently screening - region permitting - on the video streaming site Crunchyroll.
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