I find it hard coming up with words to start this review.
That’s because to me Little Busters! is very special. It’s a story that feels like it was created for me. It acts childish but it’s very serious and meaningful. It seems simple yet in its core, it’s complex. It feels standard and yet it’s so full of life. I could continue but I don’t feel like writing another essay, so here we go. The review everyone has been waiting for (that’s what you told me at least).
It’s hard to talk about Refrain without going into spoiler territory, but I’ll try hard not to.
The original LB! covered four heroine stories and Refrain starts where it left off. After a bit of classic LB! comedy, it moves right into the last heroine route we’ve yet to see, Kurugaya’s. One of the few things you’ll notice right off the start is that the anime seems to take itself more seriously than before. The original LB! dealt with serious themes and ideas as well, but all in all, it mostly felt like it wanted to quickly get over those moments in favor of comedy.
That is not the case here. Refrain, while retaining the adorable childishness of its predecessor, is a very serious story where comedy is merely a supplementary genre.
Whether that was a good or bad decision lies entirely in what one expects and wants out of LB! in the first place. I think that the first series scared off a lot of people when it came to its drama, and rightfully so because it was kinda sucky. But Refrain’s not the same. Whereas the first series felt rushed and forced, what Refrain provides is an incredibly sincere and emotionally packed story of friendship and overcoming obstacles. After Kurugaya’s route ends, the anime takes a totally different turn and starts focusing on its main 5 characters, the original members of Little Busters!. And with them, it goes deep. Much deeper than at any point in the original series. The things these 5 have experienced together, the feelings and emotions they express resonate and create a drama that doesn’t just aim to be touching for the sake of being touching, it aims to be incredibly personal and genuine. And it succeeds at that masterfully. Sure, some scenes may look over-dramatized at first glance, but when you dig deeper into what the characters feel, how they behave, what they experienced and what is the point of LB! in general, you’ll realize just how human of a story this really is.
This isn’t your everyday drama, this is Key at its absolute best.
“Of course, losing things is sad. But there are so many people waiting for me to meet them. There are so many precious moments waiting to be spent. And someday, I will make everyone know. That having been born is such a beautiful thing. I will tell that even those who are afraid of being born.”
-Riki, Little Busters!
Another thing Refrain shines at is the presentation of its world and how it works with it. While the original series made some little nods at the audience here and there, it never really worked with its world beyond some simple supernatural elements. Refrain manages to capitalize on the fact that the watcher doesn’t know much yet and builds a complex story system around it. It’s one of the things that you really have to look back and think about in connection with events that happened previously. Those suddenly become much more understandable. With that said, I need to mention here that I have advantage of knowing the source material, where these world-building elements were explained with greater clarity. Some of them were changed completely in the anime and so it doesn’t paint the whole picture. At the same time, even though it’s lacking from the adaptation perspective, I’d say the anime’s lore is still generally very well executed and adds quite a lot to the story as a whole.
The absolute most important part of Refrain is its group of characters. Namely, the main 5. Kurugaya gets some nice development in her route early on, but overall it felt like the creators used her story more as a bridge between the original and Refrain rather than a route of her own. Same goes for all the other heroines who only play supportive roles throughout this series. That can maybe seem like a shame for characters that were so much fun, but really, LB! in its core has always been about its original 5. I think it makes sense to push the heroines to the side in order to develop others that were in the background so far. And it turned out to be a very lucky decision. Because as far as the 5 characters go, they’re simply amazing.
Masato and Kengo were always presented as the baka duo and the main sources of comedy relief. And yet, their characters get totally turned around in Refrain. They receive backstories, their actions get explained and their own feelings towards Rin and Riki, the two protagonists, get fleshed out so well to the point where it’s tear-jerking. Especially Kengo’s moments at the end of ep 6 and ep 9 get me every time I watch them. The emotional intensity in those is unmatched, as far as my experience with anime goes. Masato’s moments are a little more on the silly side. After all, that’s what they have been for the whole series, but the impact is still there and his development is also immense. These two have been the focal points of LB! the whole time, we just hadn’t realized it.
“CHEAP TRICKS, KYOUSUKEEEE!”
-Kengo, Little Busters!
Their interactions with Kyousuke are particularly memorable. Kyousuke himself also becomes much more than a perfect model-leader. He was always a person who everyone, especially Riki, looked up to but this time he disappoints and makes a mistake. Kyousuke’s role in Refrain shows that no matter what kind of a person you are you’re bound to make wrong decisions and that no one is flawless. Kyousuke himself thought that he was and that’s why he failed everyone. He was so sure of himself that he never thought he could fail.
Luckily for him, this is where Riki and Rin step in. Riki, for what it’s worth, is still generally a standard protagonist which you can find elsewhere, but the fact is that he plays his role very well. It’s sort of hard to give credit to a protagonist who’s not all that well fleshed out, but Riki makes experiencing this anime very easy for everyone. He’s a safe bet, but sometimes that’s the best way to go about things. He’s a mere boy who lost himself once, and now what he wants to do is repay those who have helped him by saving them from the same fate. He also has insecurities regarding his narcolepsy disease and inability to become independent from Kyousuke. I really think that he’s the ideal protagonist for the kind of story LB! is. I love his mental state when facing tough decisions, he wants to help, but at the same time, he feels overwhelmed. But with the help of others, he usually chooses right. And when he doesn’t, well … you’ll see.
“I was determined to do whatever I could. Because that’s what you should do when someone asks you for help.”
-Riki, Little Busters!
Rin, while being my favorite character from the beginning of the series, was also a very shallow one for most of it. She received some subtle development and became less shy as it went on, but it felt like it was incomplete. On the same note, her presence in most of Refrain feels like that of a plot device people push around than that of a normal character, but she manages to shine very well in one particular moment right before the series’ finale. All of the things she experienced with everyone come to one and create something that not only solidifies her development but also manages to be very touching. Rin as a character is simple, no doubts about that. You could even say that she and Riki are essentially one and the same. But she’s still a well-made character that, while lacking in complexity, serves its purpose magnificently.
Sometimes it’s hard for a series like LB! to bring a satisfying closure to its story, and if Key has ever been infamous for something, it’s their endings. With that said, I personally think the ending of Refrain is generally well done. Episodes leading to the climax are very dense and the climax itself manages to connect the ideas behind every character into something that’s very well executed theme-wise. The ending, while obvious from the beginning, also doesn’t feel like a cop-out. If anything, it’s well deserved and justified. And most importantly, it shows that LB! never lost track of what it was at the start, as it ends again with a childish mask on its face and a sweet symbolic final scene.
“What is it I should do to keep myself smiling? How can I smile even when I remember scary things? It’s easy. All I have to do is have smiling friends around me.”
-Komari, Little Busters!
What also manages to be sweet is most of the production values Refrain brings to the table. The first couple of episodes look simply gorgeous and although the quality isn’t as sharp and detailed in the latter half, it still does look a few levels above the original series. I’ve always loved the OST of the VN. Boys be Smile is a perfect OP for this series and I’m glad they started to use some of the other tracks as well, especially Haruka Kanata.
Coincidentally, Haruka Kanata is playing in my headphones right now and while reminiscing about LB!, I’m having a hard time keeping my eyes dry.
In a sense, that really is all that needs to be said.
“…’Mission Start.’ I murmured those words. A phrase I picked up from the strongest person I’d ever met.”
-Riki, Little Busters!