Update (2/18/2018): Funimation have since released ReLife on BluRay and DVD in the States, in both sub and dub formats. In a nutshell the English dub is absolutely stellar - making this one of those animes for which selecting a language to watch in is actually a bit of a conundrum.
Ever wanted to go back and re-live your high school years again? It’d be great, wouldn’t it? All those good times! The epic games of football during break. The access to science materials that could blow stuff up. The warm ritual of fighting like a crazed orangutan to get to the ice cream van that shrewdly parked itself outside the school gates during lunchtimes. Of course, if you went to a rough British comprehensive like I did, such memories also come coupled with the markedly more interesting incidents of marauding spazzes brutally assaulting each other and screaming random threats as you pass them by in the corridor - that is, if they’re not already busy wrecking anything else they can get their webbed hands on. So, actually no - I’ll pass on the return to youth. All that wistful talk of your teenage years being your best ones is bollocks anyway - unless you really like there to be a challenge in getting access to alcohol, doing homework outside of ‘job’ hours and failing miserably at chatting up girls*.
Attitudes in Japan - especially in the bonkers, colourful world of its anime - tend to differ though. They’re all for the ‘springtime of youth’ over there - there’s an entire sub-genre of animated high-school dramas dedicated to it, in fact. ReLife is Summer 2016’s latest addition to this long-running tradition, albeit with an intriguing twist - its central figure is actually a washed up 27 year-old in need of a serious life reboot (hence the title).
Arata Kaizaki, part-time convenience store clerk, is not exactly what you’d call a high achiever. He’s barely able to hold down a job as it is after curiously abandoning a once-promising career for one of Japan’s Big Business Companies™, just three months into his time there - a big no-no in a culture that demands both undying loyalty and arduous overwork. With his full-time job prospects dead on the water and his parents refusing to offer any more financial support, Arata faces a practically hopeless task in trying to keeping both his dignity, and a roof over his head. But there is one way out - and it comes via the most left-field of social science programs.
Ryo Yoake is a similar age to Arata, but unlike his luckless peer, actually has a job. It's a pretty interesting one too - he's a personal supervisor working for the ReLife Laboratory, a mysterious company offering an initiative designed to get Japan’s NEETs out of the unemployment doldrums and back into society. How they do this though is more than unconventional - through the dosage of one single pill of theirs, a full-grown adult can once again have the appearance of a senior high-school student. Once you then have said appearance, why not then take your final school year and get one last-chance kick-start for the adult world? It's a proposition that Ryo appears and practically ambushes Arata with, as the latter is on his way home lamenting yet another failed interview.
Arata, obviously, has no choice but to accept - it’s either ReLife, or destitution. And barely the time has come that he's taken his pill that he's then on his way to his first day back in class for almost 10 years. He's only too aware of the surreality of his situation - a 27 year old masked by teenage youthfulness, repeating his high school experience with the life knowledge he's picked up as an adult. His new classmates have none of those benefits - and going through the trepidous final chapter of their teenage years, they might even be in need of advice from a traveller well-seasoned on the path to adulthood they’re about to embark on. Arata might even be the role model they'd need, if like many adults, he hadn’t forgotten 90% of the book smarts needed to actually pass senior high. He's in as much of a hole to get to graduation as they are. And between the awkwardness of returning to a world he’d left behind long ago, and getting pulled into the everyday dramatics of his classmates’ interpersonal relationships, he’s got more than his work cut out - not to mention that one of them may also be participating in the very same experiment that he is.
ReLife’s original angle on a well-baked theme is definitely the ‘X’ factor it needs to stand out from all of its contemporaries. Initial impressions can give off that both this show’s look and early school scenes are supremely generic and unoriginal - its style, while definitely clean and distinctive from an artistic viewpoint, is lacking in a certain edge. It also doesn’t help that Kaizaki’s class fall into a small group of well-worn molds - there’s the competitive girl, the shy girl, the guy who’s completely oblivious to girls liking him.. etc. etc. There’s nothing hugely original about it from the outset. But it’s the beginning prop-up that’s to blame, because once ReLife finds it feet, it is without question one of the heart-warmingly funniest shows that anime has produced this year. And it succeeds mostly because of its attempts to subvert the high school genre, rather than pander to it.
There’s no avoiding the fact in any of ReLife’s 13 episodes that Arata is a full-grown adult now mixing with kids almost half his age. The show refuses to do so either, and does in fact exploit that fact for all possible gag capabilities. Arata’s bemusement at the long-forgotten rigors of high school life (especially when it comes to P.E), as well as his desperate attempts to hide his true grown-up identity, are both central parts of the show’s comedy, and are often hilarious. But it’s his knowing of having done this all before that definitely provides the show’s funniest - and most interesting - platform. Whether it's divulging pearls of adult wisdom on those who need to hear it, or the teasing he partakes in with the few classmates who seem to curiously understand love and relationships (to those who don’t), both Arata and ReLife itself definitely enjoy the setup and the characters they find themselves with.
It is also the work of the classmates too, all of whom either rise out or at least enhance the initial stereotypes they’re given, that completely dissolves the idea of ReLife being just another high school show. Arata’s peers might start out cliched, but they’re impossible not to be won over by, once their nuances are put on show. There is Rena Karui, reliable member of the girl’s volleyball team whose combative demeanour masks the painful jealousy of being a girl who’s good at most things, but not quite the best at anything. There is also Kazuomi Oga, one of the class’ high achievers who shares a curiously tense friendship with Rena that is prone to arguments, the reasons of why being completely oblivious to him. Not only is this of great amusement to Arata, but also to An Onoya too - the sweet, upbeat girl with whom Arata bonds with not only because of their consistent exam failures, but also via their previously-mentioned shared understanding of what’s transpiring between the other two. It’s remarkably easy to be entertained by each of these characters, especially when looking back through one’s own memories of high school, but there is one in particular who deserves an extra-special mention, not least because her own in-show mission is perhaps the relatable thing that ReLife serves up.
Chizuru Hishiro, a girl both highly proficient with anything scholastic and utterly abysmal with social skills, is a character as amusing and adorable as anime is likely to ever serve up. With her monotone manner of speaking, her inability to judge conversational subtleties and the unintentionally terrifying ‘smile’ she gives when trying to look cheerful, she is a girl clearly not cut out for charming others. And yet, her biggest goal is to overcome this inherent awkwardness, and finally bag herself the friends she’s yearned for, for so long. Not only does her plotline contain some of the show’s best punchlines (especially with her attempts to befriend Rena), but it’s also remarkably thought-provoking, given just how much of anyone’s time at high school is spent just trying to ‘fit in’ with the others. This may be a show about Arata’s own personal development to success, but in many ways it is her show as well. If you’ve ever suffered from being unintentionally socially awkward yourself, she’s likely to be one of the characters you’ll root for over the others.
By episode three, everything with ReLife has fallen into place - it’s aptitude for poignant comedy is well-established, its characters most definitely aren’t the bubblegum, cookie-cutter tropes you were expecting, and it’s managed to add enough subtleties to its characters that the mystery surrounding the identity of Arata’s fellow ReLife participator is an extremely captivating one. Also, thanks to just how in-tune its visuals are to the emotion on-screen, it actually does look great, despite its initial mediocrity. Being solely broadcast on just the Web, and rumored to have had an pretty paltry production budget, there is certainly a justifiable case that ReLife should actually get a pass for how it looks.
When you combine that with its soundtrack, that pass then becomes a pat on the back. ReLife’s backing score is an integral component of why its atmosphere is far more subtle and poignant than so many of its fellow school-life comedies. Aside from its cheery pop-rock opening and a plethora of 2000s J-Pop tracks it uses for closing, its backing score is a collection of piano-based ditties that do repeat a lot, and probably aren’t really that remarkable by themselves. But ReLife knows exactly when to use them, and it uses them tremendously well. The resulting effect is a show that occasionally does genuinely feel grown-up and mature during its dramatic moments, even if that drama centers purely around a bunch of high school kids. It’s minimalist and it might even be stock-level quality, but it exceeds its potential in fantastic fashion.
Where ReLife’s charming jaunt back into the days of high school stumbles, despite its attempts not to avoid such a label, is that it is ultimately still a product of its genre. It essentially runs as a collective of small short stories, with a number of characters getting their own arcs complete with typically teenage conflicts, most of which, save for Arata's (which comes complete with some major twists), resolve in typically teenage fashion. It does have a curious demographic to appease after all, and high school kids themselves most definitely fit in that category. Thus, ReLife’s main flaw (apart from also being way too short with just 13 episodes for a first series) is that it tries to cater for both those who find themselves looking back on their youth, and the ones trying to live it in the present - a contradictory task that is near-impossible to pull off. But it’s main strengths are that it is undoubtedly honest, undoubtedly funny, and at times, surprisingly affecting. In the crowded world of animated slice-of-life comedies, it graduates with flying colours.
*: Okay fine, maybe I’d still do this