At face value, Saekano is still one of the strongest harem/high school drama anime out there. There’s much more to it though. While it certainly could be entertaining for someone relatively new to the harem genre, the more harem-type anime you’ve seen, the more you can appreciate what is done really well here.
Purpose: Masterpiece. Simply brilliant. There are three different things going on here – three levels of depth. The first is its face value – a harem/ high school drama anime. In this respect it’s extremely strong. The whole point of the harem genre is to watch crazy personalities bounce off each other, and Saekano doesn’t disappoint. The second level of depth is its self-aware nature – it points out, calls out, and makes fun of tropes in the genre, even as it unabashedly uses them. The third layer of depth can be found in the Japanese name 「冴えない彼女の育てかた」, which can be translated as, “how to develop (cultivate, raise) a boring heroine.” (NOTE: heroine appears in furigana as an alternate reading of 彼女.) This takes the self-awareness to the next level. The anime is an example of how to create a fascinating main heroine from a blank slate. There are many points of the anime where they are commenting on the development of the main character, but in a subtle way. One part of the anime catches the purpose particularly well, (subtitles) “If you make the character as flat as possible, the player gets caught up when the big changes come. All of a sudden, they’re cute.” The scene then goes on to describe what happens after, where the “cute” fades and the player is left wondering whether it was there all along or whether he or she was just imagining it. That is Saekano in a nutshell. Now, this would be really great on its own, but that purpose actually applies to all the characters.
Characters: Masterpiece. At face value, you’ve got a really strong standard harem setup. You’ve got the standard otaku nerd/niceguy, a tsundere, the “together” girl, the unashamed flirt, and a really flat foil character. They really play well off each other in a highly amusing fashion. The twist on the standard genre is the introduction of the foil – she serves to ground everyone’s crazy personalities. One other strong point at this level of depth is that the fighting creates and then adjusts the harem “pecking order” based on the events. In other words, the girls’ perceived standing in relation to each other shifted in a convincing and logical manner.
Where this element really shines is noticing where Saekano’s purpose starts affecting the characters. Foil aside, the other characters are relatively flat, yet faithful, use of tropes. The general development paths of the characters are initially fairly standard, but there are events that actually change their development trajectories. Basically, the events change the nature of the character to add a good deal of depth which, in turn, affects how they interact with the other characters. Ultimately, they give you reasons to care about each character, so you have the ability to create “Team ____,” the character you ultimately root for.
Of course, the anime clearly wants us to focus on the foil, who they have to constantly remind us is the “main heroine.” The development of this character is absolutely stellar. She starts out as completely flat and easily forgettable, and becomes someone with a tremendous amount of subtlety, depth, and power within the story. On a personal note, she is shown to be someone who is very genuine, supportive, and confident of her place in the story. Of all the characters, her handling of the protagonist is the best.
World: Excellent. The world is always hard to spot in harem anime. In this context, it’s the settings where the events happen. However, these settings are important because they can control the mood, the temperament of the characters, and guide the characters’ interactions. For examples, compare how the characters act in the protagonist’s bedroom, to comiket, to the mall scene. What happens is that the context tends to have an effect on the characters that can, in turn, affect how the events unfold. Here, the settings performed that role really well.
Plot: Excellent. Generally, harem anime plots are the funny situations involving the in-fighting. However, in Saekano, the various situations had lasting impact on the characters. The characters changed and developed depending on those events, which altered their interactions with each other. The result was that the events were ever-changing – even similar plot points had different reactions depending on what had changed between the characters previously. Thus, each character had an individualized plotline. The character plots actually served to complement each other really well, because they would highlight something new and different about the protagonist too. All of the characters had a good bit of growth and development in response to the events that happened.
Storytelling: Masterpiece. This really served several purposes here – it not only tied the plot points together, it also served as solid guidance throughout the story. They were truly masterful in handling of scene composition and focus. For example, for the first half of the anime, (and even later) they purposefully used scene composition to de-emphasize and distract you from the main heroine. The best example of this, and one of my favorite scenes, is in the first event at the family restaurant between the protagonist and the main heroine. If you watch closely, you will notice how not only is she out of the frame for the most part, but there are plenty of things thrown in there to distract you from what she’s saying. The effect was that it enforced upon the viewer the idea that the main heroine was both invisible and easily forgettable.
Another example of the stellar storytelling is how much they emphasized subtle movements – tiny details like body language and small facial expressions that conveyed a tremendous amount of information. In order to emphasize these movements, they often would not show the character’s face so that the viewer would have no choice but to notice them.
Throughout the anime, they managed to keep a tremendous amount of playfulness and sillyness, yet at the same time leaving room for some solid drama. A great example of the drama, and one of my other favorite scenes, was the fight in front of the old school. That was a truly powerful scene, both in the subject matter and the raw emotion it conveyed. We learned a tremendous amount about the characters involved in that event. What’s more it had a very real feel to it, including its resolution – the characters didn’t really forgive each other, but came to understand more about each other.
One final note on storytelling was the excellent use of fan service as a means of character development. The clearest example is with the cousin – you learn so much about her personality based on how she’s depicted through the fan service. The result is that you know she’s a pretty serious, shameless flirt, but also pretty careless, and sloppy in how she goes about things. With her, it’s a good example of the use of fan service as a storytelling device. The other example is Episode 0.
Pace: Excellent. They managed to keep quite a strong pace up throughout. This meant that it never seemed slow as we were always moving forward. One of the most interesting choices that affected pace was the placement of Episode 0. Onsen (Hot Spring) episodes are a staple of harem anime, but usually serve as a throwaway episode and break in the action – it’s really just the characters playing around. However, in Saekano, it was re-purposed as the pre-first episode, introducing the tone and nature of the anime. This prevented it from breaking the pace halfway through. Moreover, it sort of accelerated the pace by giving the viewers a roadmap of where the anime was going. Re-watch Episode 0 after you finish the anime and it really puts both the pace and the purpose into sharp focus.