Adolescent feelings continued to smash awkwardly together in the third episode of Kokoro Connect. This one opened right after the conclusion of the second, with Taichi challenging Inaba on her decision to declare his love for Iori while possessing his body. And so we got a long scene that was likely this episode’s best, but still demonstrated the extreme messiness of this production.
Both Inaba and Taichi were defined in this scene, in bold, somewhat unconvincing colors. Asked why she was pushing him and Iori together, Inaba responded with “facing adversity to save someone fits you perfectly, doesn’t it?” Taichi is the classic “must save people” hero in Inaba’s mind, and this episode did little to dispel that impression. Centering your romcom on a visual novel-style woman-saver is a questionable choice at the best of times, and beyond that, this conversation felt a lot more like the audience being told character information than characters actually interacting like people.
Hearing Inaba dictate both Taichi’s and her own personalities gave me some uncomfortable clues as to why this author might have chosen a body-swapping premise. Taichi was framed as the “must save people” hero, Inaba quickly adopted the role of overly wise side character, and Iori was framed as “the closest to breaking down,” essentially a narrative conflict to be solved. All of those roles are extremely broad ones, conflict-ready instruments made to strike against each other. And body-swapping drama might as well be the MacGuffin equivalent of characters like that – an extremely blunt dramatic instrument, tailor-made to force characters to confront each other’s big dark secrets.
That said, I may just not yet be giving this author enough credit. While framing Taichi as “man who saves” and Iori as “woman who must be saved” is crappy, tedious storytelling, that framing all came courtesy of Inaba, who is not a neutral party. Or rather, her own lack of neutrality may or may not be influencing her assessment of the situation. It’s clear Inaba also has feelings for Taichi, but the character type Inaba has often been embodying is the wise, jaded side character who pushes others together. Whether that type is effective or not generally comes down to one thing – whether that character just thinks they have it all figured out, or whether they’re actually positioned at the author’s perspective, possessing an inhuman degree of comprehension of their world’s dramatic laws. If Inaba is just jaded, unhappy, and presumptuous, this could work out. If she’s embodying the author’s perspective, we’ve got trouble.
Unfortunately, this episode’s second half didn’t give me much hope for the show’s nuance going forward. Following that confrontation, Kokoro Connect jumped quickly from Aoki and Taichi goofing off in the girls’ bodies to one of those prepackaged intimacy twists, where Aoki not-so-gracefully mentioned that Yui’s body seemed naturally afraid of men. And so Yui ran off, Aoki cursed his own idiocy, and everything came to a head with Yui and Taichi switching bodies that night.
The final confrontation between Yui and Taichi was likely the best-directed scene of the show so far. The show pulled some excellent atmosphere out of its framing of their little park – the various rides and monuments were given some nice visual personality, and a sequence of shots smartly framed Yui as trapped within the frame. Unfortunately, it was also likely the worst-written. Having confronted Yui on her androphobia, Taichi learned that she was afraid of men because of an attempted rape in her past. And so, in order to “solve” this emotional problem, Taichi kicked her in (his) balls, “proving” that men are nothing to be scared of.
There was basically no part of this conflict resolution that didn’t disappoint me. From the way Taichi’s lack of sensitivity was framed as emotional strength, to the cavalier use of rape as a convenient plot device, to the immediate jump from that to slapstick comedy, to the fact that this ridiculous solution actually worked, all of this played as sub-visual novel Woman Saving. Having serious emotional trauma be revealed and then solved within five minutes of screentime rendered Yui’s feelings more or less meaningless, and did more to establish Taichi as a reliable nice guy than it did anything for her character. It was cheap and lazy storytelling, broad strokes personal drama that used the heaviness of its tangible details to mitigate the emptiness of its emotional content.
It’s not an easy thing to write an effective character drama. There’s a reason I so often highlight the ways good character shows focus on tiny details – those tiny details are generally the best way to actually impart your characters with humanity, and your conflicts with solidity. Relying on big, clumsy strokes like a rape backstory or a simple physical solution isn’t just cliche and insensitive, it just doesn’t parse as real, and actually lessens the audience’s ability to care about your characters. It’s the character drama equivalent of One Punch Man – perhaps satisfying on the most visceral and superficial level, but lacking in the substance that might make victory fulfilling at all.
So yeah, this episode of Kokoro Connect dipped into low-tier harem adaptation storytelling, and I’m certainly not happy about it. That’s not even just a “this was a bad narrative choice” problem – the fact that this writer and this adaptation crew felt this would be a satisfying conclusion to Yui’s conflict deeply impacts my confidence that they’ll be able to tell a compelling story from here out. I love character dramas, but I’m not into them for histrionic backstories and one-punch dramatic resolutions. I want something real.
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