OP: 「Button」 by PENGUIN RESEARCH
I don’t know if ReLIFE represents the future of anime distribution, but we could do a lot worse that having it represent the future of anime creatively. It’s a square peg of a series in almost every way, but somehow it seems to have found a bit of an audience both in Japan and the West. A live-action movie has been greenlit, and the manga has seen a modest bump in sales (which one assumes was the major reason why the anime exists in the first place). It’s always nice to see smart and emotionally challenging anime, but it’s even better to see them get a little bit of attention.
Summer 2016 was a pretty a strong season, albeit one with some oddball scheduling and distribution quirks. I can’t say that I’m a huge fan of the way ReLIFE was ReLEASED, but in the end I suppose what really matters is whether the experiment was successful from a commercial standpoint. I don’t know the answer to that question because I’m not exactly sure how a show distributed like this one would define success, but I hope the production committee is pleased if that means we’d get more anime as thoughtful and well-crafted as ReLIFE.
There are a number of things that are exceptional about this series, in fact. The music for starters – the BGM is exceptional (especially the jazzy piano eps, like the finale) and the decision to use pop songs that Arata and Chizuru (cough) might have been listening to when they were teenagers as EDs was a brilliant one. The cast is exceptional (Ono Kensho is developing into a fine and versatile seiyuu), and the series dealt with some really complicated and difficult themes in a refreshingly restrained and insightful way. ReLIFE is definitely not a mass-produced model.
As finales go, ReLIFE gave us exactly the sort you’d expect based on its track record. I don’t know how faithful this was to the manga – I suspect the content generally was, though I’m less sure about the sequencing of it – but this was an ending that felt like an ending while still acknowledging that the story is ongoing. That’s never an easy thing to do with an unfinished source material, but ReLIFE is an exceptionally professional production – the storytelling is sure-footed and confident and there’s never been any sense of drift or indecision in the writing and direction. One way or another, you knew Kosaka and Yokote would deliver the goods.
The bombshell of the finale was perhaps not such a bombshell – at least not in terms of the surprise factor. I’d more or less sussed out what was going on with Hishiro (maybe to some extent helped along by incessant hinting from commenters, one of the reasons I’m not nuts for the Netflix-style full-series release) , but it’s nice to see it officially acknowledged on-screen. Surprise or not, Hishiro being test subject 001 certainly has a bombshell effect on the story. I still have some questions the anime didn’t answer (not least why a seemingly terrible fit like Hishiro was chosen in the first place) but this revelation both explains much and opens the door to many possibilities in the future.
As is often the case with ReLIFE, it’s in the quieter moments that you tend to find the most meaningful exchanges. I was very struck by Chizuru’s comments expressing puzzlement over why Kariu would confess to Ooga, knowing they might be separated. This notion – whether it’s worth risking pain in order to experience something meaningful in the moment – is one of the fundamental questions of human existence. The reveal that Chizuru is a ReLIFE test subject obviously casts it in a more immediate light, but even if she were a normal high school student it would be the most understandable and human of all questions (and one totally in-character for her).
When you consider that every romantic relationship but one – if you’re lucky – will end in separation, that every pet you invite into your life will likely leave you too soon, is it any wonder we ask ourselves if it mightn’t be better to close ourselves off and protect ourselves from pain? Yet every time we do so we make our lives in the present less rich. Chizuru is a perfect test case for this of course, as socially awkward as she is, and she and Arata fit together emotionally as neatly as can be. If indeed the plan was to bring the two of them together, Yoake and Onoya deserve at least some credit.
If I’m to find fault with the decisions that Kosaka-sensei and Yokote-sensei made with this adaptation, perhaps a little too much time was spent on satellite characters and their stories. Kariu is an interesting girl and she and Ooga have excellent on-screen chemistry, but her trials dominated the narrative too much in the second half of the series. The first half of the finale is devoted mostly to this couple, and it’s pretty emblematic of the second half of ReLIFE – relatively conventional and predictable teen drama executed extremely well. I’m glad we got to see the two of them fumble through this confession and first date (I loved that Ooga just blurted it out) but I’m also glad they cleared the way to focus on Arata and Chizuru in the B-part.
The biggest reason their story works as well as it does is the same reason ReLIFE as a whole does, namely that the characters are both very believable and very likeable. Chizuru may not be an actual kid, but in many ways she may as well be – which is why, I think, she plays the role more convincingly than Arata. Set off against the backdrop of the timeless fireworks festival (an event whose popularity in Japan is not at all exaggerated by manga and anime), we see Arata torn between his better judgment and his heart. It’s clear now why Onoya ans Yoake were so willing to push the two of them together, but of course neither of them knows the truth about the other – which makes their conflicted feelings about becoming a couple that much more fascinating.
With the truth about Chizuru out (to us), the possibility that she and Arata might be more than a fleeting memory to each other is very real. Even if you buy the conceit of ReLIFE, the part about the students forgetting the test subjects was always the most far-fetched and hard to rationalize. But I guess it’s best to take it as poetry and poetic license, because a firework – exploding gloriously and just as quickly disappearing – is exactly what most high school love affairs are. Funnily enough, I’m not sure the decision Arata and Chizuru are facing would be all that different if they knew the truth about each other.
What I love as much as anything about ReLIFE is how, in the end, Arata ended up being so completely different than what he appeared to be when we met him. Our view of him was colored by his view of himself – a loser, a NEET, a failure. But he’s none of those things – he’s smart (high school testing aside), compassionate, idealistic and keenly sensitive to the pain of others. His final decision on the night of the hanabitaikai is classically Arata – he sets aside his own feelings and encourages Chizuru to achieve happiness and open herself up to others. If indeed she does so, whether in Arata’s presence or not, he can take much of the credit – and Chizuru is keenly aware of it (and tells him so). Arata’s participation in ReLIFE may very well have had more impact on Chizuru’s life than on his own, and I think he’d be perfectly fine with that.
As is so often the case with these kinds of (effectively) seinen adaptations, we’re left with a lot of unfinished business. At least with ReLIFE those of us who want to follow the story in manga form (and don’t read Japanese very well) have the option to do so. When excellent series like this end I’m always of a mind to be grateful for what we have rather than regretful for what we don’t, because it’s a small miracle that a few such series are actually adapted into anime in the first place. Thank goodness for shows like ReLIFE that shed some light on the human condition with compassion and insight, because they make the world a better place for those of us that watch them.