The Kawai Complex Guide to Manors and Hostel Behavior
When Kazunari Usa's parents move because of a job transfer, he decides to stay put and move into Kawai Complex, a boarding house that provides meals for its residents and charges a reasonable rent. He's fallen in love with an older student name Ritsu, who also lives in Kawai Complex, at first sight, but it's clear that she's more interested in reading books than anything else, and he has a lot of work to do to get her attention. Not to mention, he also has to contend with the quirks of his other housemates, such as his masochistic roommate, Kinosaki, the perpetually drunk and lovelorn Mayumi, and Ayaka, a crafty and somewhat sadistic college student who won't hesitate to take advantage of people, even her so-called "friends".
I'm very tempted to call The Kawai Complex Guide to Manors and Hostel Behavior (my, what a cumbersome title....) the spiritual descendent of Maison Ikkoku, for the basic premise is the same: one moves into a dorm and falls in love with another resident at first sight, only to have one's advances impeded by the romantic interest's indifference and the antics of one's crazy neighbors. Indeed, while I haven't yet seen Maison Ikkoku, it does seem to have spawned a fairly large subgenre of romantic comedies, with Love Hina being another possible example. Now, Kawai itself is a show that often leans heavily on the conventions of romantic comedies, and sometimes far too much so; frustratingly, the antics of Usa's housemates, while often amusing, have a way of uncomfortably butting in exactly when the show wants (and needs) to be serious, and a large amount of the humor is mean-spirited. Kawai does get better as it goes along, primarily because Ritsu does become more of a character and less of a passive object of gaze, while Usa evolves from a straight man into more of an active participant in the antics, both of which made the show feel a bit more like a sitcom and less like the many Japanese "comedies" centered on bland protagonists. Nonetheless, it's a show I can only recommend cautiously.
To be frank, I didn't much like Kawai at the start. For one thing, while I normally enjoy shows made by Brain's Base, I just felt that they didn't do a good job with the visuals here; the color scheme is over-saturated in gold and violet tones, and the lighting is persistently off, with beams of sunlight awkwardly and unnaturally superposed over the background and the highlights on the characters' faces and hair often being overdone. While the character design itself is pleasant, the whole thing gave me the distracting sensation of looking through a low-strength kaleidoscope. I didn't initially warm to the cast, either, with Ritsu not doing much besides reading books and acting generally indifferent, and Usa seemingly not having much of a personality at all except for following her around and being constantly exasperated with the over-the-top antics of the supporting cast. Indeed, though the dichotomy between "normal" and "wacky" characters is a common aspect of anime comedy, it's not necessarily comic gold, and for the first half of this show, it makes the comedy feel unnatural, with the show feeling a bit mean-spirited on the whole. In the meantime, Usa gazes at a girl he doesn't know, supposedly in love with her, while said one-dimensional love interest goes on reading and acting coldly, and (shocker), in spite of Usa's lamebrained attempts to get her interested in him, nothing happens. It doesn't help that in the first episode, Ritsu, in a moment that feels completely out of character, basically threatens to hit him with a kendo sword if he doesn't stop talking to her; luckily, this random violence mostly disappears later on, but it's a horribly awkward scene.
The supporting cast members are easier to like initially by virtue of their having personalities, and of the antics being funny in spite of their sometimes fitting into the show awkwardly, but there's plenty of mean-spiritedness to go around here, also. Kinosaki, whose unkempt hair and perpetually covered eyes scream, "hikikomori!", torments Usa by begging him and Mayumi to perform acts of sadomasochism on him, as well as by generally making inappropriate comments and getting his neighbors involved in such bizarre endeavors as a bamboo-cutting business and an attempt to build Rube-Goldberg machines and create a children's theme park (with actually innocent intentions). Mayumi stumbles around, usually drunkenly, bemoaning her miserable love life while being oblivious to the fact that she dates only complete sleazebags, and using her romantic woes as an excuse to butt in, just as Usa gets remotely close to engaging Ritsu, and make inappropriate comments. The sadistic Ayaka, who taunts her constantly, is basically her foil. The humor is over-the-top, slapstick-oriented, and simplistic, and I got a good laugh out of the show while recognizing fully that almost everybody in this show is an awful person, at least to a degree. It's possible that I found this all amusing because of simple schadenfreude; what I found less amusing was the fact that for half of its run, Kawai's overblown humor inevitably rears its head just as it seems that Usa might actually make progress or that Ritsu might actually say something. One can argue that the fun of such a romantic comedy is feeling the frustration of a character as one's friends and one's own slip-ups stop one from getting anywhere, and of the persistent status quo of wanting but not getting, but while I'll grant that in some cases, this particular supporting cast makes it such that our none-too-interesting leads hardly make a single footstep, much less a journey of a thousand miles.
I was just about ready to give up on this show when, suddenly and almost miraculously, things did get better. For one thing, Usa shows some signs of actually communicating with Ritsu rather than just angsting, wishing, or making awkward advances, and surprisingly, Ritsu isn't subjected to the pernicious trope of abruptly falling for him because of some random occurrence. Usa slows down and gives some genuine attention to her interests, while not trying to force her to talk to him, and gets much farther than he did by awkwardly angsting over her and randomly attempting to impress her (shocker!). At the same time, he isn't as much of a helpless target and unwilling participant within the hostel, which is a dynamic I never liked; in general, he becomes more sarcastic, which makes Mayumi and Kinosaki's antics seem less like borderline abuse inflicted on a defenseless wimp and give the show the air of a good if basic sitcom. Kawai improves massively, meanwhile, as Ritsu's viewpoint actually comes more into play. This emerges slowly and in a pleasantly nonverbal manner as the viewer gets a glimpse of what she actually finds funny, which gets us past the apparent stoicism and emotionlessness without having to have the male lead to be the one to open her up. Kawai is at its best, however, during a closing arc centered around Usa's new job at an Edo-themed restaurant and inn. In the first place, the show very cleverly mirrors Usa's absurd but understandable attraction to a "type" when Ritsu sees Usa in Edo garb and suddenly finds herself attracted to him: in many shows, it's simply a given that a girl will fall in love with the lead, but Kawai, in addition to (eventually) letting Ritsu open up to Usa in a way that isn't completely abrupt and artificial, also gives the viewer a sense of what she actually likes. The show isn't afraid to eventually let Ritsu open fire on Usa's faults constructively, also; in an amusing state of intoxication (having drunk sake instead of plum juice by accident), she rails on him for letting people take advantage of him and for being passively "nice", particularly to a former eccentric middle school classmate who, having become popular and "pretty", had tormented him upon a chance encounter at the restaurant. It's a clever touch, I think, because it plays with the overused idea of a "nice guy" character by actually presenting that as a negative, something that Usa's learned to shed around his housemates but not necessarily around everyone else.
That's not to say that Kawai entirely fixes its faults by the end, for the jokes remain noisy and the color scheme looks awful up to the last screenshot. Nonetheless, Kawai gets better as it approaches the admittedly inconclusive end of the season: it sets itself up to be a romantic comedy full of tropes and mean-spirited characters, and while the latter doesn't really go away, that's offset by the fact that it dares to play around with the tropes (and by the fact that in spite of myself, I did often find it funny). I doubt this will ever supplant Maison Ikkoku, but for a short diversion, it isn't bad.
It gets off to a rocky start and looks like it's going to exemplify the worst of the genre, but I do think it's funny, and it does get more interesting. — Nicoletta Christina Browne
Recommended Audience: I'd say this is best for teenagers and up. Many of the jokes are suggestive (if not especially explicit), especially on the part of Mayumi and Kinosaki; the former offers to let Usa fondle her at one point, while the latter is, simply, a masochist. Mayumi gets drunk often, and Ritsu (who is technically underage) accidentally gets drunk in one scene; meanwhile, there's a fair amount of fanservice and some slapstick violence.
Version(s) Viewed: Stream courtesy of crunchyroll.com (Japanese with English Subtitles)
Review Status: Full (12/12)
The Kawai Complex Guide to Manors and Hostel Behavior © 2014 Ruri Miyahara/SHONEN GAHOSHA/Kawaiso Production Committee
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