It seems like I got a supernatural themed series reviewed for Halloween after all. Though you can hardly call this one a horror, if I suddenly found myself in someone else’s body, I would have anxiety over what was happening to mine!
Title: Kokoro Connect (Heart Connect)
Original airing: July 8th, 2012 to Sep 30th, 2012
Studio: Silver Link
Duration: 24 mins. per episode
Genres: Supernatural, Drama, Slice of Life, Light Romance, High School
Source: Kokoro Connect Light Novel by Sadanatsu Anda
Where I watched: Crunchyroll (subbed)
Brief Synopsis and First Impressions
When five students at Yamaboshi Academy realize that there are no clubs where they fit in, they band together to form the Student Cultural Society, or “StuCS” for short. The club consists of: Taichi Yaegashi, a hardcore wrestling fan; Iori Nagase, an indecisive optimist; Himeko Inaba, a calm computer genius; Yui Kiriyama, a petite karate practitioner; and Yoshifumi Aoki, the class clown.
One day, Aoki and Yui experience a strange incident when, without warning, they switch bodies for a short period of time. As this supernatural phenomenon continues to occur randomly amongst the five friends, they begin to realize that it is not just fun and games. Now forced to become closer than ever, they soon discover each other’s hidden secrets and emotional scars, which could end up tearing the StuCS and their friendship apart.
Highschool dramas are not exactly a new thing. It’s easy to understand why they are so popular in anime, due to their general relatability and tendency to feature themes people seem to enjoy: school clubs, awkward love confessions, and characters that remind viewers of friends they have/had in school themselves. Doing something quirky with the theme, like making one of the classes involve the operation of WWII era tanks for example, is what helps spark my interest.
In the case of Kokoro Connect, we have an odd phenomenon that sometimes literally puts the characters in each others’ shoes and forces them to open up to one another in unexpected ways. Moreso than wanting variation on a theme, this time my goal with this series was to find a good character drama. Given how much I love shows rife with character driven drama like Your lie in April and Anohana, this series had some big shoes to fill (ugh, first it was tea, now shoes? I need to stop getting hung up on themed idioms). Believing I couldn’t get a deeper exploration of characters’ psyches than by watching how they deal with becoming one another, I decided to run with it (gah, enough already!).
Kokoro Connect tells the story of a group of students that initially have little to do with one another but are compelled by various circumstances to become closer than naturally possible. I use the words ‘naturally possible’ because it isn’t the mundane rigors of high-school life that bring about this togetherness. The story employs a supernatural force that manifests itself in the form of body switching and other unexplained phenomena in order to push these characters into uncomfortable territory. At a basic level it’s not different from most body swapping stories, much like the classic film Freaky Friday. Some magical effect causes two people to swap minds and/or bodies, hilarity and hijinks ensue, and characters ultimately learn more about each other (and themselves) after switching back. Cue emotional displays and an everlasting bond between them.
Thankfully Kokoro Connect isn’t done so simply. The setting and character relationships work to make the body switching an unusual enough plot device to be interesting. This can be attributed to a few reasons. The first is that switching is not limited to just two people. Everyone ends up switching places at least once, and with varying characters. In addition, the time and duration of a switch are unpredictable, leading to a number of embarrassing or dangerous situations. While this sounds like it can be really confusing to keep track of, the series does a good job of making each switch clear.
The second reason is that the source of drama attached to the switching is more than some temporary conflict contained within the timeline of the series. There is no issue that the characters deal with that can be resolved by seeing each others’ point of view for a little while. Each character, like most real people, has some deep secret that they have repressed in their daily interactions. It’s only through the involuntary switching that brings many of these issues to light.
A third reason that sets this series apart is the source of these changes. The agent responsible for these effects comes in the form of a mysterious being named Heartseed who is able to take over others’ bodies himself. His reasons for putting the students through the various ordeals is equally mysterious, as he only ever cites “interest” or “fascination” as an explanation for his actions. These tricks don’t stop at body swapping either. At one point Heartseed replaces that challenge with one that removes the characters inhibitions, causing them to say and do things they would normally hold back. Further onward, characters temporarily regress to their younger selves to reveal secrets that may have been forgotten or otherwise repressed.
As unique as these elements are, they represent one of the biggest problems with the series – its plot framing. This might rub some people the wrong way, but the way this series is set up does not make it a good character driven story. The characters instead react to whatever is happening to them from any given phenomenon. The story thus focuses a lot more on the relationships of the characters and how they grow as individuals and as a group, exploring bold directions and coming off as a generally well conceived idea. It’s simply a matter of fact that the characters are not driving the plot. Nothing is, to be honest, because there is no overarching plot to this anime. It consists of several mini-plots which highlight the interactions and follows some character threads that have varying levels of conclusiveness.
Using a mix of comedy and drama, the series does a good job of balancing its tone through its run. As you might find with any group of kids, there is a lot of teasing and friendly banter which is sure to draw some laughs. There are also plenty of amusing scenarios that result from the various effects which play out in interesting ways. Especially in scenarios where boys and girls swap bodies, they run the risk of doing things the other might find embarrassing or downright creepy. Thankfully the show keeps the ecchi elements pretty light and avoids fanservice for the most part.
Undoubtedly the strong point of this series, the well thought out characters featured in this series are its most compelling draw as well. I mentioned the relatable nature of school-based anime in my first impressions, but these characters are what drive that point home in this series. Amid the unexplained nature of the various supernatural phenomena they deal with, they are quite realistic in their design and the issues they deal with. From a difficult home situation to being afraid to trust people, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the viewer or their acquaintances quietly suffer similar problems. Without resorting to any solid archetypes, the characters often surprise in the way they approach these situations.
The viewer’s initial glimpse into this story is done through the point of view of Taichi Yaegashi – a generally well meaning and friendly kid who constantly puts others before himself. The choice of narrative viewpoint is understandable as Taichi has very few issues that he has to deal with. Really, aside from an avid interest in pro wrestling, Taichi is something of a blank slate. By following him, the viewer is able to see how the other characters outward personalities come across and the challenges in getting them to open up about their own problems. Dubbed the “selfless freak” within the series, he is both relatable and unrelatable; in the sense that the viewer can initially place whatever mentality they wish in him, but lack much to personally identify with.
Taichi’s strongest bond, at the beginning of the series and throughout much of the story, is with Inaba Himeko. Authoritative and unafraid to assert herself, she is the one who takes charge in reasoning through a lot of the challenges the group faces thanks to her rational way of thinking. Somewhat unexpected for someone who carries herself in such a manner, Inaba’s anxiety over exposing her innermost feelings drives much of her development. Like Taichi, she fears hurting others in pursuit of her own desires – a fact that causes more emotional distress than she lets on.
The other main character, and perhaps the most interesting of the three, is Iori Nagise. She comes across as energetic and cheerful, but hides some deeper emotional issues like the rest of them. This helps her do well in both funny and serious situations, showing the emotional range of her character that is even used as a plot point in her character arc. At the center of a lot of the initial drama, some narrative issues in the second half of the series weaken a lot of the momentum built around her character early on. Her personal development is hard to follow at times thanks to her unclear goals (more on this later).
Labeled as main characters, Yui Kiriyama and Yoshifumi Aoki act more like supporting characters in their contributions to the story. They are the first pair to swap bodies (technically before the series starts), and much of their character progressions revolve around each other. Yui has a significant, but sadly short, arc near the beginning of the series that is both well executed and meaningful in showing how this experience is bringing the characters together. Aoki’s development is perhaps the weakest, but with five characters it’s almost expected that one of them would suffer from this fate. In any case, the series should be commended for not giving the character with the most standout hair color the majority of the spotlight.
The only other character that can be explored in any level of detail is the show’s antagonist, Heartseed. As mysterious figures come, this one probably takes the cake. Unclear as to exactly what he is (my bet is on alien, given the way the opening shots are framed), what his motives are, how he is able to do what he does, or why he chose this particular group to play with, the entire character is one big question mark.
I hesitate to even call him a character in this regard. As if merely to give a face to the changes that affect the group, Heartseed’s only involvement appears to be to show up and cause some sort of chaos before simply going away. The addition of a second Heartseed hints that he may be part of some alien hive mind, but honestly doesn’t add anything to the story. While some might laud the portrayal of this character as compelling in his mystery, my general impression was that he was too devoid of any sort of definition to be enjoyable to watch.
Having not seen anything done by Silver Link before, I can’t really comment on how this series holds up against their other work. Most of their series seems to have the same moe-style art found in popular series K-On!, offering simple designs without letting the lack of detail make them appear unpolished. It looks decent enough for a 2012 anime without shattering expectations visually, but was likely overshadowed like everything else that came out in the same season as Sword Art Online. There is nothing to complain about with this series though, as it gets the job done without any issue.
One of the more interesting observations with regard to animation is how the characters are portrayed through the various effects. Body swaps cause characters to move and act in ways that hint toward the occupying psyche’s mannerisms, and the age changing effect creates allows viewers to see the characters younger selves. It’s a subtle effect, but the child versions look like they were modeled after their older selves instead of separate young characters thanks to the visual similarities.
With the majority of scenes focused on character dialog and interaction, there isn’t too great a challenge in making the show look nice. Animation is expectedly smooth, featuring nice art throughout, that uses soft lines and colors to promote a mellow tone. The backgrounds come through especially well in the various settings the characters travel through. Though they lack any striking detail, in the same style as the character art, they are often quite vivid and help set the atmosphere of a given scene. Aided by the lighting work, the scenes feel realistic and immersive, whether they are the start of a school day under the morning sun, a tender moment during sunset, or a serene night time stroll.
The OPs and EDs are mostly pop like, with upbeat and catchy melodies. All three endings were done by Team.Nekokan, most well known for their video game music. They are all decent songs, but Salvage doesn’t seem to fit thematically with a guitar track more suited for rock music. The OPs and EDs aside, this series approaches music in a mellow way. A few different tracks are used, but the most prominent is a light melody that sees a few different arrangements throughout the series. They help to set the mood as is typical of any BGM, but tend to accent the scene more than guide it.
The voice acting, like the characters themselves, do the majority of the driving instead. I’ve only seen most of them in supporting roles in other titles, but the seiyuus selected for this series have extensive experience with a variety of character types. Taichi is played by Takahiro Mizushima (Rolo Lamperouge in Code Geass, Romeo in Romeo X Juliet), who brings a lot of emotional range to the character’s easily flustered portrayal. Inaba is voiced by the highly experienced Miyuki Sawashiro (Headless rider in Durarara!!, Bishamon in Noragami) and Aki Toyosaki (Yui Harasawa from K-On!) takes on the comfortable energetic girl persona as Inaba.
As stated earlier, the best part of this series was the strong character work and the development they go through as they work past the challenges that they are put through. The way in which the group, which starts out as a somewhat random assortment of schoolkids joining a club for lack of better options, finds trust and friendship among one another is both natural and satisfying. While the relationships may seem to build quickly in this short 13 episode anime, most of them don’t feel forced in any way, allowing the characters to feel that much more organic.
I say ‘most’ because there are some situations that appear a little too idealistic. As might be expected in a series where the female characters outnumber the males, there is some sort of a love triangle that forms. Without going far into spoiler territory, the lack of tension between the characters that result from this felt a little unrealistic. If anything, it was a missed opportunity for genuine drama that wasn’t artificially created by Heartseed.
Which brings me to the point that challenges the appeal of this show the most. I can accept the necessity of the supernatural element for the various phenomena the group experiences, but the cause was simply too artificial and disjointed to create a meaningful story. Without any clear motivation behind Heartseed’s actions, it’s impossible to understand what makes them significant, let alone tie together the various events he creates. The random effect of these events thus creates a lapse in the overall cohesion of the story, as if the writer simply thought switching bodies or regressing in age would be a cool idea and tossed them in without building any sort of narrative around it. It weakens the small developments that do take place, as character arcs split off in myriad directions with no proper link in between. This is what makes it a series about characters’ reacting to a story, or what passes for one here, rather than driving it.
I will submit that the mysteriousness of Heartseed’s character does create some initial appeal in building viewer curiosity, but that’s like saying the first half of a Sherlock Holmes mystery is interesting. If you were to never read the second half, or worse – if there was no second half, what would your opinion of the story be? As it became more and more apparent that the reason for these events would never be explained, the more annoying it was to see Heartseed get involved. Acting as nothing but a plot device in an otherwise absent overarching plot, his very existence is just a distraction.
To add insult to injury, the ending of the series is left somewhat open ended. The characters come to something of a resolution by the end of thirteen episodes, but there are numerous unanswered questions aside from the complete disregard of Heartseed. Silver Link did create 4 additional episodes in an OVA under the title Kokoro Connect: Michi Random, but without any legal streaming options I have no way of commenting on their quality or how they resolve the series.
Summary and Recommendations
Kokoro Connect offers a touching look at how friendship and understanding can help melt away a person’s innermost fears and help them express their feelings. Strange and disruptive supernatural events cause chaos in the student’s lives, and compel them to grow closer even at the risk of breaking apart.
The characters themselves feel organic for the most part, and react in ways that you would expect of young high school age kids. Each one has a difficult problem or long repressed emotion that they are dealing with, and are forced or inspired to face those feelings when they are unable to hide them from the others anymore. This allows for plenty of character development within the group which helps the otherwise flimsy plot.
The look and feel of this series is clean and consistent, but doesn’t aim for anything spectacular in a visual sense. As evidenced by the largely extensive resumes of the main cast, the character work dominates the series where music and animation work to fill it out and provide an effective ambiance.
The plot and the driving force behind the series in unfortunately weak, coming about as a creation of an unexplained antagonist. The mystery of Heartseed is compelling at first, but the lack of any effort to explain him deflates most of that appeal. The disparate nature of the events that take place make it difficult to follow a cohesive narrative, and the inconclusive ending makes this a frustrating watch for viewers who get stuck on details.
Watch if you:
Value character development over all else
Love stories about friendship
Have trouble working through repressed feelings
Don’t watch if you:
Become bored by slice of life dramas
Find moe style art unappealing
Need a clear story conclusion
Doing well where it’s strong but poorly where it’s not, this series will either be hit or miss for most viewers with few in between. For this review, I had to give it 3 out of 5 StuCS.
It’s not too difficult to see the message that this series wanted to impart. The body swapping portion of the series itself is a unveiled lesson about putting yourself in someone else’s place. People you interact with every day deal with all kinds of issues, some they may speak openly about and some they keep hidden. Understanding another person’s mind is difficult enough, but understanding their heart (purely in the figurative sense) requires a sense of empathy that can’t easily be trained.Sharing experiences and having a similar background helps greatly with this, as you can understand the personal circumstances that would lead someone to feel the way they do.
Which is why it’s hard to understand the reason behind a prank that this series and the studio have become well known for. You can read about the details here, but for a brief recap: Mitsuhiro Ichiki, a newer voice actor, took part in a contest to play an upcoming role in Kokoro Connect as an anime exclusive character. He was selected as the winner and was invited to an advanced screening where members of the cast and series staff told him that the whole thing had been a ‘Candid Camera’ prank. There at the live streamed event they replayed his audition amid laughter.
It’s hard to get a completely accurate details about exactly what went on here, as the primary sources are in Japanese. It’s unnecessary for me to admonish either, considering how much hate the series and the voice actors who took part in it garnered from this stunt. What I will say is that those actors, having perhaps struggled to find work in such a competitive field themselves, should have thought better than do participate in a joke like this. Ichiki’s time and effort were wasted, and even if he quietly took the PR position that they gave him instead of the voice role, I can’t imagine that he wasn’t hurt when his efforts to further his career were met with ridicule.
Karma being what it is, DVD sales for the series dropped sharply after the incident. As much as fans have clamored for a season 2, including a petition, the prospects for such a series are pretty slim.
Still haven’t had enough? There is plenty more to read to your kokoro’s content from these other great bloggers:
The Most Heartwarming Confession In All Of Anime Ever by crispyn64 at There Goes my Kokoro – A very interesting look at on particular confession in the series and the odd way it works in the context of the story.
For more from me, you can find my other reviews on my Reviews Page or click on the tags below to see posts on similar shows. As always, thank you for reading.