We’re on to the top ten now which means it’s time to really get into the heavy hitters.
Ano Natsu seems to be forever doomed to be “that other JC Staff romcom.” It lives perpetually in the shadow cast by the also outstanding Toradora and the *ahem* less outstanding Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo. The lack of fanfare surrounding the show made me wonder whether it would really hold up under a subsequent viewing. It seems my fears were misplaced because Ano Natsu is truly an excellent show and is the best romantic comedy anime I’ve seen.
Ano Natsu is the rare romantic comedy that manages to be both romantic and funny. Most anime romcoms seem to either focus on romance with a few mildly amusing moments here or there, or spend the majority of their time on madcap harem hijinks with one or two “d’awww” moments forced in just to pretend there’s some real romance going on here. Yet Ano Natsu manages to find a happy middle ground between these two extremes. It has beautifully crafted romantic build up thanks to the chemistry between the two leads and the very strong supporting cast. It combines this with plenty of laugh out loud funny moments thanks to the awkward fantasies of the main characters and the always entertaining involvement of Lemon-senpai.
The key to any romance is going to be its cast of characters and fortunately this is one of Ano Natsu’s greatest strengths. Starting with the main couple, Ichika’s sweet, unassuming nature is the perfect complement to Kaito’s laid-back earnest demeanor. It’s a joy to watch the two of them slowly grow closer over the course of the show. There are a few near misses but it never feels like the show is teasing us but rather the time just wasn’t right for the two to realize their feelings yet. The show never artificially backtracks as each new step in the plot progression takes us closer to the eventual confession. When it finally comes we are rewarded with my favorite kiss scene in anime. It was sappy to be sure, but it also was incredibly cute and endearing. What’s more, we actually get to see the two of them as a couple which is a rarity in anime. Often shows will end right on the confession but Ano Natsu takes us past that, much to its credit. I’m a sucker for characters just being lovey-dovey with each other so I found those final three episodes to be simply delightful.
Of course, when there are winners there also have to be losers and in this case that fate falls on one Tanigawa Kanna. Even though she only met him in middle school, Kanna has a character that is almost a perfect example of the stereotypical childhood friend as she’s been harboring feelings for Kaito for years with little to no hope of them being returned. But Kanna isn’t just the moe “doomed-love” character. She also has an important role to play in the main romantic plot. The scene where Kanna calls out Ichika for not acting on her feelings is one of the best in the show. Kanna sees Ichika with an opportunity to have something that Kanna can only dream of and for Ichika to refuse to act on that drives her nuts. Her involvement allows Ichika to realize that she shouldn’t get bogged down in her worries about the future but instead take advantage of this opportunity that few are lucky enough to have. Of course, despite her almost heroic actions for Ichika’s benefit, Kanna can’t just give up on her love that easily making her actions all the more beautifully tragic. Ishihara Kaori does a superb job of selling all of this emotion delivering an absolutely outstanding performance over the final four episodes.
Of course we can’t forget Tetsurou, the true childhood friend in all of this. Tetsurou is interesting because he manages to rise above the standard secondary male in a romance anime status to actually have some agency of his own. He’s perfectly complemented by Kitahara Mio, an initially timid girl who demonstrates significant strength by the end of the show as she calls out Tetsurou for his manipulative behavior regarding Kaito and Kanna. These two and Kanna add significant additional romantic intrigue beyond the “will they or won’t they?” question regarding Ichika and Kaito. Ano Natsu does a superb job of slowly revealing all these latent romantic entanglements through a series of knowing glances and deliberately framed and timed shots that slowly peel back all the layers of unspoken feelings that exist within this group.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also talk about the role played by Yamano Lemon, the enigmatic third-year who always seems to know more than she should. High school romance is a powder keg waiting to explode and Lemon-senpai is exactly the kind of person to light the fuse. It’s wonderful to watch her deftly manipulate the rest of the cast and then stand back and admire her work with a knowing smile and her trade mark “u-fu-fu-fu” laugh. Whether she’s serving up another glass of dynamite drink or just generally maneuvering the other characters into awkward situations, Lemon adds a levity to the proceedings that is really important to keep the show from getting bogged down in the melancholy of unrequited feelings. Every romantic comedy could use a Lemon-senpai to drop in and mess with the characters in her hilarious and adorable way.
Another aspect of Ano Natsu that sets it apart from other shows like it was the quality of its comedy. Rather than relying on cheap slapstick, the show generates its comedy by playing with the swirling emotions that surround high school romance. The best example of this is the fantasy sequences in the early episodes. In addition to being really funny, they’re perfect illustrations of the overactive imaginations people have at that age. When there’s so much uncertainty around you, your imagination goes into overdrive coming up with the most outlandish hypothetical situations both positive and negative. It’s the combination of how outwardly silly these ideas are combined with the fact that the audience can relate to them that makes these sequences work so well. The show also plays with the awkwardness of high school romance via the surprisingly specific hypothetical situations that the characters bring up. They ask questions like “What if B-kun liked A-chan but isn’t sure how A-chan feels and then C-chan also liked B-kun and there’s also D-kun and E-chan…” and, you get the idea. It’s all very transient and the hand-wringing feels silly in retrospect but at the time it was the most important thing in the world.
This style of humor is important because Ano Natsu is clearly written from the perspective not of a character in the throes of youthful romance but rather somebody looking fondly back at a time when he was younger and more naïve. The atmosphere of the show enhances this feeling via the interesting choice to set the show many years in the past. Rotary phones and film cameras are commonplace but cell phones and the internet are nowhere to be seen, emphasizing that this happened long ago rather than present day. Accompanying these setting choices is the narration of Kaito and Ichika that enhances the reflective, nostalgic feel to the show.
All of this contributes to a show that perfectly encapsulates a specific moment in the characters’ lives. The way the characters interact, the visual cues and even the ambient sound all are perfectly indicative of that first summer of high school. Even the mild fanservice is used, not simply to titillate the viewer, but to drive home the feeling of early high school life among hormonal teenagers. All of these elements combine to create a great sense of immersion for the viewer. The viewer feels like they’re right there with Ichika and Kaito reflecting on these events and for twelve episodes their problems are our problems, their triumphs are our triumphs and their failures are our failures.
Beyond just the romance, Ano Natsu has a very poignant message about youth and creating memories. The show opens with Kaito musing that “when you die you go to somebody’s heart and live on as a memory” and the show plays with the desire to leave something behind as a reminder of your experiences throughout. We see these children who don’t yet know what they want to do with their lives, but they’re united by the universal instinct that they need to do something. They need to create something that will make the transient experiences they share more permanent. Ultimately this is what the movie represents to these people: an opportunity to create something that will serve as a permanent memory of the time they shared together. The plot of the movie never really makes sense but that doesn’t matter because the point isn’t the specifics of the movie but rather that they have something to remind them of that time in their lives.
Ano Natsu’s combination of sci-fi and romance may seem like an odd marriage at first but the show actually handles the two quite well. Other than Ichika being an alien, these elements are downplayed during the early portion of the show. Even during the latter part of the show when they become more prominent, they never overwhelm the other elements. The sci-fi serves as more of a means to an end and the focus remains decidedly on the romance which was always the stronger portion of the show. The show is expertly constructed throughout as each episode goes through a slow build before ending on a high point that always leaves you wanting more.
Overall, Ano Natsu de Matteru is about as ideal as you can get from a romantic comedy standpoint. The main couple goes through a satisfying romantic progression in addition to being completely adorable together. They’re supported by an outstanding cast that add a great deal of perspective beyond the main pair. The shows jokes land because they’re rooted in universal human experiences and it’s all wrapped together in a nostalgic atmosphere that greatly enhances the show’s themes of youth and shared memories. The show is an outstanding little twelve-episode ride and a must for any romance fans out there.