If you haven’t been hardened by the “singing” of idol groups like AKB48 then you’ll likely be clawing at your ears within seconds of the opening to Hentai Ouji to Warawanai Neko (The Hentai Prince and the Stony Cat or, charmingly, just Stony Cat). So cloying and reprehensibly saccharine is the track that writing the whole series off as sycophantic fluff within minutes of the first episode would be easy. But like Sakurasou no Pet, Stony Cat’s worth is measured many episodes in rather than from gut reactions.
This isn’t to say that you need to wade through episode after episode of dross just to glimpse entertainment - there are plenty of madcap antics and brightly coloured shenanigans to go around. But the emotional and thematic heart of the series doesn’t come until several wishes in to the titular stone cat of the title.
It starts as a light hearted story of “be careful what you wish for” with the lead male, Youto, losing his ability to lie while the poster child of the series, Tsukiko Tsutsukakushi (a name sure to instill fear in any foreigner attempting to pronounce it), losing the ability to exhibit any emotion at all. After adding the violent and quick-to-cry Azusa to the cast, the story slides effortlessly into the more psychological honne and tatemae dichotomy, or more straightforwardly, the idea of people wearing many different masks and how that can affect the wearer’s own disposition.
That’s how the series starts at least, and were its remainder a tale of how Tsukiko regained the use of her facial muscles, it would be a sometimes astute but wacky and ultimately fluffy tale. How it actually finishes is absurd and heartwrending enough not to spoil, however the intervening episodes involve a typhoon, a vanishing house and the entirety of the female student body wearing swimsuits as their day-to-day uniform. To call the story bafflingly strange would be vastly underselling it.
The variety of storylines though is both to the series’ benefit and its detriment. Each subsequent thread alters the the narrative spine quite dramatically, especially when comparing beginning to end: turning from personal tribulation and acceptance of one’s self to familial bonds and romantic overtures. Further complicate this with the changing, and sometimes hidden, personality afflictions of the cast and the fact their nuances often stubbornly defy translation and the result is often bemusement; like you’ve missed an episode and something important has happened that you remain stubbornly oblivious to. Tsukiko’s lack of outward emotion may be the one constant in the series - the wonderfully dead-pan delivery by voice actress Yui Ogura lending it some degree of believability - but it is also one of the many storylines left unfinished when the final credits roll.
It’s somewhat expected considering that most story arcs melt into one another with very little finality or conclusion (blink and you’ll miss the next incarnation of the cat god) but the absurdity of the ongoing action and the feeling that the show is constantly trying to wrongfoot you is exhausting. Is Youta going out with Azusa or is she just being clingy? Are Tsukiko’s overtures towards Youta romantic or familial? It poses the question then of whether it’s worth sitting through?
By and large yes. There are a lot of figurative hangnails but the characters are enjoyable, the story is for the most part unique and there is a pleasant emotional messiness to the situations that perhaps indicates they are based on more reality than is usual for an anime series. This is most typified, but certainly not monopolised, by the final story that involves an errant parent and precocious children with just enough tragedy to be believable without slipping into pathos porn.
Stony Cat is a fundamentally hard sell, and not just for the cutesy and oversweet opening and ending tracks that still make me want to stab my speakers for daring to play them. The muddled hodgepodge of different stories seem designed to quietly bemuse with examinations of a broken family masquerading as silly high school antics. It’s not quite the dorky romantic shopping-trip the setup would imply, but nor is it the light hearted comedy it could be. In a word then: frustrating, and not simply because you’ll be begging the cast to just stop wishing for things.