Kokoro Connect: Step Time

By Sadanatsu Anda and Shiromizakana. Released in Japan by Famitsu Bunko. Released in North America by J-Novel Club. Translated by Molly Lee.

I get the feeling the author needed a break from the angst as much as the reader did. The last few regular volumes of Kokoro Connect have been rather excruciating, if well-written, and all signs point to the next two books coming up as being even worse. (There are some hints and foreshadinwg in this book as well, the only really serious moment in it.) As a result, even more than the last collection of Short Stories, Step Time allows us to relax and enjoy the cast being together without the threat of Heartseed hanging over them. It also allows the author to go back and take care of some business. Kokoro Connect began with the Cultural Research Club fully formed, our heroes all in it and friends with each other, and Iori and Inaba best friends. So here we get to see how that happened in the first place, in two stories which read like one part destiny to eight parts slice of life.

The book has four largish stories in it. The first, as I suggested, deals with how the CRC was first formed by their teacher (still a normal lazy teacher at this point) and Taichi and the rest talking and realizing they don’t share many interests and all want to be in different clubs anyway. That said, there’s clearly something about these five kids… it’s not the most subtle story in the world, but does a good job of showing why the CRC hang out with each other in the first place. It’s part of a mini-theme in this book of “don’t overanalyze things”, which brings us to the second story, where Inaba and Iori tell the CRC how they came to be friends. This is probably the strongest story in the book (the lack of Taichi POV helps), as Inaba’s natural grumpy cussedness hits up against Iori’s “I am already losing my ability to pretend” complexes and the two have to deal with a stalker of Iori’s.

The third story is also good, though you kind of want to take Kurihara and throw her into the nearest lake. She’s one of the group of girls in the class who aren’t Iori, Inaba or Yui, and she’s very frustrated at the fact that, although there are now three couples in their little group, none of them are having lovey lovey date time. As such, she and an enthusiastic Iori decide to have the three couples (Taichi x Inaba, Yui x Aoki, and that other girl x that other guy) do a triple date, supervised by Kurihara herself. The best part of this is Taichi and Inaba, who really are a terrific couple, as they find out. The last story focuses on Fujishima, who is once again brilliant at everything except ordinary social interaction, and her attempts to figure out why others in their school consider the CRC members “cool”. She’s joined by the two junior CRC menbers, Shino and Chihiro, both of whom are equally socially awkward. What follows is, again, “don’t overanalyze things”, with a healthy dose of Fujishima being oblivious to her own powers of attraction. (She also confirms she is bisexual, almost offhandedly.)

So again, if you love the cast but hate seeing them suffer, this is a terrific volume to pick up. And if you enjoy seeing them suffer… well, Volume 9 should be coming soon.

Kokoro Connect: Yume Random

By Sadanatsu Anda and Shiromizakana. Released in Japan by Enterbrain. Released in North America by J-Novel Club. Translated by Molly Lee.

Oy. I’ve had several reviews of this series where I’ve talked about Taichi, how annoying he can be, and the way he and everyone else around him struggle to have him be more than just “generic visual novel protagonist”. Which means I need to find new things to say about THIS book, which finally takes all of this and turns it up to eleven, destroying Taichi so that he might be reborn. (No, that is actually what one character does.) When we finally get to that point, it’s fantastic. The setup for this book is also great. The middle second and third quarter of this book, though, while well-written and necessary, felt like I was stabbing my legs with forks constantly while reading it. I’ve mentioned I’m not a big fan of cringe comedy, and it turns out I don’t like cringe drama much either. If you have trouble watching people make bad decisions while watching the other shoe about to drop for pages on end, this will be a very difficult read.

Heartseed shows up and says that this will be the last time he messes with them (I know this isn’t true, there’s four more books after this). This time they (they being the core five, the first years are exempt) are given the ability to see other people’s hopes and dreams. This very quickly divides the group in two, with Taichi and Kiriyama being on the “we should use this to help people” side, and Inaba and Aoki being on the “we should just let this be” side, with Iori, as always, in the middle. Because they are in high school and surrounded by teenagers, most of these hopes and dreams end up being love-related, and Taichi and Kiriyama get reputations as “love gurus”. This despite the fact that Kiriyama still has not managed to tell Aoki how she really feels, and that this may be the last straw in Taichi and Inaba’s relationship. Oh yes, and everyone’s about to go on the class trip. But, most importantly, Taichi is determined to make up for the fact that he feels empty as a person by sticking to his guns on this decision, even if that turns out to be the worst thing possible.

As I said, how much you like this book depends on how tolerable you find Taichi attempting to finally realize that he needs to have his OWN hopes and dreams. His dilemma reminded me a lot of Tsubasa Hanekawa from the Monogatari series, who is verbally shredded by Senjogahara (the Inaba of that series) for not having anything she really dislikes… or, as it turns out, likes. Similarly, Taichi is so used to turning his attention to others that the mere sight of a future career survey can paralyze him. This is what leads him to decide to make a decision and stick with it, even if it’s a bad one. Fortunately, by the end of the book he seems to have come to terms with the ability to actually think about himself for once, let people deal with issues on their own, and actually tell Inaba he loves her out loud. Oh yes, Kiriyama and Aoki also get together, in a very sweet confession that spurs Taichi on, and almost makes up for another subplot involving Aoki’s family that I will gloss over as I don’t want to stab things.

It’s odd that I sound like I’m bashing this book, which is very good. You’re frustrated and angry, but in a way that makes sense for the characters and plot. I will note that if this had been stretched to two volumes, I might actually have been unable to continue. Fortunately it isn’t, and we have another short story volume next time. I need it.

Kokoro Connect: Nise Random

By Sadanatsu Anda and Shiromizakana. Released in Japan by Enterbrain. Released in North America by J-Novel Club. Translated by Molly Lee.

This volume had its work cut out for it, at least in regards to me. The title translated as “Random Fakes”, and it’s not spoiling anything to let you know that we get a pile of “Heartseed’s magic lets me impersonate another person so that I can quietly destroy their lives”. This plotline makes me very uncomfortable, always has, and so I was cringing through a large part of the first third of this book. Fortunately, the author knows that our heroes have been down this road before, and we eventually end up going in a completely different direction. What the book really is is an extended character study of the new first-years, going into their personality quirks (and flaws) in a much deeper and more traumatic way than the short story volume ever could. The book trusts that you will go along with the author’s good judgment and understand that these are good kids at heart. Unfortunately, with Chihiro, I worry the reader may give up and just quietly hate him.

We pick up after the start of the plot has happened offstage. Chihiro’s narration reveals that he has been approached by Heartseed (who, let’s remember, the main cast has NOT QUITE told the newbies about yet) and offers his usual “I will give you a power, entertain me” bargain. The power is the impersonation tactic I mentioned above. Unfortunately, Chihiro is still dealing with being cynical, arrogant, and bitter, so he resolves to screw up the Club as much as possible. Fortunately, there are a few plot twists that get in the way. The first is that the club (minus Taichi, who admits he was being stupid) have been down this road too many times to not realize something’s going on with Heartseed. Secondly, when it comes right down to it Chihiro is a lonely kid who breaks pretty easily, and when he realizes that things are going bad and they’ll catch him, he tries more drastic tactics. Which have more drastic effects.

Chihiro is not the only main character in this book, of course, as we also get Enjouji’s POV for several scenes. She’s a more tolerable type, being the “why would anyone be interested in me when I am so normal and ordinary” girl. This is why she admires Taichi so much, besides his voice, as he has that ability to unite everyone around him. (This comes as a surprise to Taichi, who is still going through a bit of an identity crisis, and this book REALLY doesn’t help.) I liked the constant ship tease between her and Chihiro, even though it may not go anywhere – we’ve all seen the two friends who everyone just assumes are a couple even though they really aren’t. As for flaws in the book, well, Chihiro pretending to be Taichi and getting Inaba to strip was a bit beyond the beyond, and I kind of feel she didn’t get mad enough at him afterwards. (You could argue he wasn’t punished enough for his actions, but a) everyone agrees Heartseed is really to blame, and b) he already hates himself so much punishment would feel odd.) Honestly, lovesick Inaba really doesn’t work for me at all. I like her with Taichi, but not like this.

So despite its premise, this ended up being an excellent volume in the series. It’s definitely worth picking up, especially if you liked the anime.