It's a generally accepted rule that you mustn't judge a book by it's cover. Clearly whoever came up with such sage advice had never seen the opening credits of Love Hina. Indeed, if the bouncy, riotous and wholly carefree opening (and song Sakura Saku) was any more indicative of the show's content, you could probably put it on a 20-minute loop and watch that instead of the episode it precedes. In so doing, however, you would deprive yourself of a surprisingly enjoyable experience.
Love Hina is a series with no delusions of grandeur. It recognises which genre it pertains to and never attempts to stray outside of it; only to excel within its boundaries. The result is something which is about as subtle as a spade to the face and yet every bit as effective when it comes to attracting the viewer's attention. The humour is loud and visual, the characters are simple and unambiguous, the plot is straightforward - in brief, this is hardly the thinking person's anime. Which is why it's so good.
The comedy serves as a wonderful example of how something can, in fact, be funny the umpteenth time. At least once per episode, Keitaro will - entirely by accident - touch a girl inappropriately or perhaps see someone in a state of undress. Then things will pause, allowing the realisation to dawn on him. Then he will be brutally assaulted by one or more of the female characters. What makes this amusing is not necessarily the sequence of events, but rather the constant stream of increasingly unlikely misfortunes that befall Keitaro to land him in these situations and the disproportionate, inconceivably painful results. Through its explicit recognition that "male falls face-first into breasts of female" is a hugely contrived situation, Love Hina is able to exaggerate it mercilessly. As a result, what would have been a stupid and even embarrassing element of the anime becomes a source of comedy.
In fact, most of the humour is equally self-aware and shows a flagrant disregard for the fourth wall. Many are the direct references to stock character archetypes, dating sims and other things which Love Hina's world and protagonists very clearly resemble. This doesn't just serve to generate laughter; it also absolves the show of any criticism it may have incurred for overuse of stereotypes or its formulaic nature. Again, this is a series that knows exactly what it is and is neither afraid nor ashamed to flaunt it.
As a result, it's a pleasant surprise when the hand that so relentlessly pounded on the fourth wall doles out moments that are genuinely touching. In spite of the plot being uncomplicated and frankly thin on the ground, the show contains a sprinkling of scenes which present simple, understated emotion and which balances the raucous energy that characterises the majority of the series. This juxtaposition alone renders the story satisfying, even though its conclusion is disappointingly incomplete, not quite reaching as far as the end of the manga. Whilst there are some episodes which do little to advance the story, there is sufficient magic and madness contained within each for the show to remain entertaining throughout.
In terms of animation, time seems to have been kind to Love Hina, and there are no tell-tale signs to indicate that this anime dates back to the beginning of the century. The character designs are sharp and distinctive, whilst a calculated sufficiency in detail means that nothing ever looks bad, just occasionally unambitious.
The series also makes use of cartoony animation to provide a lot of visual jokes. By way of example, Keitaro's face at one point becomes strangely elastic and Naru is able to stretch it over a couple of metres. Quirks like this are always unexpected and - in an impressive display of variety and creativity - never overused.
The voicing is well done. Although there are very few moments of emotional complexity, those that do exist are handled successfully by the voice cast. One irritant worth picking out, however, is the sound effect which accompanies the childish Kaolla Su seemingly wherever she goes. Its overuse alone is bothersome, but it is also lost in the proverbial translation. Western ears will recognise it as a wolf whistle, which is wholly inappropriate for her character.
The two main characters of this anime are Keiraro and Naru. Keitaro is seen through the series trying to get into Tokyo U because of his promise he made to a girl while he was a child. Keitaro is set on gaining entrance to Tokyo U to fulfil the promise he made to his childhood friend, even though he cannot properly remember either her name or her face. After he fails the entrance exams yet again, he travels to the Hinata Inn, a girls-only dormitory owned by his grandmother, who believes that he has passed the exams and passes on the title of landlord to him.
Naru on the other hand, is extremely smart and a resident of the Hinata Inn. She has an extremely fiery temper and a tendency to inflict violent physical punishment (most usually on Keitaro). Of all the girls at the Hinata Inn, she is most often the unwilling and unwitting victim of Keitaro's clumsiness, which often results in her ending up naked, partially clothed, or placed in any number compromising positions. Keitaro invariably suffers as a result. Despite initially taking a (literally) violent dislike to Keitaro, she comes to develop very strong feelings for him. The main part of her character arc is that she has great difficulty in admitting these feelings, both to herself, to the hapless Keitaro and to the world in general.
Whilst the characters generally lack depth, they make amends for this by oozing what personality they have at every given opportunity. There is seemingly no occasion which cannot bring their identity to the forefront - be it Kaolla Su smiling like an idiot during a rockslide or the protective Motoko carrying the smaller girls under her arms whilst fleeing danger. Indeed, although the characters are barely conflicted and mostly simple to read, it does not preclude the viewer from enjoying and sympathising with them. It is also worth giving special mention to Keitaro here. Whilst most male leads in a harem anime are dry, obnoxious, or both, Keitaro is a sympathetic character, all the more admirable for his failings and his attempts to overcome them. He is bold enough to motor the love story yet sensitive enough to not deserve the punches to the face he so frequently receives.
Love Hina will not appeal to everyone. The same is true of any anime. What the show does, however, is recognise this truism and cater directly to the sort of audience who will enjoy a harem-based romance comedy. Resultantly, if you think you won't like this, then you're almost certainly right. But if a simple, energetic, and just occasionally stupid love comedy is what you're after, I couldn't recommend this highly enough. As a pioneer of its genre it's still one of the very best and resembles the product of years of trial and error, rather than an inspiration and originator for what has come since.