First Look: Komi Can’t Communicate

Alternative title(s): Komi-san wa, Komyushou desu.
Manga Adaptation by OLM
Streaming on Netflix

Premise

Shouko Komi is the most popular girl in school, adored by many as a cool, aloof beauty who won’t deign to talk to mere mortals. This perception couldn’t be further from the truth, however, as resident good boy Hitohito Tadano realizes that Komi is merely suffering from extreme social anxiety. In spite of this “communicative disorder”, he promises to help her make one hundred friends, but the rest of the school doesn’t exactly appreciate a milquetoast everyman like Tadano cosying up to their queen bee…

Aqua’s verdict: Quiet Precious

If you need a shining example of the damage Netflix’ callous and insolent attitude towards the anime it licences can do, look no further than Komi can’t Communicate. Next week, when the streaming giant unshackles this first episode from its arbitrary clutches, thousands of viewers unfamiliar with the Japanese language will be served screenfuls of unintelligible clutter, and many of them will undeniably tune out. The reason? Komi can’t Communicate relies so heavily on stylized text on screen — be it in the form of verbalized sound effects, comedic captions, or the fact that its titular character communicates exclusively through large swathes of written prose jotted down on blackboards or in notebooks — that Netflix’ stepmotherly approach to subtitling will almost certainly ruin it. This is the kind of show that deserves, nay, requires the loving touch of fans with too much time on their hands. Luckily, there is a version of this first episode out there that organically annotates every kanji and kana on screen without cluttering the view with subtitles — but in an era when legal anime streaming is more widely available than ever, it feels grim to say that pirates will still get the superior experience, no matter how you look at it.

Regardless, I wouldn’t be as upset about this as I am if the show didn’t come with a wholehearted recommendation. Komi can’t Communicate is an almost obscenely lavish production, lovingly brought to life with astonishing cuts of animation and an appropriately zany sense of grandeur. Ostensibly insignificant acts, such as characters turning around or writing something down, are portrayed with all of the bombast (and budget) of the climactic final fight in a season of My Hero Academia, but the flourishes stop just short of being suffocating. The result is a show that is as grandiose in its slapstick as it is in its heart, and turning every button up to eleven was definitely the way to go. Unlike many of the high-profile manga adaptations we’ve seen recently, Komi can’t Communicate isn’t afraid to use the unique quirks of its new medium to its advantage. This anime version can truly stand on its own, effortlessly translating the source material’s energy from the page to the screen and oozing with creativity as it cartwheels from one gag into another.

Speaking of gags, the ones this episode carts out range from inoffensive to mildly entertaining, leaving Komi can’t Communicate just short of being actually funny, but well into the surprisingly large pool of anime that utterly excel at being pleasant, rather than making you roar with laughter. Having read quite a sizeable chunk of the manga, I can say that the story is more than comfortable sticking to that niche. A better house could have been constructed from its various bricks, that’s for certain — one that doesn’t drag out its status quo for years on end and relegates aggravating side characters like Himiko “it’s funny because she’s got huge knockers” Agari and Ren “it’s funny because she’s gay and also insane” Yamai to the trash pile where they belong. Yet the house they did build is solid, homely and cosy nonetheless. It could have been so much worse, folks.

Case in point, as a testament to the manga’s popularity, there’s also a live-action drama adaptation of Komi can’t Communicate on air at the moment, which is predictably not very good, in the same way that filming a rabbit frolicking through the grass and calling it a live-action adaptation of a Bugs Bunny cartoon isn’t very good. Filmed on a shoestring budget and edited by a deranged hack who could give the guy who cut up that infamous scene from Bohemian Rhapsody a run for his money, this drama’s sole redeeming factor is the fact that it cuts a great many unpopular side characters in favour of introducing later additions to the cast like gentle gyaru Rumiko Manbagi and soft-boiled delinquent Makoto Katai much earlier. Regardless, the pacing is glacial, a lot of the over-the-top slapstick is gone and several characters, especially Komi herself, simply do not work as flesh-and-blood people.

In the end, the drama adaptation’s failure makes me appreciate this anime and how uncompromising it is even more. The source material may not be an undeniable hit, but this version’s vision for it certainly is. It’s a shame that the company charged with spreading it to the rest of the world doesn’t see, and doesn’t care. But what else is new? Yo ho ho.

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