Five of five stars.
It’s hard to review this because there’s really nothing like it. While it’s a harem anime, it almost absurdist in the way it blends pop culture and winks at the fourth wall. Yet it works in a way few others do, and it even has a small amount of mystery and serious ideas about dreams. Oh, and it’s often funny, too.
Keitaro Urashima is a ronin; a person whose failed his entrance exam to the college of his choice. That college is Todai, Tokyo University. If you combined Harvard, Yale, and M.I.T. into one school, this is what Tokyo U is like. Keitaro has a dream of attending it in the hopes that he will be reunited with his first love, a mystery girl who promised to meet him there.
However, life isn’t so kind. He winds up trying to live with his grandmother in Hinata, only to find out she is gone and her building is no longer a hotel, it’s a girls dorm. The dorm is occupied by five girls; slacker Kitsune, swordswoman Motoko, sweet Shinobu, crazy Kaolla Su, and epic tsundere Naru. Could one of them actually be the girl, and could Keitaro manage to realize his dream?
This sounds like a typical set-up, but the anime is anything but. The first thing that may strike you is how absurd it can be. You have a turtle mascot that waves at people, flies, and in one hilarious scene, stops swords with its bare flippers. It’s mechanical rival is busy stealing junk to either make itself bigger or replicate itself. Keitaro’s punishment for peeping is a powerful Naru punch that sends him into the stratosphere, and yet he shrugs it off like nothing. When the romantic rival is introduced, he bores through the bottom of the building in a drill tank that transforms into a jet. We never see it again. Ancient turtle civilizations might be hiding in your own back yard.
It’s also very self-referential and culturally referential. Many of the episodes riff on something, be it classic video games, giant kaiju movies, plays, or “idol singer” episodes; old anime which would often have characters sing. When I first watched it, I only picked up on some of them, but watching it again I find more links and references. The manga creator even makes an appearance, as Keitaro inks a page from one of his earlier works, A.I. Love You. It’s not just a straight-forwards story. It’s mixed in with commentary and homage, and that adds something which few anime can make work.
Yet despite all of this, it still works as a harem anime. Part is because the characters are all memorable, and especially Keitaro. He is the avatar of the nice guy; always put upon, abused by women, but a good sort at heart, and willing to endure and sacrifice. The girls are memorable as well, and Naru is unique in that she’s a girl who denies her own heart out of self-doubt. It’s a good cast that manages to rise above just being romantic types. The voice talents for them are also good, sub or dub. The dub especially deserves praise, as many of the actors put a lot of effort, and Naru and Motoko especially do a good job.
It also works as a meditation on dreams. There’s a faint hint that Hinata itself is magical. A Greek chorus of old men who come in and fade out with mist deliver cryptic comments on dreaming, and combined with the surrealistic tone of the show it makes for a slightly dreamy series. It’s something you can’t explain on a rational level. This is a world where samurai girls can use secret arts to fend off giant mechanical turtles, and yet seriously worry about if they can ever be feminine, or if marriage makes them lose their power. Yet it doesn’t feel forced, or jarring; it works in a way that makes sense. You’ll either get it, or wonder what the fuss is about.
Love Hina is based on the manga of the same name. However, this TV series is very different from the manga. The biggest is that Kaolla is now younger than Shinobu and not older. This is a compressed adaptation, ending halfway into the series, and adds completely new characters as well as situations. The art style is softened from Akamatsu’s usual style. I’ll post the intro to the sequel OVA, Love Hina Again for comparison. It’s NSFW due to brief nudity.
Also, the TV series softens the ecchi nature of the manga. There’s less overall “obscured nudity,” and the accidental gropes are far tamer. The bonus episode 25 though is an OVA episode, and goes back to more of the manga’s style. However, since this is only up to half-way, you miss some of the stronger points of the manga, especially with Mutsumi. So if you are looking for a purist series based on it, you may be disappointed, even if you go past this series and see all the OVAs. However, this isn’t all bad, as the manga fizzles a bit after the events of the spring special, and especially when Kanako is introduced. You also are avoiding a lot of sketchy fan service.
For Christians, the series is rated PG, and is surprisingly tame. There’s plenty of furo scenes, but no real nudity, except in the bonus episode, and at one episode to make a profound little point. There is some accidental groping (which gets quickly punished,) and a lot of calling people perverts. Some people may not like how Keitaro gets beat up around the clock, because comedy violence isn’t really acceptable just because its a woman punching a man out. This is actually subverted later on in Love Hina Again, when another girl punches NARU out and she realizes that is what Keitaro suffered each time she did it to him but it can still stick in your craw.
If you’d like to go beyond this series, there’s a christmas special, spring special, and Love Hina Again. The first two are all right, but the third really ramps up the fan service, and adds brother complexes to the mix. There is also a cameo in the series Mao-chan which explains what happens after, but none of these series match the TV show at all. They are all highly compressed adaptions, and suffer for it.
I recommend this series. It’s sad but many modern harem animes really don’t measure up to it. The ones that do, like Haganai, are often too raunchy to fully enjoy. You can find it dirt cheap on DVD at Amazon.