Little Busters: Refrain and The Power of Experience

Little Busters: one of the most controversial anime recently in terms of quality, potential, and execution. Key, infamous for their ability to make stories that drown their readers/viewers in tears, produced Little Busters in 2007, showcasing Jun Maeda’s mastery of tearjerkers. Hailed as one of the greatest VNs of all time, Little Busters is indeed one of the most well written stories out there and probably has one of the strongest emotional impacts ever. Clannad: After Story has nothing on this. And yet, as excited as people are and were for the anime, the fact of the matter is, an anime was a terrible idea and was bound to fail.

A story of unparalleled friendship.
A story of unparalleled friendship

Most complaints, or at least the vocal ones, blame JC Staff, a studio that is quite hated for a plethora of reasons that may or may not include a certain anime that doesn’t actually exist. Nevertheless, I was one of the people who, from the day the anime was announced (that is, before we knew what studio was in charge), were very doubtful about the quality of the anime. Of course I agree that beloved KyoAni would do a better job, but besides the fact that they have moved on to the cash cow of moeblobs with a hint of plot, the problem here is that the storyboarding of a Little Busters anime is a very interesting and even paradoxical problem that any studio would not be able to solve.

As a VN reader, I am fully aware of just how powerful Little Busters’ Refrain is. To this day, Haruka Kanata still evokes more sadness in me than any other song. But no matter how I try to convince people how good Refrain is, my words will never be able to convey it. Most people are unwilling to invest ~50 hours into a VN just so they can supposedly experience the greatest tearjerker around. They would rather just not spend 50 hours and live without knowing about it or…watch the anime, spend a lot less time and still see for themselves. Unfortunately, the anime will never live up to the hype of the VN. I had no clue what people meant by this until I read the VN; then I thought an anime would never happen due to it being too difficult and then it somehow got an anime and now I just watch and laugh at how bad it is.

The first problem that works against both the anime and the VN in terms of people trying it out is just how incredibly poorly written the initial story is. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Little Busters is that the first 70-80% is actually trash. Getting through all the routes is a real chore and the quality of Kud’s route is one of the worst things I’ve ever read; anime viewers should be glad the EX version got animated as opposed to the vanilla version. The fact that the majority of the routes range from mediocre to atrocious writing yet readers were able to forgive everything they had to sit through and still consider it one of the best VNs of all time is a further testament to just how powerful Refrain is. For anyone unsure about whether to invest time into this story, this is a huge turnoff and would realistically not continue, and I personally know people who have dropped the anime due to this. But those who have not already dropped it are willing to continue with the anime because “it’s Key” or “what’s one episode a week,” and “so many people are saying it’s the best, okay, I’ll stick with it.”

The second and main problem is simply a storyboarding issue. I’m sure everyone is aware of all the foreshadowing that has been used. The anime chose to forego real attempts at storyboarding and just insert some foreshadowing. All of the routes connect in a very specific way that serves as the basis of Refrain: the secret of the world. As such, there is a fundamental need to animate all the routes but do so without any real foreshadowing. Nevertheless, the anime still has added a ridiculous amount of foreshadowing, some of which makes zero sense.

Little Busters: Refrain
Hahaha this is actually genius

The problem with foreshadowing is it ruins the whole impact of Refrain. The setup in the VN is what made Refrain what it is and that setup cannot be reproduced in anime form nor can it be so drastically changed without consequence. Of course, half the reason foreshadowing was inserted was because of the first problem and trying to keep viewers interested, so there’s this combined problem of keeping people interested for when they only have poorly written source material to work with but not include anything that’ll reveal Refrain. Or they can just spoil half the stuff via a trailer. I could complain about all the other things they changed for the worse, and the blatant attempts to cater to VN fans have only served to hurt the execution more, but that’s besides the point of this post. In the end, it’s just a matter of the limitations of the anime medium. Maybe it could be improved here and there, but overall, that’s not going to make it good. The anime medium simply cannot reproduce the level of emotional impact of Refrain that the VN does.

I can’t objectively determine how emotional the anime is and will be, so I can only imagine the reactions to Refrain. Honestly, a fraction of the most powerful tearjerker is still going to be pretty sad. Regardless, it doesn’t matter how much emotion the anime evokes out of viewers; anime viewers will never experience the same level, and perhaps more importantly, range of emotions that VN readers did. And this problem of Refrain is kind of like Christianity. Christians know and understand how great it is to have a relationship with God. So much so, that we just want to tell everyone how amazing it is – resulting in, shall I say, less than desirable results.

It doesn’t matter how much Christians proclaim their love for God or talk about sinful nature or the Bible or forgiveness or whatever method they choose to minister with. No one will ever truly understand what we mean unless they experience God for themselves. It is the limitation of the medium – the limitation of our words. There are those who might listen to us, but they won’t truly understand until they experience God’s love personally; no matter what a person says, Refrain is something that must be experienced. There are those who ignore us and call us crazy without attempting anything. I admit, Christianity doesn’t actually make any logical sense whatsoever, but neither does “this 50 hour VN where 80% is trash is worth your time!” There are those who have tried Christianity out and did not think it was worth it. Well, just reading even half of the VN or even watching the first season of the anime is not going to let you understand why Little Busters is hailed with such praise. You haven’t gotten to the real stuff yet. What changes lives is God’s love – without that, nothing will happen. People growing up in a Christian community are perhaps most susceptible to this as they can often be believers who have never experienced radical healing in their personal life.

Such people are inclusive in the group of Christians who might believe but still don’t quite “get it.” They might do everything a Christian is “expected” to do, but they have yet to truly experience God’s love – and this is kind of like watching the anime. It doesn’t matter if you watch the anime and know the entire story and still cry liters of tears at the climax and praise it as the best thing in the world; you actually still won’t have a clue how good Refrain really is. You can say you believe in God all you want, go to church, read your Bible, volunteer for the community, and donate to the poor. None of that means you have experienced God. I don’t know how to put it into words, but when you experience God, you just know your life has been changed forever, and when that happens, you just want to share that experience with everyone.

Limitations of the medium – limitations of our words. We can preach the Gospel as much as we like – our words alone can only do so much, not to say it’s a futile effort. All we can really do is plant seeds and let God take care of the rest. Sometimes he acts immediately; sometimes he acts in twenty years. Being frustrated with atheists who “just don’t get it” is ridiculous and even counterproductive because of course they don’t get it when they haven’t experienced anything yet. We as Christians have experienced something that no one else has, so it’s understandable we want to share with as many people as possible. However, it is important to remember that no one will quite understand what you’re talking about until they experience it for themselves. Putting aside the complaints of the Little Busters anime for a moment, the root feeling of fans is the same as Christians: Refrain in the VN is just so unrivaled and powerful and is something that fans want others to experience, settling for nothing less than the VN. If nothing else, I think the feeling of wanting to share one of the best experiences of your life can be appreciated, as well as the feeling of disappointment when people settle for less.

The biggest difference, among others, in my parallel, however, is that those who have had the story spoiled will never experience the same as VN readers even if they go back and read it. Half of Refrain is the setup which you can’t replicate in anime; the other half is phenomenal execution built upon said setup. Luckily for Christianity, you can try as many times as you want to experience God and you can experience Him many, many times. God wants a relationship with every single person and as long as you are willing to try, God will respond.  God’s gift of grace and mercy is available to everyone at all times; it is only waiting to be accepted by us and once you do, you will truly understand the power of a personal experience with God.


10 thoughts on “Little Busters: Refrain and The Power of Experience

  1. From watching the anime series without playing the VN, I wouldn’t worry. To be honest I had little idea what the main plot of Little Busters was even with the foreshadowing. It seemed more than any Key anime just “fix the girls’s problems” with a side of slice of life. What little foreshadowing they did, didn’t seem to answer much. The “secret of the world” tasks were awful mundane for what they were, and the whole narcolepsy thing got treated like an afterthought. Even the teaser didn’t really say much.

    So I wouldn’t worry. What seems story-breaking to you is probably because you already played the VN. For the rest of us, it’s probably going to be okay.

    1. Or you could be like me – I ruined the end for myself several years ago, before anyone decided to animate Little Busters. And I’ve been waiting for the ending, week after week, horrible arc after horrible arc. I know it won’t hit me in the same manner it would someone who first experienced it through the VN, or even those who are watching now and haven’t been spoiled, but I have a feeling the ending will still have some power to it. Key almost guarantees this, even if the studio animating their work makes some (or lots) of errors along the way. 😛

  2. As one who shunned the anime in order to finish playing the VN in the last few weeks, I completely agree that no anime adaptation, KyoAni or not, would be able to capture the true experience of the VN. Question to those who did watch the anime so far: did they keep the romantic feelings in each character’s arc and make them out clearly as different routes, or did they neutralize and streamline it like Clannad into “help one girl after another with her issues”? This is obviously an issue with most visual novel adaptations, but especially with Key since they tend to give different replays and routes an important role in the overarching story. Consider the people who won’t accept Clannad After Story’s happy ending and denounce it as deus ex machina, not having understood the role of those light orb thingies that popped up every once in a while in the anime. In fact, I foresee a very similar situation in the near future with the end of Little Busters Refrain.

    On a different note, I had no huge problems reading the initial routes, including Kud-ko’s (Alert! <– Lolicon here). After all, we ought to all know that Key's main currencies are character-based comedy and FEELS, not plot. Though admittedly, the comedy is hit-or-miss (big hit for me!) and some people deny/suppress their FEELS if they think the accompanying plot isn't good enough. The most awkward route for me probably was Kurugaya's, with the unresolved ending. Incidentally, her route, which most blatantly involves the "secret of the world", has been left for last before Rin and Refrain. How are they going to handle that, I wonder?

    1. The thing with Clannad is the emotional scenes and the light orbs are, for all intents and purposes, independent. LB’s secret is so intertwined with *that* scene though, so the weaker the setup, the weaker the impact. Also keep in mind how many seemingly irrelevant things end up being vitally important to the reveal and further contribute to the impact. To answer your question: all romance was removed.

      As for Key’s writing, I don’t think aiming for feels is an excuse for bad writing, but we forgive them because the main plot is actually really good writing (only Rin/Refrain were written by Jun Maeda). I would argue they focus on overarching plot and do a superb job with it but at the cost of individual routes. If you have/eventually read Rewrite, you’d see they go in a very different direction compared to what they are known for yet still deliver an incredibly well written story that is superior to Little Busters as a whole.

      1. I’ll take you up on that! As soon as I finish Steins;gate, that is. S;g is another VN that I’ve postponed watching the anime adaptation for until I finish, though I’ve been told that the anime matched up quite well. There seems to be less of a problem with adapting the plot structure, since each character’s routes are built into the main route rather than requiring multiple playthroughs. At least until Kurisu/True End.

        I guess a different approach is to be expected with Rewrite since Jun Maeda handed over the reigns. I wasn’t terribly impressed with Yuto Tonokawa’s scenarios on Little Busters (Komari and Kurugaya), but I’ll see what he could do this time around. The big fish of course is Romeo Tanaka, I guess? I haven’t read Cross Channel or Kana Imouto, but Yume Miru Kusuri certainly pushed buttons (good and bad) for me and I am amused from what I’ve watched so far from last year’s Jinrui wa Suitaishimasta. And then there’s one route written by my favorite Ryukishi07 to boot! Yup, I’m pumped. By the way, did you just read Rewrite since the English translation was completed earlier this year, or do you read VNs in Japanese?

        1. Romeo Tanaka is indeed the star writer of Rewrite. I’m not too familiar with his works but Jinsui was a fun watch and I actually just finished Cross Channel which was pretty interesting, though tiresome with the amount of sexualized material. I don’t know if Tonokawa got better at writing or he’s more suited for this kind of stuff, but Chihaya was definitely one of the better and more fun routes. Sorry to say Ryukishi07’s route was the worst in my opinion, though the pros it does have is what you’d expect from him. It was a very tedious read. I was pretty hyped for Rewrite so I read it as soon as translations were out 😀

  3. I think this may have convinced me to wait until I have 50+ hours to spend and play the VN someday, avoiding the anime’s spoilers in the meantime. Anything that claims to be better than Clannad, I have to see.

  4. I have to say, I initially liked Clannad more. I watched the Clannad anime before reading the VN and KyoAni just does a magnificient job with it. But that’s partly because it’s easier to adapt Clannad than Little Busters. Frankly, I think LB should’ve gone with the Omnibus format like Amagami where the timeline rewinds after every arc. It works in Amagami where there is no reason for it, it should work here too.

    And I’d say Clannad’s overall story is better as the supporting storylines are better written. Little Buster’s main routes are just harder to read (except Kurugaya’s). Refrain and the Rin routes are definitely amazing.

    And at least they’re not trying to adapt Ever 17.

  5. I really just want to say that yes, I see everyone’s points. But I’m still sick of how terrible everyone says the Little Busters anime is. Trust me I wish I could go back and play the visual novel, but I wasn’t aware of it at the time. But I want to say that Little Busters is one of my favorite anime of all time. I hope me reading all this won’t ruin a rewatch, or reading the vn, but when I first watched it over last summer I cried so much. After a few days I decided I liked it better than Clannad. Hell my only problem with the show was the moe. At first it annoyed me but eh I got used to it. And while the anime couldn’t have and didn’t execute itself the same way as the vn, I’d played other VN before so I knew what it must’ve been like in theory. While yes, maybe even I didn’t get the best experience out of Little Busters but I can say with 100% certainty that I loved the show to death and honestly it had me attached for almost a month after a finished it. I dearly hope the anime medium (and also the visual novel medium in this case) will in the future still bring stories people love as much as the Little Busters!

    1. Key has a way of really reaching people, of grabbing them heart and soul as it were. Whether it’s one of the more beloved anime developed from a Key VN or a less well-received one, there are always people who connect deeply to the series. Even if people don’t enjoy Little Busters much (in comparison to the VN or otherwise), there’s no denying that it’s a powerful, emotion-inducing work.

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