This second season of Yama no Susume continues the story of Aoi and Hinata from the first one as they, along with their two friends, keep developing their interest on mountain climbing while reaffirming their friendship. This is overall a cute and positive show with endearing personalities and an inviting mood. And yet, it has to be one of the most perplexing experiences I've had watching anime, and for many reasons.
I admit it, I didn't like the first season. With a premise that should have hit all the right notes in my personal tastes, I found the delivery dull and lazy, filled with the most blatantly regurgitated trope iterations and overall giving me the impression that I wasn't watching something genuine and sincere.
This season is far longer, the episodes have more time to develop its ideas and not feel too schematic and/or contrived, so in theory it should be able to fix these issues. And it, indeed, went way better this time. Yet if I had to describe this season in a single word, that would be "erratic". Extremely, bewilderingly erratic.
First, let me say that the art and animation in this show deserve all the praise that I can't fully give in other departments. It is a show about outdoors and scenery and it delivers with great shots and embellished natural landscapes. It has a lot of active and energetic character interaction and it's delightfully executed in movement and framing to transmit that feeling of liveliness throughout. The visual delivery is absolutely on point and that is something I can't deny no matter how I feel about the series.
That said, I am very conflicted about the writing and characters, and perhaps the most blatant example of this inner conflict came in the very first episode. The vibes I was getting from it couldn't be worse; the same essential problems the first season had in execution, with a kind of moe and cutesy imagery that felt so lazy, tropey and lowest common denominator that I couldn't get invested in its mood at all. And yet, there was a scene right there, when the girls finally set up the tent and enjoy their time together. That scene. That conversation in the tent. It somehow felt properly restrained, natural, authentic. It was exactly what I want and expect a slice of life to be.
To a point, I wish the entire anime was a consistent stream of serviceable mediocrity, somehow like that first season was, because this is more difficult to handle. "Irregular" would be an understatement for this show. It is actually brilliant, genuinely great and inspired, in bits. Some of its little sequences can rightfully be placed among my favorite slice of life moments of all time, and the series gets some themes and tones surprisingly well. For instance, one of the things I was most surprised about is that, for a series this positive and idealistic... it handles the negatives and adversities incredibly well. It knows how to deal with tension and inner conflict. The negative effects of Aoi's acrophobia are perhaps my favorite plot point of the series and whenever it plays a role it doesn't feel sweetened or overdramatized, but heavy and uncomfortable, and creates some of the best and most heartfelt scenes in the show. I could mention some other moments that deal with an amount of tension and conflict, like the semi-frequent quarrels between Aoi and Hinata, or that scene with Aoi trying to convince her mother to let her climb Mt. Fuji... and they all, somehow, excel at executing their particularly heavier moods.
But for every great there's a downside in this show and in this case it's the amount of monologuing and characters wording their feelings and concerns. Aoi is particularly guilty of that and it can get truly grating. It is cheap, it is redundant and it disrupts the natural flow of events. I can't fully express how much I dislike the choice to use them as tools for character exposition, and how often they managed to break my immersion in otherwise very competent scenes and conflicts.
In fact, in general, I don't feel much for the characters of this series. For the two main ones, I like them more as concepts than as characters themselves. While sometimes, clearly more often than the rest of the cast, they move me and hit home in a particularly brilliant way, I can't bring myself to getting this kind of strong attachment to them that other series manage to create. And it's not due to lack of merits: the premise of their friendship is really beautiful and inspiring, and their relationship doesn't have anything essentially wrong, actually managing to capture the little instances of conflict that also conform a friendship. I think it's worth noting, and to a point daring for the show and the overall mood it intends to create, that it tries to put emphasis on their bickering instead of reducing their relationship to the beautiful and wholesome moments. But with that said, I can't get over character quirks of Aoi that I find irritating, like the above mentioned, and while Hinata is more solid, she isn't in any way memorable to me as a standalone. The rest of the cast is rather forgettable. Kaede is... just there. I don't hate her, I wouldn't say I like her, to a point I appreciate her viewpoint and I see nothing wrong with her presence but nothing else. Kokona is a weird and ambivalent case. She is sweet to the point of type 1 diabetes, which I somehow can handle due to my high sugar tolerance but even then I can't help but point her as a character that is pushed far beyond the limits. And yet, there is some naïve childhood charm in her that prevents this excess from backfiring or resulting in annoyance.
I truly don't know what to say or how to sum up my views of this show. It is genuinely brilliant but at the same time it's grating and mediocre. It has forgettable characters but intense and breathtaking character moments. It feels fake and pandering in its amount of regurgitated moe gimmicks that are uninspired and overdone in execution, yet it somehow is able to transmit down-to-earth feelings that few slice of life capture with such efficiency. The highs of this show seem to come from nowhere, but they exist, and they make the experience absolutely worthy. That is what I can conclude, I guess. It was worthy. Irregular, erratic and a huge mess of an experience, but one of a kind. And somehow, I find myself looking forward to the third season.