5 Anime Soaps for Skeptics of the Medium
Live action Japanese television dramas are often referred to J-drama or Jdorama. They usually air at 9 in the evening and cover love triangles, office dramas, your occasional weird fantasy, horror hybrid and detective shows. Anime soap operas are not much different. The ones on this list will fit into those categories in some way or another. These are the sorts of shows that could allow your casual animation fan to get a broader idea of what anime can do. If you’re a fan of the genre, these series don’t go for 10 seasons so you won’t waste any time taking a look.
As for runner ups there are many other popular, well received soap opera, romance anime which I have only seen brief portions of so it would not be appropriate to rank them. However, if the synopsis’ interest you they’re definitely worth giving a try. Honey & Clover (2005) depicts the lives of art students who live in the same apartment building. Chihayafuru (2011) is about a school girl who decides to start playing a card game, Karuta competitively. Maison Ikkoku (1986) is a whopping 96 episode sit com about a 20-year-old student Yusaku whom changes his mind about moving out of the boarding house when a beautiful woman, Kyoko takes over as manager.
Saikano (2002) was a popular title at the time of its release but due to its flawed animation, character design and soundtrack it was not solid enough a title to make the list. I would have also put Usagi Drop on this list but it has already been written about a thousand times on this site, so check out the review pretty please.
5. Rumbling Hearts (2003)
Synopsis: Loyalties are tested when tragedy strikes these four high school friends during their high school years.
Why it’s good: Romance alone is a difficult genre to pull off no matter what medium you’re talking about. Its much better original title, Kimi Ga Nozomu Eien (“The Eternity You Wish For” in English) is a 13 episode romance drama. Expect a love triangle and plenty of conflict. The characters all have a story to tell and they drive the simple plot. It’s straight forward, emotionally draining but addictive entertainment.
The animation is a tad outdated in 2014 with movements such as hugging or kissing coming across as robotic and clunky. Artwork wise the characters are nicely proportioned, with pleasant, summery hues and not-too-bright saturation. The backgrounds blend in nicely with the characters even if their clothes are not drawn in the greatest amount of detail. Basically, KimiNozo looks prettier as a screenshot than it does when it is moving. The animation for the opening sequence of “Precious Memories” is standard, uninteresting collage of character images contrasted with stock footage of the high school and locations in the series.
The soundtrack was composed by a number of people and is not standout. Comparisons aside, it does its job of moving the viewer. Relaxing, or heart wrenching piano tracks underlie most scenes, as well as the occasional synthesized upbeat track. The popular Jpop artist Minami Kuribayashi lent her voice for the pop opening and ending songs, which, while catchy do not stand out as particularly beautiful. Kuribayashi does not have the strongest vocals in terms of range. The ending song “Rumbling Hearts” fits the mood of the anime better as it is backed by a piano. The english dub is mixed. Haruka, voiced by Carrie Savage (Haibane Renmei) puts on a high-pitched voice to match her Japanese counterpart. As much as I can see why companies do this it never sounds authentic in anime dubbing. Mitsuki by Colleen Clickenbeard (Fullmetal Alchemist) and Leah Clark as Akane sound a lot more natural in their roles and age-appropriate when the series flashes forward a few years. Kevin Connolly as Takiyuki sounds way too old even though the acting is believable in emotional scenes. This was lucky as the dub would have fallen apart without these strong emotive performances.
One’s patience with the screenplay will make or break enjoyment of the show. On one hand, it is repetitive in terms of the conflicts the characters encounter, melodrama is brought to the max with some overreactions to situations which may cause rolling of eyes if it fails to move you. There are scenes with two waitresses which aim to balance out the drama-factor of the show, which are slightly refreshing. The show should be watched in small doses so it doesn’t drain your soul. It is great the story fit into 13 episodes. Any longer would have been too slow. A show which doesn’t focus on action, and has a slightly lacking lead character will already feel slow to those who are not used to watching drama.
Out of drama anime of the 00’s KimiNozo stands out for doing something many other anime have not done. It attempts to portray a story in a simple, realistic setting even though characters reactions are at times questionable. It does better than many harem shows that have drama elements but have greater focus on science fiction, fantasy or comedic elements.
Why the non anime fan might like it: KimiNozo doesn’t waffle on with a million story arcs and introducing two thousand characters. In a way KimiNozo could be considered a shot of soapiness, while usual television shows are a keg. The narrative style is especially similar to office dramas with a romance element like the more recent The Swinging Single in Japan. If you’re the type who likes Neighbors, Home and Away or whatever the American equivalent of those soaps are Rumbling Hearts may be for you. Just make sure you push through the first two episodes as they come across as generic and feel like they last an hour. Have your tissue box ready. Despite my heart of stone I cried during episode five and some claim they cried all the way through. It is also worth noting that I have enjoyed this a lot more re-watching it now than I did seeing it for the first time in 2008. I guess since the majority of the series deals with adult characters it helps to be a bit older, like with Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Please note that the opening sequence is from the 2006 OVAs which have an alternate ending.
4. Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad (2004)
Synopsis: When high school student Koyuki meets a guitarist he discovers he has a flair and talent for music.
Why it’s good: Beck is one of the few anime orientated around music that is of decent quality. It was based off a manga by Harold Sakuishi, published between 1999-2008 and adapted into 25 episodes. The manga artist is a fan of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers which may be an indicator of whether the music style will match yours or not. It sets itself apart from other coming of age anime because of how down to earth the writing and characters are.
The character designs do not have generic, big anime eyes and a lot of the support characters are drawn very realistically. Much like the work of Satoshi Kon, the character designs by Motonobu Hori and Osamu Kobayashi show a variety of body shapes, sizes and types. They are proportionate to life, including factors like hair and eye color. The hues are on the duller side but match the almost dreary atmosphere of the city, and the protagonist’s life in general. This is not only pleasant to look at but gives a different look than other glossier titles. The amount of movement for the characters vary. It is smooth, but occasionally choppy and sporadic. It doesn’t take too much away from the experience though, as the writing is very strong. The backgrounds can sometimes come across as simplistic and bland. The english dub is natural and pleasant. Greg Ayes does well as the soft-spoken lead, and usual ADR director Brina Michelle Palencia (Black Butler) balances kindness and fiery anger effortlessly in Maho. The script was adapted by a team and it shows. The characters speak like a Western audience would -- swear words like ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ are not held back. It seems like the voice actors also had some singing practice as the casual singing in the show without music is done in English -- and isn’t off key.
Unlike other music orientated anime like Full Moon wo Sagashite, Nana and AKB0048 there are a large handful of different artists who have lent their songs to the show. There is almost a different insert song every episode. This lends itself to great entertainment. Who could forget the catchy rock, opening song “Hit in the USA” by the Beat Crusaders? Combined with the colorful visuals it makes for a powerful promotional piece. The ending songs are not as memorable but they are not bad either. The soundtrack is a mix of blues, acoustic guitars and electric. It is very much based around the music they play in the show. For music fans this variety in the soundtrack is a fantastic highlight.
The series leans towards a drama with hints of romance and the occasional funny moment. It is a very entertaining and down to earth series which may be a source of comfort for teens growing up. This is mainly because of the well-rounded and believable characters. Koyuki often questions the motivations for others behavior. For example, in episode three he asks “Why do you have to do that?” when his swimming instructor lashes out at him. His instructor responds with: “It’s a harsh world, kid. It’ll be easier to understand once you’ve grown up a little”. He is constantly trying to make sense of his world and why it is the way it is. These inner dialogues are very relatable and refreshing compared to other anime drenched in angst or simply ignore these aspects entirely. Beck manages to bring an easy-going attitude to the harsh aspects of life. Maho, a girl Koyuki has hardly spoken to at this stage, explains casually that she “fucked up” at work, got fired, then her father hit her. Again, it is nice to see a character that is not afraid to explain who she is and open up. It breaks normal anime conventions and cliché’s with its realism. The side characters take longer to take center stage, but when they do it is a relief.
For those who are lazy, the live action film adaption from 2010 has received mixed reviews.
Why non anime fans might like it: Besides the points made above, the pursuit for fame is one which would appeal to a large audience and it also has universal themes of growing up presented in a believable, somewhat gritty way. As a coming of age story it would appeal to fans of indie films of the same vein. If you enjoyed The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Way Way Back, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist or even Scott Pilgrim VS the World you may find Beck is your cup of tea.
3. Kokoro Connect (2012)
Synopsis: Five members of the Cultural Research Club start to encounter strange phenomenon like switching bodies. Why is this happening and how will they deal with it?
Why it’s good: There are plenty of anime that explore a group of friends in a high school setting. It’s kind of what anime does. Thanks to the Kyoto Animation, K-ON! has become a cultural phenomenon and marked a boom of companies creating handfuls of these titles every season. Moe has been part of its own genre for a while and basically contains a lot of adorable girls being cute. If a series holds up the moe element alone it may contain little story. Kokoro Connect throws its viewers into the story within 30 seconds. Even though it has the same character designer Kokoro Connect beats the likes of K-ON in the story department. I have reviewed this title before so, for the sake of not repeating myself too much, will only give a brief overview to readers here.
The characters are the high point of Kokoro Connect. They are all explored in some depth, and the story will make you laugh one moment and be touched the next. 13 (17 if you count the OVAs) cover 3 (or 4) different story arcs which explore a weird phenomenon the characters have to deal with. The first and third arcs are the most unusual with the most character exploration while the bunch of episodes in the middle deal with the addictive love-triangle aspect of the series.
The soundtrack is very well composed considering the genre of anime -- it has a variety of instruments and little of it sounds obviously synthesized. The ending songs are varied, and stronger than the openings. The english dub sounds very natural. There are no artificial, high pitched voices here.
The story may not be extraordinary due to the simple minded villain but Kokoro Connect has decent animation, a strong soundtrack and wonderful characters to keep it floating among the realm of decency.
Why the non anime fan might like it: Who hasn’t (except maybe boys) enjoyed a show about friends being brought closer together by strange mishaps? The show has often been compared to Glee because of its sense of humor and the themes it explores. However, titles like Round the Twist, Sabrina: the Teenage Witch, That’s So Raven or even your vampire shows might be something worth comparing Kokoro Connect to. The supernatural elements are more a means to an end. The soundtrack is surprisingly good for a show of this type. The character designs may be cutesy, but that’s a plus, right? It also only has 12 episodes, 17 if you want an ending.
2. Nana (2006)
Synopsis: Two 20-year-old women named Nana seeking to advance their careers meet on a long train trip to Tokyo. They end up becoming flat mates together and help each other out with their goals and relationship problems.
Why It’s Good: I originally saw the live-action version of Nana on a plane to Osaka years ago so felt I didn’t need to see the anime for a long time, if at all. Even though the film covers the first 18 episodes and is fairly accurate to the anime, the animation series covers the characters in a lot more detail and puts greater emphasis on its soundtrack.
The first thing one will notice when watching Nana is how unlike most anime it looks. This could be a good or a bad thing depending on your tastes. The characters by Kunihiko Hamada (Chihayafuru) are drawn with sharp lines and lanky features. Even though it looks strange in a screenshot it is surprisingly endearing to view when these characters move around -- and yes, they love to do just that. The colors are vibrant enough to put you in a good mood without minimizing your pupils. Even though it doesn’t reach the consistent high standards of Usagi Drop or The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Nana hardly falls below decent either.
Enter the main character who dominantly narrates the show: Nana Komatsu (also called “Barbie” Nana on YouTube). She’s very girly, boy obsessed and superficial, although she is slowly learning what it means to live in the real world. Even though she comes across as an air head, her optimism and passion for life are contagious. It’s hard not to enjoy her silly antics even if you roll your eyes. Her english voice actress Kelly Sheridan is very reminiscent of Kristen Bell from Gossip Girl (2007) or Veronica Mars (2004), so if you are fan of her personality there’s a high chance you will find a lot to enjoy in the main character. Those who are more down to earth or introverted will love Nana Osaki -- sometimes called “Goth Nana” for easy recognition. Relevant newcomer Rebecca Shoichet as this Nana has reminded many of Uma Thurman as Daria (1997) or even her friend, Jane. Nana’s friends and various boyfriends are also explored as we learn more about the girls.
Why should we care about these two, very different girls and their lives? For one, since they are both so different their goals contrast each other greatly and make for some interesting entertainment. Their personalities also create great chemistry. The universe of Nana is so real because the characters are detailed to such a believable extent. As the two girls explore their new life they reminisce on their old one and bring the viewers along with them. As people who don’t live in Japan, we learn as these girls do the highs and lows of living in Tokyo. The series also has a fabulous soundtrack which sets it apart from many live action soaps.
The theme and insert songs are made up of the grungy rock works of Anna Tsuchiya. While her mother was Japanese, her Polish father was from America which may explain why half of her songs are recorded in English. Olivia inspi’ Reira takes part in the other half of the soundtrack. Her voice has a much larger range although the musical style is very similar to Miss Tsuchiya. The ending song by Olivia in particular is beautiful to listen to. Strangely enough for the live action film two different artists were used: Mika Nakashima and Yuna Ito. Almost more impressive is the background music Tomoki Hasegawa which doesn’t have any fake synthesizers roaming about. The English dub sounds very natural which is refreshing. The strongest performance is by far is Rebecca as goth Nana.
With a mixture of comedy, drama, music, romance, coming of age material and a dose of friendship goodness Nana will suck you in with its wonderful characters, upbeat soundtrack, quirky dialogue and fast moving narrative. Highly recommended for those chick flick fans!
Why the non anime fan might like it: Nana is a show a lot more like US soaps due to its length (47 episodes) and focus on relationship interactions. However, what sets it apart is its music and heart. People who love the movies Devil Wears Prada, Legally Blonde or Bridget Jones Diary may find their place at home with in this title with the focus on career goals as well as relationships. Nana is very narration driven and balances comedy and drama so makes it easier to swallow. If you really can’t handle 47 episodes it might be worth seeing the live action movie then picking up where it leaves off. Japanese film generally have lower budgets than US ones, although since this one didn’t need many special effects it isn’t very noticeable.
1. Anohana (2011)
Synopsis: Five childhood friends are brought back together when their old leader, Jinta Yadomi starts to see a ghost of Meiko. He believes it’s from the stress of her death. What will his friends think now they’ve grown apart?
Why it’s good: Anohana is basically the anime equivalent of the Reese Witherspoon film Just Like Heaven, only it goes into a lot more detail into the dead girl in question and the people in her life. The animation is energetic, fluid and one of the most consistent I have seen in romance anime, or the medium in general. The character designs by Masayoshi Tanaka (High School of the Dead, Toradora) balance cuteness with realism. The characters thankfully have smaller than usual anime eyes, but are brought down to earth with a variety of body types (for example, Popo is slightly overweight), shapes, clothing and hair styles (they’re not just spikey).
Like nearly every other title in this list the highly detailed characters will either make or break your enjoyment of this show. They may seem like stereotypes at first but turn out to have more substance than meets the eye. For example, the girly girl Anjo works in a video store and loves video games. She also does not agree with a lot of things her princess friends do. The contrast between these characters from the past and who they are now offers a lot of sympathy and experiences that are easy to relate to. The cutesy Menma is probably the only one that is closest to her overly youthful, naive moe personality type, but even she has her moments. Her enthusiasm adds lightness to the series that otherwise wouldn’t be there.
The soundtrack by newcomer REMEDIOS stands above many romantic comedy anime with its effective, varied instrument ensemble. “Blue Bookmark” by Galileo Galilei is a mellow, acoustic number which is a refreshing change from upbeat Jpop tracks that often plague this genre. The ending song “Secret Base” adds a lot of atmosphere when it needs to by bleeding into the last 30 seconds or so of particular episodes. There are also multiple versions which freshen up the series. Sadly, there is only a Japanese language track which may limit viewers who don’t like to read subtitles.
The story is fairly straightforward and fits nicely into its 11 episode run so even though it isn’t very complicated it isn’t likely to bore you. The hyper Menma will make sure of that. The series does well to show how grief affects someone over time. It is seen by the counseling school of thought that loss isn’t something you ‘get over’. It is something people learn how to deal with, and this is the journey these characters go through. The ending is both incredibly moving and insanely over-dramatic. I both cried and exhibited a slight giggle due to how ridiculous some of it was. All in all, it was an enjoyable ride which made me nostalgic for the past and hopeful for the future.
Why the non-anime fan may like it: In many ways Anohana represents an arc of a film than a television show as it keeps to the point and doesn’t wander too far from what it is trying to achieve. The characters try many ways to resolve their situation -- one in particular seems very obvious its in the wrong direction but the development of the characters make it bearable. For new anime fans Anohana offers a variety of wonderful music, characters and an introduction to the moe trope -- overly cutesy characters, put simply. It is wrapped together in a fast-moving story with themes of friendship, grief and loss that everyone can relate to. It also helps that its very pretty to look at. If you’re a drama fan this is a great place to start on your anime adventures.
Like J-drama, anime has a wide variety of genres and narrative styles to suit a number of tastes and entertainment preferences. If you’re sick of seeing the same generic action adventure anime on television or even if your favorite television series has been getting stale lately, these titles about friendship, love, life and music may be a welcome breath of fresh air. It is worth at least watching the first episode of your title of interest to figure out if one may enjoy them or not, which you can do via streaming subscription websites or by purchasing the DVDs.
What do you think? Leave a comment.