First Aired: January 11th, 2014 – May 24th, 2014
Director: Naoyuki Tatsuwa
Conventional wisdom dictates that when your premise isn’t quite as fresh as you’d like, two options are available to you: either turn your work into a deconstruction of the genre’s more popular tropes or conversely, embrace them and turn your story into a celebration of the genre. Centred on Raku Ichijo, the young, reluctant heir to a local Yakuza gang, and his tumultuous love life, Nisekoi opts for the latter approach. Almost every rom-com cliché conceivable has found its way into this first season – in fact, it very often feels that the show sacrifices its narrative for entertainment. Unfortunately, between the overuse of gags and stale setups and the glacial pace, it feels like Nisekoi’s story costs it as many fans as its hilarious cast of lovable goofs gains it.
If the best stories are every bit as much about the journey as they are the destination, then Nisekoi creator Komi Naoshi seems determined to test just how long the journey has to take in order for the destination to become clearly more important. As it turns out, that’s a matter of personal preference – for some, a delayed conclusion leads to a diluted, diminished story while to others, a quick ending comes with the pain of parting with lovable, entertaining cast of characters. This first season offers something for both sides, thankfully; the viewers’ get plenty of time with the characters and their multiple idiosyncrasies while the season as a whole retains a vague narrative structure. Ultimately though, Nisekoi cannot escape the classic harem trap – the story can only progress when Raku picks a girl but when that happens, the story reaches a definite point of no return and will promptly end. Yet, with each successive episode, the emotional stakes get ever so slightly higher – each time we see the characters connect, it is a reminder that an end to the story means at least one of them gets their heart broken.
The truth is that as much as the audience craves plot advancement, watching the characters’ love lives crumble would not be worth the exchange and therein lays the series’ greatest strength. While the characters certainly aren’t complex or even particularly well-written, they serve their one, single purpose exceptionally well – they are entertaining. Combine that with time-tested comedic gags and it isn’t hard to see why each episode is so very watchable but this formula is a little more than a stopgap measure without strong character development to back it up. That character development is almost entirely missing throughout the entirety of the season. Take Onodera Kosaki, the girl Raku has a crush on; her shrinking violet personality is amusing enough to be absolutely integral to the show’s humour but it’s incredibly frustrating that she never developed beyond that point. In contrast, her rival Kirisaki Chitoge, thawes considerably over the season and really opens up. Unfortunately, hers is quite literally the only example of any discernible character development in the entire cast.
The characters are only one of the two pillars bearing the burden of the plot. The other pillar is Nisekoi’s animation studio, Shaft. Known for its avant-garde style, Shaft’s animation is somehow able to give this entire project far more artistic legitimacy than it really merits. The animation does tend to often overcompensate though; scenes get dragged out and even minor interactions are given flowery, elaborate shots. It’s not really aesthetically displeasing but it can be a little jarring to those unaccustomed to the Shaft style. Nevertheless, Shaft brings excellent production value to the show; from the voice talent, to the fluidity and quality of the animation, to the music, it’s fair to say that Shaft’s adaptation is far superior to the source material.
The take-away from all this should be fairly obvious by now – Nisekoi isn’t a show for anyone that can’t sit through your typical, boy-meets-girl Hollywood rom-com and while Raku Ichijo is no Ryan Gosling, his supporting cast more than makes up for it. The show is unbelievably light-hearted but sprinkles just enough real emotion to keep viewers invested. In doing so, it utilizes the same manipulative recipe that kept television audiences glued to mediocre soaps for decades, albeit with better entertainment value. Nisekoi isn’t the deepest or most ambitious story ever told but its charm is undeniable.