[Synopsis]: The daily routine of Mihama Academy is upset when its first male student, the enigmatic Kazami Yuuji, arrives, wanting only to live an ordinary school life after the events of his past. Shortly after his arrival Yuuji learns that the school only hosts 6 other students and while he attempts to take up a normal life, the circumstances surrounding each of the girls’ presences at Mihama Academy grow more suspicious and curious the more he learns. Throughout the story Yuuji discovers each girl’s reasons for attending the school and attempts to help them in various ways.
The characters of Grisaia, who should have been one of the strong points of the show due to its interest in each of their pasts and dramatic resolutions, were incredibly weak because of the time constraints under which their stories unfolded on top of their poor characterization.
While the six female students are the focal points of the show I want to instead first talk about Yuuji as a character because his presence in the show is quite inexplicable. As fare as protagonists are concerned its hard to pin down Yuuji as any one archetype or even as an individual within the context of the show. On one hand this inability to define him plays well into his secretive past and identity however at the same time, his idiosyncrasies are bizarre and the manner in which he reacts to each situation that arises is different on each occasion which is worsened by his proactive role within each of them. This character dynamic leads to Yuuji feeling like whatever character the plot needs him to become rather than an actual person and severely damages whatever the show was trying to accomplish with his characterization. I think this problem primarily stems from the manner in which the show unfolds as, because it attempts to tackle multiple arcs of the story each focusing on different girls, Yuuji needs to behave differently within each of them both in how he conducts himself and in how he interacts with the other characters on the level of relationships. While the show attempts to make him out to be mysterious and cool he comes off as crude and unpredictable which cheapens whatever sentimental exchanges he has and further cripples the already troubled plot of the show.
The rest of the cast isn’t much better than Yuuji however fall short in different ways and on occasions not as severely. Because of the near-comedic nature with which the show introduces most of the characters, when the plot turns to more serious matters and attempts to develop drama it falls completely flat as the characters are highly unrelatable by that point and the only manner in which we know them is a trivial, comedic one. One issue that primarily resides in the story however effects the characters deeply is that each of the girls at the time of Yuuji’s arrival are emotionally coping with their complex pasts and while this might be compelling on its own, the fact that every one of them suffers from these things and seeks Yuuji’s help is both tiresome and predictable. By the time the first arc resolves you essentially have a complete understanding of the formula of the show and true to the form it starts out in, it hardly deviates as it progresses. What’s perhaps even more troubling is that each girl who is a recipient of this episodic insight and character complication is quickly forgotten for the most part as the show bounces from arc to arc. This created situations where we learned of one girls circumstances and saw them resolved within a single episode only to then forget them almost entirely for the remainder of the show. They still show up on screen and interact with the other characters however their development, whatever of it that there is, is no more far reaching than the end of their own arc and we don’t really see how things change beyond that point. The show puts its agenda before its characters in this way and they suffer endlessly because of it for even those that received meaningful or relevant growth are forgotten in the wake of the other soon to be trivialized characters.
Both the art and animation of the show were attributes of Grisaia I was initially very interested in and though the show succeeds in some areas here it has its fair share of short comings as well. Perhaps the most interesting thing to note is that the chief animation director, Watanabe Akio, was also responsible for Bakemonogatari’s adapted character designs and is the reason I would cite for the shows aesthetic similarities with one another. Beyond this, the visual style of the show in the first few episodes is quite interesting – the wide-screen format coupled with various dramatic, slow-motion shots and closeups on the eyes and faces of the characters was fairly engaging. The problem arises in the fact that this style and these visual intricicies are not a mainstay within the show but instead fade away over time. What was at first something quite dynamic and resembling an artistic approach rapidly turned into mostly wide shot interactions of the characters as the events of each episode unfolded with no real style left to be found. This issue primarily existed in the midsection of the show and is somewhat improved upon in the final arc however not to the same level as what was initially exhibited.
One of Grisaia‘s more noticeable problems was how it dealt with its fan-service. Due to the harem themes present in the show its somewhat to be expected that there would be a number of instances where the girls are put in compromising positions but Grisaia tended to go a bit overboard in this area in several ways. The fan-service is mostly front-loaded and takes place in the slice-of-life area of the show within the first 3 to 4 episodes and subsequently diminishes which is good news to viewers who don’t care for that content however it is highly frequent and aggressive when it is around and its appearance in the later episodes is even more unsightly. Occasionally the fan-service would rear its head during the most untimely dramatic moments or during an action sequence, compromising them greatly. My incredulity here is mostly due to the show’s ability to almost entirely forget its fan-service elements in the later parts of the show but seemingly remember them at the worst possible times as if they had been fighting to escape all the while and manifested in the worst possible ways.
With all of that said, the actual animation quality of the show was fairly consistent with intermittent quality drops however not to any impactful extent. Grisaia periodically would exchange its character designs for those of the chibi kind in attempt to introduce humor but this happened so rarely that when it did come up it felt out of place and clashed with the otherwise more detailed shots and character designs offered at the time. Perhaps the most curious thing regarding the show’s art was that both the quality of the art direction and the show’s fan-service took form in the early parts of the show which, by the end, were incredibly inconsequential by comparison while the other arcs could have used the extra visual details far more.
Knowing what we now know about the characters, the story essentially represents the show’s last chance at providing something compelling and worthwhile however in this too it falters though to a lesser extent I would argue. One of the biggest points of contention concerning the story of Grisaia is in how it was adapted from the visual novels and so I will first state that I am unfamiliar with the novels and aim to hold the plot’s successes and failures to the metric of other shows rather than how it fared in adapting its material.
The beginning of the show is quite slow and it takes 3 or 4 episodes to really arrive at its first arc. Normally this wouldn’t be all that problematic however due to the short nature of the show and the length of the content within each arc the approach taken blows my mind. The first few episodes serve to introduce us to the setting of the school as well as each of the characters though it takes far too long to do so while failing to set the stage for something compelling. The first part of the show can probably be best described as a slice-of-life facade that Grisaia intends to upset and surprise the viewer with its darker undertones and tragic pasts however the show fails in this miserably. The beginning of the show lacks any substance and even falls short in being funny which is about the only thing it could have been in how it approached its characters. Grisaia doesn’t properly utilize the facade it establishes, turning the tables on the viewer, but rather dives headlong into its first dramatic arc which fails both due to its brevity and its juxtaposition to the awkward ‘comedy’ that proceeded it. By introducing the girls within a comic context it never allowed for them to appear sincere and so when the Grisaia begins developing something dramatic it becomes incredibly hard to sympathize with the characters. The beginning of the show does nothing to properly establish the personalities of each girl or further their relationships with each other or the Yuuji as the protagonist and can best be summarized as lazy flow of events that create a framework within which the show can deliver as many panty-shots and suggestive poses as possible.
The manner in which the story approaches each of its arcs is highly reminiscent of a checklist. Spending sometimes as little as an episode on each girl, the show proceeded somewhat ruthlessly, jumping from story to story with little regard for the characters or the implications of their insight. Several characters like Sakaki suffered because of their lack of screentime before the plot turned its interest to them and by the time we are asked to care for the character we are so unfamiliar with them that we can’t help but feel perplexed and uncaring. At the end of the day, Grisaia’s problem can best be defined as the story being extremely rushed. By going down the checklist of character arcs and marking one by one off it felt less like an attempt to create a compelling narrative and more like a show trying to exhibit each of the character arcs at some level with only a shallow investment in each of them save the last. Each of the arcs differ rather extensively in tone but more importantly in their subject matter and the way in which Grisaia strung them all together one episode after the next led to the plot feeling unbelievable, incredibly random, and poorly paced.
The truly tragic thing about Grisaia is that, by themselves, given their own space and perhaps elongated in order to provide more context, would be adequate to good in their own right but when one respects each of these stories as all belonging to the same show the overarching narrative becomes extremely confused and random. The final arc of the show titled ‘Angelic Howl’ differed in tone quite a bit from the other girl’s arcs and was perhaps the only saving grace within all of the show – rather than beginning and ending within the stretch of 1 or 2 episodes it was given acceptable breathing room within the plot and flourished because of this, offering compelling characterization and storytelling found nowhere else in the show. In respect to what a lot of visual novel readers might suggest – that the show failed purely because it tried to compress too many hours of content into too short a time, it is true however I would say that an even greater shortcoming was in Grisaia‘s approach of adapting as many stories as it did rather than choosing a select few or even one to properly explain itself and create something lasting.
The music of Grisaia fit the show well enough however failed to stand out for me amidst the show’s multitude of problems. The soundtrack in this sense is only a failure insofar as it was unable to win through with something memorable despite what was taking place on screen which I don’t think anybody can blame it for.
[Final Thoughts and Rating]:
Short and simple: The story was rushed. Grisaia tried to bite off more than it could chew but more importantly the approach of adapting so many different stories and presenting them side by side destroyed any chance at there being a coherent, overarching narrative. The beginning was uninteresting and bland while the other areas of the show were choked for greater attention and length and so the show’s pacing felt incredibly mismanaged in this way. The end of the show, which is to say its final arc, was far better than anything else though by itself is not enough of a reason to watch the show unfortunately.
I gave Grisaia a 4 because of its poor characterization and uninteresting stories by means of their pacing and lackluster subject matter. The show approaches a ‘3’ in more than a few ways and I think the one thing that saves it from this fate is its final arc which was given appropriate room to unfold within the course of the show and featured actually compelling developments – that isn’t to say the arc was incredible and a 10/10 but it was a refreshing oasis amidst a torturous desert and Angelic Howl by itself might go as far as a 6 – 7 rating. The art and animation score some points in this category however the blandness of the show’s visual delivery in its midsection keeps this contribution low.
I would recommend Grisaia to fans of the harem romance genre as it hits upon the points of this genre quite obviously. As far as the stories themselves are concerned, they offer some good drama in places however most of it comes off as completely unrealistic because of how it is delivered and so while I would recommend the show to drama fans I would caution that not everyone will be able to sympathize or care for the characters.