When Keitaro was very small, he promised a girl that they would attend Tokyo University together one day. Today he's still trying to fulfil that promise, even though he can't even remember the girl's name and for all he knows she's forgotten about him. However, complicating his life further, he's also about to become the manager of an all-girls apartment house. Its tenants don't take kindly to this, with reactions that range from shock to outright violence. Can Keitaro overcome rejection, physical assault and the dreamlike world of Hinata Apartments to fufil his childhood vow?
The first time I watched Love Hina, I loved it. The second time, my reactions were more mixed. It has dazzling comedy and some wonderful characters, but also a problem common to a lot of these shows: a weak relationship between the two characters who are fated to end up together. They're not boring like Belldandy and Keiichi in the Oh My Goddess TV series. Oh no. They're worse. I admire much of Love Hina, but you'll want to scream at Keitaro, Narusegawa and their mutual brain dysfunction that ploughs remorselessly through a 24-part TV series, a 25th OVA episode, two 45-minute specials (Christmas and Spring) and a three-part OVA sequel.
Let's not mince words. This is the worst romance I've ever seen. On his own Keitaro is perfectly likeable, basically a nice guy loser but perfectly capable of being intelligent and even decisive when standing up for his friends. Unfortunately around Naru Narusegawa his good-natured meekness becomes spinelessness and you lose all sympathy for him. Meanwhile Narusegawa is in perpetual denial about her feelings for Keitaro. We're obviously meant to care about this "will they, won't they" relationship, but I wanted them dead. Unfortunately as the series approaches its climax we get more and more time wasted on Keitaro and Narusegawa doing the Dance of the Eternal Idiot.
In fairness, when they're not together I like both characters. Narusegawa in particular is entertainingly violent, regularly knocking Keitaro through walls or practically into orbit. That's not hyperbole, by the way. A Narusegawa punch can send Keitaro flying like a cannonball. He should be dead, although scarily someone else in this series takes even more punishment than Keitaro. An archeologist called Seta has driving skills that regularly leave him with a crashed van and bloody head injuries. He doesn't seem to mind though. He certainly never tries to improve his driving.
The supporting characters can be divided into two categories. The men are almost without exception terrible, but oddly that doesn't matter. This show's strength lies in its girls.
Motoko is a puritanical swordswoman who seems to disapprove of Keitaro's very existence. Haruka is Keitaro's deadpan chainsmoking aunt who runs a nearby teashop. Kaolla is a monkey-like foreign student with magical powers and limitless energy who loves building giant robots and terrorising the neighbourhood. These and many more are all well worth your time, but my personal favourite is Shinobu, the painfully shy escapee from her parents' divorce who's flustered by everything and has a hopeless crush on Keitaro.
The Keitaro-Narusegawa relationship may get tedious, but around it is a fantastic and fantastical comedy that shows why the harem genre remains so popular. Shinobu is lovely. Kaolla is a joy. Motoko is just awesome and often the funniest cast member because she has no sense of humour. Together their misadventures roar with energy and comic timing. There's certainly nothing original in Keitaro screwing up and getting clobbered, suffering misunderstandings and accidental "fall compromisingly on yet another girl" gags... but all the harem comedy formulae are executed with ebullient enthusiasm. Love Hina has glorious chase scenes, an impressive gag rate and some genuinely strong episodes. My favourite was episode twenty, with Moe the clockwork doll.
This is all good fun, but hardly groundbreaking. However the show has one interesting aspect. It's set in a world of boarding houses, childhood promises and university entrance exams, but despite this mundane basis it's not afraid to achieve complete lift-off from reality. From the beginning there's a dreamlike layer of fantasy. I could cite Keitaro's daydreams or Shinobu's episode two decision being represented by effectively seeing her own ghost. Eventually a character actually says that Hinata Apartments is "a place where dreams and reality mingle." By the end, we've discovered that one girl is a witch-woman who can switch between different bodies and that a race of flying turtles have been worshipped since ancient times.
All this provides symbolic meaning, not to mention an outrageous plotline or two. Different varieties of unreality are explored, with virtual reality, ghosts, fantasies and even outright magic from the likes of Kaolla. That girl could fit into a magical girl show. There's something particularly odd about her room, even by the standards of Hinata Apartments. At one point I was even wondering if dreams were infecting the real world, and not as a bit of throwaway colour but as an ongoing plot point.
Then there's the fanservice, which deserves its own paragraph.
An anime staple is the hot springs episode, in which everyone goes to a traditional Japanese hot spring and takes their clothes off. Love Hina is a hot springs *series*. Hinata Apartments has its very own spring in which everyone bathes regularly. You may groan, but in fact the big surprise is how restrained the fanservice is. The girls wear towels when bathing. There's a healthy amount of buxom going around, but no nipples. The skirts are short, but not so miniscule as to be fodder for panty shots. The first two-thirds of the TV series have surprisingly little flesh on display, although things get more blatant later on. I swear the girls even grow a cup size once we're past the TV episodes and on to the OVAs.
This show probably works better if you haven't seen much anime and thus won't be comparing it to other harem shows. It's not particularly original. However it does distinguish itself through its combination of dreamlike surrealism and demented energy. Anything can happen at Hinata Apartments. Compared with Love Hina, even romantic comedy greats like Maison Ikkoku look a little staid.
The show's confident enough to laugh at its own formulae, for example mocking Keitaro's rich rival, but I'm not a fan of self-aware humour. A cliche doesn't stop being a cliche just because you draw attention to it. That's just a Message From Fred. I started groaning around episode six when Keitaro was falling on top of Narusegawa once or twice too often, but that was only the beginning of the downward spiral. Narusegawa eventually gets a rival, Mitsume, who's funny, but even she didn't make me care about their love triangle. Things get worse and worse until we reach the Love Hina Again OVA, which is basically nonsense.
Love Hina can be irritating, but it also has tremendous verve and charm. It's a boundless torrent of invention with some of my favourite anime characters from any series. It's occasionally crass, but also very funny. If you have a strong stomach, it's well worth watching.