Harukana Receive and the Poetics of Kirara-kei Anime
The ending of Harukana Receive confirmed a sentiment I’d had for a few episodes: that it is a surprising example of a Kirara anime. It is not only a Kirara adaptation (although I am shy to wrap up the large variety of works adapted from the magazine around a single name, as essentializing them would do them a great disservice), but also a sports series, that juggles with both contexts to create its own formula; it’s sometimes awkward—and yet the series manages to shake off all the worries it inspires and come out on the other end as an elegant piece whose positive energy is utterly contagious. Here I would like to touch on how I think it realizes this: by navigating these different influences and “decentering” them to form its own path.
When we think Kirara, I am sure we think of “characters”. Although once again I want to stress the variety that goes often unacknowledged within the body of adaptations of Kirara serializations, they for the most part share a faith that story flows from characters: it is their actions, their developments which create a consistency, wire each part together and make the whole into a “series”. We could visualize it this way: traditionally, the series is the Idea: characters are concepts which serve to put the whole together. But Kirara series reverse this order: characters are Ideas orbiting around each other in order to form something nearly unsubstantial except for the borders which they mark, that is to say the “series”. This is a profound aesthetic choice, and it lies behind the widespread idea that these series lack mental stimulation. We can say that Harukana Receive largely shows the same preference, although it seems just as inspired from sports series, which admittedly have similar options. However, they tend to give their characters a function: think of Kuroko’s Basket, where the Generation of Miracles becomes a function of Kuroko and Kagami’s rise, while the pair becomes a function of their opponents’ psychological development. After all, in sports one must climb steps: characters have to serve this narrative purpose; sports series necessarily adopt this subtle aesthetic mix, and I believe the genre’s most successful works are those which strike this balance the best. So, what does Harukana Receive do here? For the most part it pursues a character-based poetics: watching the end, Claire and Emily’s feelings are treated with the same importance as Haruka and Kanata’s; although the former help the latter grow, they cannot be treated as a “function”: the scrunchies put them on an equal footing, and the dialogue during which the Thomas sisters reflect on their support of the protagonists seems almost designed to prevent any such interpretation: there they establish their integral part in the Oozora-Higa pair’s story. Even Ai-Mai pair cannot be considered in this way due to their presence in the final: their feelings are very much out on the open, having become a fixture of the show since their loss. By contrast, Kuroko’s characters tend to come back after the decisive moment where their issues are discharged into the sandbox of the past, but chiefly as commentators to give insight into the flow of play, not as active, emotional participants.
And yet, Harukana Receive does have a major character who obeys this role as a concept in an Idea: Akari. The simplest way I can put it is as follows: prior to her appearance: “Haruka and Kanata, Claire and Emily”; after her appearance: “Haruka and Kanata, and Claire and Emily”. She is the function which connects the two pairs and keeps them tied; this idea is reinforced by the final episode in which Emily praises her for precisely this, as if to tell her that she’d done well to fulfill her purpose within this storyline. Akari’s part in the series is thus awkward, since it doesn’t obey its general rules; this discomfort is only worsened by Akari’s general, well, lack of character: she actively defines herself in relation to her friends, and her polite, supportive personality gets little to no development, even in the short time we spend with her. In this case Harukana Receive perhaps failed to juggle between its different inspirations.
Another intriguing way the show has of playing with influences is in terms of where it stages itself. Sports series obviously have the place where the sport is played as their main stage, with the rest of the environment growing out from there. Meanwhile, Kirara series stage themselves a little more peculiarly: there may be such a well-defined space of action, but in such cases as K-On!, it is used for everything except what it is supposedly for: the original goal of making it to the Budokan is turned into something of a joke to underline the fact that the story is about much more everyday things. Other series, like Sansha Sanyou, KinMoza or GochiUsa, have little to no such staging; a more recent example like Comic Girls finds its balance by setting this “stage” in the private sphere. Now, where does Harukana Receive place itself? The answer is twofold: over time, it does seem to meet the traditional standards of sports anime, climaxing in an intense match between the two main pairs. But the road there is more subtle, and here we see that it “decenters” the traditional sports stage. For a long time its drama is chiefly personal (Kanata’s having to overcome her fears, for instance), and in fact the matches can be considered weak points: we think of the match against Ai and Mai, where flashbacks on the two’s relationship were slapped into the story’s flow in order to create some sympathy without doing all the prior work which sports series generally labor through (and even short ones such as Hanebad!). The high points—saving Akari from her loneliness, helping Kanata revive her promise with Narumi, etc.—all happen away from the court. In doing this it, it reaches out to the more typical Kirara formula, while slowly staging itself on the court more and more until the conclusion; by the end, it seems to hold both at arm’s length, never quite fully melting into either, but integrating them well enough to make this strangely arresting structure work.
Maybe here it is worth stopping to discuss the finale for an instant. Once again, it is traditional to end on a climactic confrontation, but the last episode, which delivers the show’s best animation moments, varying angles to heighten the drama, also plays with expectations to a degree. When the Oozora-Higa pair gets its first match point, the rally starts with much fanfare, and we immediately take that for a sign that it will end any instant; but instead we shift to Akari and friends’ point of view while the play continues out of our sight. Further, the music simply stops when the match does get its ending (a fittingly dramatic one), instead placing all the sonic focus on the sounds of the ball and struggling bodies; while it’s not rare to underline the intensity of an instant, Harukana Receive clearly makes this approach an integral part of the climax, as the entire final rally unfolds in this fashion. While it may seem at first like a mere aesthetic choice, I believe it holds some significance.
I said many people believed Kirara series to lack mental stimulation, evidently implying that it is a mistake; which I believe to be the case, even as I wouldn’t compare them to the more intellectually-oriented shows out there. And as I said, this is because of the focus on characters. But if we stand by the idea that these shows do have content, then we must ask what it is. We may think of Kirara series as exploring interpersonal issues in a variety of contexts—friendship in the ideal of high school in K-On!, family and belonging in a new town for GochiUsa¸ etc.—and this is where the ending I mentioned above becomes important: Harukana Receive never loses sight its setting’s specificities, always bringing out (via its soundtrack notably) the Okinawan atmosphere as well as the notion of “choosing an irreplaceable someone”, something Haruka says is unique to volleyball, with all the subtext this brings; the feeling of running on the sand, of having to put your fate in the hands of your partner, of letting the ball loudly bounce off your hands—as the characters stand on the beach, eat Okinawa specialties, or explore what it means to have a partner, Harukana Receive is thoroughly about what it believes is unique to beach volley; and this belief has emotional issues at its center, giving everyone a set of worries and desires which play off each other over time, and by way of its staging as I discussed above. For a long time, while Haruka discovers the sports and learns about her partner, the show seems to be little more serious than a K-On! (a reason why the matches lack fascination); and in fact, it was easy (even I did it), in its early days, to see it as a lighthearted series, focusing more on girls having a good time on the beach as they form bonds, rather than as something which treats the sports seriously—the season’s lightweight response to Hanebad!, if you will. But it is absolutely not; rather, it delayed the beginning of this quest in order to let its characters explore interpersonal problematics not just through the sport (as would be traditional in such a show), but also outside of it; a gentle time for the sake of nothing other than personal growth, as happens in most Kirara works.
And so it must go beyond this formula. In a show like K-On!, the focus is exclusively on the development of the emotional questions: the band’s performances are everlasting flags in honor of the moments they spent together, but on their own do not represent any sort of finality. Kirara series are mostly constructed around a number of life events which act as checkpoints, giving them this specific structure often articulated around the same events no matter the series (although some series evidently escape this, they still follow a fundamentally similar backbone). By contrast, sports anime are often full of essential content: they focus little on the sport’s specificities, and instead burn for the competitive spirit and the desire to achieve one’s dreams against all the odds, set against the background of a proper finality, “the top of the world”. The protagonists thus embark on a demonic quest, which is true of Kanata and Haruka as they decide to become Japan’s top beach volley pair. In this sense, the Kirara poetics feed into those of sports anime: by giving its characters the time to go about their lives, it prepares them for the later sporting hardships. This is hard to talk about in more detail however, as the anime’s specificity is precisely that most of its narrative takes place prior to the start of this quest: it grows in importance until the finale, giving it this particular flavor.
Harukana Receive does not simply follow either formula, then. It does have a quest which represents a finality; and yet much of its structure is articulated from personal events; it plays with both possibilities and makes them clash into one show, and ultimately becomes a series about both: about the interpersonal questions essential to most Kirara works, into which the ambition which drives most sports series slowly grows, the series’ configuration becoming more mixed along with each episode. And the final match’s ending gives this approach its culmination: by letting the sounds of beach volley fill our ears, it underlines its ambition to show what the characters find through the sports, playing on the usual quest so essential to sports anime, but by giving this conclusion that kicks off our heroines’ grand story and liberates them from their anxieties through the sport, it walks in the path of other sports anime. It explores these two poetics, reconciles them even: by openly going against the extreme competitivity which demands that there be one top star who lives only for their sport, without giving up on ambition; and by letting this ambition flow from the characters taking the time of exploring their emotions and interpersonal issues, a time which is so often denied to characters of sport series. In doing so, however, it also questions both: it wants something more than simple everyday events, but rejects the usual grandeur of sports anime. By navigating these norms, it struggles against them where they may otherwise keep it from expressing its themes. Once could put it thus: it wants more than a Kirara series, but uses Kirara poetics as an antidote to the pitfalls of sports anime.
Ultimately, the effect to which it achieves these plays will be up for the viewer to evaluate. To end this on a personal note, that I wrote this article I think should speak to my relative enjoyment of it; however, more than anything, I found interesting to discuss the possibilities Harukana Receive raises. I, too, tend to think of Kirara series as something of their own product; a distinct possibility within the poetics of character-focused anime, if you will. In this panorama, Harukana Receive gives us a glimpse into potential intersections of styles: how different poetics can be mixed and support each other to maximize a work’s impact. I’m sure many will not find Harukana Receive to do this well, and I can see why, and I also believe it is a flawed work; but, nevertheless, it was an intriguing watch for all the little things it accumulates along the road, and I hope we get more shows of its kind in the future.