The Fall 2018 Anime Preview Guide Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai
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Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai ?
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How was the first episode?
I have to feel at least a little sympathy for Bunny Girl Senpai, given its extremely obvious influences. The show's focus on a high school loner who's painfully aware he's a loner, and spends all of his time analyzing the social inevitability of his loneliness, very clearly echoes My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU. So too does its generally lethargic, cynical affect, and even the relationship between “I see society sucks and I accept that” protagonist Sakuta and “I see society sucks and I reject that” heroine Mai. Of course, that relationship is also heavily influenced by Bunny Girl Senpai's other clear predecessor, Bakemonogatari. From that show, Bunny Girl Senpai lifts elements of tortured wordplay, a thoroughly masochistic view of romance, and its fundamental hook - the idea that our psychological pain could manifest as a supernatural force, and impact our life in an immediate and terrifying way.
Both SNAFU and Bakemonogatari are among my very favorite anime. I love shows that humanize their casts through snappy, idiosyncratic dialogue, shows that deeply interrogate their leads' psychology, shows that examine how society impacts our sense of self, all of that stuff is candy to me. Unfortunately, creating a successful show like that demands a thoughtfulness of writing and clarity of authorial voice that few anime can really measure up to. There are not that many SNAFUs, but there are a whole bunch of SNAFU also-rans like Saekano or Classroom of the Elite. And sadly, Bunny Girl Senpai just doesn't possess strong enough writing to really sell its own appeal.
Part of the problem is that unlike SNAFU, Bunny Girl Senpai doesn't really hang above the fray of standard light novel indulgence. The actual bunny girl part of the premise feels completely contrived, and this is the sort of show where the protagonist's little sister will curl up in his bed and ask how horny he's feeling. Bunny Girl Senpai doesn't really tonally play like a thoughtful character drama - it plays like a light novel romantic comedy being screened at one quarter speed.
But the bigger, inescapable problem is that the dialogue here just isn't good enough to sell this kind of show. Selling a deeply flawed but still sympathetic protagonist like Hachiman or Araragi takes a knack for verbal repartee and acuity of illustration that Bunny Girl just can't match. Where a successful show in this genre would place a genuinely clever or cutting line, Bunny Girl uses something like “are you on your period?” When the heroine Mai Sakurajima introduces herself with “I'm Mai Sakurajima, spelled like Mai Sakurajima and Mai Sakurajima,” my only response was to idly wonder what a wittier writer would have put there. Bunny Girl Senpai's insights are pretty facile, but that wouldn't be a problem if I believed in or cared about the characters proposing those insights. For a show whose appeal is entirely contained in the snappiness of its banter to fail at snappy banter is a pretty serious failing.
All that said, Bunny Girl Senpai's premise is still an inherently compelling concept, and the dialogue here is definitely more thoughtful than your average light novel adaptation. Additionally, the show's direction is reasonably evocative, and I was kinda stunned by how dedicated this episode was to fully animating incidental crowd movements. Bunny Girl Senpai basically set itself up for failure by directly imitating two shows with such intimidating writing, but taken entirely in its own right, there's still potential for an engaging drama here. If the show can escape the shadow of its influences and establish its own identity, it could be a very reasonable watch.
I'm going to be up front with this one: Watching the premiere of Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai was an interminable experience for me. Consider the “2” I'm awarding it a begrudging acknowledgement of this episode's basic strengths: It isn't a mess to look at, and there are some ideas here that could maybe blossom into compelling material somewhere down the line.
Those small kernels of potential are buried underneath a whole lot of “Nope”, though. The biggest issue here is that Sakuta and Mai make for two of the least-interesting protagonists I've encountered in a long time, a pair of ostensible love-interests who somehow become less interesting when the meet-cute happens. Sakuta a disaffected young man who seems to be the very physical manifestation of adolescent ennui – he speaks in a perpetually aloof monotone, and despite this episode consisting almost entirely of dialogue, he rarely manages to say anything of interest or deep meaning. He mostly just remarks on what's going on around him, and he never seems very impressed or moved by anything; his younger sister showers him with inappropriate affection, and he's being bullied by the jealous girlfriend of his best friend Yuuma. He even makes friends with Mai, who is a minor celebrity along with being the titular “Bunny Girl Senpai”, and she also has apparently become stricken by random bouts of invisibility to most of the people around her. And yet, despite all of this, Sakuta just dead-eyes his way through the premiere without showing an ounce of personality; it's as if someone made an off-brand Koyomi Araragi golem out of bran oats and teenaged arrogance.
A terrible protagonist is not necessarily enough to ruin a premiere on its own, but the episode does itself no favors by focusing so much on Sakuta and Mai's. This isn't witty, biting dialogue that worms its way into your ear by any means, which makes every conversation in the episode drag on, even when Mai is describing how she's becoming invisible due to “Adolescence Syndrome”, or when Sakuta is revealing his own experience with the supernatural malady. And even though I gave this premiere credit for “not being a mess to look at”, the direction and animation is far too pedestrian for a show so heavy on dialogue and exposition. I hate to go back to comparing it to the Monogatari franchise again, but those series are all excellent examples of how to take two teenagers just trading dialogue for minutes at a time and make it interesting to listen to and to look at. There's no catchy music in this episode to bolster the mood, no creative camera angles or moody atmosphere to draw the viewer in. Just Sakuta and Mai talking. And talking. And talking.
I will admit, I did like the scene where Sakuta flashes back to seeing his sister Kaede suffer the pain of Adolescence Syndrome herself – watching the spontaneous cuts appear on her body as she suffers the metaphorically cutting abuse of her peers was a genuinely eerie and affecting metaphor for being bullied in school, and if the show gives us more of that kind of straight-to-the-point storytelling, I could maybe see myself giving it another shot. As of right now, though, I have absolutely no need in my life for “Holden Caulfield: The Anime” - we already got that with My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU, except that show was funny and charming and had a great cast of characters. As for Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai – well, at least it isn't a mess to look at.
Anime has long had a love affair with Playboy bunny-themed costumes, a stylistic choice that I also appreciate. So this show got my attention right away, but its first episode was not at all the lively affair that I was expecting based on the title and premise. Instead, the early bunny girl scene is an aberration in an otherwise sedate, introspective, and even philosophical take on two teenagers dealing with unusual phenomena – for better and worse.
While this approach has some intriguing aspects, it's also rather dry. The content is very talky and neither of the two leads' deliveries or attitudes changes much, even when what they're saying gets rather sharp. The personality balance between the droll Sakuta and the sarcastic Mai and their character designs resemble a number of acerbic anime romcom pairings from the last few years, though it's tough to remember specifics when they tend to blur together. Regardless, the series is already establishing that these two will form a relationship over the unusual phenomena around them. Naturally, there are a few other girls in the picture, including a scientist, a literal little sister, and the girlfriend of the lead's best friend who sees him as a drag on her boyfriend's reputation.
The angle the series is taking on the special phenomena is its most interesting aspect. Sakuta seems to be proposing that the Adolescent Syndrome at the heart of the series' concept is an actual thing that manifests in different ways depending on the circumstances and desires of the one experiencing it. A girl stressed out by the attention that her celebrity status brings her finds herself becoming invisible to people. Another who gets bullied online finds herself inflicting self-harm without using any object or physical blows. We can only guess at this point what Sakuta experienced which led to the giant claw marks on his chest, but given how the other incidents have been framed, it's a compelling mystery. The notion suggested by the opening episode that even Sakuta will eventually be affected by Mai's phenomenon also adds another intriguing twist.
Although the visuals for the first episode aren't vivid, they are noteworthy for having more extensive animation of backgrounds and crowd scenes than normal. Regardless, the first episode lets the talking drone on just enough that I can't call it outstanding, but it's done plenty enough to get my attention.
Despite its title and the prominence of Mai's bunny girl outfit in the promotional art, this doesn't strike me as a particularly fanservice-heavy show. Based on the first episode, the outfit seems like a convenient visual hook for a series that's more in line with titles like My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU. It has that same detached, emotionally guarded tone, and the story plays into a similar theme of people becoming loners or social outcasts. Even the more surreal moments, like Mai's antics in the library or the phantom injuries suffered by Sakuta's sister, are presented in a relatively understated manner, as if the show doesn't want to make too big a deal out of them. It's an unexpected approach, and I think it has the potential to work out rather well.
Bunny Girl has the outsider's perspective and standoffish banter that seem to be the norm for shows that take a less favorable view of adolescence. Most of Sakuta's observations will sound familiar to viewers who've watched similar titles: it's hard to break into an established social group, people believe what they want to believe, and so on. These kinds of shows are always going to be something of an acquired taste, and your enjoyment of this episode will depend heavily on whether Sakuta's musings come across as sadly accurate or as the convenient excuses of an antisocial protagonist. Sakuta and Mai don't have quite the same instant chemistry as some of their genre counterparts, but they're getting there. As an admitted sucker for introverted main characters, I enjoyed the majority of their self-aware exchanges.
Then we have this particular show's calling card: the presumably supernatural incidents that affect the characters. Most of the focus here is on Mai's occasional invisibility, but based on Sakuta's story about Kaede, I can more or less guess what the story's up to in a big-picture context. Each event takes the emotional core of a character's circumstances and translates it into a physical effect. For Mai, her social isolation and waning fame make her literally invisible. In Kaede's case, online bullying is represented by injuries that are inflicted by someone or something that isn't physically present in front of the victim. It's an intriguing way of tackling adolescent trauma, and one that could set up some powerful scenes if it's used wisely.
That same caveat applies to this show as a whole. Bunny Girl has some compelling elements working in its favor, but all of them depend heavily on strong, nuanced presentation. Go overboard with Mai and Sakuta's snarky dialogue, and they could easily go from likable to obnoxious. Get too blatant with the supernatural stuff and it could come across as cheesy instead of insightful. That could be a tough balancing act to maintain, and the too-clever dialogue may be an acquired taste, but I'm curious to see where this story goes.
Even setting aside the somewhat bizarre English title, Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Sempai is off to what is only a minorly interesting start. In large part that's because the writing for this episode feels very much like a teenager trying desperately to be deep – “Adolescence Syndrome,” the made-up mental disorder the show seems set to revolve around, plagues only those in the throes of adolescence and appears to be either the onset of temporary psychic powers or unwanted physical phenomena. Protagonist Sakuta mentions temporary ESP as one example, and the main (?) heroine of the story has suddenly gained the ability to be invisible as the result of her getting tired of all of the attention she was getting as a former child star. The most effective use of this syndrome in the episode is Sakuta's younger sister Kaede, whose emotional wounds from being cyber bullied appear physically on her body. That has a reality that works much better than the more affected uses of the syndrome, although admittedly I would have given almost anything to have Mai's power as a teen.
Mostly, however, the story seems to suffer from a surfeit of self-importance and Sakuta himself, as well as the inclusion of a few tropes that could have been left alone. At this point in too-serious teen dramas, Schrodinger's Cat has basically become code for “Look at me! I know stuff!”, so when science girl Futaba brings it up in response to Sakuta's question, it felt more like cause for an eyeroll than the sign that figuring out what was going on would tread any new ground. Likewise there was no real cause to have Kaede have a romantic attachment to her brother, as her past traumas would have justified real sibling closeness without muddying the romantic waters. The only trope that seems so far to be used decently is the whole bunny girl outfit – while it's not what I would have chosen to see if people really couldn't see me, Mai's not wrong in her statement that it would do the trick.
As far as Sakuta, he lost me when he accused his friend's girlfriend of having her period when she was being nasty to him. Granted, the girl was way out of line by telling him to stay away from her boyfriend so that his popularity didn't suffer (and hers by association), but regardless Sakuta was resorting to something he shouldn't have and perpetuating a repulsive stereotype. More importantly for the show, it doesn't do much to set Sakuta up as a character with much to recommend him; even if he's just responding in kind to her obnoxiousness, he could have done so another way.
Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Sempai isn't doing much to set itself up as a successful teen melodrama. Its reliance on tropes, stereotypes, and dubiously deep writing and its unpleasant characters aren't encouraging me to watch any more. It may turn out to be more than the sum of this episode, because we do still have the question of who this “Shoko” who is mentioned several times in the episode is and the whole Hospitalization Incident getting blown out of proportion, but right now I'm not holding my breath.
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