KOR: Summer's Beginning

Though it certainly isn't art, the first Highlander movie is certainly a cult classic. It's an action flick with an interesting premise, and taken by itself, it's a very engaging guilty pleasure. However, the same cannot be said for the second and third Highlander films, which most fans have completely disowned--even though the actors are the same and even include some well-respected thespians like Sean Connery, the results were just terrible. The biggest problem was that the sequels changed concepts that made the first film entertaining in the first place, and it was clear that the later films were there not to expand an important story but to make money off of what appeared to be a cash cow. Honestly, I expected the same thing to be true of Summer's Beginning, the second movie based on the ever-popular Kimagure Orange Road television series. Summer's Beginning has a very different look than the television show, and I thought that the different art style might also mean that the story wouldn't be worthy of such a great program. I'd also never really heard any word one way or the other about the movie, which concerned me since KOR is such a well-known show in American anime fandom. I am pleased to report, though, that Summer's Beginning is truly a worthy addition to Orange Road--and is in some ways just as important as and perhaps better than the first KOR film, I Want To Return To That Day. It's not, however, a good place to start getting into Orange Road--though the film does have some quick flashbacks, it assumes that the viewer is familiar with the previous happenings.

For those who are unfamiliar with Orange Road, the original television show ran for 48 episodes and followed the story of Kyosuke, a young man with latent psionic abilities. His special abilities were only incidental to the real story, though, which followed his inability to choose between two completely different girls: Hikaru, an airheaded yet sweet blond and her best friend, the mysterious, intelligent, moody brunette Madoka Ayukawa. The show itself was characterized by a sense of whimsy and humor that told a sweet coming-of-age story. The triangle was finally resolved in the first film, which was very good but nevertheless criticized for its tone, which was undeniably somber and melodramatic in comparison to the ever-light TV show; the first film also completely ignored the secondary concept of Kyosuke's unique abilities.

The second film picks up a short time after the first film's conclusion. Kyosuke finds himself in an incredibly strange predicament...he is hit by a car in the opening minutes of the film, and the accident awakens his psionic abilities. His soul timeslips three years into the future, which causes there to be two Kyosukes! Although he's sure that things can't have changed that much, he is surprised that he can find very little evidence of himself in Tokyo...and it becomes clear that his relationships with Hikaru and Madoku may be very different in three years! Can he repair the damage he's done and return to his own time before it's too late?

Summer's Beginning is a smart, fun addition to the KOR universe, and that's in spite of the changes made artistically. But first, let me address the story itself. Frankly, I can't watch the first KOR movie, I Want To Return To That Day, too often. Simply, it is dangnab depressing, and it just doesn't feel quite like the show I fell in love with over the summer of 1994. After watching an entire series (which I admit is not all that common for me), you start to relate with the characters and have a real investment in them. I Want To Return... simply takes those characters and uses them to rip out your heart and stomp it to pieces on the floor while you watch helplessly. I say that not because it's bad--in fact, it is still an excellent movie--but you can't watch it often for very much the same reasons you can't watch Schindler's List every day. (Not that they are in the same league, but still...)

This time around, we have a whole lot of fun, and everything feels just about right. There's more emphasis on sex in the movie than in the television show, but that's not unrealistic considering the ages of the characters, and it's handled in the same idealistically romantic tone that filled out the corners of the TVshow. But what's most important is that everything feels right...I haven't watched much of KOR for six years, and yet I felt at home immediately. What's also nice is that Hikaru has finally grown up. In the TV show, it was never apparent why Kyosuke didn't realize that she was essentially a whiny brat and get around to courting Madoka. However, Hikaru holds her own very well in this film, and she comes across in such a way that you could actually see why Kyosuke liked her so much. She also looked much better here than in the original show, which I'll discuss in a second. Overall, the film retains the feel of the TV show, but it actually improves on it and makes us care for the characters all over again. If you've seen I Want To Return To That Day, you know how the main storyline turns out, but there wasn't much enjoyment to be gained from that movie's ending. Here, there is a much better sense of satisfaction by the ending--and I think it is the appropriate closing to the KOR story.

Now the art style in Summer's Beginning film is initially a turn-off; it's not completely different from the style in the original, but it is a little disturbing at first. Eventually, the viewer can get past that, though, and the updated character designs do actually help in some respects. For one, Hikaru comes across much better here, though I wasn't really thrilled with Madoka's new look. The animation itself is clean, though I watched a video of it and am quite spoiled by DVD, so I wasn't overly impressed with the quality. Even if it were on DVD, it's an old enough title that the color schemes wouldn't just leap out at you, but they work well enough.

What is surprising is that this movie has been released by ADV, whereas the rest of the original series has been released through AnimEigo. This could lead one to believe that this film is intended to stand alone. This is not the case--in fact, I would imagine that watching this film by itself would be rather pointless, since the film essentially builds on the conclusions reached in the first film. In fact, I would strongly discourage it. Also, for the love of anime, don't get the dub. I was given the dub for a Christmas present, and that was my review copy. It's amazing that the film could still be any good considering the dub, which featured some incredibly bad voice acting, bad enough to make old Streamline dubs look positively great. The translation didn't seem too bad, but the dub was grating at best. It is a testament to the story and characters themselves that the movie was great despite the English job.

Bottom line: if you have seen the rest of KOR, you owe it to yourself to see this movie. If you haven't seen KOR before, don't start here--get ahold of the rest of the series first, then grab this to finish off what is still a great romantic comedy.

Kimagure Orange Road: Summer's Beginning -- brief nudity, mild adult situations -- A-