Fuuka BR + Digital – Review

This Winter 2017 manga adaptation is technically a next-generation sequel to the previous decade’s manga and anime series Suzuka, with Fuuka being the daughter of the central couple from that series. However, absolutely no familiarity with the original series is needed in order to understand and appreciate this one; Suzuka and Yamato from the predecessor do pop up a few times in cameos, and reference is made to Fuuka being the daughter of a famous track star, but those are bonuses for franchise fans rather than critical details. This is entirely a standalone story. Whether or not it is actually worth watching if you’re not invested in the franchise is another matter.

The series is, at heart, a romance story set against a backdrop of developing musical aspirations, all centered on a love triangle consisting of protagonist Haruna, titular character Fuuka, and Koyuki. However, how seriously the story takes this, and where the exact focus lies, varies a lot over the course of 12 episodes. At times (especially early on) the series uses events, style points, and tone much more reminiscent of a harem romcom, and the defining music component does not even become part of the story until the series’ second quarter, when the process of assembling the band finally progresses. Also, like its predecessor, the story focuses much more on the male protagonist than the titular character. Though other characters (especially Koyuki) get focused on as the story progresses, the viewpoint is predominately his.

That is not to the series’ benefit, as Haruna is easily the least interesting character in the main cast. His sullen attitude and the way he just lets himself be dragged along by circumstances, rather than trying to make anything happen himself, is a weight on the story at many points; when he does finally take the initiative on something late in the story it’s almost a cheer-worthy moment, as he has been so pathetic up to that point. That makes his ability to garner and keep attention from multiple hot girls (the band’s female guitarist is implied to have at least some interest in him as well, though she never acts on it), hard to fathom; at times he very much comes across as one of those bland self-insert characters commonly-seen in harem romcoms.

Haruna certainly has similar romantic troubles. Fuuka is a character cut from the mold of Haruhi Suzumiya: she’s a full-blown genki girl who drags people along with her energy and force of will. She’s also one of those harem girls who is quick to physically abuse the male lead for indecencies that aren’t his fault (though thankfully, this aspect fades as the series progresses) and she’s initially clueless about romance despite being plenty attractive and vivacious enough to have certainly garnered male attention in the past. Koyuki represents her polar opposite: the softer, generally more reserved option who perfectly understands her own heart – to the point that all of her music is about it – though key moments in the series pivot on her capacity to be bold when she needs to. Whether it intends to or not, the story clearly shows that Koyuki is the better fit for Haruna, to the point that I can imagine many viewers rooting for her even though anime logic dictates that her status as “childhood friend” inevitably dooms her romantic aspirations. Fuuka is the “blow his mind/shake up his world” option, and whether fair or not, Koyuki can’t compete with that.

Beyond the main trio, there’s not much to the cast or story. Fallen Moon keyboardist Makoto, who is gay but in a more restrained way than normal for anime, has a backstory in his bad relationship with his father, but it receives so little attention that it feels like an afterthought when brought up. Drummer Kazuya is mostly defined by his ties to track, while guitarist Sara gradually becomes more personable after initially being difficult to deal with, but that also gets so little attention that it can easily be overlooked. Members of the Hedgehogs also appear regularly enough to justify their prominent presence in the opener, though the leads which equate to Fuuka and Haruna don’t finally appear until late in the series. They do not ultimately contribute much beyond being inspirational figures. Haruna’s sisters are also lively characters but do not contribute much beyond sometimes making his home life uncomfortable.

Like its predecessor, the series’ visual technical merits are nothing special, and that may be putting it nicely. The visual high point of the series is unquestionably its character designs, which is a mild surprise given that this was the first character design credit for Yoshino Honda. The designs make both male characters (beyond Haruna) and female characters equally attractive and do a remarkably good job at connecting appearance and personality. The animation effort, by comparison, is lackluster. Feature scenes devote at least some attention to the way characters move during performances, but there are much, much better examples out there in anime, and animation is kept minimalist in other places. Also like its predecessor, the series isn’t shy on fan service, though it isn’t center stage at all times.

The musical front is where the series should be strongest, but that ends up being a mid-tier effort as musically-focused series go. Opening theme “Climber’s High” is a solid rock number which is also used throughout the content as a hit by the Hedgehogs that Fallen Moon covers, while normal closer “My World” by Megumi Nakajima (the voice of Macross Frontier‘s Ranka Lee) is a lighter rock number which is not similarly-used; it is replaced in one episode by the debut of Koyuki’s melancholy song “Snow Fireworks.” Insert songs used throughout sometimes manage catchy beats, melodies, or guitar riffs but don’t impress as much. The musical score beyond that, which features a mix of orchestration, piano, and synthesizer, is generally effective but not a stand-out.

Funimation simuldubbed this one, and that may not have been the wisest move. The vocal performances aren’t bad when characters are speaking, with Aaron Dismuke‘s vocal style seeming to suit Haruna well, Jill Harris getting Fuuka’s emotional range right, and Ricco Fajardo wisely resisting any urge to play up Makoto’s orientation. However, any merits the dub may have collapse in the songs. Both the opening theme and all songs throughout are dubbed as well, but the singing voices are a pale comparison to the Japanese origins and the lyrics used require awkward vocal pacing within the songs. I have to think that a less stringent dubbing schedule might have at least allowed the lyrics to be reworked into a smoother form in English. The physical release provided by Funimation is Blu-Ray + digital only and provides only clean versions of the openers and closers for Extras.

The other significant thing about this adaptation is that it deviates in a major way from the source manga at one certain late juncture, and even those who are anime-only viewers shouldn’t have any trouble figuring out where that point is, as one event which normally leads to calamity is instead barely-avoided here. This is partly compensated for by having an existing character take over some scenes that would have otherwise fallen to a new character, but that kind of shake-up won’t be apparent to anime-only viewers so the adaptation may play better for them. That being said, a couple of scenes at the end – the ones about a band wearing rabbit costumes – are a clear reference to manga content beyond what the anime shows. Overall, the series is a somewhat messy mix of romance, music, drama, and comedy which never finds a comfortable balance between them because it tries to cover too many bases.

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