REVIEW: Haruchika

Haruchika: Haruta & Chika |  ハルチカ
Release: 2016

Finally, a sports anime for those whose sport is brass band. I say “finally” because I assume brass band is underrepresented in anime. It might not be. But this is the first brass band anime I’ve ever seen. The first brass bandime. (Nailed it.)

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Starring Haruka and Chika (get it? “Haruchika”?), who have a few things in common: they are childhood friends, they are both in brass band club, and they’re both madly in love with their band teacher.

IS IT GAY: 6.8/10

Haruchika isn’t a BL. In fact, it doesn’t contain romance of any sort, same-sex or otherwise. But half the Haruchika equation is canonically in love with a man. The Haru titular contribution, namely, Haruka, never explicitly is called gay, and there is no same-sex kiss. But he, like Chika, is in love with their band conductor, which is the basis for their rivalry and the inspiration for various shenanigans the pair finds themselves in. It isn’t a one-off comment, either. Haruka clearly articulates his romantic interest and even intends to make the big confession.

The series implies Haruka’s gayness by dropping a few comments about his utter indifference toward girls. He tells Chika outright that he has no interest in her. Chika tells Haruka with irritation that he should like girls instead. Haruka cluelessly wonders what kind of girls would be considered cute.

Haruka is not only probably gay, the fact that he is in love with his band teacher motivates him throughout the story.

THE HARUCHIKA RUNDOWN

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Chika Homura is a jock. At least, she used to be, when she was a brawny volleyball player. But she wants to redefine her tough reputation and be socially reborn as a sweet and cute girl, so she quits volleyball and takes up the flute to join brass band club instead.

She tries to tone down the machismo in order to woo her hot new band teacher, Shinjiro Kusakabe. But she’s not the sharpest tool in the titular name-smash – that title goes to Haruka, the French horn-wielding childhood friend that Chika runs into in the band room. Haruka immediately cockblocks her in front of Kusakabe-sensei by verbally recollecting how much of a violent little bastard she was to him as a kid, shattering her attempt at social metamorphosis.

Then, when they are alone, Haruka tells Chika that he takes two things seriously: brass band and love. And he’s in love with Kusakabe-sensei.

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TeamHaru or TeamChika? Team-FIND SOMEONE YOUR OWN AGE YOU DAMN 16-YEAR-OLDS!

Well, them’s fighting words, and folks, we have ourselves a series. Their childhood friendship is rekindled with a romantic rivalry for the same man. The rest of the series is a pingpong game of cockblock after counter-cockblock.

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But let’s backtrack to the main plot: Brass Band Club has only like five members, and that includes Chika, who just joined and her experience with the flute is strictly limited to buying one. Well, this sure ain’t Free! Iwatobi Swim Club, we need like way more members if we want to compete in the Big Finale Episode Competition. Like, thirty. Preferably fifty-five. So that’s a lot, and we only have twelve episodes to work with.

So naturally, the rest of the series is pretty much episodic member-recruitment stories exploring the joy of teamwork, friendship, and the beauty of music.

Psych! It’s a mystery series, starring Detective Sherlock Haruka. Each episode centers around some kind of mystery, which teen-genius Haruka solves, while sidekick/actual MC Chika is just there to collect a harem of friends.

Among Haruka’s various puzzles, he:

  • Solves a pure-white Rubik’s cube puzzle using chemistry
  • Demystifies a series of jungle paintings representing the atrocities of Agent Orange chemical attacks in Vietnam done by a grandfather with severe PTSD
  • Uncovers the truth about an adopted classmate’s Chinese parents surrendering him during China’s one-child policy
  • Identifies a trap door an allegedly haunted apartment building that spills out millions of yen worth of coins
  • Returns a lost dog back to its owner. (What? It’s a whole episode, and he used deductions.)

And sometimes he also plays French horn. He’s apparently pretty good, too, but the series doesn’t delve too much into that.

The band club accumulates more members thanks to Haruka’s detective work. This means that the band is big enough now to compete in regional championships. But oh no, Sensei, who was previously a world-famous conductor, might take another conducting gig, which means retiring from a lucrative career in the field of high school band. Which means neither Haruka nor Chika will ever get the chance to bone him.

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Haruka and Chika stalk him for awhile, with the ever-determined Haruka intent on telling Sensei his feelings before he resigns and leaves them forever. But when he realizes that the reason Sensei quit his old gig as a conductor was because someone dear to him died, he decides to take the mature route and just thank Sensei for his mentorship and give him his support no matter what. (The ever-pragmatic Chika takes a moment during her confession time to admit they blew all their pocket-money on train and bus tickets stalking Sensei so could he please spot them a few yen?)

Anyway, it’s fine, Sensei is staying in the band, and if you’ll remember, it’s episode 12 and we have The Big Competition to get over with. The team earns a bronze medal, which is good but is not a gold medal. Everyone gripes a little about this, then gets over it when they remember they’ve hardly done any goddamn band practice this whole series because they’ve been too busy running around solving mysteries and stuff.

THE BEST (READ: ONLY) MYSTERY/FRIENDSHIP/BRASS BAND/SPORTS GENRE ANIME I’VE EVER SEEN

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Haruchika sets up as a high school club anime about brass band, but rather than commit to the tenants of the genre – friendship, hard work, self-confidence, and teamwork – it shrugs them away in lieu of mystery-solving.

There is indeed something rather unique about subverting the “sports anime” genre by incorporating another genre completely. It certainly leads to a more colorful setting, allowing it to invoke musical motifs and visuals that give the series individuality beyond a generic detective series. Using mysteries as a vehicle to recruit new band members also is a more unusual take on the trope of solving tertiary characters’ interpersonal issues to win their club commitment.

Unfortunately, the mysteries themselves aren’t much fun, either. Mystery works best when it engages the audience: when it slides the audience clues for consideration, only for the protagonist to make a clever connection that the audience can both understand and feel impressed about. Haruchika’s mysteries are both far out and cliche, and none are particularly intellectually satisfying.

At the same time, Haruchika isn’t ready to abandon home-base either. It grasps on by the fingernails to being a series about a band club without spending the time to build any real sense of club camaraderie or accomplishment. Ostensibly, we should be following Chika’s journey learning the flute: she starts the series as a total beginner, and, being our MC, we should at least be moved by her personal and musical growth. But while she evidently improves at the flute, this happens during off-screen practices, and she never quite gets good, either. Which isn’t inherently negative, but there’s no journey to follow, which is especially a shame when the show culminates with a band competition without cultivating any particular investment from the audience.

There is very little actual brass band in this series beyond a general setting aesthetic. But it isn’t quite clever enough to ride as a detective series, either. Ultimately, its wonky and disjointed framework couldn’t quite hold up an engaging story.

CHARACTERS: HARUKA, CHIKA, AND THE OTHERS (DON’T MATTER)

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This may not have really been a show about brass band, or really been a show about solving mysteries. But this was a show about Chika and Haruka, and it was at its prime when it was cognizant of the fact that the chemistry between the pair was the best genre it could hope to go for.

Chika is animated and hilarious. She is technically a bit of a trope – a tough girl trying to be a cute maiden and mostly failing at that, while still inadvertently managing to be bumblingly adorable anyway – but she was absolutely fun. Haruka’s a more unusual character, and not just because he’s gay (but the fact that he’s gay certainly makes him noteworthy.) Teen-genius Sherlocks may be a dime a dozen, but few of them are good schoolboys who only step out of line when motivated by love. True to the Sherlock cliche, Haruka is a bit of a dick, though mostly on account of being so earnest. But he isn’t over-the-top about it, either. He is generally emotionally well-adjusted, and at any rate, said verbal dickishness is mostly directed at Chika, probably just to give her an excuse to comically physically assault him each episode. As you do.

But while neither would probably stand out on their own, Chika and Haruka together are what makes the show shine. The way they bounce off of each other, insulting one second and then working together the next was a delight to watch.

Unfortunately, the cast immediately falls flat once the title characters are off the screen. In episodic fashion, the secondaries and tertiaries are introduced one-by-one. During their designated episode, they display initial modicums of characterization. But once they have been recruited, they cease to do exhibit any personality besides a general conversational aesthetic and arm-candy for Chika. They hang about as background decorations to remind us that this story is about a band, though we spend a shocking about of time on non-band classmates – including several students in theater club and, I’m not shitting you, geological research club (?!), among others.

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Chika’s harem, for viewers of the yuri persuasion

For a twelve-episode anime, the half-hearted determination to introduce so many characters and then drop them makes the supporting cast completely stale. But while there were no side character I in any way liked, the fact that they were generally boring and non-offensive meant I didn’t hate them, either.

FINALLY: ON FIRST LOVE

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What does make Haruchika unique is not only the delightful friendship between its two protagonists, but their shared romantic interest in their band teacher. Haruka’s casual gayness that doesn’t bother playing around with subtlety is both accepted by Chika, and a source of conflict in their romantic rivalry.

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Now, let’s be clear: Kusakabe-sensei, the object of HaruChika’s affections, is utterly boring. He’s analytical and thoughtful like Haruka, but so composed that there’s nothing else there to read. He occasionally makes an appearance and solves Haruka’s mysteries before him but only offers vague insight and moral direction. Ultimately, he’s not a worthwhile character. It seems less important why Chika and Haruka are in love with him than the fact that they are.

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Not that we are really positioned to cheer for either Chika or Haruka, anyway. Kusakabe is a teacher, and this isn’t Hitorijime My Hero – being a teacher means students are off-limits, and Kusakabe, to his credit, doesn’t seem to have any special interest in either, not even as students.

But what is introduced as an ongoing conflict that sets up the playfully antagonistic dynamic between the pair is thoughtfully explored at the end of the series. Not with any intent on realizing a relationship with either and their shared object of romance, but with what it means to have a first love. (This theme is also explored in Episode 8 when a character’s aunt investigates her own long-lost first love.) Haruchika doesn’t dig deep, and doesn’t ultimately have much to say about it, either. But it is, at any rate, a curious sidelong glance.

FINAL REMARKS

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Haruchika lacks real narrative substance, but by the sheer charm of its title protagonists is an absolute joy to watch. It only takes an episode or two to platonically ship the pair and let their mishaps drive the series even if they truly don’t have the proper license, or, for that matter, the roads to keep the vehicle moving. And after all, it will probably be the best brass band sports anime slash mystery series you ever watch, so you might as well give it a try.

WHERE TO WATCH IT (LEGALLY): Funimation

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