In more recent years, production studios have taken to riding the coattails of popular trends rather than finding ways to push the anime medium to its limits. With the current financial situation as it is, writers and directors will often turn to quick and easy solutions, which is really just a nice way of saying they will blatantly rip off other works. Although it can be readily argued that original plot lines and characters are already facing extinction, this still shouldn’t be used to justify the absence of proper writing conventions such as a logical flow and natural character development. Consequently, when writers become too focused on presenting more innovative twists to a tried and true formula, these core elements become negatively affected as a result.
One of the more popular trends in recent years seems to be stories set in the backdrop of a hazy summer involving a group of youths trying to find their way through life. While this initial set-up is nothing new, there is a good reason as to why it has managed to persist throughout the ages. Not only do these tales usually incorporate coming of age and slice of life elements together, but they also manage to weave a number of realistic character stories into the mix. Titles such as last year’s Ano Hana have re-popularized this set-up, paving the way for a number of writers to follow suit. In particular, Natsuiro Kiseki, an original slice of life show animated by the studio Sunrise and directed by Seiji Mizushima, appears to be quite guilty of lazily repeating this trend at first glance. Especially when one considers more obvious similarities between the two such as their backdrops along with the whole coming of age aspect, it may seem as though Natsuiro is trying to recreate the same success. However, there are some glaring flaws in Natsuiro’s approach towards writing and characterization which causes it to become a completely different product. And it’s a product that is much worse off as a result.
At first glance Natsuiro’s premise may seem almost identical to most other slice of life titles. Four middle school girls find themselves in a bit of a rut when word gets out that one of them is moving away. Consequently, they attempt to restore their friendship while finding ways to make their summer vacation as memorable as possible. Now on paper the initial set-up of the show seems quite promising as it has already established a conflict, which paves the way for character development to occur. However, by the end of the first episode, a fatal flaw in the writing arises which causes the show to quickly change directions.
Apparently the writers felt that middle school girls just aren’t capable of sorting out their own problems. So instead they introduced one of the most convenient plot devices in recent years, a magical rock which grants wishes. Now this is just your regular, average-Joe type of rock, except it comes with the added benefit of free deux ex machinas, likely causing the writers to forgo the need to commute to the studio. Instead of having the girls actually attempt to resolve the issues surrounding themselves and their families, they simply turn to their convenient plot device to solve all their worries. The worst part is that rocky here always grants their wishes, effectively nullifying the roles of the characters themselves. Regardless of content, if a story becomes completely driven by a giant chunk of granite then there is a huge problem here. It’s one thing to simply introduce a plot device to move the story along in places, but to rely entirely on it shows how much of a character-driven drama Natsuiro is.
Although the anime medium is particularly well-suited for the integration of magical elements, it doesn’t exactly justify the execution of these elements in Natsuiro. Unless a title has clearly established from the get-go that it takes place within a fantasy-like setting, it should either stick to the confines of reality or go down the route of magical realism. With that being said, it’s obvious that Natsuiro attempted to go down the latter, except in a way which would make Satoshi Kon roll around in his grave. It’s not so much that the girl’s wishes are absurd, but rather the fact that they are all granted in the most literal way possible. As a result, any possible touch of subtlety from the show’s magical elements is lost. Some of the more successful directors in the department of magical realism such as Ikuhara and Miyazaki have carefully constructed worlds which exist within the confines of reality, yet allow for their characters to be whisked away into fantasy-like settings to escape from the troubles of their lives. The gentle touch of these magical elements never feels overbearing, adding an element of ambiguity and playfulness to the mood. However, what is observed in Natsuiro feels more like an attempt to borrow scenarios more commonly seen in ecchi titles. For example, one of the girls wants to be in two places at once, so rocky grants her the wish and literally makes two copies of her. Then another girl wishes she could be more like one of her friends, so guess what, they actually switch bodies! Considering this is supposed to be a title in the slice of life genre, it neither adheres to the confines of reality nor succeeds in the aspect of magical realism.
Though these scenarios may provide a bit of comic relief the first time around, Natsuiro’s plot structure unfortunately doesn’t offer much in terms of variety. One of the defining features of the slice of life genre is its ability to follow the character’s numerous experiences and see how they respond. Whether this involves exploring a foreign world or sharing warm memories with friends, there still needs to be something to differentiate one scenario from another. In this case, the writers have simply changed the wish in each episode, while keeping the resolution of the conflict the same. Basically, one of the girls experiences a problem, waltzes herself over to the rock to make a wish and finally realizes that magic can’t solve all of life’s issues. Not only does the plot structure cause each episode to play out in the exact same manner, but it forces the characters to come to some sort of resolution each and every time. In a work that is supposedly a character-driven drama, Natsuiro seems to place very little faith in the strength or will of its own cast.
But at least it has cute girls doing cute things, no?
Though Natsuiro does have a predominantly female cast, the show makes very little effort to differentiate each of them from their character archetypes. Each of the four girl’s personalities centers on a well-known, specific trait. Natsumi and Saki are both angst-ridden teenagers, Yuka is perpetually hyperactive and Rinko is a yet another Yuki Nagato clone. The worst part is that despite their different personalities, the girls never really seem to have any solid chemistry with one another. This is mainly due to the fact that their screen time together is spent hopelessly getting each other out of absurd situations caused by everyone’s favourite rock. While it’s difficult to craft a completely original character the girls rarely step out of their molds, except when the plot is forcing them to develop. The girls keep to their defining trait before they suddenly mature and come to a resolution, effectively halting potential development towards a more complex storyline. While this may not seem detrimental to their characters at first glance, the plot forces numerous personality resets in order to throw them into more ridiculous situations. Just when it seems as though one of the girls has transitioned into an independent woman, she’s back to her old self again at the start of the very next episode. As a result, the whole ordeal comes across as being rather pointless and it raises the question as to why Sunrise needed twelve episodes to accomplish this when one could have easily sufficed.
When one considers Sunrise’s prior track record of working predominantly on Mecha anime, their characteristic animation style may seem out of place in Natsuiro. Fortunately that isn’t the case here with most of the backgrounds as they are detailed and coloured to fit the mood of the show quite nicely. However, the quality of animation isn’t all peaches and roses. For one, there are many noticeable moments where the quality drops to below average levels. This is especially evident with some of the character designs and more specifically the magical elements of the show. Since Sunrise chose to adopt a fairly standard palette, there’s next to nothing in the way of creative visuals. Although this may not seem like a big deal, it does have a rather large impact on how the magical elements of the show are presented. Rather than these moments carrying a supernatural or surreal feeling, they simply appear awkward or downright clumsy. On the other hand, the soundtrack of the show does carry a lot of pleasant summer time tunes and helps to set the mood of the show but is otherwise nothing outstanding. In a similar vein, the voice actors also convey their respective character’s personality quite well. However, this ends up causing each character to sound exactly like her respective archetype, limiting the vocal range she has.
Though Natsuiro does make some attempts to differentiate itself from a popular trend, it ultimately becomes a much worse product as a result. Due to the complete reliance on a single plot device, the entire show becomes a predictable mess which isn’t even driven by the characters. Although some of the elements of magical realism could have added a nice twist to the show, they are overall poorly integrated and detract from whatever semblance of a mood the show may have initially started with. Despite this, it’s still possible to enjoy Natsuiro from a purely entertainment standpoint. Of course, even this aspect is affected by a lack of variety in terms of plot lines and character interactions. Though it may not be the easiest task for writers to come up with original storylines, it still shouldn’t excuse sloppy writing and characterization.
Unfortunately it seems as though the writers at Sunrise were unable to have their wishes granted by a magical rock.