Kaizaki is now age 27. He struggles to find work, and only has a part time job at a convenience store. He's been at the bottom for a while, until offered a job as an experiment participant. After taking a pill, he'll appear to be ten years younger, and attend high school again. His expenses are paid for a year, with the possibility of another job if he completes the task. His history and the experiment can't be revealed to the other students.
His life being the pile of garbage that it is, he takes up the offer. How hard can it be? Did he ever understand this math? Could he ever do sports on this level? It turns out Kaizaki is terrible at just about everything. The bigger issue is if he'll fit in at school at all.
Lets talk concept: there are a lot of problems if thinking about it too much. You'll have to accept the simplistic and somewhat idealistic idea that someone can restart their life by re-experiencing youth. If you have a stick up your ass about gritty details and can't accept that, you'll want to skip this one. Sending me back to high school would leave me more traumatized than whatever led me to join the program, however I'd be more willing to join an idealized anime school. The way it's presented in the anime seems kind of plausible, and it's treated with enough intelligence to buy into it. I guess.
Understanding work life in Japan plays a big role, but isn't explained in the anime - you're just expected to know. It hits home a little more understanding the details, but isn't a total loss if you don't.
Japanese culture plays a big role in this show. Post high school there are various career tracks a person can take. Things can go wrong, resulting in a "failure to launch" regarding life. This is carries a heavy stigma where it's the individuals fault due to laziness, lack of effort or some other flaw - which isn't always the case. In recent years, Japan has experienced increasing numbers of people falling to the wayside for various reasons.
Different terms are given to people who fall through the cracks (intentionally or by accident). Kaizaki is what's known as a "freeter" - part time / underemployed. He did find work after school, but only after understanding how horrible the company actually was. After a coworker is bullied to the point of suicide, he quits his job after working there only a few months. Mind you corporate culture is a soul sucking experience even in the "good jobs" by our standards.
Quickly leaving a job is a black mark on your record, making it hard to find employment again. Knowing this, some companies hold new hires hostage because they know they can't leave. Kaizaki knew this, but left anyway due to his strong convictions.
Although youthful in appearance, the inside remains old, leading to interesting issues. I found it insightful how Kaizaki falls behind trends, although he's only been out of school for 10 years. Students can't even recognize mini-disks he uses to listen to music (those were big in Japan), and he's stunned to learn cell phones aren't confiscated at school anymore. It's amusing that Kaizaki basically sucks at EVERYTHING in school.
Kaizaki initially intends to hang back, blend in, and collect a paycheck during the experiment, but finds himself befriending students anyway. There's an odd mix, between students who work towards and look to the future, contrasting to Kaizaki who's experienced that future and failed at it. However being an outsider looking in (at youth), Kaizaki has gained some wisdom in his years, allowing him to help others with school life problems. In a way, that's about what you can distill this anime down to: guy wise beyond his years helps teens through school drama.
How this heals him psychologically is hard to say. Things get interesting when he meets Chizuru, an emotionally flat girl who fails to interact naturally with people. Kaizaki takes her under his wing to help her make friends, but eventually realizes he's fallen in love with her. Later Chizuru realizes she's fallen for him as well. Neither mention it, wondering if a romance doomed to end by graduation is worth the effort, giving the romance a philosophical aspect. (Also the issue of dating a high school girl at his age adds complexity.
After 12 episodes, Relife concludes with a four part OVA. This shifts into a more philosophical stance. While I liked the cute fun parts of Relife the most, I appreciated adding a bit more substance to the anime too. Once the Relife program completes for a person, memories of them are removed from everyone they met. As Kaizaki has grown close to Chizuru, that's an obvious issue. But Kaizaki also wonders if it even matters that he existed and befriended students if they won't remember him. Things are tied up well, and the ending is (just) okay.
I liked Relife. It has fun with a good concept, and characters. It's great for a feel-good watch. I think it could have been improved with deeper character driven side stories, but instead there's a lot of time spent on stuff that doesn't advance much of anything. Still I'm thankful it got an end (which is almost rare these days), and I'll admit that even though I wanted more, I think Relife went about as far as it could with the small number of characters once most of their big issues are solved (fairly quickly). A good feel good show that's easily digestible and worth picking up.
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