The Winter 2015 Anime Preview Guide
Saekano -How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend-
Saekano is not at all a stupid show, but it's definitely putting its beauty ahead of its brains throughout this in media res episode. Our sole male protagonist and the all-female members of his doujin game circle are on vacation at a hot spring, which means the episode is all fun and games in terms of introducing the story and characters, putting the plot (probably their efforts to create a game for Comiket) on hold until later. This is okay, the scenario developer on the team says, because it's better to lace plot details into the action over time than pile it all into some monologuing infodump. Wait, is she talking about the visual novel she's writing or the anime that we're watching at this very moment? Well, that's the joke.
If nothing else, the show has a beautiful design sensibility. This episode is bursting with gorgeous backgrounds, fluid animation, and attractive character designs that it "explores" fully through heaps upon heaps of fanservice shots. The camera lingers over the girls' bodies as they discuss visual novel and anime writing in a deliberately self-aware manner, criticizing high-budget nudity-fests like the very one they're starring in, with observations that are modern, natural, and on-point. Honestly, it's the kind of fanservice I can get behind. The show invites you to laugh with the girls instead of at them, by making them relatable nerds just like their audience, and does a good job of making their exhibitionism a believable character trait in the same way that shows like OreShura and Seitokai Yakuindomo did. Neither of those examples were great shows by any means, but they were fun-loving, inoffensive, woman-friendly fanservice fare, and it's good to see more of that. (Saekano most resembles OreShura visually as well, probably because they have the same director.) So there's nudity aplenty, but the jokes around this lascivious content are funny, the girls likable and shameless in their gleeful sexuality, and they're even proportioned like normal human girls as well! Even the lone male object of their teasing isn't neglected in the show's sensual detailing: he's a good-looking kid with broad shoulders, muscle definition, and rarity of rarities: boy nipples! Truly, it's the little things.
Anyway, those little details definitely matter in this show, because the big picture is an uninspired yawn of a pandering premise. The fact that the meta-textual jokes are actually sharp and relevant, like conversations actual otaku girls have all the time, is a plus in its favor, but by no means a saving grace. It's something lots of light novel series like this attempt and few succeed at, but that's more an illustration of how low that bar is and how rarely it's vaulted than anything else. The girls' constant attempts to throw themselves at the male lead are lame and rote, and the odd "let's tie our guy-friend up in his sleep and molest him for not sharing the candy he brought on the trip" scene the episode nearly ends on isn't funny either. (At least one girl has the appropriate reaction to this terrible idea, as seen in the screencap above.) After that, though, there's more fantastic scenery porn with our hero and the clear girl of his choice (who shows no interest in him by contrast) in a bamboo thicket, and you have the start to what seems like a show that will not be the sum of its parts. The parts are lovely! But those little details are working against the eye-roll of the overall package, so this show will likely be a love-it-or-hate-it affair. Definitely give it a try if you're in the mood for some exquisite visual aesthetic.
Saekano: How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend is available streaming on Crunchyroll.
Saekano's “episode zero” seems to be a bonus episode from some time after the beginning of the show proper, full of fanservice and featuring the entire main cast going to a hot spring together. In spite of this, the premise of the show is very easy to pick up - main character Tomoya wants to create a dating sim, and the girls surrounding him are all the various members of his game-creation circle. You've got haughty Senjougahara-lite Utaha as the writer, pratfalling childhood friend Eriri as the artist, aggressive cousin Michiru as the musician, and “unremarkable” Megumi as the main character model. This initial bonus episode is less plot than random shenanigans, meaning that outside of the standout final scene between Tomoya and Megumi, what we're mostly getting here is a glimpse of the “mood” of the show. And that mood is… well, aggravating.
There's been a recent trend in anime to make comedy or fanservice shows very aware of their own typicalness, with characters actually calling out plot beats and tired devices as they happen. No Game No Life was a big offender in this regard last year, and Saekano seems ready to pick up the self-awareness torch, starting off with the girls commenting on the “death of anime” at the same time as the camera leers at their naked bodies. And then there's a whole sequence where the characters critique each others’ poor exposition skills, and the episode's actual title is “Fan Service of Love and Youth,” etc etc. Personally, I find this self-awareness almost painful to sit through - I've nothing against shows that have an awareness of classic storytelling beats, but Saekano doesn't actually use that awareness for anything. It simply comments on stale gags as it makes them, winking at the audience without actually turning that awareness into anything meaningful or new. It almost feels like the show is laughing at the idea of truly earnest storytelling, and instead of attempting to create something legitimately passionate, it simply wallows in the conventions it's familiar with.
Which is a frustrating thing to see! As far as the craft goes, Saekano is a very solid production - the character models are crisp, the backgrounds are pretty, the show has an interesting tendency to flip its color schemes, and a fair number of the gags are executed with real energy. And the writing isn't even legitimately bad, it's just… completely unambitious. Seeing a show like Saekano makes me kind of sad, because it feels like talent is being squandered in the misguided belief that simply commenting on hackneyed anime tropes is the same thing as rising above them. I don't want a show to tell me standard harem gags are tired and cliche. I want a show to do better.
Saekano: How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend is available streaming on Crunchyroll.
Rating: 3 (of 5)
Review: The first episode of Saekano is actually numbered as episode 0 on Crunchyroll. That and the way the episode plays out strongly suggests that this is somewhat of an in media res case – in other words, what we're seeing here is an incident from late in the storyline, when the project the main cast is working on is starting to come together, and most of the rest of the series is going to describe how this group came together and got to this point. It does not purely fit that role, however, as it has also been tweaked in a metafictional way to provide viewers all of the relevant details that they need to know exactly who everyone is and how they fit into the overall picture.
What is abundantly clear from the get-go is that this is going to be a high-fan service-content harem series, as the opening scene is an unabashedly service-laden look at the female cast members cavorting and conversing in a hot springs – and one of their first conversation points is about a bad anime which was solid fan service from beginning to end. (This kind of semi-self-aware talk comes up frequently.) As we find out in the following scene, the four girls are all members of a high school game creation circle called Blessing Software which has a sole male member: the glasses-sporting Tomoya, who is referred to as Mr. Ethical presumably because he doesn't try to take advantage of the situation. (In fact, he's implied to be rather single-minded in pursuit of his goals.) Each of the girls has a role and specific talent: sexpot Utaha is a game designer, the petite tsundere Eriri (who is also the childhood friend) is a talented doujin writer/artist, athletic Hyodo is a musician, and more restrained but also level-headed Megumi is the model for the heroine of the game that the whole group is working on. Three of the four girls are overtly “hot to trot” for Tomoya, while Megumi is implied to be more subtly interested. The episode details their frolicking and half-hearted attempts at getting some work done during a hot springs outing, including multiple girls coming on to Tomoya very strongly.
And really, that's all there is to the plot so far. Some suggestion is tossed out that Tomoya practically dragged the individual girls into this endeavor, and that Megumi originally had much shorter hair, so seeing how he managed to form his harem could be interesting. The episode does have a couple of good jokes when not engaged in sexy antics, but mostly it is about the sexy antics. The artistry serves up a few nice background shots, such as forest-covered hills in autumn leaves or a stroll down a path through a bamboo forest, the girls are eye-pleasing enough, and the fan service is plentiful; when not showing near-nudity or suggestive peeks down clothing, the camera spends a lot of time languid panning female characters or fairly brazenly focusing on their chests.
Basically, if harem and/or fan service series are normally your thing then Saekano shows promise. While it does have touches of cleverness, I am not convinced that it offers enough to be of much interest to those who normally avoid such fare.
Saekano –How To Raise A Boring Girlfried is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
Rating: 2.5 (out of 5)
I must have changed my mind three times as to what I was going to rate this episode over the course of watching it. When the show was being self-referential, breaking the fourth wall, and laughing at its own clichés, I was at a 4. When the girls were molesting Aki or the episode was indulging in showing female bodies but stopping short of showing faces, I was at a 1. At the end of the twenty-two minutes, I decided that this was definitely a case of win some/lose some...although I'm still a bit conflicted.
Part of the problem is that there is very little in the way of background. Aki, Eriri, Utaha, Michiru, and token sane person Megumi are all part of a doujin circle called Blessing. They hope to produce a visual novel to sell at Comiket, but at least three of the four girls also hopes to get involved (physically in two cases) with Aki. We aren't sure how they came together, when they decided to create the game, or any of that, although we do know that at least six months have passed, as Aki comments on how much Megumi's hair has grown. This is somewhat ironic in that most of the first part of the episode is spent in trying to figure out how to set up an introductory episode, so there's a very good chance that this “episode 0” is deliberately playing with the viewers. When it is doing so – and most of the time you can tell – Saekano is really funny, poking at its own shtick even as it acts it out. Aki's real problem with single-sex baths and Eriri's attempt at the Flying Anime Girl Kick are both stand-outs here, and while that's not enough to carry an entire full-length episode, these parts were easily my favorites.
More problematic were some of the fanservice moments. Not the fanservice in itself – the opening scenes are much more of a tease than you usually see, and it worked really well. What made me uncomfortable was the way that Michiru and Utaha physically assaulted Aki at least twice over the course of the episode. The fact that he's a guy and they're girls doesn't make it funny or okay, and it definitely went too far, particularly with Utaha. That the animation stopped outright or slowed down to give us a good look at crotches and breasts (usually from the side or underneath, oddly enough) felt like an attempt to make it seem like Aki was okay with it, although it could just be an excuse to draw boobs and groins.
Saekano's first episode felt like it was trying too hard to be all things to all viewers. Since this was, as I said, episode 0, it is possible that we will have a more normalized story next week, and it will be worth finding that out. There's potential here, but with this episode that felt squandered in favor of being weird for weirdness' sake.
Saekano: How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend is available streaming on Crunchyroll.
Tomoya is the ringleader of his high school doujin game circle, accompanied by childhood friend and artist Eriri, buxom, forward scenario writer Utaha, and the wily composer, Michiru. There's a fourth girl, Kato, who's always sneaking around in the background somewhere. They head to the country to get inspiration and material to finish their game before Winter Comiket, and slowly but surely the first three girls are revealed to be totally ready to jump Tomoya's bones. We're not sure yet about Kato.
That's the basic rundown of Saekano -How To Raise A Boring Girlfriend-, based on the popular light novel series, if you just describe the plot. The show, however, has been dunked in the meta vat, and the entire thing is an exercise in the characters providing meta-commentary on the cliches they're partaking in. Here's an example of what you're in for: the show cold-opens with lavishly animated nude cheesecake shots of the three girls in an onsen, with two of them arguing over what makes a good anime; Eriri proclaims something a masterpiece because it had fluid animation and cute girls, but Utaha takes issue with the writing, complaining that it's just pandering and that shallow-minded fans like Eriri are ruining the anime industry. That's the joke, of course: they're having this argument while engaging directly in what they're critiquing (being a bunch of fluidly-animated cute girls in an anime that might or might not be considered a masterpiece by the sort of people who would argue about it like this), and I can imagine it's what sold plenty of light novels. That keeps up throughout the rest of the episode; Utaha (the character I most relate to, in a surprise to absolutely no one) complains about Tomoya's stab at scenario writing because he's just artlessly info-dumping plot information right at the start of their game - which he's also doing for this show. She tells him that information is better hidden, revealed delicately in natural conversations throughout the game, which is what happens next, and Tomoya realizes hey, that's what she was talking about. Get it?
This is basically it - a hyper self-aware, self-reflexive anime series based on a light novel that directly comments on whether or not it's doing things right as it goes along, thinly disguised as the characters commenting about the right way to make their doujin game. At the end of the episode it's revealed that Kato is actually the main character, the only one who hasn't show direct, flesh-pressing interest in "Mr. Protagonist", Tomoya, who tells her that she'll never fulfill her intended purpose as the main character if she's always being swallowed up by the background like a forgettable supporting cast member. Tomoya lets us all know that this is the story of otaku and non-otaku hangin' out, maybe fuckin', maybe not, and otherwise letting the good times roll. This isn't an original idea but it's executed pretty well (not to mention absolutely gorgeous - A-1 Pictures brought their A-game to this episode) and it made me laugh at its cheap meta antics, so hey, sign me up. I'm not sure this gimmick will still be funny 5 episodes from now and I fully acknowledge this isn't anything new, but it could be a fun, brief diversion. It's already licensed by Aniplex of America - maybe the characters will try and sell the first half of their doujin game for $249.99 and earn the ire of Comiket attendees. Now that would be fantastic.
Saekano - How To Raise A Boring Girlfriend- is available streaming at Crunchyroll.
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