Adorned with lush textures of green and wrapped up in the endless blue horizon of the summer sky, Orange rests softly on the lips like a faint drop of nostalgia just waiting to be recollected. Approaching the quiet slice of countryside that remained dormant over many winters, we're flung back ten years to where it all began. The place where two paths collided but only one was allowed to move forward. A place tucked away behind walls of foliage, cradled in a valley older than time itself. There it resides, a small town that carries with it a sense of cultural simplicity that only the exclusion of the outside world could allow. Under cover of low hanging branches, the sun pierces its way through, lighting the path where a group of friends walks side by side to a future that lays bare before them. And in this huddle of jovial faces, we find Naho; a soft-spoken girl that has within her grasp a letter. A letter that will forever alter the course she takes and the fate of the ones huddled around her.
And with the arrival of a new student named Kakeru from Tokyo, this quiet little town perks up, and so does the latent curiosity residing within Naho. A spark ignites as these two worlds collide, their fates forever becoming intertwined in the process. And so begins the tale that unravels before us. A tale of bittersweet consequence, regret, and seeking solace in the embrace of others.
Breathing new life into what many would consider a worn out formula, Orange proves that even overused set-pieces could be spun into something wholly immersive under the right care. By only giving events a gentle push when need be, this anime offers freedom to let everything run its course. To emote in ways that feel at home for its characters and not at the mercy of the scriptwriters pushing an agenda. To let what must be, be. With acclaimed director, Hiroshi Hamasaki, the man behind such works as Steins;Gate and Texhnolyze, taking the helm, this is instantly felt with the first painted frame that makes itself known to us, as things come into focus and we're formally introduced to this world and the tale it wishes to display.
After opening a letter addressed to her, Naho is rendered speechless by the contents written inside:
"I'm writing this letter ten years in your future."
Was it a practical joke? Her friends leading her on for harmless fun? Or perhaps it was something more profound..., and maybe, just maybe, the words addressed to herself, from herself, was real? But as the day transpired the unlikely answer became truth and any doubt that might have lingered faded away with the realization of what she held in her hand. This letter was no mere trick; this was real.
"This is the one day I don't want you to invite Kakeru," she didn't listen before, but now she heeds those words. Now she knows that this far-fetched truth isn't something to disregard. Whether it be something as grand as divine prophecy or merely an elaborate setup she's incapable of figuring out, what is for certain is that the letter wasn't wrong — a window into the future was given, a truth beyond comprehension.
But what she does understand is her friends. The clique that always welcomes her with open arms. Free to look on at their antics in silent bliss:
Hitaga's larger than life persona, as he fends off comments, being playfully antagonized constantly by the quick-witted Azu, taking pleasure in seeing him fluster behind his thick-framed glasses, while Suwa towers over them amused by the "married couple" squabble taking place. Takako hanging back instigating with Azu complying gleefully, as they all crack a smile enjoying each others company. Trailing behind them with a small gesture of content, Naho doesn't ask for anything more than this. These are the moments that she lives for. The moments that Naho feel at home. And with Kakeru being brought into the mix, it's these moments she never wants to let go of.
Despite being indoctrinated into the group with ease, Kakeru remains the anomaly. He flashes a reserved smile, accepts their gestures of friendship, humors them when they tease each other, and even participate on occasion. But just behind his gentle expression, there's a feeling of distance. A wall that keeps them outside from the truth that's eating away within. A mind that's off somewhere else, a lonely place that only his thoughts are allowed to occupy. And staring back at him is Naho, fixated on the truth behind the smoke and mirrors.
The truth she now possesses. Kakeru isn't going to be around for long if he follows this path, an idea that saddens her to the core.
The pain of carrying that burden alone. A life resting in her hands. A life she cares for immensely, yet can't express without the fear of rejection, or perhaps even more unnerving, the fear of being loved in return. Determined to save him, she's forced to open up. A girl who's not confident in her self-worth having to muster up enough courage for both of them. And though she may fumble over her words, go about nervously even to make eye contact, afraid of being adored by another, scared to death at the thought of being yearned for, she still presses on. Whether she manages to surpass the regret of her future-self at one minute only to fail by the next, every fiber of her being wants to keep Kakeru alive. A love that's equal parts selfish and unquestionable; a love she feels guilty for, ashamed at the thought of pressing for answers that she knows will hurt him to express. A pain of caring too much to see him go but being too bashful to say what's needed to make him stay.
Regret. Suicidal tendencies. Adolescence. Young love. Life-altering decisions. Self-acceptance. Self-awareness. Selfish desire. Deceit. Earning trust. Learning to let go. Accepting defeat. Perseverance.
A whirlwind of dilemmas heaped onto her lap the moment she decided to take action to stop the inevitable.
But is it alright to change the future, to listen to herself ten years ahead? A 26-year-old Naho, willing to change the decision of her reserved younger self for a future that would rob her of the life of a newborn child, nestled in the bosom of a loving mother's arms and a man who's in his own right the right match for her? This decision becomes about much more than saving someone, it becomes about weighed sacrifices. Nothing could be gained without the loss of something else. Is it right to gamble the happiness of others, and possible life of another, just to fulfill a want to preserve someone else's? Even the most trivial of occurrences could tip the scales in one side's favor. Fate doesn't choose favorites. The slightest swing of the pendulum determining the outcome and love of those involved. A fragile web that's only held in place by the desire to mend wounds not yet made and save a life that's not yet lost.
The summer breeze caressing her cheek, sunburnt hair fluttering ever so gently, with eyes of emerald looking outward to the unforeseen outcome of her actions. Was it right for her to challenge destiny? Was it her call to make? Pensive feelings only interrupted by the presence of a partner. Resting his steady hand on her shoulder, a caring look of reassurance offered, Suwa eases the burden; don't worry, I'm on your side, no matter the decision — A silent exchange that says everything.
These are the moments that are brought to life by the talented team staffed with seeing the vision through. With vibrant earth tones protruding through brushstrokes of greenery, a rustic, yet polish look that's acid washed in Hiroshi's unique stylistic choices; everything displays a delicate touch, fine-tuned by people who care about the projects they're working on. With character design credit given to Nobuteru Yuuki, the same man that lent his talent to Kids on the Slope and Paradise Kiss, it all comes together into one cohesive piece. Carrying this off is a soundtrack that gently chimes in when the time calls for it, with the soft stroke of an acoustic guitar, thump of drums, piano keys and the occasional presence of zany instrumentals used when the time was right. It's a soundtrack that doesn't drown out the actions on screen but instead works in synchronicity with it. Choosing to be a supporting actor than the main attraction.
This aspect was also true with the opening and ending themes, with "Hikari no Hahen" by Yu Takahashi capturing the essence of what's seen when you visit the world of Orange. And "Mirai" by Kobukuro capping it off with a bittersweet performance that embodies the underlying emotions that makes itself more apparent the further you venture in. The two, art and audio, found a space that they both occupy with complete acceptance of the other, making it a match that felt just right. This wasn't to say that the presentation was always consistent, there were certainly moments that faltered, but when it counted the most, it found a way to drive things home.
Orange takes school rom-com setups and elevates it beyond the stereotypical trappings and downright formulaic reactionary content it's usually infamous for. Where most school-orientated anime see fit to typecast characters with a small stock selection of personalities to choose from, often being identified by garishly colorful hairstyles and borderline caricature appearances. Orange broke away from this cast-iron mold, going against typing and the very notion of limited range for what's supposed to be considered as "relatable" characters. Instead, we're given teenagers that look and act as teenagers should. There's no token tsundere or mullet-sporting high-school delinquents, only different people with their mannerisms and personalities being brought together under one roof. This unit all compliment each other, in a manner that's done without so much as outright stating it.
We simply see it in their daily interactions. The socially inept know-it-all Hitaga's stubborn outward gestures against Azu's teasing, the two practically joined at the hip, refusing to address the source of their partnership. Takako's level-headed outlook on her friends, eons ahead of them all in maturity but won't hesitate to join in on "girl talk" if the chance presents itself. Naho's reserved nature, a person too kind to say no, satisfied with just being able to see others happy. And then there's Suwa's adopted role as big brother, putting aside his happiness to aid the happiness of others. He willingly becomes the anchor and bearer of unrequited love, harboring his feelings to allow another to blossom, all while doing it with a smile on his face.
Each of these friends existing independently of each other but choosing to pool together where they have others that complete whatever they lack. Good on their own but better when there's a shoulder to lean on, someone to share their happiness, troubles, and existence with. The very idea that frightens the outsider being accepted within their circle.
Kakeru admires but fears the very idea of their friendship. A lingering thought that he carries with him, afraid to open up to let others in:
"I don't deserve it. I haven't earned it. I'm not good enough. No one understands me. If I get too close, I will only hurt them in the end. How could anyone care for me after what I've done? I shouldn't be allowed happiness."
He sits there, eating away, wanting to reach out but pulling away out of fear. Out of guilt. But whenever he's had enough, ready to end it all, there's always a voice ringing out in the distance. His name being called out by the short-statured girl with sunburnt hair. A girl that tugs at him to stay. A girl he wants nothing but the best for.
Orange isn't filled with characters spouting out summations of themselves, nor does it bother to hammer home points not expressed explicitly through dialogue. It lets the actions, the expressions, the mannerisms, the scenes, the camera, the color, the music, the very nature of the show itself, to do all the talking in its place.
And while I've expressed nothing but the utmost praise for Orange, there's still a lot of issues that plague it. For one, details about the conflict itself.
Admittedly, the romance aspect can get clumsy at times. There are occasions where it's awkward, and that doesn't count scenes when it was done so on purpose. With the density of some characters pushing it, especially when considering their giant progressive leaps forward in the latter half of the show, it does wane on you a bit, if only temporarily. A big confessional scene could be truncated for awkward teenage crushing by the next episode. A kind of regression that felt like it served just to pad out the schedule running time than it did to service the material at hand. While some of these issues could have been credited with the fact that they're teenagers and are not fully capable of expressing themselves to the best of their capabilities, it still doesn't magically make the feeling disappear. But of course, that's an excuse I'm sure many have grown tired of hearing, despite the fact that it inherently holds a great deal of truth about any youth in the middle of their teenage years. It's not always an answer we like, but it's still one that's acceptable for the sake of immersion.
And then some viewers would address the issue regarding time-travel. Let it be known that there wasn't any need to try to explain the mechanics of the time-travel used since time-travel was nothing but a narrative tool to set in motion what mattered: the characters. But even with that being said, it doesn't negate the fact that that element of the show was never adequately explained in a meaningful way. Given the fact that this aspect of the show came in the form of a letter required some suspension of disbelief as to why more wasn't done to take full advantage of it. However, I believe downplaying the time-travel aspect as something that's not needed to drive its narrative or be used as a means to reset mistakes if they fail to follow through on the words written the first time, was the best decision to make. Had they been able to repeat critical events constantly, it would have diminished the regret and success of their efforts throughout the course of the show. The letter was merely a timeline for them to follow, but the actual legwork, struggle, pain, happiness, lessons learned, and obstacle conquered, was done of their own accord. And when their efforts, or lack thereof, diverge from what's written on the letter, it disproves any omniscience to control the course of time or predict it flawlessly, which makes this an example of a plot device not being readily abused. And when accounted for how often that isn't the case for anime that include time-travel, or other forms of media for that matter, that's a great accomplishment.
And in a nutshell, that's Orange's greatest strength; taking things that are quickly disregarded, such as school rom-coms and time-travel setups, and turning them into something that could be engaging and level-headed.
If time-travel was readily abused, don't make it a central focus of your narrative, use it as more of a guideline instead. If school rom-coms are infamous for having color-coordinated one-dimensional personas, take a subdued approach that pulls from the same core values yet brought to life with personalities that feel far more believable. Orange takes the basics and proves that with enough care it could be reacknowledged as a viable means of storytelling.
With the right amount of passion interjected, what would usually stop as just characters, backdrops for 20 minutes of entertainment, and a passing conversation of some observable piece of media has now transformed itself into a lasting impression. One that could offer fond experiences for moments you've wished for, and passing instances of nostalgia you've never had.
And as we step back, leaving the world of Orange behind us, zooming past the aged walkways, green linen jackets worn by adolescence; again through the cracks of the skyline hidden behind a wall of leaves hanging above, we know that we're leaving a place with a memory to take away from it. And as we become less aware of its existence, going about our routines, the world of Orange and its inhabitants continues on, living their day to day lives, making memories of their own and looking up in bewilderment at the endless blue, pondering as to what their future may hold.