Kokoro Connect starts off with a somewhat uneven first episode. That doesn’t really come down to the production, or even the storytelling – the show has nice painted backgrounds that give everything something of a faded, nostalgic look, and the story moves quickly and gracefully into a compelling premise (suddenly we’re swapping bodies for no apparent reason!). The character designs are distinctive and expressive, and nothing really drags. As far as fundamental composition goes, this premiere is a very solid affair. The real issue here is based in the uneasy relationship between the show’s clear goals and its fundamental nature.
Kokoro Connect is clearly a show about coming to understand other people, a theme almost implicit in its body-switching premise. The show stars five high school freshmen: Taichi, Iori, Aoki, Yui, and Inaba. None of these five have all that much in common, but they’re brought together into a single club by virtue of all being slight weirdoes who weren’t happy anywhere else. The first third of this episode is dedicated largely to banter between Taichi, Iori, and Inaba, where we learn that Taichi’s a low-key version of the usual snarky protagonist, Iori is very upbeat but also far from innocent, and Inaba is basically the straight man, sometimes playing along with Iori but also sometimes getting exasperated with her acquaintances’ behavior.
All of that is well and good, and Kokoro Connect is actually better about establishing grounded personal characteristics than most shows. There’s actual banter here – characters take the lines of others and run with them, twisting conversations in silly directions based on their own personalities. Conversations are allowed to serve no purpose beyond articulating the tenor of various relationships, which is a very valuable thing in a character-focused show. The only problem is, well, that some of the dialogue just doesn’t sound like human beings.
Kokoro Connect’s biggest issue so far is that it’s simultaneously trying to be a character story and a capital-a Anime. Inaba falls back on canned lines like “I don’t recall asking you to elaborate on that topic,” and Iori’s big introduction involves her advertising panty flashes to Taichi. Later on, a side character walks across Taichi-in-Iori’s-body groping himself and reacts by saying “it’s more effective when someone else fondles them for you.” All of this stuff is fairly routine by anime standards, but it’s also very bad, completely inhuman dialogue. Legitimately good character stories can’t be Anime in this particular way, or at least, moments of this diminish the show they could potentially be (like Oregairu’s miserable Sensei jokes, for example).
Of course, stuff like that only annoys me because everything else here has great potential. While some of the overt lines about getting naked and whatnot seem unbelievable, it’s nice to see a show acknowledge that teens of both genders definitely have sex on the brain. Conversations and jokes build across a diverse set of characters, and people actually discuss each other’s feelings. Exchanges like “I guess that was Iori trying to be considerate” followed by “the problem is that you never know if she’s doing it on purpose” both ring true to insecure friendships and seem like great lead-ins to the show’s central conceit. The fact that Inaba doesn’t switch bodies in this episode seems to make her feel left out in a way the show never directly highlights, merely having her describe the switching as “something that happens to the four of you” near the end. And the slight illustrations of each character’s disparate home life add a lovely capstone to the episode, adding just a little more context to each of their feelings.
Plus, I haven’t even gotten into this episode’s (and likely this show altogether’s) real appeal – seeing animators and voice actors depict characters swapping between each other’s bodies. The show flat-out wouldn’t work if it weren’t absolutely clear when characters have switched, and in this episode, the flip between Taichi and Iori is a clear and tangible highlight. Seeing Iori’s vocal affectation and body language applied to Taichi was probably the most fun part of this episode – after spending half an episode establishing Taichi as a low-energy guy whose body language matched his sardonic personality, he was suddenly bouncing around the room, gesticulating wildly and pitching his voice to match the energy of his friend. Moments like that, of pure visual and even vocal storytelling, are a real treasure.
So I’m alright on Kokoro Connect, all told. The fragments of canned dialogue make me worry, but the show is clearly about people being people in a way I can really respect, and it’s also making the most of its very entertaining premise. I’m happy to ride this train out.
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