I approached the second heroine’s arc of Amagami SS with both apprehension and excitement. If you’ve read my post on the first arc, it should be obvious why. The identity of the new heroine was actually not really on my mind, but she proved to be the one interesting bit in a story that felt almost sterile at times. Indeed, this arc was bad, but not spectacularly so like Haruka’s. And it was actually kind of good at times, which made it all the more painful to see it fall.
The Good: Sex Hair
Let’s start with the positives. Kaoru was a much better character than Haruka. She was energetic and playful without feeling forced. Her relationship as a friend with Junichi was fun to watch, as was the beginning transition into a romantic one, at least in the first couple episodes. Plus, she’s not called “Sex Hair” for nothing. That wavy hair was one of the things that drove me to this series in the first place, and it didn’t disappoint.
Yes, her hair was godly. It's what I'll miss most from this arc.
Having the path diverge immediately following Junichi’s failed Christmas Eve date 2 years ago to have Kaoru cheer him up was a pleasant surprise. If they were so bold as to change what was such a central element in the first arc, perhaps the stories would diverge so much as to leave the first arc but a bitter memory? Plus, it was much easier to cheer for someone who wasn’t still hiding in his closet from a singular event 2 years ago. Even if the star lined closet made a return in the final episode, not having the entire pretext of the story be of Junichi trying to get over that date by finding a new love made the story significantly easier to swallow.
In fact, the whole high level story of friends becoming lovers was handled pretty well for the first two episodes. The self doubts and struggles of emotions they went through seemed genuine, even if exaggerated. The second episode was kicked off by a refreshingly open and honest conversation between the two regarding the nature of their relationship (it’s a sad commentary on the medium that having a mature conversation about romance and friendship in anime stands out as exceptional). A shame that scene ended with the classic accidental kiss then embarrassment trope.
Even the fetish of the month – belly button this time – was handled much better. Under the context of these curious teenage friends and with Junichi basing it on the first thing he saw, I might even go as far as to say it was done tastefully. At the very least, it didn’t linger any longer than necessary and certainly wasn’t a key building block to their relationship as was the case with Haruka’s arc.
Was it because I was ready for something like this thanks to Haruka's arc? Or was this scene actually quite tolerable?
The Bad: The Entire Second Half
So that was the first two episodes. While nothing amazing, they were entertaining and provided a pair of protagonists we could really root for. It’s too bad that it all fell apart in the last half, where pretty much nothing happened.
Of course, this points to pacing – something that was also very problematic in the first arc – as the culprit. I could go on about its failures, stacking all the interesting parts at the front and leaving a pair of content free episodes to limp to the finish line. I could explain what a waste of time the third episode was and how the show lacked any sense of urgency given its unique time constraints and squandered what little time it had. I could get down to specifics, like how the entire set-up sequence at the start of the final episode was a complete waste of time.
But I think it would be most effective to sum it up concisely: All the interesting stuff happens either before or after the events shown in the anime.
Kaoru and Junichi have known each other for three years. The show is not shy about this fact and often references past events from their friendship, usually to hit on some sort of emotional note. The problem is that we never saw these moments. We caught the tail end of the friendship at the beginning of the arc, and it was fun. Hearing about these memories isn’t fun. Furthermore, since we weren’t a part of their history together, the impact on Junichi or Kaoru from being reminded of a past event is lost on us. You can’t shove years of character and relationship development into a few flashbacks.
This scene and others like it in the 7th episode would have been wonderful - if we had gotten to seen them first hand.
But at least we got to see their friendship, with some ear biting and imaginary German suplexing and belly button licking. As I wrote above, the start to this arc was fine. The opposite end, on the other hand, called in sick. All the fun stuff regarding their romantic relationship happens only after the arc is over.
The last two episodes – the entire last half of the arc – were aimless. I wrote about the first arc that I felt that the show suffered from its lineage i.e. that it emulated the storytelling of a dating sim visual novel to a fault. This could not have been more true in these 2 episodes. It is common to go through the mundane in visual novels. Most of the time, it is trying to insert you into the life of the protagonist, after all, and most of life is mundane.
Unfortunately, this translated to episode 7 being able to be summarized by, Junichi looks for Kaoru and eventually finds her, and episode 8 by, Junichi and Kaoru go on a date on Christmas Eve.
OK, there are some details I’m missing, but they were entirely superfluous. Kaoru’s problem with her mother proved to be a red herring. Its purpose seemingly was to have Junichi look for Kaoru and be reminded of her on the way, and then help her through this little conflict, but those things failed in having any impact. I already wrote above about how the flashbacks and reminders to past events were not effective due to us, the viewers, lacking a connection to those scenes. But having Junichi show up and solve everything by saying a few cliche lines was borderline insulting.
Silly girl, thinking you're strong enough to solve your own problems. You need a MAN to give you that strength!
And, of course, episode 8 had a very heartfelt conversation between Junichi and Kaoru as they stood on the glass at the top of the tower (psych protip: people tend to become more easily attracted when in situations that cause stress, such as being at a great height). Or rather, it would have been very heartfelt and sweet had it not been on their first date. When people on their first date declare that they want to spend the rest of their lives together, it’s more comedic than romantic.
And then, how did the episode (and by extension the story arc) end? When the day ended. Hey, that’s kind of like in a dating sim! There was no ending, no conclusion. The closest thing to a climax was the aforementioned humorous confessions of love atop the tower. Literally, the arc ended right after Kaoru teased Junichi with a climax before falling asleep. There was nothing of significance other than their first date. It was the start of something, and then, oh, The End. Kaoru deserved better.
The story of Junichi and Kaoru doesn’t end there. It’s just that our view of it does. We know that the two will go through the same things any romantic couple goes through. There will be fun times, sad times, angry times, happy times. Maybe they won’t make it past a second date. Maybe they’ll grow old together. Maybe they’ll marry each other, madly in love, at 20, then get divorced by the time they’re 30. These are the interesting stories that we are not privy to. Instead, we were served just the things leading up to it. And not even the good stuff like when they used to be just friends, but that magical, most boring moment in between, when nothing of interest happened.
They go on their first date, sleep - literally sleep - together, then it's over. Did no one in the writers' room notice anything wrong with this ending?
In Conclusion: Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda
While watching the aforementioned conversation atop the tower in the final episode, I thought back to the first 2 episodes and regretted the potential that had been wasted. Already, with so little time remaining, I knew that things couldn’t end well (I was hoping for a 10-years-later segment like in the first arc, at least, but we didn’t even get that). There was content in here to make a genuinely entertaining romance story. One that was both funny and emotional. The rooftop conversation at the start of episode 6 was a breath of fresh air in its mature handling of romantic emotions in anime. Kaoru was fun without being fake. That conversation at the top of the tower would have made for a very good climax to any other story about middle/high school friends becoming lovers. There just needed to be more leading up to it. They needed to have been together a bit longer. Junichi and Kaoru were afraid of getting together. It’s telling that the final episode was titled Development and started with their friends forcing them together. All that’s fine and natural, especially given their preexisting relationship, but when that takes over the entire story, you end up with one very boring story. Or rather, a very boring portion of a story. And that’s the portion we got to see.
My main takeaway from this arc: wavy hair needs to be the new thing for anime producers to latch onto and drive into the ground.
We’ve had 2 full story arcs now, enough to get a semblance of a feel for what to expect. I’m most surprised by how different the two arcs were. Haruka’s was back-heavy with almost all the content dumped into the last 1.5 episodes. Kaoru’s suffered from the exact opposite problem. Haruka’s fetish kiss was a hilarious disaster that proved to be a core part of the arc’s downfall, while Kaoru’s was barely a speed bump and actually kind of fun. What both stories had in common were that they both ended abruptly with a first date on Christmas Eve (though Haruka’s was kind enough to provide us with an epilogue), with all the good stuff of a romantic relationship left to our imagination.
Going forward – and I do intend to stick with this show all the way to the bloody end – I fear that that is exactly how every story will end. That this show will be all about the build up with no release. The first date is aptly named because it is the first of something. It is the start of something interesting. Certainly, the lead up to that can be entertaining – countless harem anime are proof of this – but when the curtain falls just as things get good, it just leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Amagami SS has nothing up its sleeve besides the core romance story between Junichi and whichever heroine it is focusing on at the time. The comedy is banal and passable at best. The 4 episode limit per heroine leaves no time for other developments. It is with that romance story that this show lives and dies, and the show simply can’t afford to keep messing it up. A continuation of this ending pattern is a surefire way to guarantee failure.
Up next is Sae Nakata. Good luck, Sae! Seriously, you're gonna need it.