'Bokuben' Review: How to Spring Anime 101
Hulu's anime selection is a really mixed bag.
On one hand, some of my random Hulu picks have been stuff like "Invaders of Ryokujiima," a show so brainless I couldn't make it through the first episode (and considering I still like the first season of SAO you can really take that one to the bank). On the other hand, they also simulcasted Kaguya-sama, one of my favorite shows of last season, as well as Bunny-girl Senpai, which is maybe one of my favorite shows ever. Even though I've come up snake eyes plenty of times, there's enough there to keep me rolling those metaphorical dice.
"Bokutachi wa Benkyou ga Dekinai," a.k.a. Bokuben, is my latest attempt to pull a natural 20 out of all those critical fails. It's a Spring 2019 anime adaptation of a manga of the same name by Taishi Tsutsui. It comes to us as a collaboration between Arvo Animation, previously the creators of an OVA from last year that I've never heard of, and Silver (not to be confused with Attack on Titan creators Studio Silver), previous creators of nothing whatsoever. Not even a website, as far as I can tell. Unless I'm mistaken, that makes this show essentially the debut series from each studio, and as such it's gotten very little buzz.
Bokuben is a harem series centering around decent-but-not-outstanding student Nariyuki Yuiga, who's main goal is to get a VIP Recommendation to his high school's associated college, which will allow him to skip the entrance exams and not have to pay tuition. To do this, however, he's made to tutor the two "geniuses" of his class- literary prodigy Fumino Furuhashi and mathematical genius Rizu Ogata, who have been passed over by all their previous tutors, because TWIST, each wants to study the subject the other is brilliant at despite the fact that they themselves are hopeless at it.
So far, so generic.
But, "generic" doesn't necessarily mean "bad." Despite how standard it seems at first glance, the first episode actually left a pretty good taste in my mouth. The premise justifies the three coming together well enough, while also laying a good foundation for plenty of jokes at the characters' expense, which managed to pull a good few laughs out of me throughout. What really solidified it was a scene towards the tail end of the episode where each character explains their motivations for aspiring to study the thing they're the worst at. Fumino's moment was particularly effective, flowing naturally into the scene and also showcasing a connection between her and Nariyuki in that each has lost one of their parents. Rizu's moment was unfortunately lacking. Her appearance in the scene felt a bit forced, and her motivations were a little bit arbitrary, but all in all it did the job well enough to not be a dealbreaker.
The characters were overall pretty well put together. All three of the main characters' designs were distinct enough to be memorable and stand out, without feeling overdone for the sake of uniqueness, and everyone's appearance manages to reinforce their personality without feeling forced. At first glance, everyone seems likable, if somewhat two-dimensional, but they acquire depth as the episode goes on. Even protag-kun-of-the-hour Nariyuki comes across more than just the average wet blanket harem protagonist, and I'll admit that I was impressed that the writers went so far as to make the obligatory sad thing in his past fits in pretty naturally and it even does a bit to feed into the show's apparent theme of getting past your shortcomings.
The music on either end is good as well. I particularly liked the OP; the song, "Seishun Seminar," is maybe pretty standard for harem shows, but the slight swing feel gives it the edge it needs to be really enjoyable to listen to, and the video accompanying it is absolutely gorgeous. The ED, "Never Give It Up!!" was a lot less impressive on its own merits as a song, but by no means bad, and the video's chalkboard look makes it fit pretty well into the show.
Got some nits need pickin'.
You might have noticed that I hardly mentioned the art aside from the character designs. There's a reason for that. I've seen a couple people compare Bokuben to Nisekoi, with the school life aspect cranked way up, and the overall art design is the clearest example. When I say that, what I really mean is that it looks practically exactly like Nisekoi. Don't get me wrong, the art and animation look good... but that's because it looks and moves just like Nisekoi. To an almost eerie degree, actually. I just took the journey to my bookshelf and back and I can confirm that the manga are in fact written by different people. As far as I can tell, the anime adaptations weren't made by the same staff or anything, so this is one I really can't wrap my head around no matter how hard I try. Whatever the reason, I picked up on it within about ten seconds, and it sort of cast a cloud over the whole rest of the episode.
There were a couple of individual moments that raised some eyebrows. Like I said earlier, Rizu's scene laying out her motivations for going into a liberal arts school left a lot to be desired. Fumino's wish to study astronomy is revealed after she stares at the stars while walking home at night, and her desire to find "her mother's star" feels kind of poetic, and fits with her character. Brilliant mathematician Rizu, on the other hand, wants to study psychology, which is in fact a science with a whole bunch of math and science-y things in it. And her appearance doesn't feel natural; she's just kind of there. They try to justify it by saying she was taking a break on the way back from a delivery for her family's restaurant, but speaking as someone who works in food delivery... Nope. That's just kinda dumb. Better hope your parents really like you, because taking a break on a delivery long enough to play 20 rounds of a card game means your delivery times are irreparably ruined for the rest of the night. I'll admit that that might not stick out as much to the average viewer, but for me it was one of those little things I just couldn't get past.
Another thing that wouldn't stop rattling around in my head after it happened was the appearance of Nariyuki's younger sister Mizuki. Her short scene revolves around her literally smelling the scent of other women lingering on her older brother's clothes. It was admittedly pretty funny, and could have skated by without raising any eyebrows if the other characters had laughed it off and moved on, but the writers decided to go another direction by having Nariyuki's elementary-aged brother literally say out loud that Mizuki has a "brother complex." The fact that Mizuki isn't in the OP's harem roll call, along with how short the scene actually was, has me optimistic that she'll only show up occasionally for the sake of repeating that one joke, but it still had my O O F Senses tingling something fierce. The whole imouto thing almost always creeps me out, and if it gets any worse that little momentary issue could become a much bigger one very quickly.
After the first episode, Bokuben is a show with a lot of little issues, but it's also got enough little things good that set it apart from the standard harem fare to make it at least an above-average addition to the genre. I've only watched the first of two available episodes at time of writing, but the promise of a bubbly ganguro girl joining the gang in the next episode does have me looking forward to watching it, and to finding out how she plays into the central conceit of the show. While there is still plenty of room to mess it up big time, there's also a lot of potential on display, and although the specter of Nisekoi hangs over the whole thing somewhat, I don't see any reason this can't turn into a pretty great show, provided they keep giving the characters more depth beyond what they get in the pilot. I'm going to be optimistic and keep this one on my watch list for the time being. Even if the show doesn't wind up blowing me away, it's doing a decent enough job scratching the harem rom-com itch that Quintuplets's garbage ending left me with, and I don't see signs of that changing any time soon.