Tsuki ga Kirei came out of nowhere this spring, and I mean that in the best way possible. At a glance, it was one of the most mundane, forgettable series in the season’s lineup: a no-frills middle school romance. The fact that it was an original series rather than an adaptation gave it better odds than most, but there’s still so, so many ways that premise can go wrong, especially given the kind of meh promotional art. But what we got instead was, with the exception of Rakugo Shinjuu, my favorite anime of the year; a truly terrific teenage romance that breaks every annoying genre convention and cliche.
As always, this review is provided in video format and transcribed directly below. I would like to note that my reviews are written first and foremost to be experienced as videos (that is, read aloud), so no guarantees that jokes, grammar, or anything else will transition entirely smoothly to text.
There are so many angles to start this from that I barely know where to begin, but before I go further, I must warn you that this review will have mild spoilers. To communicate the show’s appeal, this isn’t something I can be vague about; I need to tell you specifically how certain things play out, such as...
*mild spoilers below this line*
...the fact that the main characters, Akane and Koutarou, hook up. And not at the very end of the series, but in episode 4, leaving well over half the show for the uncharted territory that anime romance never gets to; that of an actual relationship.
But before I get even to that, we need to lay some groundwork about the philosophy of Tsuki ga Kirei, and its worldview. A lot of anime set in high school, or middle school such as we have here, are not “realistic”. Characters will be over the top personalities, with clearly defined traits, crazy hairstyles, well-endowed women, and that sort of thing, which there’s no inherent problem with. Every show has its own purpose and its own requisite style for that purpose. It’s okay that shows like Love Live or Toradora have anime characters first and thoroughly lifelike characters second. But, there’s no denying that this exaggerated style is the relative norm, and anime that veer realistic are in the minority, even moreso those that do it well.
Tsuki ga Kirei does it very, very well. The series presents an astoundingly grounded representation of teenagers, and their relationships. To facilitate this, the voice acting is incredibly restrained. I’m talking like Hibike! Euphonium 2 levels here; no one has an “anime” voice and every exchange sounds like it could have been recorded on the street. When groups of friends are talking, the vibe is wholly natural and low-key; most of the time when you talk to friends, you’re not really “saying” anything, you’re just talking (and laughing), and that’s every casual conversation in the show. It tries to do what it can with body language too, but the animation isn’t quite up to par enough for that to work out as well, which is a topic I’ll return to later.
So like I said, the main couple hooks up, which is satisfying enough in the first place, because they’re endearingly cute and clumsy around each other. But of course, this is not the only anime in existence to have its characters hook up early on, Ore Monogatari!! coming to mind as an easy example, and while such a development is a great early hook, you have to be able to follow it up to keep audience interest. What Tsuki ga Kirei goes for is depicting the hardships and eccentricities of a modern teenage romance, the ones that anime never ever addresses. Literally, and I’m using that correctly, literally every episode after they get together brings something new to the table, some new relatable wrinkle of young love; most immediately, the question of what people in relationships actually do. I love this. The two decide to start going out, and then... nothing happens, because neither of them knows what the hell they’re doing. They’ve never been in a relationship, and have no clue what happens next. So what do they do?
They Google it. I love this even more. The show, and its handling of technology, doesn’t feel ten or twenty years behind, like anime usually does. It reminds me most of last year’s Yuri on Ice, which was not a school show, but had just as strong an understanding of phones, the internet and social media in our modern lives. Texting (and not email, but actual texting) is a central pillar of the relationship in Tsuki ga Kirei. Whether it’s staring at their phones contemplating sending a text, or eagerly waiting for a reply, Akane and Koutarou spend as much time conversing over the phone as they do in person, which doubles as a nice trinket of characterization. The two are adorably awkward introverts that managed to start dating by a number of lucky, sheer coincidences. And because of that, when things are just starting out, they have a real hard time talking to each other at all, any exchange between the two of them dotted with long, silent pauses… except when they’re on their phones. Right off the bat, they manage to say way more over text than they do in person, for quite a while, which I think is a fantastic representation of the introvert experience. I’m the exact same way, and I have a feeling I’m not the only one; there’s something about a conversation through text that’s much easier to deal with than one face-to-face.
But while the show acknowledges the prevalence of phones and texting in a modern relationship, it also acknowledges that there are times not to text, when something needs to be said in person. Most blatantly, this occurs in the finale, when (keeping it vague, to not spoil absolutely everything) Kotarou is racing to see Akane, and contemplates sending a text, before immediately discarding the notion. It’s important enough that he needs to actually be there. And maybe that’s not as profound or interesting a development as the integration of texting in the first place, but I appreciate creating a semblance of nuance about the use of technology.
As I mentioned earlier, every episode of the show afterward has new and further things to say, but the degree of modernity in their daily lives is what most stuck out to me, so I’ll only quickly list off some more before moving on. Tsuki ga Kirei covers the difficulties of being more informal with each other, using your first names and all that, which is much more an exclusively Japanese thing, but still a thing. It covers the need to communicate, and refreshingly has the cast refuse to keep meaningless secrets from each other. It covers the difficulty of finding time together and keeping relationships intact at that age, when you’re not in full control of your life, and can’t always dictate where you live or even where you go to school.
What makes this all the more satisfying is, not only that our couple overcomes these obstacles, but that this time and again signals a strengthening of their bond and intimacy. By the end, they kiss regularly! Considering the two started out not even knowing each other’s names, this blew my mind. A-are you sure this is anime, with this level of romantic progression? And something else prompted exactly the same reaction: the show’s treatment of love triangles, in that it promptly tells them to f**k off.
There are good and bad ways to do romance drama, and the bad ones usually come about from the characters failing to communicate or certain members of the cast acting particularly unsympathetic and selfishly. Luckily for the former, people actually talk in this show, both friends and couples. When one of Akane’s friends, Chinatsu, realizes she has feelings for Koutarou, she musters up the courage to actually tell Akane, and not only that, they then have a measured, reasonable conversation about it. Afterward, once she’s been rejected by Koutarou, Chinatsu even very genuinely asks Akane if they can still be friends, and since everyone here is the sweetest goddamn person, of course Akane says “sure thing”, which leads me into the latter.
Every member of the cast is so good, it’s so refreshing. In keeping with Tsuki ga Kirei’s realistic mindset, everyone involved here is just such a terribly nice and well-meaning person. No one is a jerk, there’s no aggravating character that you want bad things to happen to, and the show very easily could’ve swung that way when it started introducing love triangles. Y’know, I’m not even going to do the disservice of calling them “love triangles”, that implies a stupid, forced situation; what we have here is normal people being interested in other normal people and acting completely understandably. It’s easy to see Jock Boy moving in on Akane and think “no, no, you back up and turn around, she’s with Koutarou” but you get it. He’s kind, he’s into her, and he’s acting on it. It’s not his fault that at this point they’re hiding their relationship and pretending in public that it doesn’t exist. As far as he knows, she’s single, so I can’t fault him for moving in, and when he realizes the mistake he’s made, you can see the instant regret (probably mixed with some disappointment that he lost his chance). But still, no one is a bad person; there are no villains whatsoever, just good people navigating life as best they can (except for the Kadokawa editor, screw that guy).
And not content to stop at romance, the series goes on to reproduce other aspects of life with equal grace, often subtle stuff you don’t even think about, like that boundless physical energy and excitement when really good (or really bad) things happen, when you just can’t contain yourself and need an outlet of some sort. Similarly, the parents exist! Red alert, the parents exist... and they act like normal-ass parents, not crazy cool guys or loli moms; they’re just your average, sweet, understanding and sometimes strict parents, who manage to feel just as real as everyone else. They enjoy teasing and embarrassing their kids, as parents do, they worry about their futures, as parents do, and they have at the end of the day an unconditional love for them, as parents do.
Now if I had to voice a complaint, it would be that, due to the show’s steadfast commitment to realism, the characters just aren’t hugely memorable, in the traditional sense. They feel so much like people, and especially kids, almost to a fault. They have simple problems, and even simple goals. No one is “deep”; no one is, for better or worse, anime. But, that is not the same as saying that they are poorly characterized; much of the cast, especially Koutarou and Akane, display many little quirks that round them out beyond “awkward boy” and “awkward girl”. Akane gets easily skittish, relying on this blob plush to knead through her anxiety. Kotarou is something of a closet edgelord, frequently quoting Osamu Dazai, and his phone adorned with imagery of wolves. Plus, he’s a boxing fan, as the poster in his room and his tendency to shadow box would easily indicate.
And not just that, but each has their goals in life, beyond existing as a romantic counterpart to the other. Akane is a sprinter, and quite a good one, forced to debate how far she wants to take her athletic career over the span of the series, and whether or not a relationship is something she even has time for. Koutarou is an aspiring novelist, impassioned by the written word and eager to get his voice out there, despite repeated setbacks (and helping out with a traditional Japanese festival on the side). These subplots of the show take care to never overshadow the main romance, but instead compliment it. When Kotarou secretly goes to see Akane run, it’s a chance for their relationship to grow deeper. When the two feel like they’re growing distant, and the words just don’t come to Kotarou, he manages to put his feelings into writing. When they both try their best, and fail, they’re there for each other, to pick themselves back up and try all over again.
For good measure, the cherry on top so to speak, unrelated to Akane and Koutarou in any capacity, is the many hilarious post-credit shorts. If you clicked off without watching them each episode, then you really missed out. Each one is a light, humorous take on relationships, reminiscent of this season’s Tsurezure Children. There’s not much more to say on them than that; they have no bearing on the rest of the show, but they’re a fun and funny way to cap off an episode whenever they appear.
All that said, it is of course true that no show is flawless, and Tsuki ga Kirei’s flaws land squarely in the arena of its visuals, its production and its animation. According to this data from Kvin of Sakuga Blog, the show seemed like nothing short of a disaster behind the scenes. There’s on average like 12 animation directors, a full half of the episodes were completely outsourced, a recap episode got thrown in the middle after only 6 episodes, and it didn’t even have a proper opening animation until halfway through, forced to use edited clips from the episodes themselves. There are so many derp drawings, so many static scenes, only a handful of well-animated cuts in the entire series, and even they are frequently undercut by the constant, overbearing presence of the incredibly ugly 3D people. There’s nothing I can even say to defend it, they’re hideous.
It’s awful. It’s bad. It’s real bad, which is a shame because I dig the character designs, the direction is pretty solid (or better, depending on who you ask), and the white “shiny” lines... aren’t a look for everybody, but I like them well enough, so it really hurts that the technical production values are such a complete travesty. I can’t even come up with a silver lining for this one; it looks like a show that faced a troubled production practically every step of the way, which from the sound of it was exactly the case.
Moving on to my final thoughts, we come to the ending. Considering that this series was thankfully not an adaptation, I knew to expect some sort of actual ending, and I prayed to the anime gods that it would be a good one. Of course, up to this point I’ve spoiled some things about the show’s journey, but I will refrain from spoiling the ending. Nonetheless, permit me this vague take before I wrap up: the ending is the most cathartic and emotional thing ever, and I loved every minute of it. It might not have been super realistic compared to the rest of the show, but it more than made up for that with pure sappy satisfaction. I said in my Nana review that I am at heart a romantic, and this ending pushed those buttons just right.
And... that’s it. That’s all I got. Tsuki ga Kirei is a show I never once saw coming but turned around to surprise me in every way I thought it couldn’t. Every time I got worried about where it was going, “oh no, things are getting contrived ‘cuz they’re not gonna talk to each other” or “oh no, now we’re gonna have a stupid melodramatic love triangle”, it would always exceed my expectations on every level. It looks like s**t, I grant you, and that would have been a catastrophe in a series that needed to look good in order to be good, but Tsuki ga Kirei’s strength was always in its writing and its understanding of youth, far more than its animation or lack thereof.
So after taking everything into account, on a scale from F to S… this verdict may surprise some people. They may feel that I am not being “objective”, or that I am being unfair... but personally I have no reservations about awarding Tsuki ga Kirei an S rating. An S is not a show I believe to be “perfect”; it is a show that I give my highest recommendation, and I cannot recommend Tsuki ga Kirei highly enough. It has become one of my favorite romance series of all-time, touching me in a way that very few anime have, enough to completely supplant and override any misgivings I may have had with the show’s technical quality. At the end of the day, it just doesn’t matter.
Anyone who would like to watch Tsuki ga Kirei for themselves (and I hope by now there’s at least a few of you that do) may find it available on both Crunchyroll and Funimation, subbed and dubbed respectively.
You’re reading AniTAY, the anime-focused portion of Kotaku’s community-run blog, Talk Amongst Yourselves. AniTAY is a non-professional blog whose writers love everything anime related. Click here to check us out.