Ryousuke Hazuki is a shiftless, aimless young man whose only ambition is to get the attention of Rokka Shimao, the owner of a nearby flower shop. However she is haunted, quite literally, by the spirit of her dead husband, Atsushi, who is invisible and unheard to all ... except Ryousuke, much to their mutual chagrin. As Rokka struggles with the prospect of falling in love after years of widowhood, Ryousuke's attempts to get closer to her are thwarted by the ghostly Atsushi, who refuses to let go of the one he loves.
With the paucity of josei romance anime on the market, the very concept of a show involving a younger guy chasing an older, widowed woman will inevitably draw comparisons to Maison Ikkoku. That's a bit unfair, because the similarities are completely superficial, and this is a very different kind of show. Sedate, prone to flights of fancy, and at times more beautiful than compelling, Natsuyuki Rendezvous is a flawed, but still mostly likable foray into a genre and demographic all too often forgotten in today's largely shounen and seinen driven markets.
Central to this story is the grieving process: Rokka has been a widow for quite some time, and very much unlike Kyoko and Godai, the age difference is a fairly noticeable factor here, as she is well past typical "Christmas cake" territory. Clearly she has held on too long -- everything about her smacks of attachment to her lost husband -- and it's good to see her rediscover the joy of actually living. The initial stages of this show are sometimes tough to watch as we find about about Rokka's backstory, and anyone who has loved and lost will find it hard to keep from reliving that sorrow. Anyone who has studied Buddhist thought is made well aware of the idea that earthly attachment leads to suffering, and nowhere in anime is this made more apparent than in this show. Empathetic viewers may find this particularly difficult in the early going - consider yourself warned. That being said - there are certain factors that blunt the emotional impact of this series as it continues to unfold, and unfortunately rather than providing a sense of relief like the comedy of Maison Ikkoku, these factors instead lead to something of a letdown.
You see, the most frustrating thing about Natsuyuki Rendezvous is that we're watching some really flawed people at work here, without the benefit of a large supporting cast to give us a break from the building tension (or, a shade too often, outright melodrama). Hazuki is so isolated from the world that he is always on a last name basis with everyone - I can't think of a single character that actually calls him by his first name - and he has almost literally no drive or impetus to succeed other than getting closer to Rokka. He's also an utter clod, and there are times that his bull-headed approach to things gets grating. And sure, we all get that Rokka has clearly had a difficult time separating herself from the husband with whom she shared her life's passion for gardening - years and years of essentially wearing widow's weeds, even if metaphorically rather than literally. But every time you feel like sympathizing with Atsushi (especially in the flashbacks where you essentially get to watch him die of cancer), you end up pulling away because the inescapable truth is that this guy is one serious troll, and unfortunately, despite initial indications that this might be something of an "I see dead people" comedy, not a particularly humorous troll. Much of Rokka's trauma is specifically caused by Atsushi's actions, not just in death, but beyond - it gets worse when Atsushi's interference with Hazuki becomes more physical in nature through the course of the show. If you've ever seen Ghost, imagine Patrick Swayze's character as a selfish, egotistical, vain bastard, and that's Atsushi Shimao - even the constant metaphor for his presence (cut flowers) seems to suck the life of not just his widow, but the whole show. Maybe I'm being a bit harsh, but the broad-brush approach to Shimao's "attachment problems" actually led me to nearly quit halfway through after what seemed like such a promising start because I was so angry with how everything panned out. Rokka, in particular, takes about a third of the series to realize something that is plainly obvious to the audience. The only saving grace may be that at least Atsushi realizes he's being selfish and clingy and, in his own words, "a scoundrel" and "a bastard", but self-deprecation is hardly redemption when committing act after act of outright emotional cruelty.
Another part of the problem is that the slice-of-life pace sometimes slows to a crawl, which has the distinct effect of making this 11-episode series actually feel longer and slower than Maison (yes, even with its whopping 96 episode run). There's not a lot of comedy to cut the drama and it's essentially impossible to marathon for any but the most patient (not a demographic I qualify for). I'm sure this is more an artifact of the source material than a fault of the director (Ko Matsuo, veteran of Rozen Maiden). This is more of a factor in the second half of the series where Hazuki finds himself in a highly unexpected situation -- but what is essentially the spiritual fight of his life ends up being as consciously whimsical and often outright confusing as Maeterlinck's Blue Bird or Leda: The Fantastic Adventure of Yohko.
That being said, there are a fair number of things about this show worth embracing. While no one ever watches josei anime strictly for the animation, Natsuyuki Rendezvous is beautifully drawn and it's clear that someone's been doing their research about floral arrangement and gardening, something I seriously appreciate having taken two semesters of grad-level botany. Some later scenes involve a sketchbook-like art style that is a great aesthetic fit for the NoitaminA block. The music ranges from tastefully unobtrusive BGM to the exquisitely mood-setting ending song, probably the single best facet of this show. Sayaka Ohara (Fairy Tail's Erza Scarlet) does a great job differentiating the weary, traumatized 30s Rokka and her more idealistic 20s self in flashback, and both iterations of Rokka have a gentle quirkiness that give her a sense of being someone you'd know in real life (even if her fashion sense leaves a lot to be desired - seriously, who puts a basket on their head when on a big date?!?). The standout here might actually be the one relevant ancillary character in the series, Rokka's sister-in-law Miho (prolific veteran seiyuu Yumi Toma), who gamely takes on the role of the lone sane person in the show and frankly doesn't get near enough screen time.
Taken from a different perspective, this series asks some interesting questions: If you died and had the chance to come back to your bereaved spouse, would you do it? Should you even try? Natsuyuki Rendezvous goes through the whole concatenation of unintended consequences for Atsushi's decidedly impaired decision-making, and unfortunately neither Hazuki nor Rokka are quick enough on the uptake to realize what's happening until it's almost too late. As hard as it was to watch Rokka grieve over someone she genuinely loved in the first half of the series, it's even harder to watch Atsushi devolve into a manipulative, possessive jerkass in the second half, while Hazuki bumbles about because, as nice and kind-hearted as he is, he's so dense he should be tripping Geiger counters. (In his defense, so was I when I was 22.) But when Atsushi finally has to answer for his actions, it's rather satisfying ... it just takes a bit too long to get there as by that point he's practically talked everyone else to an early death.
This almost would've worked out better as a live-action drama (I can easily imagine Jun Matsumoto in here somewhere), but as it stands ...
Often strikingly beautiful, but at times painfully overwrought, Natsuyuki Rendezvous is a bittersweet experience with earnest, but emotionally clumsy characters taking far longer to find release than they ought. Diehard drama fans should probably bump this up a star. Conversely, anyone expecting slapstick comedy or action of any sort should seek their entertainment elsewhere. — Carlos Ross
Recommended Audience: The guys do spend some time shirtless, and there's some brief nudity on Rokka's part, though none of this is played off as overt fan-service; apart from that there's a fair amount of alcohol use (Rokka's kind of a lush, actually), a tastefully handled sex scene or two, and constant reminders of death and the afterlife as a prominent plot point. Older teens and above due to content, and probably best for mature audiences based on the emotional and psychological content.
Version(s) Viewed: crunchyroll stream, Japanese with English subtitles
Review Status: Full (11/11)
Natsuyuki Rendezvous © 2012 Haruka Kawachi / Shodensha / Natsuyuki Rendezvous Production Committee
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