For number six we return to where we started: PA Works and Okada Mari.
For those of you who have been following the blog since fall 2013 and pay attention to the tags, this entry won’t come as much of a surprise. For those of you with better things to do than read the mess of tags at the end of each post, this may seem like a strange selection. True Tears doesn’t receive much mention these days other than the occasional complaint from somebody who is upset about which girl “won”. To me that’s selling True Tears short. It might not be the most iconic work from either PA Works or Okada Mari, but in my mind it’s both the studio’s and the writer’s best work.
True Tears was the first anime with PA Works as its lead production company. The lack of experience at the studio shows somewhat as it lacks the trademark polish of later PA Works productions. While it doesn’t have the beautiful landscape shots that are common in shows like Nagi no Asukara, True Tears does show the foundation that would eventually build up to that level of quality, especially in the use of sunlight. The production is extremely consistent, especially given the studio’s inexperience. In contrast to the previous two shows on this list, True Tears’ strength is not its peaks but rather its consistency throughout. The show has no truly bad episodes and rarely even has a bad scene.
While the visuals weren’t all the way there yet, True Tears does have an impressive soundtrack. Less than a minute into the show you’re greeted with a beautiful woodwind track and the auditory rapture doesn’t let up. Ichijin no Kaze is my personal favorite but the soundtrack is littered with outstanding song after outstanding song. I especially love how the soundtrack makes use of the melody from the opening song as a common theme running throughout the show. In addition to being beautiful to listen to on its own, the soundtrack is used to its fullest effect throughout the show. Each choice of song is purposeful and the sound direction in general really elevates the base material in True Tears.
Another impressive thing about True Tears is how the characters’ personalities flow naturally from their personal circumstances. Hiromi’s distant and occasionally sullen behavior is a natural result of the combination of losing her parents and being treated as an outsider by Shinichiro’s mother. We see how she feels isolated by the fact that she can’t actually realize her love and her running away with Jun is an understandable reaction to the situation she was put in. Shinichiro himself is affected by the way Hiromi distances herself from him and the uncertainty surrounding both his romantic life and his career results in his current paralysis that Noe identifies as him being “unable to fly”. Noe displays her own quirky behavior such as treating Shinichiro like one of her chickens and going so far as to leave “chicken berries” in an envelope in his shoe locker. Her antics can be understood as the logical outgrowth of losing her own parents and being doted on by her overprotective older brother preventing her from developing requisite social skills. The way these personality quirks are shown naturally from the characters interacting is a testament to Okada Mari’s skill.
Okada’s writing prowess is also on display in the way True Tears makes effective use of all its characters to foster Shinichiro’s growth. Shinichiro grows not just out of his desire to be with Hiromi or from being pressured by Noe. Everyone from Aiko, to Miyokichi to Shinichiro’s parents has a role to play. Of course, Shinichiro isn’t the only one who develops over the course of the show. Hiromi’s experiences with Jun also are a catalyst for her character to grow. Her failure to escape her problems by running away with Jun to “a town without snow” is one of the most powerful sequences in the show and forces her to realize she can’t avoid her problems and needs to confront the issues she faces at home. Aiko also changes over the course of the show as she moves from the lie she was initially living to the point where she’s able to reconcile with Miyokichi.
(Incidentally, Okada herself was at Anime Expo back in 2013 and at one point was asked who the best girl in True Tears was. It was a silly question and I expected a silly answer or no answer at all. Instead, Okada said that she had written Noe as somebody who reminds her of herself and she wrote Hiromi as somebody who she admired. It was an interesting window into the thought process that went into True Tears and helps put into focus why the story was written the way it was. It also makes the ultimate conclusion of the show that much more tragic.)
Running underneath this effective character work throughout is a constant theme of the need for empathy. Beyond merely being a love story, True Tears is a story about the need to understand and have empathy for the people around you. Throughout the show we see people hurting others because they aren’t able to communicate and understand each other. Shinichiro’s mother hurts Hiromi through her selfish lack of empathy for Hiromi’s circumstances. She fails to see Hiromi as anything but an intruder in her home and treats her as such rather than recognizing the events Hiromi has been through that led to Shinichiro’s father taking her in. Shinichiro, Miyokichi and Aiko all end up hurting each other because of their mutual lack of understanding. But True Tears isn’t just a depressing story about people who can’t achieve a mutual understanding. Ultimately the characters overcome their initial distance and become more complete people as they gain more empathy for those around them. Shinichiro and Hiromi finally understand each other, and Aiko and Miyokichi’s reconciliation is made possible by the two of them finally realizing why the other behaves the way they do. Noe also gains greater empathy for her classmates and despite her quirks is able to function more effectively at school than she could at the start of the show. True Tears’ message is an uplifting and heartwarming one that leaves the viewer fulfilled and content.
Ultimately though, True Tears in many ways is defined by what it isn’t rather than what it is. Sure the writing is very effective and the narrative is well thought out but there’s nothing singularly spectacular about it. The visuals are good but not great and the overall story, while compelling at times, is not as deeply moving as other shows on this list. Really the only outstanding aspect of the show is its soundtrack. What earns True Tears this high ranking is its ability to avoid doing things wrong more than anything else. It’s a romance anime where every girl has a personality and a role to play rather than the non-“main” girls being mostly window dressing. The male friend character actually has some agency rather than being a gag character that exists merely to make the main character look good. While the girls are certainly cute, the show never stoops to fanservice to entice the viewer. The show is devoid of misplaced comedy or tonally dissonant moments. These may sound like obvious things, but it’s actually pretty rare for a show to go through its entire run without having at least a few missteps. What True Tears lacks in peak it makes up for by having no real bad moments at all.
One negative point I did observe while watching True Tears for a second time was that the story is less compelling when you know the ultimate conclusion. It isn’t as bad as some shows where the reveal is the only draw, but a lot of my original enjoyment of True Tears was based on how well it fooled me about where it was going. The show does a superb job of hiding its true intentions and convincing you that the plot will move one way before going in a very different direction. Despite this twist, the story flows naturally throughout and it never feels like the show is relying on shock value for its own sake. True Tears does deserve credit for its skillfully constructed narrative that successfully misdirects the viewer during the middle part of the show, but it’s not something that lends itself to lasting re-watch value.
The question then becomes where this leaves True Tears as a complete product. How high can you reasonably rate something that merely avoids doing bad things without having any truly stand-out moment? How should we adjust our view of a show that relies heavily on narrative misdirection to achieve its impact? To me, the ability to simply avoid mistakes is an underrated skill, and narrative misdirection, while it may not have the lasting value of other techniques, is still a valid tool to create a good show. While, like Honey & Clover before it, True Tears might not deserve a ranking this high, it’s still a superb anime. True Tears deserves plenty of credit for avoiding any major bad moments and the narrative structure, while it hurts the re-watch value of the show, was still extremely effective during my initial viewing. True Tears, whatever its weaknesses may be, is still an outstanding anime.