After being orphaned as a child, Riki Naoe shut himself out from the world. However, he was soon saved when he met a boy named Kyosuke, and was recruited into the Little Busters, a group of friends who spend their childhood fighting off evil doers and enjoying their youth. Now in high school, the close-knit group have decided to form a baseball team in order to commemorate Kyousuke’s last year before graduation. There is a problem, however; there just aren’t enough members! Now Riki himself must do what Kyosuke did all those years ago and look for new recruits for the Little Busters.
In my humble opinion, the biggest sin an anime can possibly commit is to be boring, however coming in a close second to this is when an anime has glimpses of greatness but is dragged down and marred by flaws, turning what could have been great into something lesser. Unfortunately, this is the best way to describe Little Busters, the 2012 adaption of the visual novel by Key, the company that also produced visual novels such as Clannad, and Angel Beats, which has to be one of the most frustrating series I have seen in recent memory.
What makes Little Busters so frustrating to watch it that it seems to constantly flip between really well-executed character-focused arcs and rather dull and generic Slice of Life fodder, and the gulf in quality between the two is really quite astounding, to the point where it kind of feels like two different shows happening at the same time. Whilst the more down-to-earth and lighthearted episodes aren’t necessarily bad, they are painfully average, and don’t really do anything you haven’t seen before. There are some rather unique scenarios, usually spurred on by a subplot where a member of the group receives notes promising to tell her ‘The secret of the world’ if she performs all the tasks given to her, such as to put on a puppet show for a group of kids or to save the cafeteria, but they still just generally feel like nothing special. This plotline initially feels quite important, and at first I thought it was going to be the main driving force of the series, but it ultimately goes without a resolution. Given this is the first of three seasons, however, I can forgive it, assuming that it does actually go somewhere later on.
Running in stark contrast to these episodes are the truly fantastic character-driven episodes, and it’s in these episodes where you can really see something fantastic trying to break through all the mediocrity. Unlike other shows of it’s ilk that normally only dedicate an episode to each character, Little Busters takes a good amount of time, normally about 3 or more episodes each, to really flesh out each of the highlighted characters and develop them greatly. What really signaled to me that these episodes were doing their job effectively was just how invested and attached I got to certain members of the cast, even in some instances bringing to the brink of tears. It’s incredibly rare for media to have such an effect on me, and it speaks volumes about the quality of these episodes, more so than any words I could write. One thing worth mentioning is just how dark these episodes seem to get. It caught me kind-of off-guard, but these backstories go into some fairly bleak subject matter, and given how light- hearted the general tone of the series is when not focusing on characters, it can cause a little bit of tonal whiplash going from, say, the cast having a fun sleepover to emotional and physical child abuse; however, it never feels overly jarring.
The only real downside to the great amount of focus placed on each character is that you get a lot of the cast left on the sidelines in terms of depth. At a ridiculously large 10 main characters, even 26 episodes isn’t enough to give them all attention, and when the character development for the others is so good, you can’t help but feel characters like Makoto, Kyousuke, Rin and Kurugaya get short-changed a bit. The biggest casualty is definitely the protagonist Riki, who is just about the blandest, most personality-void and dull lead character you can imagine. His sole defining trait is that he has narcolepsy, but this is never even relevant to the plot at any time and seems totally pointless. It is hinted that it has more importance than it seems, and might lead to something in the second season, but here it just feels tacked on.
Another element to Little Busters you can probably file under ‘Explained in Later Seasons’ are the supernatural occurrences. The majority of the series is based in real life, with nothing out of the ordinary, but every now and then, something supernatural will happen, with literally no explanation given. Given how rare something like that actually happens, it feels incredibly out of place given the nature of the rest of the series, and the fact that it’s never explained just exacerbates this feeling. However, once again, this will probably be tackled later on.
The amount of times I’ve had to say that something feels incomplete really paints a picture of just how unfinished Little Busters feels. This first season was definitely meant to be a launch pad, and you only get half the story. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does make Season 1 alone a hard sell without its sequel, and even without seeing the second season, I definitely feel as if they were meant to be watched as a whole.
Little Busters is animated by J.C. Staff, the studio behind Toradora and Prison School, and is rather unremarkable to say the least, especially in comparison to some of their other works. There are some cute character designs courtesy of Haruko Iizuka, based on those from the Visual Novel, but other than that, there’s really not a lot here that another studio couldn’t have done just as well.
MVM’s release of Little Busters features both an English dub and Japanese audio, and the English voice cast is just as much of mixed bag as the series itself is. There are some really great performances on display here, my favourite easily being Tiffany Grant (Asuka from Neon Genesis Evangelion) as Kud, who puts on an amazingly adorable Russian accent for the character, that makes her really quite endearing. I also was quite the fan of Brittany Karbowski and Tia Ballard too, as Rin and Komari respectively. The problems with the cast mostly come from the male side, with Shannon Emerick sounding positively bored and uninterested throughout the majority of the show as the lead Riki, and Greg Ayres’s gravely voice is, as always, is like nails on a chalkboard to me.
On the music side of things, Manabu Miwa, PMMK and Magome Togoshi all contribute to the soundtrack, which I was a pretty big fan of. Although there are a lot of differences generally speaking, there were many passages that reminded me of Persona 4’s soundtrack with its instrumentation, which is one of my favourite soundtracks, in terms of both games and anime, so is definitely a plus. Less good, however, are the OP and ED, ‘Little Busters~TV Version’ and ‘Alicemagic’ by Rita, as they both just come off as kind of unmemorable.
Special features on MVM’s release are the standard clean OP, ED and trailers.
When Little Busters is good, it is really good, but when it’s not, it’s middling at best and plain boring at worst. Personally, I think the sheer quality of some of the characters make it worth sitting through the less fantastic bits, but frankly, your mileage may vary.