The Spring 2022 Preview Guide
In the Heart of Kunoichi Tsubaki
How would you rate episode 1 of
In the Heart of Kunoichi Tsubaki ?
Community score: 3.7
What is this?
Tsubaki Kunoichi is the best student in her kunoichi school. She lives in a village of women with the rule that they cannot have contact with men. However, she has a curiosity about men that she cannot reveal.
How was the first episode?
Boy, Sōichirō Yamamoto's artstyle is not working here. The author of Teasing Master Takagi-san's signature style of cute characters with big noggins and fiveheads may work for realistic slice-of-life romantic comedies, but combined with The Heart of Kunoichi Tsubaki's bare-midriff costume designs, it kind of gives things a “sexy baby” vibe. When you add that to the core concept of a teenage girl who's starting to develop an obsession with men despite never having seen one in her life, things get pretty awkward.
I'm willing to buy that despite appearances, Tsubaki and her florally named cohorts are of an age where developing an interest in boys is normal and natural and, with that in mind, the series does have some charm. It gives things kind of a dueling summer camps vibe, where teens are segregated by sex but also desperate to catch a glimpse of one another. Adolescence is a hell of a drug, after all, and while not every girl develops an all-consuming obsession with boys, quite a few of them do at some point or another. Plus, the banter between the girls was pretty cute, whether it be about guys or other topics. The way they kept repeating the same factoids they'd learned from one another for lack of any other kind of information made me chuckle. I half-expected one to bust out, “Boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider” at some point.
It does beg the question: if these girls have literally never seen a man, and all they know is that they're big and smelly and have weak crotches, why would their hormones still go toward them? (Instead of being sublimated to more immediately available and familiar targets, if you catch my drift) It's one thing when you're around boys, but mostly spend time with other girls, and suddenly you start wanting to know about this mysterious other sex; it's another thing when they're basically cryptids.
One last thing in Kunoichi Tsubaki's defense: the show uses the word “otoko,” which is closer in meaning to “male” than to “man” or “men.” The choice to use “men” for the translation instead of “boys” makes it seem like these young girls are lusting after adult men, rather than their peers. With that in mind, things get a lot less creepy. Still a little weird, but not nearly as actively uncomfortable.
Look. I understand what this show is trying to do. The joke is that we have a girl going through puberty who is basically “boy crazy.” Yet, she's surrounded by nothing but girls and has been taught from birth that men are basically monsters (but, importantly, ones that can be defeated with a well-aimed shot to the crotch). She has no one to talk to about her burgeoning sexuality and is trying to keep all these newfound feelings inside—though they keep bursting to the surface whenever she so much as thinks of something even tangentially related to men.
Unfortunately, I am unable to suspend disbelief when it comes to the core concept of the show. If you've never seen a man, think that they are disgusting, inhuman beings, and know nothing about sex and men's role in it, why would you be sexually aroused by them? I mean, she can't even form a mental picture of a man because all she knows about men comes from what her teacher has told them to scare them.
It would be one thing if she were captivated by the unknown—enticed by the taboo nature of meeting a man. After all, most teens rebel at some point and do things they are not supposed to do for the rush of it. But that's not what we are seeing with Tsubaki. She's basically sexually attracted to the concept of men—and an incredibly unflattering concept at that. I think she's going to be disappointed when she finds out that men are actually a lot like women—only with more hair and muscles.
Now, I may be overthinking things (but in my own defense, that's literally what I am paid to do). However, that doesn't change the fact that every time Tsubaki goes to mush thinking about men, I find it annoying instead of cute and silly, and her teammates (one “aggressively lesbian” and the other a lazy glutton) didn't add much to the story beyond being walking plot devices. In the end, this anime is basically a non-starter. Consider me thoroughly not entertained.
This is a bit of a weird one. If you couldn't tell from the size of these characters' foreheads, this is from the same mangaka as Teasing Master Takagi-san, and while it features a similar style of soft and silly humor based around the awkward pangs of early puberty, instead of a typical high-school romcom we get this whole apparatus of a girls-only ninja-in-training village and multiple teams of anime girls throwing shuriken and using ninjutsu. It's a way more complex setting for a similar effect, but it does add a bit of flavor to the whole thing.
It helps that the show just looks really nice. I don't know what magic Sōichirō Yamamoto worked to get two different gorgeously directed adaptations of his work, but that panache helps what might otherwise be pretty standard anime ninja shenanigans feel genuinely fun. These characters move with a ton of energy and spark, the short action sequences are solid, but the real treat is the wonderful environmental work during Tsubaki's nighttime excursion into the woods. The daytime scenes are a bit more pedestrian, but still do well to give this big ol' gaggle of kunoichi the energy you'd expect from kids, even ones training to be ninja. The character designs – specifically the cast's clothing, or lack thereof – are a bit of a red flag, but as of this episode the direction hasn't dipped into anything sexualizing. The closest it gets is Tsubaki blushing over the thought of seeing a b-b-b-boy, but you'd have to stretch pretty far to call that cheesecake.
As for the setup itself, it does feel a bit too contrived at the start, but by the end of the episode we wind up in the same sort of place as like, kids' summer camp movies. You know, it's a sleep-away camp out in the woods, and there's all-girls and all-boys camps on either side of a big lake. They get into adventures trying to sneak over to see the other camp, and eventually there's a big competition at the End of Summer. I don't imagine these competing(?) ninja schools will have a river raft race or a competitive pie eating contest, but you never know. It all mostly winds up as fodder for jokes about kids who don't know anything about boys spreading rumors and theories, including one girl who very clearly heard about dudes getting kicked in the balls and spends the entire rest of the episode telling all her friends about it to seem cool. Tsubaki herself is flustered to hell and back thinking about boys, and that's about all the jokes you get across this premiere.
It's not bad, but it definitely starts wearing thin by the time credits roll, and the sooner the show can introduce more material to build its gags around, the better. This creator has shown before that he can make charming low-key ensemble comedies, and there's certainly enough characters to facilitate that. It just needs to either introduce a stronger comedic hook, or delve more into its setting to get there.
Man, I wanted to like In the Heart Kunoichi Tsubaki, since I'm already such a big fan of author Soichiro Yamamoto's other series, Teasing Master Takagi-san. However, I was definitely not inspired to get my hopes up when I saw the key art and trailers for this new series, which made it look like it was the kind of pandering and fanservice-driven comedy that I'm usually not too keen on. And look, let's get it out of the way up front: If you get skeeved out when a show puts a whole heck of a lot of the camera's focus on the exposed bellies and feet of young girls, thenIn the Heart Kunoichi Tsubaki isn't going to be for you. The show is never so crass as to straight-up crash zoom on any of the characters' crotches or anything, but you'd have to be blind to not notice how much effort this series has gone towards putting a literal village full of tween girls into the most revealing ninja outfits that it can manage without knocking itself into an Adults Only timeslot (or a government watch-list, for that matter).
Even if you were to ignore the questionable designs and costume choices of the entire cast, not to mention all of the shots that are specifically designed to highlight the girls' toes and bellybuttons, the biggest issue with In the Heart Kunoichi Tsubaki would remain: It just isn't very funny. The whole show revolves around precisely one joke, which is that Tsubaki and her fellow lady ninjas hail from a reclusive clan that has managed to live in complete isolation from any men for years, to the point that all of the children treat the very concept of a “man” as some sort of hilarious cryptozoological prank. This is a trope that has been played both straight and as comedic fodder for literally a hundred years or more, from the pages of the sleaziest pulp magazine stories to the hackiest TV sitcoms. It isn't an inherently awful trope, mind you, but it's been played out to the degree that you have to get really creative with it if you want to be successful.
In the Heart Kunoichi Tsubaki is not really creative about anything it does, and if it weren't for the admittedly slick and entertaining production values, you'd be forgiven for mistaking the series for some bargain bin sex-comedy OVA that's been buried in someone's old VHS stash for the past thirty years. Each of the three main characters has exactly one character trait apiece, and none of them make for great comedy: Tsubaki is the all-star ninja who has become so obsessed with the idea of meeting a guy that she can't do her job anymore, Sazanka is the obsessive scamp who can't keep her hands/feet/body off of Tsubaki, and Asagao is…I guess she's the dumb one? I don't know. The show is too busy making lazy double entendre puns and repeating the same joke about Tsubaki's overflowing horniness to bother communicating anything else to its audience.
That's the thing about this preview: It could very well be that there is a genuinely funny and endearing comedy hiding somewhere underneath all of the lazy writing and questionable artistic decisions, but if that version of In the Heart Kunoichi Tsubaki does exist, this first episode certainly didn't do a great job of advertising it. I'll stick to Takagi-san, thank you very much. Consider this one of the season's biggest disappointments.
It's entirely possible that In the Heart of Kunoichi Tsubaki is trying to be a sort of light riff on that period of adolescence when some people become obsessed with whatever gender(s) they're attracted to. In fact, I highly suspect that's the case – in a world where ninja schools are segregated by gender, the guiding principle of the girls' school seems to be that men are like ticks – something best avoided and, in this case, often found outside. But because people are people, the harping on how awful men are has had the effect that the girls are all fully obsessed with them, something that ranges from “deliciously grossed out” to “fluttery feelings in the chest.” While most of the girls fall into the first category, our eponymous heroine is firmly in the second, but because her teacher is so down on men, she thinks that liking them must mean that there's something wrong with her. Hijinks ensue.
I'm not sure what point exactly this episode is trying to make or what mood it's hoping to strike. We have a yuri-bait character in Sazanka, who is more attached to Tsubaki than she perhaps should be, we have plenty of cute girl designs and young women in various states of undress (or rather, clothing that doesn't cover much), and we have Tsubaki who is plainly attracted to men despite having never seen one. Presumably it's all meant to be funny, but it doesn't quite manage it, in part because even when the story hits on something amusing, it's promptly used as many times as possible in the moments following its introduction. Even if you've never seen a man you can surely use your imagination to come up with more than the oft-repeated “smelly, doesn't bathe, big bodies but weak in the crotch” that's practically the theme song of this episode. There are more ways to describe the Loch Ness Monster, for goodness' sake. It feels like someone thought the concept (and that repeated statement) is a lot funnier than it actually is.
On the other hand, this is a different approach to the CGCT genre, so if you're interested in a variation on that theme, this may be worth checking out. Bobble-head look of the character designs aside, it doesn't look awful, and if the attempt to show how far the girls can jump ends up looking more like they're flying on invisible brooms, well, I at least appreciate the effort. But it really needs to find more than one joke to hang its hat on, because this one gets old quickly.
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