Have you ever watched an anime that just wasn't quite right? Where certain pieces seemed really out of place? That was my experience with Refrain Blue, a 3-part OVA series from 2000. Its simply love story isn't particularly creative, and it's obvious this was adapted from an H-game, but I still kinda liked it despite its cliches. Had that been it, I could give it a weak recommendation, perhaps. But Refrain Blue is just off. The weak animation is one culprit, but the other is its significant (and sometimes uncomfortable) fan service. It's weird, and not really in a good way.
In our story, Matsunaga is a young man who is chaperoning a high school's summer trip to the beach. Nao, one of the students, is quite friendly with him during a game of volleyball, and they become quick friends. But both of them are hiding secrets about lost loves and deep regrets. Meanwhile, Matsunaga keeps seeing a mysterious girl on the beach who seems to know him. Is she a ghost, or is she something more? As the show explores their backgrounds (and gets almost all the female characters into some state of undress), we realize that Nao and Matsunaga are destined for each other...if only they can put aside their sorrowful pasts.
I can really understand the appeal of Refrain Blue from a certain perspective. It's a highly romanticized love story that appeals to the sappy side of me. Shattered dreams and heartache and meeting old lovers long gone on a moonlit night? What's not to like? It's cloying, sure, but anybody who's at all familiar with Twilight, A Walk To Remember, and their kin knows that idealized love affairs have huge appeal. This one's just supposed to appeal to teen guys instead of teen girls. The core of it all appealed to me enough that I'm probably giving it a better score than what it deserves.
Refrain Blue is quite the failure on a variety of other levels. The animation is passable at best and often downright ragged, though there's nothing particularly off-model. Still, with Key's work at animating similar H-games out there, I'm not sure why anybody would want to bother with such mediocrity when you can find gorgeous entries in the same genre. Meanwhile, for a show that's this short, the first episode is surpringly confusing as to its backstory. We never truly get a grip on the failed relationship in Matsunaga's past, and that's because the first episode bungles the plot badly. By the end, it makes sense, but it's a bad sign when such a simple concept can become that muddled.
My final complaint is one that stems from the show's background, and that's the copious fan service. I know that H-games are all about taking your character through a variety of scenarios so that the female leads will give into your brooding masculinity. But there's more here that troubles me. One is the teacher/student relationship that is hinted at between the two leads. The second is the continual shots of bosoms, shower scenes, and so forth, sometimes of characters that appear to be quite young. But finally, Refrain Blue tries to create an air of innocence throughout. None of the nudity is in a truly sexual context within the show, and the only sex scene involves a pan-away well before anything significant happens. The entire thing comes off schizophrenic as a result. I've seen shows with far worse fan service, but they weren't pretending to be something they weren't.
After watching Refrain Blue, having read no background on it whatsoever save for the synopsis on Anime News Network, I did some research. Turns out it was made by the infamous Pink Pineapple, an outfit known primarily for their many hentai titles. That explains why the show is so cluttered with bodies on display. But why then does it still have this somewhat charming story? Probably due to the work of writer Takao Yoshioka and director Norio Kashima. Both have worked on a number of bigger projects ranging from Dirty Pair and Rurouni Kenshin to Elfen Lied and Noein. Maybe their expertise is why it wasn't a total loss.
Unless you were somehow to come across this OVA series browsing through those gentlemen's resumes, you probably wouldn't know Refrain Blue even existed. My best advice? Leave it that way.
Refrain Blue -- nudity and significant fan service -- C-