4-koma (4 panel comedy manga, pronounced ‘yonkoma’) are some of the most abundant manga out there. We rarely get to see much of it outside of Japan, but 4-koma are a huge deal. Unlike long-form manga, they are short enough to run in newspapers, most of which will have at least one daily 4-koma of some sort. Sazae-san, the world’s longest-running animated TV show and a pillar of Japanese culture, started off as a 4-koma in a newspaper. International sensations K-On and Azumanga Daioh are 4-koma. My personal favourite rom-com of all time, Izumi Tsubaki’s Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun, is a 4-koma. There are entire magazines devoted solely to 4-koma. They have a tried-and-tested comedic structure (the Japanese call it ki-sho-ten-ketsu, read up about it), and make for great light reads.
This very structure, unfortunately, is what makes them extremely hard to adapt to anime. This is further compounded when you try to go for a dramatic approach as opposed to a full-blown gag comedy. Case in point, Kotoura-san (I’ll be using its Japanese title because the English title is way too long).
Haruka Kotoura is your average psychic kid. Yep, nothing to see there. Unlike the other psychics we have discussed in previous reviews this month, Haruka has but a single ability: telepathy. She hears people’s thoughts as though they spoke them out loud. As a child, she can’t even tell the difference between whether people are speaking or thinking. Naturally, this leads to funny things, like never losing at rock-paper-scissors, or blurting out the name of the guy her best friend likes. Cute, right?
Absolutely not. From making her the target of bullying to single-handedly causing the divorce of her parents, her telepathy has been nothing but a curse. The first half of episode one does a great job of hammering this point home. Sure, it can be a little corny at times (the scene with the cat kinda made me laugh), but the sequence as a whole is impressive in how relentlessly depressing it is. Everything that could go wrong goes wrong. We often think of how cool it would be to have such powers, never pausing to consider how it could be a curse in disguise. In particular, as so-called ‘grown-ups’, we don’t bother to think how it would be if one was born with such powers. Sure, we know to keep our mouths shut and be unobtrusive, but a child?
Kotoura-san takes this unique approach of looking at the problems of growing up with such powers, of forgoing an ‘ordinary’ childhood. It is a fresh take on the whole ‘powers are a curse’ trope. Haruka’s dead, uncaring eyes were all I needed to see to understand the hell she’s been through.
And then everything goes downhill from there.
Haruka is unable to make friends even at the new school she transfers to. She doesn’t even make an attempt to fit in or get other people to like her, instead responding in a jaded, snarky manner to what her classmates are really thinking while talking to her. She has completely given up on trying to act ‘normal’. I like her. She is a realistic human being.
But all this changes when ‘cool guy’ Manabe (he even has the stereotypical last bench window seat) enters the picture. I do not like this character. His voice irritates me. The purpose he fills in the story is that of the person who is not put off or disgusted by Haruka’s ability and her inability to fit in. This is a necessary character, as without someone like that Haruka won’t grow and the story won’t progress. But did it have to be him? He has literally one joke: he inadvertently imagines Haruka in a...particular way, shall we say. And of course Haruka can see this and is embarrassed and irritated, and beats up Manabe.
Look, this was funny the first time. But the same gag occurs in every episode. And sometimes multiple times in an episode. Each of these seen in isolation is kinda funny (many of them poke at typical fanservice stereotypes). But across episodes?
(Although I'll admit that the first 'daydream' he has — the only non-pervy one — absolutely floored me with how hilarious it was.)
Manabe has little depth beyond this ‘perv’ comic relief and being a general ‘nice guy’. He is a poor foil to Haruka. Around him, even she loses all her depth, becoming just another tsundere who hits him whenever he does his ‘perv’ thing. They had to draw the line on this gag somewhere.
And therein lies the problem of being a 4-koma adaptation. In the episodic 4-koma format, I assume this isn’t too much of a problem, due to the independent nature of each manga strip. You can go from a dramatic strip to a comedic one without much issue, since each strip is self-contained. The format thrives on this flavour-of-the-moment nature. You also can’t stay dramatic for too long, since people are mostly reading this as a wind-down (remember “Loss”?). The gags become necessary. And again, the fleeting nature of 4-koma means that the gags don’t get stale.
But anime is a medium with far more continuity. The same thing won’t work here. I would’ve liked the anime team to have diverged from the source material. Just stick to the story of Haruka slowly overcoming her hellish childhood with the help of this normal guy who treats her like a normal girl. Focus on their relationship, on Haruka’s growth. Ignore the fluff. Keep the gags to a minimum. Work in some drama: nothing too severe, just Haruka learning to overcome what is everyday stuff for the rest of us.
But no. The anime team instead decided that what we needed...was a beach episode and a hot springs episode. Whaaa? Just an excuse to get Manabe up to more pervy hijinks, I’m sure. The entire middle section of the anime feels like filler.
It doesn’t help that the other characters are hit or miss as well. The ESP club president whose mother was a disgraced fortune teller and clairvoyant (reminds me of Ace Attorney), she works. They don’t hammer her sad backstory in your face, but it is on your mind whenever you see her. Her guilt over ‘using’ Haruka is also believable. The karate girl who loves Manabe, on the other hand...yikes. Do they really think real-life people behave this way? So over the top. And the character thread I was most looking forward to, that of Haruka’s absentee mom, ends on a very flat note.
And don’t get me started on Haruka’s creepy pedo-incest grandfather (played for laughs, shockingly enough). The less I think of him the better.
Haruka is the only standout character here. But she is not enough to carry this show.
But wait. They do eventually try to inject drama in the final third. And they do this in the most moronic way possible: by introducing a murder mystery plot that Haruka must solve with her powers. When I said I wanted more drama I didn’t mean THAT kind of drama! Where is the focus here? The resolution to this story thread made my eyes roll so hard that my face can now be seen on ahegao T-shirts.
Kotoura-san lacks focus, above all. It is unable to decide between whether to commit to light high school comedy or serious drama about the duplicity of people and the struggles of fitting in. Like a goalkeeper that charges towards an aerial ball to catch it, only to suddenly hesitate and decide that maybe they should’ve stayed on the goal-line. And if you’ve watched any football at all, you’ll know how that goes.
Kotoura-san is not a bad anime. I have seen far worse. Plus, it has good ideas that make it worth watching. It is merely disappointing in how mediocre it is, when it could’ve been so much more
Art: C+. Couldn’t be more generic if it tried. I do like Haruka’s dead eyes, although her character design is a bit too moe for someone like her.
Animation: C. Barely anything to speak of here.
Voice acting (Japanese): B. Hisako Kanemoto is a good voice actor (you will recognise her as Erina from Food Wars, and as Squid Girl). She does quite well as Haruka, portraying a wide variety of emotions. Manabe on the other hand has a hideous voice. So annoying. The rest are okay.
Music: B+. Probably the best part of the anime, with good use of music throughout. Fun OP, but the main ED tries too hard to make you feel sad.
Story: C+. A girl whose telepathic powers have brought nothing but pain to her slowly begins to heal over time, with the help of a pervy boy who treats her normally. Kotoura-san starts well before completely losing focus and squandering its strong start.
Characters: B. Haruka is a very competent lead, and is the main reason to watch this show. Manabe, on the other hand, so one-note. Other characters vary from good (the ESP club president), to okay (the ESP club vice-president), to bad (the karate girl). Haruka’s mother could’ve been handled so much better.
I debated over whether this was a B or a C+. Kotoura-san is not a bad anime by any means, and the heartfelt nature of its subject matter makes one feel a bit mean for giving it a low score. Ultimately, however, I am so disappointed by Kotoura-san and the way it squandered its potential that I have no choice but to score it this way. If you want a standard high school anime to pass time, Kotoura-san might interest you. If the premise is what interests you, and you want to see this anime execute that strong premise, Kotoura-san will only disappoint.