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"Rumbling Hearts" Vol. 1: Compelling, Depressing, Excellent

You know, visual novel-based animes normally have quite a surreal if not unsettling perspective on love. If you’re lucky, it’s something simple like “the main romantic interest moved from town to town during his childhood and teenage years, resulting in a trail of missed chances at romance” (Sentimental Journey), but you can just as easily end up with “one of the girls is a ghost” (Air). I won’t even bother to broach the more supernatural titles like Tsukihime and Higurashi. At least Rumbling Hearts manages to have a fairly reasonable viewpoint on romantic entanglement, even if the setup is somewhat surreal.

You see, it all begins with a great group of friends: Haruka, Mitsuki, Shinji and Takayuki. Haruka’s quite a timid girl who secretly has a crush on Takayuki, but she wouldn’t even be friends with him if it weren’t for a concerted effort on the part of Mitsuki, Haruka’s best friend. Shinji is Takayuki’s best friend, and Shinji is also aware of Haruka’s feelings, but it’s Mitsuki who eventually sets a trap to get Haruka and Takayuki to meet up. And, thankfully, Haruka finally confesses her feelings to him. He accepts her love and dates her somewhat half-heartedly for a while, but after getting chewed out by Mitsuki and Shinji, he begins to take things much more seriously. In fact, the affection between the two grows so much they almost make love to each other, except that Haruka’s parents and her younger sister, Akane, get home before they can actually finish things. However, it’s clear that a real love has grown between them, a fact that almost bothers Mitsuki a little because it seems she may have some feelings for Takayuki as well. She even actively distracts Takayuki from meeting up with Haruka one day, as it’s Mitsuki’s birthday and she wants a gift. Takayuki, being a good friend and person, obliges, and leaves Haruka waiting at a train station. In fact, he leaves her waiting long enough for the unthinkable to happen—a car slams into the station and nearly kills her.

Flash forward four years: it seems that Mitsuki and Takayuki have now hooked up as a couple. Mitsuki is a young businesswoman working with an imported foods firm, and Takayuki is working part-time at a family-style restaurant with a pair of young waitresses. (One’s typically moe—cute, sweet and mousy in her demeanor—while the other is such a loud-mouth tsundere-type character that her catch-phrase “go step in a cat crap” was referenced in Genshiken.) Beyond that, though, not a lot has changed for Takayuki: he’s still in the same apartment with same posters he had after the accident, and Haruka’s still in a coma. However, it seems thing are finally poised to move forward, because Takayuki’s willing to took for a new place so that he and Mitsuki can move in together and start a serious life together. But a miracle occurs: Haruka wakes up. Problem is, she doesn’t realize that four years have passed, and she doesn’t know that Mitsuki and Takayuki—her best friend and the man she loved so much she was willing to make love to him—are now lovers looking for a home together.

Needless to say, visiting the now-conscious Haruka brings back a plethora of bad memories, which is what the last episode of the disc concentrates on. We flash back to a year after the accident: Haruka’s in a coma, Mitsuki is working as an office lady, Shinji’s a slacker college student and Takayuki’s almost a hikikomori—a shut in. He feels outstandingly guilt-ridden about the accident, and that’s taken a physical and mental toll on him. He nearly goes insane, attempting to abscond with Haruka from the hospital, but he’s caught before any damage can be done. Haruka’s parents forbid him from visiting Haruka ever again, which only sends Takayuki into a deeper depression, and that hurts Mitsuki too, because she feels guilty for distracting Takayuki on that day. She apparently felt so guilty about it that, back in high school, she went from being the star on the swim team to a last place finisher. To save herself, and to save Takayuki, Mitsuki offered her body to him, and it looks like that ultimately did the trick. However, one day Akane stops by to see why Takayuki isn’t visiting her sister anymore, but instead finds Mitsuki naked in his bed, and— Well, let’s just say betrayal, even when accidental, is bittersweet. Will Takayuki be able to cope with playing along like nothing ever happened with Haruka while trying to maintain a relationship with Mitsuki, or will everything collapse once again, adding a second tragedy in all their lives? That’s for the next DVD to reveal.

Now, I know that, strictly speaking, the setup doesn’t necessarily read as believable, perhaps particularly from an otaku perspective, because to see a guy end up with girls by just being himself is something some otaku can’t fathom. However, it’s actually fairly natural and realistic, even if here it’s a shade melodramatic at points. In fact, the depictions of emotions in this series are generally authentic and human. Normally, visual-novel romances—dating sims—are anything but believable. However, Rumbling Hearts ducks that entirely. The very initial basis for the setup—a group of friends that ends up in a love triangle—is so similar to what I’ve seen in my own groups of friends it’s a little unnerving. That’s a first for me when it comes to visual novel-based anime.

In fact, the writing and acting manages to blend shonen and shoujo-style romance with a certain dose of reality, creating a stylized but a believable, engaging and thoroughly enjoyable series. While the basic story reads as improbable at points, it never reads as impossible, because even though the characters seem a little too close to archetypes of the genre, they manage to be balanced with just the right amount of introspection to be believable. I mean, even Shinji, who probably gets the least development of the lot, still rings true because smart-aleck slacker students are all over the place in this world, and he believably captures that vibe. Characters like Takayuki and Mitsuki thus ring even more believably, and their self-destructive reactions to the accident comes across as something you can empathize with if not directly relate to. Even the parts that seem much more patently stylized and comic, such as the scenes with Takayuki working the family restaurant, maintain an edge of believability because they react as you’d expect when faced with an unrealistically but comically pain-in-butt coworker or friend. The solid writing is backed by very good vocal performances from both casts, with FUNimation’s crew delivering a surprisingly tight performance. Rumbling Hearts has one of FUNimation’s best dubs to date, and it may be my favorite FUNimation vocal performance delivered in 2006. Any worries I might have had about their ADR staff in the wake of Moonphase have been erased by their work here.

Visually, Rumbling Hearts is no slouch either, thanks to some great work from Studio Fantasia, whose best known work in the US is probably Stratos 4, and director Tetsuya Watanabe, who is probably best known for directing Zone of Enders. There are may be a few poorly executed cheats, but for the most part it’s very tight to the character models (a good thing in a drama), and the pans and pulls are usually very clean and used intelligently rather than excessively. The story is laid out in a fashion that manages to be very non-linear at points, yet entirely comprehensible and very natural to watch. Each scene rolls tightly to the next without feeling jarring, and if anything it’s always building in a way that makes you want to watch more. None of these elements are easy to pull off, so to see a visual novel-based anime, from an animation studio most people in the US aren’t familiar with, hit almost all those notes without apparent strain is impressive.

Alas, the DVD itself doesn’t fare as well. All the elements of excellence one has come to expect from FUNimation in terms of DVD layout are still there: 6-7 points of DVD access per episode, two video tracks, and a very good menu layout. Unfortunately, it’s extremely thin in the extras department: creditless opening and closing sequences. It might be a little less annoying if it included some character bios, or the original Japanese DVD covers, or even a token commentary track from the one of the dub VAs or the ADR director. Honestly, it wouldn’t be a surprise getting so few extras from another company, but FUNimation’s record of top-notch releases makes this one a disappointment. I guess I’ll have to hope later discs offer more extras.

Of course, even with the lack of extras, I still have to say that Rumbling Hearts has a place on any dramatic romance fan’s shelf. It’s not for children, thanks to the occasional bits of frontal nudity and near-sexual relations, so if you’re a parent, this is something to watch with your significant other (if you have one), not your family. Still, it’s one of the best visual novel-based anime I’ve seen, so if it keeps the quality up, I can easily see Rumbling Hearts becoming one my favorite titles.

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