The Spring 2019 Anime Preview Guide
The Helpful Fox Senko-san
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The Helpful Fox Senko-san ?
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How was the first episode?
I was tempted to give The Helpful Fox Senko-san a flat 2.5, but I bumped it up by half a grade because I appreciate its wholesome take on supernatural slice-of-life, at least insofar as a show like this can be wholesome. The premise of Helpful Fox, which sees a harried businessman named Kuroto being gifted the titular fox-girl as a remedy for his aches and pains, is inextricably linked to a kind of wish fulfillment that's always just a few doors down from blatant fetishism, if there is any separation to be claimed at all. It's impossible for me to ignore the borderline robotic approach Senko takes to her role as Kuroto's housemaid/savior, as if she knows exactly what anime she's appearing in.
It's only the first episode, so it would be unfair of me to assume that Senko will never exhibit any personal flaws or a nuanced interior life. Still, this premiere spends an awful lot of time on Senko explaining that she is deeply satisfied being whatever Kuroto needs her to be in order to be happy. Again, to the show's credit, Senko and Kuroto's relationship is only ever portrayed as honestly healing and sweet, and there's hardly anything in their interactions that could be misinterpreted as kinky or euphemistic. The closest the show gets is Kuroto's extended cuddle session with Senko's tail, which only mostly avoids the hacky old cliché of Senko's tail being an erogenous zone. As Kuroto himself expresses, it's like Senko is an affectionate and very patient housecat, who can cook and clean and offer soothing words of comfort.
That tightrope-walk of earnest affection is what saves this show for me, making the central relationship between our two protagonists strong enough to provide an endearing core to an otherwise middling production. While I dug the angular character designs, nothing else about this episode's animation or direction stood out to me, though I suppose that shouldn't be surprising. This isn't a show about flashy visuals or high-speed gags, after all – its appeal rests in our empathy for a frazzled and overworked man finding someone who can help him unwind and feel like a person again. Given the constant stream of stories about animators being dangerously overworked in real anime studios, I can see how Kuroto and Senko's story might resonate with viewers and creators alike. It may not be my cup of tea, but it'll likely bring joy to a lot of viewers, and that's good enough for me.
There's a whole class of anime out there called iyashikei, whose entire goal is to have a calming, even healing effect on the viewer. I cannot think of a purer example of this goal in recent years than the first episode of this series.
The whole first episode is built around that appeal, starting from its premise: an overworked, overstressed bachelor is gloomily plodding his way through life until a cute fox spirit shows up to pamper him. Maybe there's something genuinely supernatural about his state, as he radiates a nasty aura that brings other around him down, but that doesn't matter so much. He's desperately in need of some pampering, and that's exactly what Senko provides. Naturally, he's wary of this whole odd situation – who wouldn't be? – and he's reluctant to take advantage of what Senko offers, but her irresistible cuteness and calm demeanor win him over. He gets the proper meal and social companionship he's been lacking, even getting to use her lap as a pillow, so he feels more refreshed. It seems too good to be true, but (so far at least) there are no catches.
What's remarkable about this episode is that it feels like it should be a lot more boring than it actually is. Credit for that largely goes to Senko herself. She's not the hyper, genki personality you might expect, she's fully competent and confident in her abilities, and she doesn't easily lose her cool. She really acts like she's been doing this for centuries. She's also incredibly adorable, with the production staff wisely putting the biggest animation effort into the expressiveness of her bushy tail. In other words, the series doesn't try to force its cute factor; it's just naturally cute, which is pretty rare for anime. The one disruption to the episode's healing atmosphere is the whole business with stroking her tail, which is clearly meant to have some sexual connotations, but even that scene isn't overplayed enough to ruin the mood.
The one big knock against the first episode is that this is one of the weaker full-length series this season on technical merits. The animation is good enough to get the point of each scene across, but the character designs are somewhat flat and unrefined. But surprisingly, that doesn't dampen the effect of the series much. There are also suggestions that Senko is no a stranger to the protagonist, and she admits in passing that some kind of debt to his family exists, so there's at least a bit of mystery afoot, but I could see a whole season of the purely healing fare seen in this episode working just fine.
Though it seems designed as a fluffy slice-of-life show, my main takeaway from The Helpful Fox Senko-san was what an incredibly damning portrait of modern society it painted. Protagonist Nakano is ridiculously overworked at his job, but doesn't feel capable of pushing back against that; instead, he just lets his fatigue and resentment build up inside him. When a strange fox girl shows up at his apartment and attempts to pamper him, he resists mightily, assuming the whole situation is some kind of trick. Every step fox deity Senko takes to comfort him is met with serious ingrained resistance, convincingly illustrating a person who has reached a point where they consider themselves unworthy of unconditional affection. And even when he accepts Senko's pampering, his thoughts stray back to his childhood, as he wonders when it last was that he returned home to a hot meal and someone who wanted to see him.
Our fictional fantasies often reflect what we find lacking in our daily lives, and the fantasies Senko presents reflect a society that has dehumanized us entirely. Nakano's theoretical “idyllic fantasy” is simply that, when he gets home from his incredibly soul-sucking job, someone is there who actually enjoys his company. Senko's presence thereby feels almost like a stand-in for one of the central appeals inherent to slice of life - a little bit of unconditional happiness at the end of the day, a reminder of times when maintaining friends was easy, when you held optimism towards the future, and when you felt like you belonged. Nakano's immediate feelings of guilt upon being pampered, and feeling like he hadn't done anything to deserve this kindness, felt like a pointed indictment of a society that treats people as commodities and relationships as transactions. Senko-san is a warm show, but its honest portrayal of Nanako's unhappy life felt like an unintentionally brutal condemnation of how modern society has ground us down, and the simplicity of the pleasures that have been robbed from us.
Anyway, unintentionally scathing indictment of modern society aside, this was a pretty reasonable premiere. It's absolutely critical that Nakano come across as sympathetic rather than creepy, and I felt his combination of depressingly acute working-stiff malaise and befuddlement at Senko's existence managed that well. The animation isn't as strong as you might expect from a Doga Kobo production, but it's still expressive and charming throughout, while I was consistently impressed by how well the direction brought Nakano's anxious, depressed perspective to life. And most of all, I was genuinely moved by this show's perspective—that the ways we have been beaten down by society are truly unjust, and that all of us deserve a little pampering and unconditional support in our lives. Nakano's hard-fought acceptance of Senko's care felt like a genuine dramatic victory, an emphatic declaration that our ingrained feelings of shame are indeed a real and heavy burden, but that we must learn to love ourselves regardless.
Senko-san's jokes felt a little too fluffy for this show to succeed as a comedy, and I'm not sure I can see this concept supporting a full season regardless, but this first episode at least gave me a lot to think about, even if a fair portion of that was possibly accidental. In the end, whatever its overall merits as a slice of life may be, I still salute Senko-san in terms of its fundamental mission. We might not all have the power to change society, but we can at least tell each other we still deserve love.
I enjoyed this far more than I was expecting. Helpful Fox Senko-chan is superficially similar to Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid in that it's about a supernatural creature who moves in with a regular human in order to take care of them, but where the former is a full-on comedy, this show is looking to be more a soothing slice-of-life story. The human in this case, Kuroto Nakano, is an over-worked salaryman who appears to have trouble saying no to others – when we first meet him, he's clearly exhausted and overwhelmed but can't bring himself to deny a co-worker's request for help even though he's about to leave for the day. It's so obvious that the guy needs to be done that I felt a fleeting annoyance at the other, much fresher looking man, because seriously, brush up your observation skills and let poor Kuroto go home. While it may not be the focus of the series, it's definitely a nod to the toxic work environment you hear about existing in Japan.
That Inari's shinshi (the subtitles say “fox demigod,” but Senko clearly says “shinshi,” like in Kamisama Kiss) have also taken notice says something about how bad Kuroto has gotten. The black miasma of unhappiness has reached the point where it's affecting people standing near him, and if it gets much worse, Kuroto's going to be a lot of trouble. That's why Senko decides that she's going to actually go see him – although it isn't said (and some of the other foxes are surprised by her decision), the implication is that she's afraid that he's so far gone as to need actual physical intervention. Of course we see that she's met him in the past, when he was a kid staying with his grandmother in the country, but even though she brushes Kuroto's questions off with glib answers, the real reason for her moving into his apartment seems to be simply that she's worried he'll die without help.
The overall feel of the episode is that this is what would happen if your dog became human and learned to cook your dinner instead of eating the raw ingredients. Senko's just sweet and well-meaning, and when she offers her lap for Kuroto to sleep on, it doesn't feel sexual or creepy. I'm still undecided about the potentially uncomfortable subtext of the tail-petting scene, but Kuroto certainly doesn't react as if he's getting anything more than soft reassurance out of it. In any event, there are some decently funny moments, plenty of sweet ones, and the potential to just be a nice story.
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