The Spring 2021 Preview Guide
by The Anime News Network Editorial Team,
How would you rate episode 1 of
What is this?
Ryō Amakusa is a sex-crazed but highly eligible bachelor with a wandering eye for women. Ichika Arima is an ordinary otaku high school girl who is close friends with Ryō's little sister Rio. Ryō and Ichika meet by chance one day, but Ryō's direct approach — asking Ichika for a kiss and a date on the same day they meet — is a complete turn-off for Ichika. Despite Ichika's disgusted reaction (or arguably because of it), Ryō is convinced that she is the one. (from manga)
How was the first episode?
I do not get the appeal of age gap romances. That isn't to say I don't intellectually understand why people are into them, but rather that as I get older the less and less this fantasy's appeal makes sense. Even if I divorce myself from the very real context of adults preying on or grooming minors, and just try to engage with these stories in a vacuum, I can't get into the idea. I'm 27, and just the thought of spending an extended amount of time around a teenager sounds excruciating, so the idea of dating one sounds like a one-way ticket to hell even if it weren't morally repulsive.
Suffice to say, Koikimo was fighting a losing battle for me the moment I read the synopsis, and nothing in this premiere won it any points. Mostly because it's based around one single joke that is incredibly unfunny. You see, instead of the teenager crushing on an older man, it's the adult who's head-over-heels for a 10th grader! And he keeps pursuing her no matter how many times she says no! And he directly says that he'll keep coming after her regardless of how she feels! Does that sound like a laugh riot to you? Because that's the entire joke of this show, and the one note it keeps hitting for 20 minutes like a broken synthesizer.
What makes it all the worse is that, outside of heroine Ichika, nobody else seems to find a single thing wrong with this setup. Ichika's best friend Rio not only encourages her adult brother to hit on her friend, but actively tells him her personal details and even tricks Ichika into giving him her phone number. Meanwhile our heroine's mom is just ever so charmed by the expensive gifts her daughter's obsessive stalker keeps sending them. In a particularly creepy scene, he tries to retrieve Ichika's used toothpick from the trash, and the spectating grocery store clerk just LAUGHS. Even if one does the mental gymnastics to separate this from real-life grooming tactics used by predators, it's just deeply unpleasant how everyone else in the world ignores or actively subverts Ichika's obvious discomfort. The only person besides Ichika who expresses any distaste is one of Ryo's former one-night-stands who admonishes him for not trying to bang a hotter high school student.
Not helping are the production values. Animation is stiff and minimal throughout, and the washed-out color palette makes this premiere dull to watch even without the uncomfortable content. The real kicker, though, is some apparent mishap with the audio master that leaves multiple characters speaking with noticeable reverb. I'd assumed at first it was the result of some COVID-related recording issues, but it happens across enough different characters and scenes that I have to guess something messed up after that while mixing the audio tracks. Either way, it's distracting and just another way this premiere finds to be generally unpleasant. So yeah, even if you're in the mood for a problematic romcom, this one fails at both Rom and Com pretty definitively.
In the grand tradition of heavy-hitting genre staples such as Midsommar, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and I Spit on Your Grave, Studio Nomad has brought us Koikimo, though its full title gives Western audiences a better glimpse of the grim fable to come: “It's Disgusting to Call This Love”. As with so many of the so-called “final girls” of horror cinema, our heroine Ichika Arima is a sweet teenager that is simply trying to make it through high school with her head and her heart intact. She is the mythic Red Riding Hood that finds herself lost in a deadly forest – one made up of concrete and office buildings, and filled with predators dressed in three-piece suits. The wolf of this story is Ryo Amakusa, who immediately brings to mind the kind of dandy psychopath that Christian Bale embodied so well in his career-defining performance as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.
The mistake that Ichika makes is in saving Ryo from a potentially nasty fall down a flight of stairs, though we don't understand the full scope of Ichika's predicament until she arrives at her best friend Rio's place and discovers that Ryo is her older brother. An aggressive womanizer, it isn't before a full minute has passed until the twenty-seven-year-old man starts aggressively hitting on Ichika, and the show subtly reveals his utter lack of concern for Ichika's well-being by making it clear upfront that he knows that she is fully ten years younger than him, and underage. What's worse, Ichika does the right thing by calling him out for being “creepy”, and not only does she end up being the one who apologizes to Ryo, but Ryo takes his obsession with his latest victim to positively terrifying levels. He begins sending this child romantic gifts, completely unsolicited. He calls her on the phone, and when she explicitly tells him that he is making her uncomfortable, the camera cuts to his wolfish grin, teeth alight with ill intent, as he simply croons: “But I don't care. I won't stop.” He tells her that she can beg and plead him all she wants, but he has decided that she will be his, and there is nothing to be done about it.
In a rather brilliant touch, much of the dialogue between the two has an uncanny, hollow sound to it, as if it were being recorded in some public bathroom stall. I can only assume that this was to increase the viewers' growing sense of unease and discomfort, to put them in the same fraught mental state as our heroine. Though the production values are not especially impressive, horror is a genre that often works best when the creator's imaginations are forced to adapt to limited resources. We don't need flashy animation or decent sound quality to know that Ichika's plight is the same plight of so many women all over the world. There's enough tension to be had simply in how random passersby smile and laugh at how Ryo continually preys on Ichika in broad daylight, or in the way Rio happily feeds her best friend to her older brother's sick impulses (perhaps some sort of commentary on how Ryo's abuse has gone so deep as to scar his own family?)
In any case, while I usually don't find anime horror series to be particularly scary or effective, Koikimo shook me to my core, to the point where I don't know how much I can even recommend it. Victims of sexual predation will likely find that Koikimo's shocking subject matter hits too close to home. However, in an age where victims of assault and harassment are finally getting their stories told in headlines the world over I think that Koikimo can shed some—
I'm sorry? What's that? My apologies, everyone, just a minute…I've just been informed by ANN Editorial that Koikimo is…this can't be right…they're saying that it's…not a horror anime. That Koikimo is supposed to be a…a romantic comedy? And that Ryo's…”antics”…are meant to be “funny”? And “cute”?
In that case, this unfunny, gross, and altogether nasty piece of shit can go right in the waste bin, along with the rest of the trash.
I have two words for Ichika, the heroine of Koikimo: Restraining. Order.
I read a lot of romance. It's a genre I enjoy, mostly because it's guaranteed to have a happy ending, although I also find it academically interesting. But for that projected happy ending to work, a story needs to hit the reader's (or viewer's, in this case) preferred notes, and Koikimo does not look like it's going to do that for me. Largely this is because the first episode is trying far too hard to make its central romance a blend of romantic and funny, and it's not really doing either. The premise is that Ryo, an adult man who has a lot of shallow sex-based relationships with women whose names he can't even remember, suddenly falls head over heels for his high school student sister's best friend Ichika. Why? Because she shows evidence of being an actual human being with thoughts in her head, something he apparently does not see his sex partners as. He then begins an inappropriate campaign to win a plainly uncomfortable Ichika over. She asks him to stop. He does not.
Apart from the fact that if a girl sees your kisses as an actual threat, she's probably not interested in pursuing a relationship, this episode is uncomfortably invested in how very little Ichika wants Ryo's attention. This is perhaps best encapsulated by the moment when the word “creep” fills the screen after Ryo offers her sex as a reward for saving him from falling down a flight of stairs. (This is how they meet, incidentally. Ichika may currently regret her actions.) And Ryo really is a creep, or a jerk, or whatever epithet you feel like applying to him: not only is he actively making Ichika uncomfortable, he blatantly refuses to stop when she asks him to. Sadly, he's not the only one with a boundary problem – Rio and Ichika's mom are also encouraging the relationship, despite Ichika's clearly expressed discomfort.
In her mom's defense, she may not have any idea how old Ryo actually is, although she's clearly not interacted with many teenagers recently if she thinks daily flowers from a florist are a thing an actual teenage boy would do. And Rio probably just sees Ryo as her big brother, which may cloud her perception of what's happening. It's also true that you can't always help who you fall for, and certainly age gap romances can be done well. That this one isn't (based on this episode, anyway) is more a statement about how it's being told than the genre as a whole.
The story may know that – after all the full title translates to something along the lines of “It's Too Sick to Call This Love.” Can't say they didn't warn us, I guess, although that doesn't make me any more inclined to give this show any more of my time.
The first real sign that something was rotten in the state of anime came when Crunchyroll was announcing their new licenses. In their graphic of upcoming streams, everything had a brief one- or two-sentence blurb about the story, except for Koikimo, which just had publication details about the manga. Guess they didn't want people to realize they'd licensed an anime about a grown man obsessively stalking a teenage girl!
Turns out the official English title, Koikimo, is a cute little portmanteau for the full Japanese title, Koi to Yobu ni wa Kimochi Warui, which translates to “It's Sickening to Call This Love.” It's a pretty accurate title, so I think I'm just going to stick with that even if it's a pain to type, thanksssssss. Less accurate, however, is the first episode's title, “He's Not Entirely Bad,” because no, he really is that bad.
Ryo Amakusa is a wealthy adult businessman, the kind who speaks fluent English (which, props to Toshiyuki Toyonaga, I actually believed it when he spoke it) on high-stakes calls around the world. He believes he's god's gift to women (ew) and has lots of casual sex (fine) while looking down on the women he sleeps with (not fine). Once he sets his sights on Ichika, he stalks her relentlessly, sends her unwanted gifts, ignores her socially-conditioned polite and indirect rejections, and is overall a total creep. His little sister Rio, Ichika's classmate and world's worst friend, enables him by feeding him personal information about Ichika and manipulating her into calling him so he'll have her phone number.
It's overall a decent production, other than puzzlingly poor audio for Ryo's dialogue. The opening theme song is a banger. The art and character designs are bright and attractive, and the voice cast does a good job, which once again, only twists the knife further. It's a romantic comedy, which means humor and character writing take precedence over plotting. The problem is, it's impossible for me to find humor in the situation I've been presented with, or consider the “jokes” anything but huge red flags waving overhead.
I found myself oddly wishing the script or character acting were more over-the-top or exaggerated, because the real poison here is just how realistic his behavior is. Beyond the initial goofiness of him getting down on one knee after Ichika calls him disgusting, everything he does is right out of the groomer's handbook. Solid character acting, like how Ichika clutches at her hoodie in discomfort as she apologizes to Ryo for having the audacity to tell him he's making her uncomfortable, before he smiles gently and refuses to stop, only worsens things. With an almost identical script and tweaks to the direction, color design, and music, this could easily be repurposed as a psychological thriller.
It's Sickening to Call This Love is a josei series, meaning it's aimed at adult women, but I question just who would be able to laugh at this. In a way, I envy the people who can laugh at it, because it means they've never had a person make a dozen new accounts to get around their blocks. They've never ended a friendship because a man they thought they could trust turned out to have preyed on dozens of vulnerable younger people. It means they've never had their mother look into their eyes while talking about rock stars sleeping with teenage girls and say, “I could put so many people in jail.” It sounds nice.
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