Review

by Nick Creamer,

Saekano: How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend

Episodes 0-12 Streaming

Synopsis:
Saekano: How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend
Tomoya Aki is a dedicated otaku through and through. Enclosed in a room full of light novels and figures, he dispenses all the latest anime-info as a renowned blogger, reveling in his proud nerd identity. But when Tomoya runs into a visual novel-ready romance event on his way to school, complete with mysterious girl and tumbling cherry blossoms, he decides he needs to do more than just nerd out all by himself. He needs to make a visual novel, and he's gonna need help to do it. Fortunately, Tomoya just so happens to know a gifted ero doujin artist and best-selling light novel author, both of whom just so happen to have a vested interest in Tomoya as well. And so between Tomoya's old friends and the girl who inspired his dream, he's ready to seize the day and bring his otaku vision to life.
Review:

There's been a bit of a trend towards self-awareness and meta gags in anime these last few years, particularly among shows based on a certain kind of light novel. Shows like Outbreak Company or My Little Sister Can't Be This Cute don't just fill themselves with staple anime ideas - they actively highlight and comment on them. They include cute little sister-style characters and then have an in-universe character point out how popular that type is, or critique the tsundere style of their own heroines. Many shows no longer just contain popular anime-isms, they contain characters as well-versed on these anime-isms as the assumed audience is, leading to dialogue that often dissolves into sequences where the characters might as well be directly high-fiving the audience for their shared interests.

Saekano is, if not the most dedicated example of this trend, certainly very high up there. Its pre-screening “episode zero” opens with cute girls commenting on cheap anime storytelling and fanservice while the camera obliging slides up and down their naked bodies. The show proper is a bit less consistently in-your-face about its combined embracing and awareness of tired anime tropes, but if I had to describe it in two words, “meta” and “self-indulgent” would be the picks. Saekano knows what it is, and is always ready to make jokes about cheap storytelling tricks at the same time that it actively employs those tricks itself.

The plot of Saekano revolves around Tomoya Aki, a proud and dedicated otaku who runs a popular anime blog. When Tomoya finds himself playing the protagonist role in an anime-ready moment on his way to school (a girl's hat blows past him on a hill as the cherry blossoms fall), he decides he simply has to turn that moment into a visual novel. To achieve his dream, he recruits his tsundere, twintailed childhood friend Eriri, who happens to be a star ero doujin artist, and his stone-cold beauty senior Utaha, who writes best-selling light novels. Those aren't my pithy reductions of their characters - in Saekano, basically everyone eagerly embraces and comments on their own character type, with Tomoya constantly offering a “what is with this (insert character type here) routine?” in response to someone performing their anime identity. The one exception to this rule is Kato, the girl who Tomoya actually ran into on the hill. She remains intentionally milquetoast and subtly deadpan throughout, by her base nature refuting Aki's attempts to turn her into a heroine with charm points that'll make the otaku go crazy.

This is a strong point in Kato's favor as a character, but the show in general has a very hard time doing right by its characters. Not just in terms of fanservice, though that is certainly omnipresent and very good at killing dramatic tension, but mainly in terms of letting what its characters care about and feel be taken seriously by the narrative. This is a show about otaku, and at times, the dialogue between Aki and Kato or Kato and Eriri can almost feel like a Genshiken-lite sort of experience - a thoughtful, close look at people who are brought together by a strange hobby in spite of all manner of personal differences. But much more often than that, the show undercuts its characters by having them lean into the gimmicks of their type. Eriri will have one scene of understandable insecurity for every half-dozen tsundere tantrums or “but I'm the childhood friend character!” speeches, Utaha will briefly allude to the loneliness of being a writer before cuddling with Aki's bedsheets, and Kato will sit mildly by and watch all this nonsense go down.

Essentially, Saekano feels like a show at war with itself. Coming from the writer of White Album 2 and Classroom Crisis, it's clear this author knows how to create rounded people and witty dialogue, but those variables always play second fiddle to wallowing in cliche genre jokes and meaningless self-aware commentary. There are moments of Saekano that briefly gesture towards ideas like the disconnect in priorities between fans and creators, or how the idea of being a creator implies a certain distance in your personal relationships, and in a better show, those ideas could be explored while still maintaining a light tone. But Saekano seems content to focus on harem gags and fanservice, populating every scene with jokes that almost without exception boil down to “this scene sure is like an anime/visual novel.” It's almost more frustrating to see a show like Saekano, where the writing is clever but used for repetitive nonsense, than to see one where the writing is simply bad all over. Early on, Aki makes a speech about how even though his favorite anime and visual novels employ cheap drama and simplistic character tropes, “these ideas are good because they're what the people want, and the people can't be wrong.” Perhaps that philosophy explains why Saekano is written the way it is, but I can't say I agree with it.

Saekano has a light, clean art style with well-constructed character designs. The characters aren't the most facially expressive, but the show takes care to give them expressive body language, a strength the animation is just consistent enough to actively support. The backgrounds are fairly bland and overly CG-assisted (lots of flat geometric architecture), making for a generally lukewarm visual experience, but one later arc's digression into crayon-style backgrounds for a series of flashbacks offers a welcome touch of personality, and the art assets for Aki's game-to-be are nicely conceived as well. Overall, Saekano's underlying visual aesthetic is pleasant enough without ever truly impressing.

The direction, on the other hand, is actively bad. Saekano will change its color tint at nearly random times, a stylistic digression that's interesting but doesn't really add anything to the show. More frustrating are the constant haphazard dutch angles, which serve no purpose but making the show more difficult to watch, and the show's tendency to undercut even the most serious conversations by aiming the camera directly at the girls' boobs and thighs. Not even in a “this is a sexy scene” sort of way - the camera just spends otherwise mundane conversations slowly zooming in and out on characters' boobs. As with the show's other failings, in a more dedicated fanservice show, this would be expected - here, where the show actually wants you to care about the characters, it feels like the show itself isn't taking them seriously as people. This effect, compounded with the self-aware tropey dialogue, makes the show a constant tug of war between being asked to care about the events transpiring and being mocked for thinking they'd ever be worth caring about. It feels like the creators wanted to create the kind of tonal juxtapositions present in a show like Bakemonogatari, but didn't realize why that show made any of its choices, leading a visually abrasive and tonally incoherent production.

Saekano's music is pleasant but unremarkable; a collection of various pop-rock tunes, with some chugging guitars for the dramatic moments and lighter piano instrumentals for the emotional peaks. Those peaks unfortunately come at somewhat weird intervals in the show, likely reflective of it being an adaptation of several independent light novel volumes. There's a compelling arc finale in episode nine, but then the last three episodes are dedicated to introducing a new character with a much weaker connection to Aki than any of the others. There is a sequel coming, but you shouldn't expect any real resolutions from this first season.

Overall, Saekano frustrated me in ways many shows worse than Saekano couldn't manage to. I can handle consistently bad shows, but shows that demonstrate a writer who seems to be holding themselves back represent a very specific and aggravating kind of disappointment. There are good ideas here, and the script is witty, but it's all wasted in service of extremely bland jokes and standard harem drama. Obviously some people really enjoy this style of self-aware commentary (even I do, if I think it's actually being used to serve some meaningful dramatic purpose), so Saekano is likely to be a “love it or hate it” production. But for me personally, Saekano was a constant exercise in frustration.

Grade:
Production Info:
Overall (sub) : C
Story : C-
Animation : B-
Art : C-
Music : B-

+ Dialogue is witty and a couple episodes have solid dramatic moments; works well enough as a typical harem.
Incoherent direction and tonally self-sabotaging writing actively fight against its best elements, making for a frustrating overall experience.

Director: Kanta Kamei
Screenplay: Fumiaki Maruto
Storyboard:
Michio Fukuda
Kanta Kamei
Mamoru Kanbe
Katsuyuki Kodera
Fumie Muroi
Shin'ya Segawa
Hiroaki Shimura
Yuta Yamazaki
Episode Director:
Jin Iwatsuki
Kanta Kamei
Takahiro Kawakoshi
Yuki Ogawa
Akihisa Shibata
Jun Soga
Hidetoshi Takahashi
Daisuke Takashima
Yoshinobu Tokumoto
Ippei Yokota
Unit Director:
Kanta Kamei
Takahiro Kawakoshi
Shin'ya Segawa
Music: Hajime Hyakkoku
Original creator: Fumiaki Maruto
Original Character Design: Kurehito Misaki
Character Design: Tomoaki Takase
Chief Animation Director: Tomoaki Takase
Animation Director:
Erika Arakawa
Kanako Hiroo
Yu Kurihara
Usaku Myouchin
Akihiro Nagae
Yukiko Nagao
Keita Nagasaka
Kazuya Nakanishi
Manabu Nii
Yasuyuki Noda
Yūichi Oka
Yoshiko Okuda
Shin'ya Segawa
Hiroyuki Shimizu
Tomoaki Takase
Satomi Tamura
Akane Umezu
Hiroyuki Yoshii
Sound Director: Akiko Fujita
Director of Photography: Yuichiro Tozawa

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