Some romantic comedies look to push the envelope, break the mold, or purposefully challenge the conventions of their genre. Kubo Won’t Let Me Be Invisible is not one of those shows. It is more or less exactly what it says on the tin, and you can tell from episode one whether or not it will be to your taste. It will be a quiet comedy built entirely around the dialogue and chemistry of our two leads, and there are no big twists or surprises in store to flip that script any time soon. Its ambitions are humble, its gait casual, and it embodies “soft” in every facet of its production.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Kubo is pure fluff, but it’s the kind of fluff you want inside a squishy stuffed animal to hug or a throw pillow to prop your head on. It’s sweet, but never overpowering or saccharine in that sweetness. It’s funny in a way that makes you smile more than laugh but nonetheless leaves you in a pleasant mood after finishing an episode. In short, it’s precisely the kind of low-stakes, magnetic material one might enjoy at the end of a long day to decompress, approaching the realm of iyashikei in its most atmospheric moments.
Much of that atmosphere comes down to the vocal performances. Kana Hanazawa plays Kubo as chipper and just a little smug, but always with a playful lilt that assures us her teasing Shiraishi is only ever a joke between friends. Kengo Kawanishi does a commendable job injecting personality into Shiraishi, giving him a matter-of-fact affect that can turn into timid anxiety without ever feeling irritating or clueless. While our lead is as dense as they come in the ways of romance, he never feels obnoxious in his cluelessness but rather like a kid who’s used to being ignored and doesn’t fully grasp the idea that other people could find him likable or worth befriending. Shiraishi still isn’t a font of personality, but he’s surprisingly easy to sympathize with, and it’s gratifying to see him slowly come out of his shell around Kubo.
There are also some fun wrinkles to both characters that only become apparent as the show slowly broadens its scope and introduces their respective family members. Shiraishi is a surprisingly great big brother, and the segments of him playing with and caring for his baby brother, Seita, are some of the best in the show – allowing us to see his most lovable personality traits without Kubo’s aid. The scene where he teaches Seita how to properly pose for a Tokusatsu transformation sequence is perhaps the most perfect moment ever animated.
Meanwhile, Kubo almost seems like a different person when she’s with her friends or family, and it becomes apparent that much of her confidence when messing with Shiraishi is purely relative. Around people with fully developed social skills, who can read her like a book, Kubo is practically bashful – especially when her older sister’s around to show us where our leading lady learned to tease. It’s a fun comedic twist and offers some potential insight into why Kubo is so intent on breaking Shiraishi’s shell open. You get the impression that, while she might not have been literally invisible, she was once the same kind of nervous, quiet person who couldn’t make the first move approaching people, and she wants to reach out to a kindred spirit.
It’s a subtle bit of characterization that makes for a solid basis to the pair’s friendship, and that’s good because any romantic progress exists solely in some far-off future. It takes about seven episodes for Kubo to realize she might sort of, almost, possibly have a bit of a crush on Shiraishi. For his part, it’s not until episode ten that Shiraishi even feels confident in calling them friends. Whatever romance exists here is in the abstract – lingering blushes, coy glances, and the fact those of us watching can read subtext even where the characters can’t. The pair’s chemistry is more than enough to buoy that dynamic, but it’s important to know that these two aren’t getting together any time soon. Kubo is about the journey, not the destination, and the company for that journey is charming enough that you don’t notice how slow you’re going in the moment.
On the production end, while the series hit a pretty big snag during its TV airing – one of many Winter 2023 shows to be delayed mid-way through airing – those behind-the-scenes woes are rarely apparent in the finished product. The animation team does a great job capturing Nene Yukimori‘s designs’ simple but expressive energy while making them work remarkably well in motion. They also do a great job with the source’s frequent shifts into chibi art, transitioning between them and a relatively grounded style with deceptive ease. At its best, the layouts, music, and vocal performances come together to make some truly arresting moments – with Hirofumi Okita‘s storyboarding debut on episode 11 being the high water mark. Other episodes are more pedestrian, but the series looks exactly as soft and warm as it needs to while occasionally shining at its peaks.
Kubo isn’t an amazing or particularly unique series within its sub-genre, but it nonetheless has craft and charm to spare. It’s a rewarding experience if you can vibe with its mellow energy.