Little Busters–Anime Early Impressions

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No other anime series this season has been as long and anxiously awaited as Little Busters!, an adaptation of the most popular visual novels ever released by Visual Art’s/Key. I haven’t played the games, which are not available in English, but I have enjoyed anime adaptations of some of their other VNs including Air, Kanon, Clannad and Angel Beats!. (I call these “Jun Maeda stories” because Jun Maeda writes the scripts for the games and composes much of the music.)

However there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth among the fans when it was announced that Little Busters! would be produced by J.C. Staff instead of Kyoto Animation. KyoAni did Air, Kanon and Clannad and those were all big hits. Angel Beats! was done by P.A. Works and was less successful, though I felt the real problem there was that Jun Maeda wrote the screenplay and his inexperience showed.

In this case I thought the fans’ concern was probably excessive. Kyoto Animation is a small studio known mainly for the high quality of its animation. But animation quality is generally less important than the quality of the writing and voice acting in making a successful anime. J.C. Staff is a large studio with many successful shows to its credit. Its animation quality may not be as good as KyoAni’s but it is generally above average.

Unfortunately I am starting to feel that the fans were right. This might have been a much better show if KyoAni had done it.

Little Busters! begins much like Clannad with some comic episodes devoted to high school hijinks. If the past is any guide we will have a series of increasingly poignant story arcs culminating in a heart-rending tragic climax. This will be resolved by a happy ending that at first seems to make no sense, but if you go back and rewatch the series and think about it the meaning may become clear. These shows all seem silly at first glance but their appeal lies in their underlying complexity and emotional impact.

When Riki Naoe, the protagonist, was a little boy he was emotionally devastated by the loss of his parents. He was eventually pulled out of his depression by 4 other children who invited him to join their gang, the “Little Busters.” (In Japanese slang “Busters” means a group of heroes who fight for Justice–as in Ghostbusters.)

The Little Busters had many mischievous adventures and made many wonderful memories together. However now they are in high school and are faced with the prospect that the graduation of the oldest members will lead to the permanent dissolution of the group.

Riki (left) is still the smallest and weakest of the boys, with childlike features and a girlish voice. (He is voiced by Yui Horie, a popular female seiyuu.) He is the only member of the group who is basically normal–the others are kind of nuts. However he suffers from narcolepsy.

Kyousuke Natsume (center) is the leader of the group. He is given to resounding dramatic pronouncements though most of what he proposes is crazy.

Kengo Miyazawa (right) is exceptionally strong. He is devoted to the art of Kendo and always wears a traditional hakama.

Masato Inohara is very loud, very muscular and rather dim. He often engages in duels with other members using randomly selected weapons such as a banana or a cat. He usually loses.

Rin Natsume is Kyousuke’s little sister. She is unusually strong but pathologically shy, unable to converse with anyone who is not a member of the group. She is obsessed with cats.

Kyousuke decides that the group must spend their final year together engaged in some great activity. He decrees that they must form a baseball team. Kengo refuses to participate since it would interfere with Kendo practice. This means that they must recruit 5 new members. Which in turn means that we will eventually have 10 main characters–twice the number of a typical anime series. Each of them is presumably entitled to at least one story arc.

From left to right: Komari Kamikita, Haruka Saigusa, Kudryavka Noumi, Yuiko Kurugaya, Mio Nishizono and Sasami Sasasegawa. Presumably these are all potential romantic interests for Riki, but he can only end up with one girl.

So far only two of these girls have actually joined the group.

Komari Kamikita is a clumsy childish airhead with a voice like squeaking chalk. However she is a very good person who volunteers at a retirement home. She seems to be the focus of the first poignant story arc which is just starting to unfold.

Yuiko Kurugaya is domineering in a sexy way. She enjoys teasing Riki.

The early episodes rely heavily on slapstick comedy and I am sorry to say that for the most part they aren’t very funny. I can’t help comparing this to Kyoto Animation’s hilarious new show Chuunibyou demo Koi ga Shitai. Physical comedy is one area where the quality of the animation can make a big difference. In this respect at least I’m afraid the fans’ fears were correct. This show would probably have been a lot better if KyoAni had done it.

I’m not quite ready to give up on the show. For one thing in the past Jun Maeda’s stories have tended to grow on me. I’ve often had a negative initial reaction but eventually ended up liking them. And slapstick comedy isn’t really what these stories are about–it’s just window dressing. Still, anyone who tuned in without knowing what kind of show this is supposed to be has probably dropped it by now, which doesn’t bode well for the show’s success.

I find one factor particularly worrisome. The show is scheduled to run for 26 episodes (2 cours). However an interview with Michiru Shimada, a J.C. Staff production suggests that they are planning to stretch this out much further.

After a first run through of the game I thought 100 episodes might be required to get everything in, but if we were thorough 200 would be necessary. If you make it into an anime, that’s just how much volume it has.

Translated by Sankaku Complex (site NSFW).

Given the game’s popularity they no doubt believe that this show will a big hit that they can milk for a long time, but this seems a very high-risk approach. Consider that Clannad, the longest existing Jun Maeda adaptation, was wrapped up in 2 seasons of 24 episodes each and I don’t remember any complaints that it was too short.

100 episodes implies 4 seasons and 200 would be 8 seasons. Some popular daytime anime series can hit such numbers but it is a pretty unrealistic goal for a late-night series. Late-night anime generally loses money on the original broadcast and depends on the sale of high-priced DVDs to make up the difference. Are the fans going to be fanatical enough to buy 200 episodes on DVD or BD? (With DVDs priced at the equivalent of $60 containing 2 episodes each?)

Furthermore the production company won’t approve a new season without waiting to make sure that the DVDs for the previous season are selling well. This implies long gaps between the seasons and a good chance that the series will come to an abrupt end without a proper resolution. Or maybe there would be a rushed unsatisfactory Evangelion-style ending.

Maybe J.C. Staff can pull it off and keep up fan enthusiasm that long, but I would feel better if I thought they had a more realistic plan.