The Summer 2021 Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Girlfriend, Girlfriend ?
What is this?
This "neo romantic comedy" centers on Naoya, a first-year high school student. After he confesses to Saki — the girl he's liked for a long time — and they decide to start dating, Naoya's life is full of bliss. However, one day a beautiful young woman named Nagisa also confesses to Naoya. Naoya and Nagisa immediately get along, and he tells Nagisa that he already has a girlfriend. She vows to confess to him again someday, when he suddenly proposes that they instead go together to talk with Saki about him dating them both at the same time. Saki and Nagisa hit it off immediately, and while Saki is angry and reluctant at first about the idea, she eventually agrees.
How was the first episode?
Love triangles are a staple in fiction—just as much as the ever popular “will they won't they” trope. Most of the time, it is a question of which boy/girl the main character will choose to be with in the end. But despite the large amount of triangle symbolism in the anime's opening, that's not what this anime is really about. What we have here is the story of a guy who suddenly realizes he is poly and has no idea how to go about creating a successful poly relationship.
To steal a quote from Dr. Nerdlove, “polyamory is dating on hard mode.” After all, you're not only dealing with one other person's feelings but several people's—and their feelings towards each other as well. Just stumbling into a poly relationship without doing some serious research and soul searching is all but guaranteed to hurt all parties involved.
And that's the thing about this anime: I absolutely detest Naoya. He's horribly unethical about how he goes about starting this poly relationship. There are many kinds of poly relationships, from ones where there is a main couple and the other people involved are just there for sex to ones where there is an equal physical and emotional relationship between all those involved. What's important is that everyone involved understands and agrees on what kind of poly relationship they are in and lay down some serious ground rules to make everyone comfortable.
The big problem here is that Naoya's unilaterally deciding the shape of the relationship. He's basically painting things as “if you break up with me over this, I'll just date her instead” (to Saki) and “if you want to date me, you need to be okay with me dating her as well” (to Nagisa). It's nothing less than emotional blackmail that forces them into his little poly adventure. Enthusiastic consent this is most certainly not.
Now, there are two mitigating circumstances that make the character possibly redeemable. Firstly, he's young and has just figured out he is poly. He has no clue what he is doing in an ethical or practical sense. The second is that he is born and raised in Japan where poly relationships are even more rare and ostracized than in America. He may not even know there are resources out there to educate him on how to do things ethically.
Still, as much as this is being painted as a crazy comedy, I can't help but see it as a tragedy. The three of them are learning the hard way what not to do in a poly relationship while still figuring out if they really want to be in one or not.
*spins chair around*
Let's talk about responsible polyamorous relationships.
Polyamorous relationships can take many forms, but the most important thing is that everyone involved is fully aware of and consenting to the situation. Not everyone involved needs to be in relationships with each other, or even polyamorous themselves, but for the arrangement not to dip into abuse, it is essential that every single party needs to be okay with the situation.
That is not the sense I got from Girlfriend, Girlfriend at all.
Poor, poor Saki gets pressured and has her boundaries violated at every single turn. Her putz of a boyfriend Naoya asked her out every month in elementary and middle school until she finally said yes in high school. He grabs her in a tight hug in front of the class and refuses to let go, even when she struggles to get away. He ignores her obvious discomfort when he says he wants a second girlfriend and yells until she reluctantly assents. Then he announces they should both move into his house before she even has a chance to adjust to the situation and texts her mom asking permission, even though she's not on board with that either. Meanwhile, Nagisa is a perfect little waifu who works hard to keep herself cute, makes extravagant bentos, and just loves to cook and clean. She's more of a blow-up doll that does chores than a character.
It sucks, it sucks. I didn't think I could like Naoya less until he proposed a threesome when he hadn't even kissed Saki, then started hollering about how having sex with them one at a time would be “unfaithful” to the other even though that is not how it works, like even a little bit. He tries to make it seem like making such unreasonable requests is just honesty and thus makes him a real stand-up guy, when it's just deep selfishness. The whole situation is extraordinarily awkward and a terrible representation of an already poorly understood type of relationship and just not fun to watch. Or, if we're being honest, to listen to, because from the sounds of it, the voice cast was instructed to just yell at the top of their lungs constantly.
The really frustrating thing is, it didn't have to be like this! Saki is genuinely attracted to Nagisa herself. With more thoughtful characterization and a writer who actually understands polyamory, this could easily have been a series about a girl finding an unlikely avenue to explore her bisexuality. Now there's a story I'd be interested in.
As my tenure at ANN can attest, I'm a sucker for a good rom-com, harem or otherwise. While part of it is just nostalgia for some of the stuff I devoured when I first got into anime and manga (hey there, Rosario + Vampire) it's also because I like exploring different kinds of romance in fiction, and for whatever reason modern harem series seem to be rife with different ideas for how to talk about love. That's not to say all of them do it well, but still. So when I heard the premise of this redundantly titled show, I was both curious and skeptical. There was room here for, if nothing else, a novel approach to your typical love triangle woes, but there's also plenty of room for a trashy pile-up of mindless wish fulfillment you usually only see in the secret harem endings of dating sims.
As of this first episode, both those possibilities are still viable endpoints, but if nothing else I laughed a whole lot during this premiere. Most of that comes down to the genuinely farcical tone of the whole affair – our protagonist Naoya is such an honest and earnest fool that he can't help but loudly proclaim every stray thought that passes through the hollow walnut he calls a brain, which is either excruciating or charming depending on just how dumb you like your harem focus-points. More importantly, that earnestness is what keeps this whole premise feeling sincere rather than sleazy. Most other romcom protags would come off as scumbags for proposing they date two girls at once, but this loud-mouthed fool isn't capable of that kind of two-faced nonsense, and the moment he comes up with the idea he's rushing off to get permission from both prospective partners. Is it a realistic or grounded portrayal of how real people enter polyamorous relationships? God no. But in the land of high school anime it's a breath of fresh air.
That same sentiment colors much of the rest of this episode, which skips over the expected roadblocks to get this whole scenario into domesticity mode by the 15-minute mark. Rather than being jealous of her new co-Girlfriend, Saki is immediately charmed by Nagisa's puppy dog demeanor, and all of her objections are about not trusting Naoya's intentions. Immediately after all parties agree, they just move in together because fuck it, why not cut out the two episodes of filler it would take to get to this point and just get straight to the awkward phase? By the time they were negotiating the terms of a hypothetical threesome it almost felt like we'd jumped five episodes ahead. But it works, because the entire appeal of this story is its unconventional premise, so we might as well jump into the deep end. I can't speak for others, but that's a move that I both appreciate and found pretty funny.
The biggest immediate issue is the visuals. While the character designs are nice enough, they do feel a tad bland. The only detail that really stuck with me was Naoya's small and desperate eyes, and considering your harem lead is usually the least memorable character, that's probably not a great sign. The animation is likewise serviceable but unexceptional, with a lot of still frames and panning shots in between key moments and dialogue. It's not awful, but it's a sign that things probably won't look too great moving forward.
As for how well this whole thing will reflect on real-life poly relationships, it's probably best not to expect too much. It's possible it could be good – after all, Mysterious Girlfriend X managed to be a sincere exploration of sexual boundaries AND a horny comedy built around a drool fetish, so who's to say this dumbass trio can't also have something to say about maintaining a healthy polycule? But at the same time, I know enough about polyamory to know that it's something that's both complicated and takes a lot of work, and that's generally not what these kinds of shows are about. But so long as it manages to stay funny rather than sleazy, I think I'm down for seeing where this whole mess goes.
I have to give props to Girlfriend, Girlfriend, because it is an anime that absolutely knows what it wants to be, and it has virtually no compunctions about bringing us along for the ride. If the title didn't give it away, the whole hook of this show is that our main character Naoya is basically living out the half-joked-about fantasy endings that fans always bust out when a rom-com gets into love triangle hijinks. He has a gorgeous girlfriend named Saki who he's been pursuing since they were in elementary school, but when long-time admirer Nagisa confesses her love for him, Naoya doesn't choose to simply collapse under the strain of contrived anime drama; instead, he asks them both to be his girlfriend. At the same time. And (after a bunch of convincing on Saki's part), they eventually agree.
So, the big headline would basically end up being “Girlfriend, Girlfriend is the first anime romcom about an explicitly canonical relationship!”, though I would be hesitant to go throwing around the term “polyamory” all willy-nilly. I'm admittedly a pretty old-fashioned monogamist, but some of my poly friends have explained their relationship dynamics to me in detail, and my understanding is that it often is built upon a foundation of mutual trust, respect, and empathy. Everyone needs to be into it, everyone needs to set clear boundaries and expectations, and everyone needs to feel like they're on an equal playing field.
Herein lies my problem with Girlfriend, Girlfriend. I have absolutely no problem with the basic idea that an anime would follow the romantic trials and tribulations of a few wacky kids who decide to navigate the tumultuous waters of a non-traditional romance. The issue is that the guy at the center of all this blossoming romance, Naoya, is an incredibly aggravating buffoon who I can't stand whatsoever. He screams about how much he loves Saki in the middle of their classroom without once listening to her pleas for him to shut up, and then he becomes obsessed with the idea of dating both Saki and Nagisa literally within seconds of the latter confessing to him, despite the fact that they've literally never spoken to each other before.
And then, when the time comes to pitch the polycule to Saki, Naoya's entire argument is rooted in his feelings: He has so much love to give, but he just can't help how much he wants to also date Nagisa, and it would hurt him so much if he just lied about it and cheated on Saki — as if that's literally the only alternative to coercing his girlfriend into sharing him with another girl! My eyes can only roll so violently before I have to sue Tezuka Studios into paying for corrective ocular surgery.
In other words, Naoya just plain sucks. He's not attractive, he's not charming, and he doesn't seem to have a romantic bone in his body, since only a hormone-addled teenager could confuse “screaming incessantly about how much you love a girl and then begging them to have a threesome with the submissive waifu you just met” with actual, sustainable love. Hell, maybe I really am getting too old for shenanigans like this. Girlfriend, Girlfriend is a well-animated and snappily paced comedy that may end up really working for people with more patience for shows like this, or those who are better able to suspend their disbelief for the sake of a gag. To me, though, it all comes across as lame attempts at humor that are ostensibly being made by aliens who have never once had a real interaction with a human person. Hard pass.
I was unimpressed with the source manga of this show, and I'm sorry to say that the same holds true for the anime adaptation. While I fully understand that Girlfriend, Girlfriend is intended to be funny, I just have a hard time getting behind the comedic idea of a guy who is so proud of his “honesty” that he thinks the perfect solution to being asked out by a cute girl when he's already dating the girl he's been asking out nonstop from elementary school on is to date them both at once. I'm sorry, sir, that's not you being “honest,” that's you trying to have your cake and eat it too, painting your inability and lack of desire to say no with a veneer of self-righteousness.
Interestingly enough, the manga made much more of Naoya's supposed “honesty” being a big deal to him; here it's something we're meant to deduce by his repeated statements that all sound a bit like, “I have to be honest” or “Honestly, I…” I do think that works here, because it lets us form our own judgements of his character without being told flat-out that he thinks he's in the right. We can see that, and that allows you to either agree with him or find him an insufferable twit. And he really does think that he's doing the right thing by verbalizing all of his spectacularly stupid thoughts – that asking Saki to let him date Nagisa alongside her is a perfectly acceptable solution, that it's okay to tell the girls that he's having threesome fantasies…it's fine to think that stuff. Saying it out loud with no expectation of consequences? Not so much.
Look, I know this is meant to be a comedy. A romantic comedy, even. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with consenting polyamorous relationships. But Naoya's such a nitwit, Saki's clearly not really fine with things, and Nagisa frankly should have backed off the minute Naoya said, “I have a girlfriend.” I also don't like the art – too much watery pastel, but more to the point there's something off about the faces that I can't quite put my finger on – but that's secondary to how irritating and unfunny I find the characters and the story.
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