Raku Ichijou is a supposedly "average" high school student with a secret: he happens to be the sole heir to the head of a dangerous Yakuza Family called the Shuei-gumi. Raku also has another secret he had made a promise ten years ago...a secret pact with a girl he had met while playing in the countryside. They told one another that they would "get married when they reunite," and since then, Raku has never let go of the pendant the girl gave him, though he has yet to figure out who the girl actually was.
Then one day, a beautiful but hot-headed girl named Chitoge Kirisaki transfers into Raku's class, and the two immediately don't get along. Worse, it turns out that Chitoge is the only heiress to a rival Yakuza Family, whom the Shuei-gumi is trying to make peace with; Raku and Chitoge are forced to pretend to be lovers, much to their chagrin. Raku, in reality, is far more interested in his demure classmate Kosaki Onodera (and oblivious to her own affections towards him), while also still being in love with the girl from his past....he'll have to suppress his feelings while he and Chitoge bear with each other as best they can. And of course, with this being a harem, there are more girls in the mix...
As I write this review in Spring 2015, I reflect on the fact that the topic of this piece, Nisekoi, is one of the most insanely popular anime series that I know of. During its initial airing in 2014, it seemed to me that every other story on Anime News Network was related to either the show, its promotional materials, or its merchandise, to an extent that only Attack on Titan has rivaled of late. Both the anime and its parent manga series command a sizable fanbase, and as of the time of writing a second season is preparing to air in several weeks.
It may seem strange for me to bring this up, because I've tried hard throughout my short tenure as an anime reviewer to not let perceptions of a show's popularity skew my reviews negatively or positively. And yet, I must admit up front that the unbelievable popularity of Nisekoi has sometimes affected my view of it, in that it is a series I rather dislike, and that over the course of many conversations regarding the show, I've had its merits pointed out to me many times and yet have been unable to comprehend what precisely these people, many of whom I strongly respect in regards to their opinions, are seeing in the show.
To be sure, Nisekoi is a beautiful-looking series. Akiyuki Shinbo of SHAFT clearly knew that he had a blockbuster on his hands and spared no expense in regards to the design and cinematography of this show: it's colorful, vibrant-looking, and full of small visual details that will make any fan of Madoka Magica happy on that front. Indeed, when compared to SHAFT's Mekakucity Actors from the same season, it's obvious that a majority of the studio's resources went to making girls blush, sparkles fly, and clothing twirl in this series; its rather drab-looking counterpart, in contrast, screams of having been done on a low budget, a situation which also plagued Madoka Magica and the far superior Ground Control to Psychoelectric Girl when they were airing. Nisekoi is chock full of SHAFTisms, from their trademarked headtilt to close (sometimes creepily so) shots of moving bodyparts to the use of unusual flowered and checkered textures, and it's really quite astounding-looking, even if it doesn't really add up for much of a thematic purpose: the second ED sequence's use of quilted patterns reminds me strongly of the use of such patterns to define the appearance of the witches in Madoka. Speaking of the music, it's also a good effort, with the soundtrack being pleasant and the duo CLARIS contributing several nice opening themes.
And indeed, for those who are, in general, fans of the harem genre, I can understand the appeal of this series: the female characters are indeed very cute. This is the point, however, at which I feel my understanding of the series diverges from the narrative I've encountered. In general, I'm not much of a fan of harem series, given that they often feel like exercises in wish fulfillment to me (if not downright creepy or sexist in some cases), but while Nisekoi certainly has admirers who are harem fans in general, there's a large contingent that has referred to it as transcending the genre. I don't see Nisekoi as breaking the bounds of harem, however; rather, I see it as exaggerating some of its key traits, in what feels to me a highly self-conscious self parody that coexists with the series' still wanting to be treated as a harem series. It is for this reason that I think the series just doesn't work.
To be perfectly honest, Nisekoi was very, very difficult for me to get through. On a basic level, I found it near-impossible to like any of its characters, in particular Raku, who's as big an idiot as your standard harem lead and as big a cocky jackass as your average MC from a shounen action series. He manages to simultaneously be completely oblivious to several characters' affections (a point I'll get to) and absolutely unpleasant to the vast majority of the characters, calling Chitoge "gorilla face" as one long-running example; he even gives her an apparently custom-made doll in the form of her, as a gorilla, as a beyond passive-aggressive birthday present. That's not to say that I don't bemoan his situation at least to some extent, nor that Chitoge is innocent; she's foul-mouthed and quick to anger, and also will happily punch anybody who crosses her. Rather, it's that it's the act of watching these two, overall, that's extremely unpleasant to me. Simply, to watch these two bicker is to be witness to the bratty and self-centered behavior of immature high schoolers, which at this point in my life I'd like to forget about, and whatever brief hints there are that these two might mature in any way feel tacked-on. I don't generally like "forced engagement" stories, but these two handle it especially poorly, with something that's apparently supposed to be "funny" simply being horrifying to me.
This draws me to the rest of the cast and the show's incredibly tedious drawing out of the "will he or won't he?" question central to any harem's existence. Raku, being your standard harem lead, is obviously smitten with the more traditional and demure girl, in this case Kosaki; he is, however, completely oblivious to her own affections, an infuriating fact given how blatant they actually are. Now, I know that teenage obliviousness is real, but to me, this series' stretching of it goes too far and makes it impossible for me to care. In one particularly frustrating scene, Kosaki and Raku essentially prove to each other that the former was, in fact, the girl from his childhood memories from the countryside (a stunningly original plot thread on the show's part). This scene, done in the course of the couple running into each other accidentally and getting ice cream together, seems so self-consciously set up for a confession, and yet it culminates in the two actively denying that this is the case on the basis of....absolutely nothing. Now, I won't accuse Nisekoi of incompetence, for its handling of this scene is clearly intentional. It delays the usual act of another character coming in and ruining the moment (which happens thirty seconds later) and deliberately removes any emotional cues (e.g. that Raku actually is too nervous to admit it to her) in order to be able to pull the joke of them literally outright denying this obvious fact, for nothing besides sake of the harem continuing. And lo and behold, another girl, the insufferable yandere Marika, arrives an episode later, only to present her own version of the story in which she and Raku were so-called childhood friends and restart the cycle.
To me, this makes the show unbearably tedious to sit through, and distinctly Sysyphean in its progression. I won't say that I hated every second of Nisekoi, since Chitoge (alone of the characters) does get less unpleasant as the series progresses, Kosaki's snarky friend Ruri is fun to watch, and there are rare moments where the characters' idiocy finally appears ready to dry up. But it's the purpose of this show to stymie each and every one of those moments: as soon as Nisekoi looks like it might finally have the characters stop behaving like oblivious jackasses, we're either introduced to a new girl, or the characters' development is blatantly and self-consciously wound back for comic purposes. And it's this self-consciousness on the show's part that annoys me: it isn't trying to transcend the boundaries of harem, it's trying to exaggerate its traits to a painful degree. The final episode, in which the various female characters literally push each other out of the way during a school performance of Romeo and Juliet (of course), just seemed to scream to me, "this is a harem! And did I mention that we're watching a harem!?!??" I'll concede that this could be amusing, and perhaps it is to those who do enjoy this genre as a whole, but it just wasn't enjoyable for me to watch.
I am trying hard to be fair towards Nisekoi in spite of my immense dislike of it; I know almost without a doubt that at some point, I will get flack for this review. Nisekoi is absolutely gorgeous looking, and like even SHAFT's weaker efforts, it's clever, to an extent, at what it does. SHAFT is a studio that I've always had a love-hate relationship with: for every interesting work they adapt, such as Arakawa Under the Bridge or Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, there's a show like Bakemonogatari whose cleverness comes hand-in-hand with shallowness and a downright creepy attitude. Nisekoi isn't especially creepy, even though its view towards gender roles is beyond regressive (the "forced-to-be-masculine girl who wants to be seen as feminine" trope seriously needs to die); it is, however, ultimately a pretty shallow harem series at heart. Aspects of that genre will be amplified, but they won't be played with in a meaningful way, and the characters just won't ever get any more mature. If you're okay with that, then by all means, watch Nisekoi, but I was told that it was a show that would make me rethink the harem genre, and it simply isn't, in my opinion.
Beautiful-looking, but tedious and home to a cast of frankly awful people. Probably a four-star rating (at least) for fans of the genre and for diehard SHAFT aficionados. — Nicoletta Christina Browne
Recommended Audience: Generally tame in regards to sexuality (in comparison to some of SHAFT's works), but there are of course the requisite "you pervert!" jokes and Raku's token horny best friend (who isn't worth any other mention in this review). A lot of slapstick violence, also.
Version(s) Viewed: Stream courtesy of crunchyroll.com (Japanese with English subtitles)
Review Status: Full (20/20)
Nisekoi © 2014 Naoshi Komi/SHUEISHA, ANIPLEX, SHAFT, MBS
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