Sorry, I can’t review this anime without spoiling it completely, so if you plan on watching this anime or reading the manga, just skip this post until you’re done.
I find myself caught between two polar extremes as I try to think of what to write about Lovely Complex, not unlike how I felt when I wrote about Super Dimension Fortress Macross. On the one hand we have a charming, predictable, fun, and at the best of times, hilarious high school rom-com that hits all my anime pleasure buttons at various points. On the other hand, there are a couple things about Lovely Complex that repulse me on a primal level and force me to ask hard questions about such things as where I as a viewer should draw the line as far as what’s okay for me to endorse, and what isn’t.
So really, in writing this review I don’t exactly know where to begin. As a high school romance, it’s hard to think of something more generic than LovCom, and at this point I don’t know of anything that could take that position, although I’ve still got a lot of high school anime to watch. Depending on what you’re looking for, this could be counted as criticism, but I knew what I was getting into when I started reading the manga (and later, watching the anime), so I don’t consider it as such.
I mean, every once in a while (lately it’s been frequently) I get the urge to watch these kinds of shows. The reason that I tend to gravitate towards this genre of anime will probably be explored later in its own post, but suffice to say that I don’t think there’s anything implicitly wrong with high school rom-coms. Sometimes all I want is a bare-bones love story with nothing extra and a happy ending. Given that these seem to be rarer than I had thought (everything I watch lately seems to be incomplete or open-ended or bittersweet), LovCom was a welcome respite, delivering exactly what it promised. I walked away happy and satisfied. That’s all I wanted.
So! We have a predictable, easy story, so far so good. I need to stress right now that although this is “so far so good” for me, anyone looking for anything directly challenging or with any amount of depth need not apply; there is none, and there isn’t meant to be. This is high school romance without past trauma, or mental breakdowns, or unnecessary action. This does not go beyond the constraints of how you would expect normal, middle-of-the-bell-curve teenagers to act. I feel like I should applaud the mangaka and especially the anime production team for not taking liberties and making the characters anything more than vanilla teens; and yes, there is some implied sarcasm there, but only a little, because come on, how often does this happen?
Animation-wise, LovCom is pretty average. Given its release in 2007, I’d expect something perhaps a little more…I dunno, defined? It’s functional if not pretty, and there are more than a couple shots where the quality drops considerably. But, this is also not a huge complaint, as the animation reminds me a lot of a more modern Kare Kano. Lots of still shots, interspersed with over-the-top character deformation. I enjoyed it. Although the settings are rather bland and uninspired and repetitive, character animations were always a joy. There was nothing mindblowing here but the style fit the tone, and was always true to the manga.
So we’re on the right track, but now things start to turn sour. There are some serious issues with pacing. This is one of those series that relishes in slowly, tediously dragging out the romance element to the point of absolute torture; worse still is the fact that the ending is never in question. You know Otani and Koizumi are going to get together. This isn’t dressed up as a particularly serious anime so it’s hard to ever picture it ending on anything but a happy note. Good for the viewer in the end, but the journey is arduous at the worst of times.
There are also some instances throughout the series where auxiliary characters are introduced and then dismissed by the next episode. In most cases, these characters are simply tools to initiate drama between Koizumi and Otani, and they have no depth, personality, or memorable characteristics. This was not the case in the manga; most of these characters were much more developed and, more importantly, were persistent throughout the story. This is definitely one of the ways that the manga adaptation is superior.
However, we still have a pressing concern, because I haven’t yet addressed the elephant in the room, the thing that all anime of this nature hinge on when it comes to overall enjoyability: the characters. And, well, frankly, they suck.
As this is a shoujo anime, the main character, Koizumi Risa, is a somewhat plain girl with a glaring flaw — she is tall compared to all her friends and, of course, single and pissed about it. For comedic effect, her love interest (Otani Atsushi) is a shorter-than-average boy in her class. They don’t tend to get along and they have been unwittingly pegged as a “comedy duo” by their teacher. Have you ever seen a setup so rife for hijinks??
The problem is twofold; Koizumi is so stupidly blinded by her love for Otani (which, granted, takes several episodes to develop) that she can’t see him for the little jerk he is. At the same time, Otani is so unrealistically oblivious to Koizumi’s advances (like, I can’t picture a real, fully-functioning teenage boy being this stupid) that there’s no excuse for him being anything approaching a relatable character. Combined, these two issues make for characters and situations that are goofy and cute, but so beyond the reach of reality that it’s hard to sympathize with either party.
And this is where things go from sour to ugly. There is no way I can even begin to comprehend Koizumi’s character; for the majority of the series, she is so totally, single-mindedly fixated on Otani that she willingly blinds herself to the complete dick that he is. Let me take you through my thought process as I watched this anime:
Koizumi: You’re a short midget!
Otani: Shut up, idiot!
Me: Oh ha ha ha these two mismatched jokers are going to develop a relationship I just know it and it’s going to be cute because look how much they sorta-kinda fake dislike each other right now. But their not-very-serious insults make for a funny dichotomy ha ha ha.
Koizumi: Hmm, I think I could see myself with Otani. He’s a good guy inside, really!
Otani: You’re an idiot! Really!
Me: Oh look Otani doesn’t get it so he’s still acting like he’s always acted because that’s how it works but he’ll realize Koizumi likes him soon and then he’ll change to be a nicer person to Koizumi if he reciprocates or they’ll go their spearate ways for a while and then converge again later. But ha ha oh that Otani!
Koizumi: *Deep breath* Otani I like you.
Otani: Ha ha stop joking you idiot!
Me: O…kay, well I suppose it’s possible for him to be that dense, I mean after all they’ve always been just friends, and I guess that’s a huge mental shift to have to make but seriously? You’re watching fireworks on the rooftop on Koizumi’s birthday and she’s all dressed up in her yukata and check out the serious look on her face, really dude?
Koizumi: No man I really like you.
Otani: Well I’m going to get all moody and indecisive and you’re still an idiot!
Me: Well…that’s kinda mean dude? I mean she put herself out there a couple times now, why are you still ripping on her? Like, even if you don’t like her the same way she likes you can’t you be more sensitive?
Koizumi: I’m just going to give up, you clearly don’t like me.
Otani: No don’t give up on me, I actually do like you but you’re still an idiot. Also I’m embarrassed to be seen showing my affection to you in public or saying anything that might show how I actually feel so you’ll just have to take my word for it.
Koizumi: SWOON <3 <3 <3
Me: Uh…Koizumi what are you doing? Like, seriously what do you see in this guy? He’s always being a dick to you, has put you through emotional hell multiple times and continues to do so, his actions don’t line up with his words and you have almost nothing in common. I don’t get it?
Koizumi: I like you and I understand that you don’t like me hanging around this other guy but I’m going to go on a date with him anyway.
Otani: Wow screw you we’re done.
Koizumi: Ha ha just kidding it didn’t mean anything.
Otani: Oh that’s cool, you’re an idiot and I guess I’ll forgive you.
I don’t take issue so much with the unrealistic nature of the characters’ personalities. This is anime we’re talking about, after all, and it’s rare that an anime will perfectly nail a character and make them seem really, truly real. I’m okay with suspending my disbelief some in order to enjoy a good story; it’s expected with most fiction, as it’s hard to capture the complex intersections of thoughts, feelings, and motivations that make a character believable. Fitting characters into time-tested molds is to be expected, and since I already did, the two-dimensionality of these characters didn’t really bother me all that much.
What did bother me, however, was the apparent celebration of abuse that permeated this series. I’m all for comedic relief, and over-the-top physical violence and verbal insults used in a manner to lighten the situation or develop a character are harmless, charming even. The difference is that LovCom takes the verbal abuse to an extreme I haven’t seen before, and on some sort of gut level, it sickened me.
See, in LovCom it isn’t just an occasional insult at an opportunistic moment used in a way to make the viewer laugh, it’s a chronic, ever-present element that comes to define Otani’s character. He isn’t just stupidly dense, he’s flat-out mean. Calling Koizumi an idiot becomes so commonplace that it’s hard to see how he could think of her in any other light. This would be okay if these actions and words were demonized, or if he was punished in some way for them, but he never is. Instead, Koizumi reinforces this abusive behavior by continuing to like him, to the point where she emotionally suffers for it. He constantly rejects her, talks down to her, and (to crown it all) selfishly expects her continued affections, and is rewarded by them every step of the way.
Frankly, it shocked me, because on the surface LovCom is billed as a sweet love story. It’s got a score of 8.29/10 on MAL. It’s acclaimed (from anime review sources that I respect) as being a staple series in modern anime-dom, especially in the high school rom-com genre. And yet when I peeled off the top layer, I found that in actuality LovCom perpetuates all the damaging things that I hate about teenage romance stereotypes: if he’s mean to you he likes you, it’s okay to be embarrassed by the person you love, it’s okay to expect constant affection without giving any in return, it’s okay to say you feel one way and then act completely the opposite, etc.
I’m willing to admit that I may be overthinking things, or misunderstanding some basic cultural mores that are lost on me, a Westerner. I can even accept the defense that “people in love don’t act rationally”, to an extent. And I know that there are people out there who are drawn to abusive relationships and find it incredibly difficult to get out.
But, come one. This is a simple anime, and as I said, all the characters have mundane, totally ordinary backgrounds. It’s clear that LovCom isn’t intending to approach abuse in any significant way, and if it is then it should be condemned for other reasons, particularly for not approaching it tastefully. Let’s not be ridiculous, though; LovCom wasn’t meant to be deep, it was supposed to be fairly light and it just decided to get carried away with a poor expression of comedy that resulted in accidentally glorifying an abusive relationship. I know that it’s nothing more than that, but this begs another question.
Is it even okay for me to endorse this, in any way? Or, to put it more directly, should I feel as guilty as I do for kinda-sorta liking it? Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t the greatest anime of all time or anything; not even close. But it does have its draws, most of which I already mentioned at the beginning. It really reminds me of a modern Kare Kano-lite — high school drama with a charming animation style and nothing more complicated than simple relational character interactions, but without the same kind of brooding darkness that underscored the more mature and thoughtful 1998 almost-masterpiece.
But can I in good conscience say that this is an anime worth watching? Well…it depends on the viewer, ultimately. If you’re prone to over-analyzing things, just skip it. It will frustrate you to no end, as trying to understand the characters and their motivations becomes an impossible task, leading inevitably to the conclusion that they’re nothing more than vehicles for a poorly-told romance that should never be. If you can ignore the (probably unintentional) abusive undercurrents and just want a funny, cute, simple romance, LovCom should scratch that itch perfectly.
As I mentioned at the beginning, I find myself caught between these two poles, and as a result am content to give this a middling score and move on to better things. It’s not a great anime. If you must experience this story, read the manga, as characters and situations are better developed, there’s a bit more insight into Koizumi specifically, and as a whole it’s paced better. It doesn’t address the issues of abuse any better than the anime does, though, so if you find yourself turned off by that element, just forget about LovCom completely.
For myself, although I dislike a lot about LovCom, I can honestly say this is the first anime I’ve watched in a while that has actually forced me to think about these somewhat abstract topics this seriously, albeit unintentionally, and that’s worth something to me. Anime as entertainment is great, anime as social critique (even when it espouses the viewpoint opposite mine) is better.
Personal value: 6/10