Kokoro Connect embodies a lot of anime tropes and cliches that I absolutely hate. That doesn’t mean that it couldn’t work with said cliches and do something creative with them, but I really don’t feel like it did or ever tried to. And I realize that that opinion is going to sound ridiculous to a lot of viewers because it has a pretty fantastic premise that’s anything but ordinary, at least compared to most high school-themed series of the last five or ten years. Despite that, I don’t think that it lived up to its potential. Are my expectations really fair? Is Kokoro Connect a “bad” series? Or is my reaction to it just a product of my own priorities and personal pet peeves?
I’d like to try keeping up a positive attitude more these days, so I’ll talk about what I liked about the series. It had a really interesting premise, some of the characters were likable, and the animation was bright and colorful and looked… well, pretty much like everything else these days. Okay, I think that’s all I have in me.
I can’t project motives onto its creators or know what their mindset was while writing the story, but as a former adolescent boy I think it’s interesting to speculate on. Heck, gender doesn’t have everything to do with it; everyone has experienced loneliness or alienation at some point in their lives, particularly in high school. Wanting to connect with others, trying to express your feelings or learning to navigate relationships are all matters that no one is particularly good at without a bit of practice first. Unfortunately, experiencing certain amounts of social disappointment is inevitable and some people will react better to it than others. You’ll either learn how to understand people, how to be a better listener, and how to appreciate people for who they are and not for what they could potentially do for you. Or you’ll feel entitled to other people’s approval or affection and quickly grow bitter over the dissonance in your life.
There’s a third path out there for anyone who wants to justify the perceived unfairness of the world, but it requires a lot of painful reflection that can never amount to anything beside grandiose daydreams. It requires a strong belief in oneself as a great guy — I believe this is a particularly male fantasy, feel free to disagree but hear me out first — and the conviction that fate or some unfair circumstances have intervened to prevent everyone else from seeing so. But what if you were thrown into some fantastic situation where people couldn’t ignore you, where the real you could shine and your peers would clearly see how wonderful you really are? Such begins Kokoro Connect, where a group of five students is beset upon by some supernatural force, causing them to randomly swap bodies for several hours a day. Of course, this necessitates a certain amount of intimate trust, but if you’re fantasizing about how to make friends, it’s a tantalizing idea.
Kokoro Connect was written by Sadanatsu Anda. I don’t know if Sadanatsu Anda is female or male. I can’t find a photo or any biographical information online, and the few anime database sites that attempt to offer any information at all list Anda’s gender as N/A. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, and I actually respect creative people who let their work speak for itself and would rather remain anonymous than participate in the popularity contest of the Internet. But so much of this story feels like an adolescent male fantasy, one that grows less and less subtle with every episode, that I have to wonder. Don’t be fooled by the prospect of an ensemble cast. Most of the plot flows through Taichi, our main protagonist, who’s commonly told that his most glaring character flaw is that he’s too selfless for his own good. I cannot say that I’ve ever felt that way about another person or could imagine what that might be like. Then again, there’s very little human interaction in this story that resembles real people or real life.
Taichi is not a loner or even a lovable loser. He seems to be quite popular, actually. But his strong desire to help others — more often experienced in adolescence as a desire to simply be needed than any kind of actual impulse to make sacrifices for others — is really getting him down. A familiar teacher enters the club room (!), visibly possessed by a being of a mischievous nature, who lays out the plot and all its rules for both the audience and the main characters. There’s little exploration of what swapping bodies with another person might actually be like. There’s plenty of raunchy humor and implied naughtiness. Everyone takes these events in stride because they don’t matter in any way other than to set Taichi up in one scenario after another where he “fixes” his friends’ problems with nothing more than the wisdom that comes out of being a totally selfless person. I guess.
Taichi’s friend Iori has a violent stepfather. Years of violence at home are suddenly solved by her friend’s intervention. His friend Himeko is revealed to be very distrustful of others and her reaction to the fantastic and terrifying events of the series are some of its only truly believable moments. Besides her cold demeanor, she’s actually the most likable character in the series. Taichi puts a stop to this by showing her the light. Yui was almost raped a few years ago and has developed a chronic case of androphobia (not PTSD, which is messy and complicated, but a fear of men, which is now an endearing and often hilarious character trait). Taichi shows her that she’s all worked up over nothing and that, even as a black belt in karate, she still doesn’t know The One Weird Trick that will stop any man in his tracks. Problem solved! His friend Yoshifumi doesn’t need help because he’s a guy. Girls are crazy! Am I right?
Maybe there’s potential for this to go somewhere, but the body-swap plot is dropped after a handful of episodes and replaced by other contrived scenarios that exist only to either humilate Yui, Iori and Himeko, or to “empower” them by turning them into hysterical nymphomaniacs. Maybe this is provocative stuff if you’re of a certain age and if it is, please enjoy every second of it that you can. I watch a lot of high school-themed anime but this is one of the first that made me feel like my inner 15 year-old was being pandered to in the least imaginative ways possible. Full disclosure: I actually enjoy exploring that zone a lot, maybe to the point of dangerous indulgence, but Kokoro Connect‘s deus ex machina plot, condescending attitude towards girls and generally insane interpersonal interactions (comprising a lot of writerspeak dialog, filled in by routine sexual harassment and physical violence that’s far too brutal to pass as mere slapstick and never really portrayed as such) constructed a world that left me disappointed after a handful of episodes and curiously numb by its end.
The final episode brings no resolution or explanation. Apparently there are four additional episodes (not on Hulu or Crunchyroll) that might bring about a proper conclusion to the story. Maybe they’re online somewhere but I don’t have plans to watch them. I’m sure they’re packed with more wacky hijinx, embarrassing misunderstandings and tearful confessions, which will continue to be rolled out with a kind of predictability that resembles a boilerplate shonen battle series in its approach to conflict and resolution.
A common criticism lobbed at many titles is the dreaded label of “wish-fulfillment fantasy.” I don’t know if that’s wrong or not, or if its cousin, the “power fantasy,” is really any worse. I definitely enjoy a lot of titles that would fit both of those pejorative descriptions. Here’s where I would try to justify my preferences, only I don’t know how seeing as I probably contradict myself when it comes to laying down rules about what the “right” or “wrong” ways to tell stories in a medium like this would be. But I’m definitely suspicious of any story that tries to oblige me in so many transparent ways. Kokoro Connect does little but oblige the viewer to an almost pornographic extent, particularly when Taichi is treated as a kind of viewer surrogate, which would make sense given how so much of its target audience will identify with him.
Ultimately, that’s something I cannot know and a claim I shouldn’t try to make. Then again, I read dozens of pages of Kokoro Connect discussion on MAL and it was very difficult to find anything other than overenthusiastic praise for it. I’m just very tired of this kind of series and these kind of characters and I feel like this was the straw that broke the camel’s back, or at least made me feel jaded or cynical about modern anime in a way that I didn’t feel before I watched it. It seems inevitable that almost all anime fans will drop out of the hobby at one point or another. I’m pretty far past the point where this was supposed to happen and it seems unlikely to happen any time soon, but if it ever does, I feel like I’ll look back at my experience with this series as the beginning of the end.