It is rare to find a sequel as emotionally powerful as Little Busters: Refrain. Where the first season blundered with its melodrama, Refrain instead provides a much more thoughtful and meaningful story. If you have developed any sort of attachment to the characters in Little Busters, you will undoubtedly shed at least a few tears by the end of Refrain. It is the second best Key anime to date.
As somebody who regards the Little Busters visual novel as one of the most emotional stories they have ever experienced, I was sceptical hearing about an anime adaptation of Refrain. Did it turn out to be some dreadful abomination in the end? I don't believe so, but the visual novel is still undeniably the superior experience. Large sections of story (including half of Rin's route) are skimmed over or ignored entirely in the anime. Other important scenes, such as Masato's backstory, are misrepresented as something silly when they should be serious. There are so many things that could have, should have been better, and yet it still manages to be one of 2013's best anime. Perhaps that is a testament to how strong the characters are.
For anime-only viewers, Little Busters: Refrain is certainly no featherweight. The story directly follows the events of the first season by developing characters who were largely overlooked in the past. Perhaps you found Rin adorable or Kyousuke amusing, but Refrain succeeds in elevating the main five much higher than that. It is one of very few anime where the relationships between the characters feel genuine rather than forced or manufactured. As a series rooted in the theme of friendship, Refrain does a magnificent job of making the viewer feel like they are a part of the story rather than merely spectators. That is no easy feat in a visual medium.
Little Busters does not rely on fanservice and other cheap tricks to hold your interest. Surely, there is an ever-present feeling of 'moe' among the girls (isn't Rin just the cutest thing?) but it is never used as a crutch for characterisation. Even Komari, arguably the weakest character in the first season, is given a considerable amount of depth through her relationship with Rin. Refrain goes further than giving more-- it makes us care. It does not find complacency in characterisation without meaning.
What about Kengo and Masato, then? There was never much depth to them in the first season, amusing as they were. Masato in particular seemed to exist solely as comedy relief, like a more idiotic version of Clannad's Sunohara. That is no longer the case with Refrain. An entire episode focusses on Masato's backstory: why he is obsessed with the idea of strength, why he acts like an incessant moron in front of others, and how he became friends with Kyousuke and Kengo. The only issue is that the anime portrays these scenes as something silly (zombie eyes and battle music blasting in the background) when it is meant to be emotional. I'm not so sure the anime-only viewers will appreciate his characterisation as much as they could, which is a shame, as all the characters enrich the story in a pretty significant way.
Kyousuke's characterisation is where the writing truly shines. While his presence as a leader is often taken for granted in the first season, Refrain shows there is a far deeper reason for why everyone respects him so much. It is more than mere charisma. He cares about his friends more than anyone else and will go to any lengths to protect them from harm. Even if it requires him to play the role of a villain. And often he does. It is easy to be frustrated or even infuriated by Kyousuke's actions, but once all the pieces start clicking together at the end, you can't help but respect the poor guy. He's a deeply flawed person, and that's the way it should be. He is not perfect and makes mistakes like anybody else. Rarely do we find a character as genuine as Kyousuke.
While the handling of Rin's route is disappointing, Rin manages to stand right beside Kyousuke by the end of the story. The second-to-last episode focussing on Rin is so touching, so masterfully directed that it genuinely surpasses the visual novel. I do not say that lightly. Unlike many other Key stories (and even anime in general), there is no melodrama. The entire series has been building towards a very specific point. Once Rin starts crying into Komari's arms, it is nearly impossible to resist choking up a bit. It's similar to the ending of K-ON's second season in many respects... although I might argue that Refrain does it better.
And that is to speak nothing of how powerful Kyousuke's episode is. Or the lyrical significance behind the insert song "Haruka Kanata". Or all the subtle details hidden in the first season, or even how it gives meaning to all the alleged dei ex machina within Kud's and Mio's routes. Little Busters is Jun Maeda's masterpiece, and while not everybody may appreciate his style of storytelling, there is almost nothing to criticise about his work on Little Busters. Even if the anime only captured a tiny fraction of the visual novel's charm, I still believe it would be a satisfying experience. J.C. Staff's adaptation isn't fully there-- but it comes close.
"Comes close". I wish it could have been on par with the visual novel, but that is regrettably not the case. The amount of scenes (and important ones, no less) that are skipped over is truly disappointing. All J.C. Staff needed to do was simply tone down on the foreshadowing (which can really undermine the surprise) and find the budget needed to double Refrain's episode count. If the anime did reach the same heights as the visual novel, I have no doubts that it would be regarded even more highly than Clannad: After Story.
The artwork has been noticeably improved over the previous season, though. A surprising amount of effort was put into the first episode, and J.C. Staff has worked to eliminate most of the bizarre, off-model faces that were so prevalent before. There are still occasional scenes where the animation quality dips but it is nowhere near as egregious as it used to be. My only complaint is that many important CGs from the visual novel ("called game") are lacking any sort of visual impact in the anime. The visuals should have been used to enhance the story rather than merely assist it.
Refrain makes near-perfect use of its soundtrack. "Boys Don't Cry" (Kyousuke's theme) is a subtle track that does not seem to carry much significance at first, but eventually evolves into what I believe to be the most emotional track in the story. It is a perfect tribute to Kyousuke. Most people will also find themselves pulled by the sheer emotional weight of "Haruka Kanata", the farewell song of the series. Considering the lyrical significance and all that was building up towards this point, it achieves more than simply being sappy; it is a massive tsunami of emotion. Special props should also be given to "Song for Friends" which achieves much of the same impact as the previous two. While Little Busters may have one of the best soundtracks in anime, it also has one of the best uses of music.
The seiyuu work is also commendable. The actors do not simply state their lines. During the more emotional moments in the story, you can clearly hear the actors choke up as their character begins to cry. We do not often see this level of effort in anime. Kyousuke's and Rin's seiyuu evidently care about getting into the role of their character, and the result is some of the best voice acting in years.
Little Busters: Refrain is a superb anime. It is an experience that is more than the sum of its parts. Few anime have managed to create such a thoroughly endearing cast of characters, and even fewer have managed to strike such an emotional chord with its audience. It may not be as good as it should have been, and while the visual novel is still several steps above, the anime adaptation is a solid alternative for those unable to dedicate the fifty-some hours into reading the visual novel. Those expecting a deep, convoluted story brimming with 'mature' characters may not find what they are looking for. Little Busters Refrain is particularly well-written and well-produced, but it does still rely on your ability to empathise with the characters. I don't think that is a bad thing at all.
And I wonder, why do we live in an era where stories are judged solely by their complexity? Why must a critic feel forced to act is if they are too high-brow to value emotion? Human emotion is a powerful, powerful thing that gives our transient existence a meaning and a purpose. If a story is capable of bringing you to tears, it is a damn good one, I would say.