Some shows are better left without a sequel.
Meet "Chuunibyou demo Koi ga Shitai! Ren", Kyoto Animation's latest offering, the esteemed studio that once brought titles such as Haruhi, Clannad: After Story and Full Metal Panic: TSR to the anime industry. The KyoAni of 2014 is no such studio. Instead, we find rubbish like Free and Kyoukai no Kanata on an almost seasonal basis. The KyoAni of before is done and gone. They can't even seem to do sequels right any more.
It remains a mystery how KyoAni managed to mess the Chuunibyou franchise this badly. Granted, the first season wasn't anything particularly special, but it was at least an enjoyable watch. The 'chuunibyou' syndrome made for a unique premise and, hey, the girls were cute. It had some failings of its own towards the end, but the endearing nature of Yuuta's and Rikka's relationship at least felt meaningful. Ren-- however-- has no purpose or meaning beyond providing lazy fanservice. It is as Ghostbusters II is to the original. Even if Ren never existed, there would be nobody to complain except the series' most die-hard fans. It accomplishes nothing and provides nothing that the first season didn't already. It is remarkable only in how unremarkable it is.
The romance between Yuuta and Rikka is at best cute, at worst, puerile. KyoAni has made it painfully clear that they have no intentions of creating a believable or realistic relationship. Six months into the relationship and they had not even held hands yet... really. Really. They blush and run away when they so much as see each other, and hearing the word 'kiss' might as well land them in their hospital's intensive care unit. They have the mental maturity of a five-year-old, and it makes me wonder, why? It's not as though it's difficult to portray a healthy relationship between two teenagers. Anything sexual is clearly beyond them, but at this point in the relationship you would at least expect them to be holding hands and kissing. Nope. The only explanation that comes to mind is that KyoAni is afraid of upsetting the otaku, because-- oh no-- how dare you defile their waifu by showing them in a happy relationship.
During the light-hearted episodes, things are generally okay. There's plenty of the same chemistry between the characters and it's always neat to see how Rikka and Dekomori will rationalise completely ordinary things as something fantastical. The episodes that focus on Dekomori and Nibutani are actually some of the series' strongest and, thankfully, they receive a lot more focus than they did in the first season.
That said, the comedy is definitely weaker than the first season. Some of the jokes fall completely flat and then there are episodes that involve such things as Kumin's 'napping contest' (I kid you not), which are absolutely asinine. Hell, Kumin in general has to be one of the worst characters in recent years. She has absolutely no depth, no personality or defining trait beyond 'sleeps a lot'. The show would be so much better if she wasn't stealing precious screen-time away from the characters that actually matter. Sorry, Ishiki.
The largest problem with Ren is that it lacks any sort of pacing or cohesion. There's an introduction, a climax-- but where is the middle? It changes from silly chuunibyou nonsense to sappy melodrama without warning. How is anyone supposed to care about the drama when no time is given to first prepare it? It's like the story started in media res, a few random chapters taken out of a larger novel. A new girl shows up, she falls in love with Yuuta, causes some trouble, and then, bam, it ends on the same footing as the first season. No resolution; nothing added to the characters.
And why is Shichimiya here in the first place, anyway? Her contrived introduction (conveniently moving to the same apartment complex as Yuuta, who she conveniently happens to be childhood friends with) is already enough to get the eyes rolling. She joins the crew in the chuunibyou nonsense, which is fine, but then she is immediately given the spotlight in order to cause melodrama where there never needed to be any. I suppose when you lack the imagination to create drama between two developed characters, you can haphazardly throw in a new character with the same exact drama as previous. It's essentially just a copypaste of Rikka's growing feelings for Yuuta at the end of the first season. Heck, KyoAni is so lacking in ideas that they even threw in the 'Yuuta reading a note from his past self' again. I guess the only positive thing that can be said in Shichimiya's defense is that she is cute... at least when she's not splitting your ears with her "Nihahahaha" catchphrase.
The characters are not mature enough to support the drama. It's difficult to care much about Yuuta's and Rikka's relationship when they go about it as a toddler would. The season desperately, desperately needed more Nibutani (and Yuuta without the influence of Rikka) as they are the only two in the show who feel even remotely like human beings. Even if KyoAni decided to go full-force with the drama, there's a good chance it could have worked with Nibutani. Instead she is relegated to the background during the important scenes, a sort of cheerleader, a pal who pushes the two forward because they are too childish to take that step themselves.
At least there is little to complain about when it comes to the visuals. It's the usual quality you would expect of KyoAni, with plenty of motion blur and pretty scenery for you to gawk at. I did count a number of scenes where the art quality dipped into the abysmal, though, like when the camera zooms in on a swimming Shichimiya, lazily drawn as two coloured blobs stuck together.
The music is also great. Most of the background tracks are so quiet that you wouldn't ordinary notice them, but they do a solid job in enhancing the mood of each scene. The sappy piano pieces make the otherwise cringeworthy melodrama a bit more tolerable, but I don't think even the most beautiful piano pieces would be able to save those scenes. On the other hand, the opening sequence is catchy but noticeably less interesting than the first season. Many people complained about all the fast cuts in the first season's opening, but hey, it was unique. It gave the show that extra bit of charm. The opening and ending sequences here don't really achieve that. They just exist.
Chuunibyou Ren should have been better. I wanted to like it; I wanted to see the adorable relationship between Yuuta and Rikka explored further. But all I ever experienced was mild amusement in between the mountains of irrelevant nonsense. Ren does nothing but undermine the ending of the first season. It ruins the relationship almost entirely and provides nothing that needed to be shown. It is a painful example of one of the problems with the anime industry, for studios repeatedly produce sequels 'for the fans' rather than because of any artistic interest.
If you are desperately, desperately craving for more Chuunibyou, you might have a better time with it than me. If you are sceptical about how the heartwarming ending of the first season could ever be expanded upon-- avoid, avoid, avoid. It's far more likely to damage your image of the series rather than improve it.
Maybe some day KyoAni will return to what made them interesting. Somehow it seems unlikely.