[WARNING: Slightly long review ahead. You can get by by reading the "In short" sections]
I was not interested in this show. The manga was the epitome of "Generic Harem." I don't think there isn't one cliche that hasn't happened in the series yet. From the characters' reactions to the actual settings of events, everything gave me a sense of Deja vu on the scale of the Endless Eight (only 2000s kids would get this reference!). So I anticipated this adaptation to bring exactly nothing new. It would be another bland series to add to every season's list of bland Harem Anime.
But then something happened. If you head over to the Nisekoi Anime announcement news article (you can find it here on MAL), you would discover that it began with soft squeals of excitement and nearly uniform cheers by manga fans. As you scrolled along, you would find a chorus-like echo of horror at the studio choice: Shaft. Looking at the thread might even feel like discovering the death of a civilization. IT felt almost as if I were looking at an ancient species discovering a cure to some disease, only to find that very cure would end their entire race.
But even then, I wasn't interested in this series. After chapter 60 of the manga (when my marathon ended), it felt like a slowly eroding cluster of repetition of cliches and never progressing plot. It wasn't until a whole year after it began did I start watching it. I finished it in two, no, three days after downloading from Nyaa.
Nisekoi, despite all of its cliches, is probably the best Harem series in recent years. It is also probably the purest example of the Harem genre. Should harem series ever go out of fashion and end in production, this should be the one harem series to show your grand kids what a "Harem" Anime was (I'm sure by then Japan's population will explode to overtake China's).
The show is a paradox. Its strength is the sheer attention the creators paid to subtle details. Even if you didn't like the manga, you might still find this series enjoyable. And if you haven't been keen on Harem series before, this could be your gateway series.
let's examine the aspects of the series and whether you will enjoy it.
Undoubtedly the most important aspect of a Harem Anime is its cast. And you know the show has done it well when it's know as "Battle of the Best Girls" among the online community.
The character of this series are generic in a sense of the word. All of them are "Tsunderes" in various doses of "Tsun."
However, there's clear character progression and backstory giving. This is most prominently seen in Chitoge, whose changes in behavior is most apparent. From her discovery of her connection to the main character to her treatment of the main character, all are subtly altered as events unfold.
While they can all be labeled with a name from TvTropes, the other characters are no slouches either.
Marika, Tsugumi, and Onodera each have their own respective charm and characterizations.
Unlike most harem series, the characters were clearly not a mash of cliches and actually felt like they EXISTED.
Even the main character, who can be wrote off as the typical "indecisive and dense male tsundere," has his own characterization. His motivations and actions are consistent with his initial personality, and he has enough "tsun" to not come off as a bitch (granted, some views might still experience frustrations with him).
Perhaps the greatest touch in characterizing the cast is the addition of monologues when they think about something. When their hands touch, when the MC gets horny, they're all given reasons and detailed descriptions on why the character feels that way (which is strengthened by the visuals).
Also, the girls are often depicted as Moe. The Studio avoided flaunting their bodies and turning show into another Harem-ecchi show where "characters" are poor excuses to show off the body designs (they know their audience!).
In short: the attention to detail, as well as balance of screen time between the girls give the cast vivid characterization(and not to mention more significant side characters compared to the spiritual predecessors).
Having a mandatory "story" rating is probably the rating system's greatest flaw. The story of Nisekoi is not epic. It's not something that you'd expect to find on Gurren Lagann's level. However, not emphasizing on the "plot" is its exact strength.
With modern Anime often taking the form of 1 cour short series (to lower cost), time is often squeezed. Sometimes, this is worsened by the existence of other sub-plots that don't necessarily help characterize.
Even worse is when producers choose to forgo characterization and instead stuff a bundle of cliches into character, taking up more time and reducing the quality of characterization.
Thankfully, Nisekoi has no such problem.
It's story is simple: Raku Ichijou, the protagonist, made a vague promise with a girl 10 years ago in which they promise to fulfill when the meet. They would verify each other's identities with a locket that Raku keeps, and a key the the girl keeps.
As a subplot, powerful family members (mobs, police, etc) of the girls are kept in check by Raku having a precarious balance of relationship with all of the girls.
That was the synopsis, but how did they handle the story? The show never takes its subplot too seriously. The story focuses on Raku and the mystery from 10 years ago with the family problems occasionally pushing the characters to interact. The subplot, however, is never taken "on a bus." It's always there, never too neglected nor too concentrated on. The side characters are given screen time to a certain extent, never to the point where we forget that they exist. They add a wonderful touch.
In short: The handling of the story is pretty much spot on. It is used to advance the character interaction and never too central as to detract character growth, but also never taken for granted. Events flew smoothly and felt as if they were REAL.
Probably the weakest department, yet still well matched to the series. There's no specific style that can be heard from the BGM. Everything felt like they fit the scene and made them better experiences.
The OPs are sang by ClariS. I didn't feel too moved by them. The tunes and themes sounded about the same as many other Anime OPs.
Very cheerful, harmonious sounds that borders boring (each to his own, you might like them).
However, I have to add that is an ending theme song for each of the girls, so that's something to enjoy.
The voice acting was perfect, spot on. Every character sounded exactly as I imagined them to sound. Chitoge with her bossy, slightly cheerful voice. Onodera voiced by KanaHana. Claude's authoritative, maniacal voice, and so on.
Probably the greatest concern for many manga fans. Famous from their Monogatari and Madoka Magicias series’, Shaft is known for their unique depictions of the series' world. Many feared (especially with the train wreck of Mekakucity Actors) that Shaft would render Nisekoi's world into unrecognizable Pseudo-spaces.
Boy were they wrong.
While the now-iconic Shaft “Spin around to do an action” and head tilt are still there, Nisekoi is a far cry from Nisekoi-monogatari. I would say this is probably the greatest improvement the manga has had (the manga’s backgrounds, from what I remember, might as well as have been drawn by Tite Kubo).
The characters are animated fluidly. The motions sprinkled in by Shaft do nothing to detract the series. Far from it, the exaggerated nature of the source’s plotline (gangsters stop fighting thanks to teenage dating) actually made Shaft’s liberal interpretations appropriate. Tsugumi’s chase scenes are animated with multitudes of guns, a feat that melts into the world of Nisekoi’s surreal world of spins and tilts. Zoom-ins are appropriate, with barely any ecchi (or so it felt) and a lot of focus on character expression. The irrelevant background characters, deservedly, are at times animated as gray blocks similar to Durarara and Mawaru Penguindrum. And the backgrounds are EXTRAVAGANT. I’m talking about 1920s Gatsby-style parties extravagance here. Though this is oddly appropriate due to the nature of the girls (Ojou-samas and generally influential girls). If not extravagant, the backgrounds are detailed and suit the theme. Everythign was beautiful, essentially, and much better compared to the manga.
Characters are sometimes animated in chibi style, amplifying their moe-ness and comical relief factor.
Many of the backgrounds (such as the forest) are drawn with detail. Shaft certainly didn't cheap out on their background.
In short: All of these touches made Nisekoi’s world (as much as I hate this word) unforgettable. it stands far and above many other Harem series in atmosphere due to the willingness to be exaggerate the world boldly.
With a consistent and well characterized cast, as well as vivid yet realistic depiction of the world, good enough sound (great voice acting), and a story that recognizes its strengths and but never mistreated, Shaft’s Nisekoi adaptation paints a surreal world that’s grounded in reality by character interaction. It is surely the standard bearer for Harem Anime to come. If they come at all (hint, look at next season’s list).
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think it’s time for me to hit the bookshelves and download some chapters of Nisekoi.
Edit: After I started to read the manga, I remembered that after the 50 chapters or so, the manga regresses and turns into something close to a CSI TV show: plotless, digestable, short, weekly chapters. For a WHILE. Just saying, the first portion of the manga IS the Anime, but the successive portions are very different. Hopefully it gets better.