I was impressed enough that I'm looking up the director's name to see what other shows he's done. Admittedly I'd been expecting to like this. I'm a fan of all the Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions anime from the two preceding years, with the trivial exception of the first three Lite net anime mini-episodes. What impressed me, though, was how well this 2014 sequel season picks up from the 2012 first season, even though the latter had been complete and meaningful enough in its emotional resolution that you'd expect it to be difficult to write a sequel that didn't undo some of the audience's goodwill.
You know the kind of thing I mean. Busting up Yuuta and Rikka for the sake of cheap drama as they eventually get back together again, or perhaps reopening Rikka's now-healed psychological scars. That kind of nonsense. We're spared all that, fortunately.
So, where were things when 2014 started? Rikka is still proudly delusional, wearing an eyepatch to seal the non-existent magical powers of her Evil Eye (really a coloured contact lens) and filtering all her conversations through a thick layer of magic-users, mortal danger and alternate planes of reality. (She's a schoolgirl and this show has no supernatural elements.) The word for this condition is "chuunibyou", which literally means "the disease of being a fourteen-year-old schoolboy/girl" but can also be used in Japanese for older people with a similar level of reality-resistance (high) and self-awareness (none).
Rikka has a sort-of boyfriend, Yuuta, who acts as her affectionate but long-suffering minder and has no expectation of their relationship proceeding at a pace faster than glaciers. She even has her own school club, whose (few) members all exist at arm's length from reality, either knowingly (e.g. Dekomori, fellow loon) or not (e.g. Shinka, who's normal, completely normal, definitely not in denial about anything or furiously maintaining a public image, no, no).
"Arm's length" is an unscientific measure, mind you. In the case of Rikka and Dekomori, those must be King Kong arms.
The 2012 season brought Rikka and Yuuta together. Approximately, eventually and with debatable levels of awareness from Rikka, but it did. The 2014 season then explores that relationship. What does it mean to be someone's girlfriend when you're behaving no differently from before and haven't even held hands? Rikka's aware of this question. It actually bugs her. Then we have the arrival of Sofia Ring SP Saturn the 7th, the Magical Demon Duchess. (Note: not the name on her birth certificate.) Yuuta and Sofia used to be happy chuunibyous together in junior high school and they're still close friends, which Rikka sees as an even greater source of potential danger. She's also right, although not in the way I'd been expecting.
Sofia is one of the year's emotional cores, but she's not The Rival. That's her apparently predestined role, but she's not. She ends up being something of a soulmate for Rikka, in fact. She helps her. She wants Rikka to do well and be happy, which of course means helping her awaken the Dark Flame Dragon, which they both take very seriously. Sofia's story is melancholy and oddly realistic for anime, in which characters tend to fixate on a single life partner for all time. She does like Yuuta. In fact, she's in some denial about the exact degree of this and has reshaped herself in a slightly sad way to avoid it. She's fully aware that what she needs to do is get over him and move on with her life, but of course that's more easily said than done. Sofia is a nice person who's not pushy or manipulative at all, while her presence in the story makes it subtler, more autumnal and emotionally richer.
The only thing that felt a little artificial (for a while only) was the level of lesbianism. I counted four in what's a pretty focused show. Dekomori and Shinta are a pair, even if they haven't realised because they fight like cat and dog and their idea of intimacy is throwing water balloons at each other, while in addition both Rikka and Dekomori get lesbian admirers over the course of the year. (Rikka's is insignificant and basically a cameo, but Dekomori's causes trouble.) That's a lot... but on reflection, I realised that it's not more reasonable than it looks. Dekomori and Shinta are core cast members and a fundamental element of the show, so creating a one-episode triangle to raise the subtext into text is an intelligent way to explore their relationship. It also adds another level of mirroring, with Dekomori-Shinta-FakeMoriSummer being a thematic reflection of Rikka-Yuuta-Sofia.
Oh, and there's also a gag in ep.12 that takes the gay further still and made me laugh. In other words, this is a secondary theme and I like it. Oh, and while I'm talking about theme and metaphor, look at what the show's doing with sunlight and shadow. You'll know what I mean when you see it.
The show's still often hilarious, mind you. Above all, it's high entertainment. Shinta's embarrassment can be killingly funny, e.g. the episode in which Dekomori learns the truth. Have you ever wanted a disciple and worshipful slave? Sounds good, right? I nearly died.
There's a Kumin-centric episode in which the club enters a Napping Competition, complete with Napping Training. It's even sillier than it sounds... until you do some googling and realise that you've underestimated reality. Napping competitions are real. That doesn't mean this isn't still deranged, obviously, but "deranged" is this show's blood and heart and I thought it was a very good episode. (It starts out with the terrible, terrible mistake of putting Rikka in a position of responsibility.)
The show's pleasantly free of fanservice, with even the girls' visits to public baths being family-friendly. It's just a shame about the brief nudity in the closing title sequence, which isn't even as sexy as the fully clothed stuff immediately before. Nice hip wiggling, Kumin. Mind you, I love Rikka using an Anime Satanic Magical Circle as a hula hoop in the opening titles.
So, what other shows has this director done? Tatsuya Ishihara, let's see... ooooh, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. That's a big name to drop. It doesn't look as if Ishihara's actually directed as many shows as I'd have expected, but he's done some well-known Key/Kyoto Animation moe series (Air, Clannad, the 2006 Kanon remake) and a comedy called Nichijou that sounds surrealist. I've had one or two of those on my radar for a while, actually.
And yes, I am giving more credit to the anime production team than to the writer of the original novels. As with the 2012 season, it sounds as some of my favourite things about these episodes were introduced in the adaptation process. I think the novels' Sofia is more straightforwardly a Love Rival, for instance.
This is a nice show. It makes you warm. I'm fond of these people. I like the thematic territory it's exploring, in which these people are at once hilarious nutters and subtly, sensitively portrayed characters with precious little self-confidence. I love the kiss scene in ep.12, for instance, which seems to me both perceptive and moving in the way it develops from its starting point of the characters seeing a kiss as a sort of relationship hurdle, or perhaps the next checkbox on a list. I can find little things moving in unexpected ways, so for instance a mad flashback monologue from Dark Flame Master can at the same time be the character's last words as he faces non-existence due to increased self-awareness. It's a death speech, effectively, in its silly way.
I love this franchise. Is it just that it speaks to me? Was I ever quite as weird and excluded as Rikka? I'd guess not, but more importantly I think the show's intelligent, funny and sweet.