I disliked the first few episodes, because the boys seemed unlikeable. Kyouichi Kanzaki has no personality, Yoshihiko Kenjo is a big jock who doesn't seem particularly engaged in the world around him and Makoto Kurumizawa is a stupid, annoying pervert whom I wanted to push off a railway bridge.
I stuck with it, though. It was a slog, but I kept going bloody-mindedly and was rewarded by surprising subtlety and a mature, autumnal tone. In the end, I thought it was really rather good. It's not the most entertaining anime you'll see, though.
It's a high school series that's effectively an anti-romantic anthology. We have ongoing characters, but this isn't a show about getting everyone together with their One True Love. On the contrary, it's a gentle, dispassionate study of failure. People get rejected, or dumped. Maybe the girl they've met already has a boyfriend. People get betrayed, or perhaps were they reacting too strongly to a delicate chain of coincidences where both parties had opportunities to do things differently? "Nothing doesn't change. Nothing doesn't end."
The stories can be wistful. They're aware of pain and loneliness, but they can turn rejection, for instance, into a positive, happy ending because that's how people move forward. Fear of rejection can turn you into a hermit. These are subtle stories, more mature than I'd expected. Characters grow. They also, importantly, become three-dimensional. Makoto doesn't stop being an idiot, but he stops being offensively annoying and instead becomes funny. Yoshihiko's dissociation with the world becomes a source of character exploration and is also funny in episode eleven, when he meets someone who's an even bigger space case than him. (She's a famous bikini idol who's lovable, but also irresponsible, stunningly ignorant and expecting the world to swoon at her feet. He's got the sensitivity of a block of concrete. They get on surprisingly well.)
The title's a reference to William S. Clark's farewell to his Japanese students in 1877, incidentally. The full quote is "Boys, be ambitious!" Those words are still famous in Japan today.
It's visibly of its era. Some people have mobile phones, others have pagers and others still use public pay phones. Also episode twelve is set on 31 December 2000, as everyone gets ready to celebrate the new millennium. (Our heroes hear the silliest rumours about the magic powers of being with someone on 1 January.)
There's symbolism, e.g. the rain in episode four, which is being used as a metaphor for the passing of the days and might be the loudest element of that story. This is particularly significant in a story about members of the photography club. "No one can stop the flow of time, but a moment captured in a photo will never disappear." There are subliminal subtleties, e.g. an equation "F=kx" on a blackboard suggesting what the boys would like to do to the girls. There's an episode that touches on homosexuality, but in a gentle, ambiguous way that nails down nothing and suggests everything. (The English subtitles unfortunately introduce gendered pronouns earlier than is desirable, but that's the English language for you.)
The episodes usually, but not always, have male protagonists. The female characters are realistic and believable, but I ended up losing track of exactly who was who.
On a more straightforward level, the theme music is lovely and appropriate, but I could have lived without the live-action fanservice eye-catches at the advertising breaks. I also wasn't wild about the art, which is capable of making the girls look ugly. Poor Chihiro.
This is a low-key show that for a while wasn't doing anything for me. I slogged on, but I certainly wasn't being tempted to watch more than one episode at a time. After a while, though, I realised I admired this show. It's a grown-up series about growing up. It looks at things like teenage blues and tells stories that reflect them. It's optimistic, but in a nuanced way. Relationships are usually ethereal things that escape you in the end, or at least that's the experience of these characters, but that's life... or at least that's the message of this anime.