(Welcome to Ani-time Ani-where, a regular column dedicated to helping the uninitiated understand and appreciate the world of anime.)

February just ended and many entertainment outlets just wrapped up publishing endless lists about the best romantic comedies. The problem with the rom-com, like with any popular genre, is that their tropes are so well-known that it can become tiresome to go through yet another story of an odd couple getting together and breaking up due to some stupid misunderstanding, all before a grand finale where love is professed and everyone lives happily ever after. To paraphrase the great poet, Maxwell Lord, rom-coms are good, but they could be better.

Enter Horimiya. This anime speeds through the bad parts of a rom-com to get to the funny, wholesome parts. The story is a tale as old as time: she’s a star student loved by everyone, and he’s an introverted otaku with messy hair. But what if she wasn’t just miss perfect, but a really good sister who took care of her little brother as well as all domestic chores while her mom is at work? And what if he actually was the embodiment of the “oh no, he’s hot! meme?  

By fate or chance, a relationship will blossom that will teach everyone not to judge a book by its cover. While Hollywood keeps giving us the same rom-com, give it up to Horimiya to show how a simple premise, likable and relatable characters, and some changes to the formula leads to what feels like a fresh new experience.

What Makes It Great

The first episode goes through the known tropes of the genre, establishing the central couple’s first encounter, their chemistry, and even a rivalry that could threaten it. Except, rather than try and milk each of those out and present a series of problems to the central relationship, Horimiya zigs when you expect it to zag. The rivalry? It becomes a strong friendship. A rumor that could ruin the relationship before it takes off? It gets resolved by having the characters actually communicate. The endless teasing building up to a relationship-start by the end of the season? It flows by. 

A strong reason for all of this is that the show actually lets its characters communicate with one another, express their feelings, and resolve problems before they become problems. Hori and Miyamura instantly express their disbelief and comfort over discovering a “secret” side to one another that they keep hidden while at school. Even if they aren’t dating by the end of the first episode, they already have a deep connection that they acknowledge is special and unlike what they have to other people. The moment one of them gets mad, or jealous, or confused, they go to the other and talk things through, and this expands to the rest of the supporting cast. In episode five alone, the show avoids three instances of miscommunication causing major problems for the cast, instances that any other anime or manga would draw out for way too long. Whether that will make the show run out of stories to tell way too soon remains to be seen, but for now, these five episodes are a compact, perfectly-paced romantic story that avoids the biggest pitfalls of a rom-com. 

Even if this isn’t necessarily as flashy as something like Violet Evergarden, Horimiya features some clever and inventive animation that emphasizes emotion and subtle yet quick facial expressions. Because the character design is not meant to be super detailed, and there is not any action that would lend itself to fluid character movement. CloverWorks studio makes the small moments of vulnerability, surprise, embarrassment, and deep emotion stand out by suddenly making the subtler body movements more fluid compared to the static conversation scenes. Even better is the use of color to portray certain emotions, as the animators replace the background of the scene with a white canvas and a single-colored shadow behind a character to convey whatever strong feeling they have at a certain moment, whether it’s rage, embarrassment, or love.

What It Adds to the Conversation

The central theme of the show, that everyone has a side of themselves they hide from the rest of the world, is absolutely brilliantly explored in the first few episodes. Horimiya brings to mind both Booksmart and the recent In & Of Itself (both incredible movies you need to watch as soon as you can). It’s not just that Miyamura is much, much hotter than most other anime protagonists, it’s the way he starts opening up and feeling more comfortable around his friends just as they themselves start opening up to him. It’s the way we realize he acts completely differently with his high-school classmates than he does with his friend from middle school. There will always be a part of people you don’t know, because we act differently in different social contexts and there is not just one way to categorize someone. 

This expands to the rest of the cast, with every character having their own issues and motivations that are unveiled the more time we spend with them, right after you’ve already formed first impressions about them. Horimiya simply lets its teenage cast be teenagers, and there’s no better example of this than the student council. In any other anime, the student council is seen as a group of otherworldly genius politicians who control the school from an ivory tower, but not here. Each member is deeply flawed, they have feelings and insecurities, and they are incredibly relatable in the commonality of their problems. Episode three does a fantastic job portraying social anxiety and imposter syndrome in the way Miyamura’s insecurities as a kid in elementary school has affected the way he acts even in high school, raising walls against the outside world and being surprised when anyone tries to get close to him. It’s a short segment, and a simple way to portray the issue, but it packs a strong emotional punch.

Why Non-Anime Fans Should Check It Out

Do you want a simple, yet effective and relatable romantic comedy with a great and likable cast that skips the frustrating bits about the genre and goes straight for the wholesome and fun stuff? Want it to also teach you something about life? Well, there is no better time to get on board the Horiyama train. The first season is still airing, but it is already a strong contender for one of the best romance anime in years.

Watch This If You Like: Kaguya-sama: Love is War, Toradora, Fruits Basket, Gamers.

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Horimiya is streaming on Hulu and Funimation.

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