What’s it about? Haruto Tsukishiro wakes up in a dream world and sees a mysterious girl named Lily. He meets Katsumi Kanzaki, learns of the existence of witches, and gets involved in various incidents.
Source: Anime News Network
Sometimes the best way to describe an anime is to say “it’s very anime,” and that’s kind of where I am with 18if. Set in the dream-world (or perhaps just a dream-world), this premiere follows Haruto as he bounces from realm to realm, gets rescued and guided by a girl in white named Lily, receives a hefty dose of exposition from Cat Professor Katsumi, dies once?, and eventually confronts the Witch of Thunder who’s been tyrannizing the people here.
Colorful and busy, with an abstract sandbox of a world, plenty of mysteries to explore, and a surprisingly heartfelt conclusion, 18if is the first premiere of the Summer season that’s left me genuinely curious for more (it should be noted that I had not yet seen Welcome to the Ballroom or Made in Abyss when I watched this). It’s also overstuffed, clumsy, tries a little too hard to look exciting, and is riddled with possible pitfalls. Like I said: It’s very anime, folks.
At this point, 18if is mostly potential, and I think it sounds better in theory than it looks in execution. It’s one of those series that is almost-but-not-quite really good, and having to settle for a “pretty good” feels like more of a letdown than it would if the series wasn’t trying to do as much as it is. Everything kind of works, but nothing perfectly clicks.
There are a lot of good ideas here, but the premiere tries to cram in too much world-building alongside a complete short story, leaving us with solid groundwork but also a severe sense of narrative whiplash. The dreamscapes are bright and the direction energetic, with a few downright inspired visual touches, but the constant split-screens (likely used to convey the sense of fragmentation within the dream-world itself) are overused, and many of the designs too simplistic and cartoony to feel as surreal and trippy as I think the series wants.
The characters are similarly almost-but-not-quite-compelling. Haruto is amusingly laid-back and willing to go along with the dream-world’s rules, but he doesn’t seem to have much of a personality beyond “just roll with it,” and we don’t know enough about him yet to really care for his well-being. Same goes for Katsumi and Lily, who are more plot devices than people at this point.
There’s plenty of time to flesh everyone out, of course, and there are already hints that the series intends to do exactly that, given that Haruto seems to be trapped here as well and has a familial(?) relationship with Lily. Hopefully 18if focuses on that, as the cast’s development will be one of the major determining factors in how well it can build on its intriguing but somewhat flat premiere.
The series is more successful in setting up an ongoing premise and developing the episode’s antagonist, though even that comes with an asterisk. It turns out the witches that rule the dream-worlds are all real people with “Sleeping Beauty Syndrome” (though I’m not sure they’re talking about actual KLS here), and the only way to wake them up is to defeat them in the dream-world.
The Witch of Thunder is in fact Yuko, a high schooler who everyone expected to be a “good girl”–“serious” and “boring,” in her words. The pressure to maintain that image (along with her classmates’ general nastiness) eventually got to be too much for her, and she escaped into the dream-world so she could play games and “be spoiled” for once. The story of a young woman feeling like she “can’t fail” and has to “be perfect” is played with surprising emotional sincerity given all the wackiness that led up to it, and provides 18if with a beating heart beneath all the cartoonish shenanigans.
The conclusion is abrupt and a bit concerning, but mostly effective: Haruto assures Yuko that it’s okay to fail and be laid-back sometimes, and the support and acceptance of another person helps free her from her self-made prison. When he shatters her witch’s “avatar,” she’s naked (sigh), but she’s covered in a glowing light and the camera doesn’t ogle, so it feels more like a thematic device–showcasing vulnerability or a sense of being purified–than fanservice, at least.
The concept of “boy, girl, and cat professor travel through fantastical realms and rescue people from their emotional struggles” could make for some great self-contained stories, particularly when coupled with a longer arc unraveling the mysteries of Haruto, Lily, and the dream-world itself. My chief concern is that it won’t be that at all, but instead “Very Special Boy saves a bunch of sad girls.” And I’ve already seen that story roughly eight dozen times, thank-you-very-much.
As its name suggests, 18if‘s success rides on a lot of “ifs.” If it can lean into the inherent weirdness of its world more and really make the dreamscapes pop, and if it fleshes out its pleasant but ill-defined characters into compelling people, and if it can ease up on the frenetic pacing and properly weave its disparate elements into a unified story, and especially if it can keep from turning into March of the Damsels, then this could be an entertaining, maybe even special little series. It’s not there yet, but I’m willing to give it three episodes to see where it goes.