The Summer 2016 Anime Preview Guide
First Love Monster
How would you rate episode 1 of
First Love Monster ?
What is this?
Kaho Nikaido comes from a rich family, which means that up until now, she really hasn't had to struggle in her life. Teachers would coddle her, friends would never get mad at her, and her family would always protect her. Wishing to strike out on her own, Kaho moves to Tokyo for high school, where she bumps into a strange boy named Kanade by chance. Kaho is immediately struck by the masculine appeal and kindness of Kanade, so she declares her love on the spot. But unfortunately for Kaho, Kanade is actually in fifth grade - meaning her newfound relationship may involve a lot more playing tag and talking about wieners than lofty romance. First Love Monster is based on a manga series and can be found streaming on Funimation, Saturdays at 11:30 AM EST.
How was the first episode?
Wow! I didn't know that Tomoko from WATAMOTE finally got her own manga turned into an anime! Good for her!
My deepest apologies if you didn't get that joke, since WATAMOTE isn't the most widely-known show out there, but for those of you unfamiliar with the character, I promise I'll get to the main review in a second, but first I need to fully explain just what the hell WATAMOTE even has to do with First Love Monster.
Tomoko Kuroki is the quintessential "fujoshi trash queen," by the absolute least romanticized definition of the term. That is to say, she's the kind of character that 4chan would (and did) adopt in an "It Me" kind of way, rather than granting her even "ironic" waifu status. Basically, Tomoko is too harsh and cutting a look into otaku/fujoshi psychology to even merit "relatable trash waifu" status on the level of Konosuba's Aqua or Love Live!'s Nico, who are still fantastical enough exaggerations to seem attractive rather than "too real." If you want a stark, deeply uncomfortable, and painfully honest look at the different-yet-fascinating female counterpart to the gross otaku guy we see represented in countless other anime series, you should definitely check out WATAMOTE.
But I'm bringing her up now because the show I just watched, First Love Monster, genuinely seems like the only kind of anime that Tomoko Kuroki, an emblem of female anime fandom that's long been on the rise within chan-style subculture, would ever write for herself. I can honestly say that this is the first anime of its kind I have ever seen in my entire life: neither sardonic parody nor sincere escapism, but an in-between cynical creation as cringey as poor Tomoko herself.
This is the "lol I am trash" self-loathing shitpost of fujoshi entertainment, where the fetish (infantilized men) is completely sincere, but the celebration of it is not. First Love Monster spends its entire runtime marinating completely in a sentiment I see espoused online every day but have never seen represented in the actual shows themselves. Shows like Free! and Love Live! are all about insulating the purity and perfection of their fantasy scenarios from an outside fandom that immediately twists them into self-deprecating memes, but First Love Monster seems to look that culture dead in the eye and say "You know how stupid and transparent this is, right? Well, eat it up, you pigs." In the eyes of First Love Monster, the heroine is a stupid sow, the boys are fetish objects you should be ashamed of yourself for liking, (but you won't because "we all know you're already trash"), and the jokes are mean-spirited and obvious because the author, not unlike Konosuba's creator, seems to have an intimate understanding of the self-aware otaku community the internet has fostered. If anything, First Love Monster is most similar to Konosuba in tone, but if I'm being honest, I've never seen any other anime achieve this tone before, not aimed at women. (Though given the tendency of female otaku to be more publicly self-denigrating and less self-serious than their male counterparts when it comes to fandom, I'm not really surprised they got here first.)
But just because First Love Monster was the first to do something doesn't mean that thing was worthwhile. The initial novelty does make this first episode painfully engrossing, but I don't have any more interest in watching a self-aware, mean-spirited, pseudo-ironic show that fetishizes pederasty than a totally sincere paint-by-numbers one like Super Lovers. Between this likely failure and the wildly successful Konosuba, I have no idea if I'm witnessing a bizarre tone-deaf misfire or a small peek into the future of entertainment by otaku for otaku, but at least this unique little trainwreck gave me something to talk about.
I did not read a single word in advance about this shojo manga adaptation, so I came into the first episode totally fresh and unaware. And I actually found myself wanting to like it at first, despite some troubling roadblocks being set up in the first few minutes.
And then the big reveal of its actual premise – that it features a trio of bishonen who look and sound like they're 17 but are actually 5th graders – came along, and the bottom fell out for me.
People complain all of the time about female characters who are supposedly very old but still look like young girls to generate a sort of “legal loli” effect. This premise feel exactly like someone said, “ Hey, why don't we base a series around the diametric opposite concept?” Or perhaps this was intended as a “fair shakes” response to the way some anime have effectively infantilized female characters. Either way, the concept is hideous in execution, as it just gives guys who look like young men a chance to act like prepubescent boys, including making all sorts of references to wieners and whether they may or may not be properly situation in one's underwear. (Frankly, I don't recall boys ever going on about that when I was that age.) It's apparently supposed to be funny in a dumb sort of way, but it all comes across as just purely dumb, if not bordering on offensive. And let's not even get started on the whole “high school student dating a 5th grader” thing and how that technically makes this shota even though it doesn't look like it.
The first episode has some other issues, too, although those are more for people who generally don't like shojo series. The “treated like a puppy” effect towards the female protagonist is still evident even though the guy in question is technically younger (actually it's even worse because of that), and the personality types are about as stereotypical as they come for male shojo characters in a reverse harem-like format. Also, I find it strange that someone from Kaho's background has such a low sense of self-esteem. How did she come out feeling like she's worthless if she was doted on and no one ever got mad at her? For that matter, how are 5th graders living in a boarding house, even if they can pass for near-adults?
The main reason I'm not giving this a minimal grade is because, despite everything else, I actually did like Kaho and found the way she reacted to things to be entertaining. Also, I respected that she confessed almost immediately rather than dithering around for several episodes. But that premise is just too much to overcome.
To First Love Monster's credit, it does at least start out in trashy but vaguely acceptable shojo romance territory. We've got a clumsy, self-deprecating heroine moving to a new place with the intention of relying less on her rich family's influence. A handsome guy conveniently saves her from being hit by a truck, and she falls in love with him because, apparently, he's the first person to ever yell at her. It turns out that he lives in the same building, and is totally fine with the idea of dating her. It's not what I'd call a stellar way of starting a series off, but at least it's heck of a lot better than what comes after.
Yes, the tall and handsome Kanade is a fifth-grader, and somehow our high school heroine Kaho's reaction is to go ahead with the relationship. Just in case that didn't send up enough red flags on its own, Kanade's got two equally tall and handsome fifth-grade classmates, and the three of them spend the remainder of the episode chasing one another around a playground and making wiener jokes. Just to drive the point home, the fourth member of this merry band actually looks his age. Somehow, despite all of this, Kaho is still on board with the idea of dating Kanade.
I understand (or at least I hope) that this is supposed to be a satire of the genre, with a generic blob of a heroine suddenly finding herself surrounded by handsome, childish guys. There's just something about the delivery that doesn't work at all. Nothing in this episode convinced me that First Love Monster is in on its own joke, and so it just came across as a worst-case scenario for its particular niche. If the viewer has to think about what just happened for a few minutes before concluding that it was supposed to be funny, then something has gone seriously wrong.
Even if the satire does click for you, there are still some genuine technical problems with the show. The animation quality is underwhelming, and the ending credit sequence is essentially a series of shaky pans across a still image. Even Kaho's character design seems odd, as her face never looks quite right when we see her from straight ahead. It's possible that First Love Monster will eventually find its footing and start successfully skewering the genre, but this first outing doesn't exactly fill me with hope.
It's a little tricky to make a truly entertaining genre satire. You can directly attack the assumptions of your genre, but when you do that, you often start to fail as a narrative worth investing in. You can lightly jab at some of your genre's more questionable assumptions, but an unconsidered attempt at that can ultimately just validate the thing you're trying to deflate. A strong satire needs both fondness and sharpness, a willingness to embrace tired beats while looking sideways at them all the same.
So far, First Love Monster seems like a very good satire. The subject here is shoujo romance, a genre rife with common tropes and creaky assumptions. Our protagonist Kaho already embodies a lot of them - frail and pampered, she has absolutely no confidence in herself. The waif-like audience insert character is a common figure in shoujo romance and reverse harems; her own non-being essentially gives the viewer room to slot in their own feelings, and her helplessness facilitates the counterbalancing strength of the male characters. Kaho goes above and beyond in her adherence to this type, immediately falling in love with a man just because he calls her cute, and responding to his first rejection by declaring “now that I've been dumped, clearly no one will want the likes of me as long as I live.” Kaho is a very silly character, and her unintentional riffs on helpless heroine standbys make for great unspoken comedy.
But First Love Monster's true star is the object of her affection, Kanade. Tall and mysterious, with a gruff affectation and a knack for generating sparkles, Kanade embodies a very popular archetype himself - unfortunately, Kanade is also only in fifth grade. Meaning that, when Kaho asks for his name, Kanade responds with the very reasonable “I was told not to give my name to strangers. Also, you're creepy.”
Casting the captivating male lead as an actual child in a man's body strikes me as a basically perfect direction to take that kind of character. Of course his appeal is skin-deep - he's an actual child, more interested in talking about wieners with his friend than romance. Of course his relationship with the female lead comes down to “don't touch her. She is mine.” Of course he's possessive and needy. Of course he proudly adheres to the most basic and simplistic of moral codes. All of these are typical characteristics of Kanade's general type, and all of them are perfectly suited to someone with the emotional development of a fifth grader.
Kanade being a literal child is a fantastic counter to Kaho's resolute determination to exist in a shoujo romance, and the show's execution readily supports this disconnect. As Kaho tries to make a romantic declaration from a balcony, Kanade curtly replies with “oh, you live here” and “what, is there something else” and other such flat lines, all while the music erupts in orchestral fits. While Kaho debates the merits of her romance, Kanade runs in circles with his two equally improbable friends, trying to avoid their “wiener hands.” And of course there's the consistent visual gag of a classic bishounen lead walking around in short shorts and a primary school shirt, flanked by two other equally ridiculous bishounen stereotypes.
I don't know if First Love Monster's fundamental joke is strong enough to last a season, but it sure did make for a funny first episode. On top of that, I also don't know where the show can go from here. Kaho and Kanade are silly characters, but they're still likable enough, with Kanade in particular legitimately coming across as a child in a man's body. But if the show actually moves to validate their romance, it would ruin everything that made this episode appealing, validating both the hoary tropes being skewered and the idea of a child dating a high schooler besides*. Hopefully the show understands what a good thing it has going here, and doesn't spoil that by taking itself too seriously.
Author's Note, 7/7/2016: Well, apparently the manga this is based on goes in exactly that direction, so it's just going to be garden-variety terrible instead of making-fun-of-terrible-things interesting. A real shame.
I wasn't all that thrilled with the first volume of the First Love Monster manga when I read it, and now I'm not particularly pleased with the anime either. Yes, this is in part because there's a pretty big maturity difference between fifth and tenth grade even if that evens out later on, but my major problem with the show is really how mean it feels. Our heroine, a self-proclaimed spoiled and coddled rich girl named Kaho, is making an attempt to live life outside of her cotton wrapping, moving away from the family estate and enrolling in a big city school. She's hopelessly naïve, which is perhaps to be expected, but rather than helping her, most of her new acquaintances at her boarding house go out of their way to exploit that. It's pretty easy too – almost immediately upon arriving, Kaho falls hard for a tall young man who saves her from getting into one of anime's inevitable traffic accidents and then yells at her for being stupid. All of the people who watched this encounter know that the young man is in fact the ten-year-old son of the boarding house's landlord, despite the fact that he looks at least seventeen. The only one who is willing to tell Kaho keeps getting silenced by the others, who seem to think that the whole thing is really funny.
It could be funny if it were handled differently. But instead of helping Kaho adapt to her new surroundings, they let her blunder into a position as fifth grader Kanade's girlfriend. Kaho knows that this isn't quite right, but she's so sheltered that she can't find a way out of it. On some levels, he's actually perfect for her because she's so naïve, but that's not where this episode goes, if I'm remembering the book correctly. Instead, it introduces two more fifth graders who look like full grown men, intending for us to laugh at the incongruity of “adults” acting like elementary school students. This is the point where I mention that I had a friend when I was younger who, due to a hormonal issue, looked like a fully developed woman at age ten. To say that it made her life uncomfortable and incredibly difficult would be an understatement, and I do not find it funny to use this very real condition for comedy. The fact that Kanade asks Kaho if she'll still want to date him when she knows the truth indicates that he has had some unpleasant experiences himself.
The episode largely focuses on Kaho looking stunned, and Kanade and his friends saying “wiener” a lot and climbing around on playground equipment. There's something a little off about Kaho's character design that I can't quite put my finger on, as if she and Chiaki, the other female character, look like they're from a different series. The art is otherwise attractive, although beefcake shots of the not-so-little boys in the opening theme are uncomfortable once you know what's going on, and the voice actors are really trying to sell it, especially Kanade's friends. It's how the story is handled that's the problem here, creating a much bigger issue for me than the premise alone.
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