by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 4 of
Domestic Girlfriend ?
It might seem strange to describe a pair of siblings' attempt to stalk their older sister and force her out of a scandalous love affair as being “cute”, but that's exactly what Domestic Girlfriend manages to accomplish with its fourth outing. When Rui meets up with anpan and milk to fuel their stakeout, the tone of the episode is immediately set; the pair's actions are ethically dubious at best, but Domestic Girlfriend is going to continue to walk a fine line of taking its characters' bad decisions seriously while making the ensuing chaos as entertaining as possible.
What works best about the first half of the episode is how it showcases Natsuo and Rui's easygoing chemistry, while giving both them and the audience a peek into Hina's personal life. It's fun to see Natsuo and Rui take their detective work so seriously, and the joke of Hina taking them on a wild goose chase for days while she goes out to drink by herself and checks out local comedy clubs is pretty funny. Later, a botched attempt to have Rui impersonate Hina over the phone reminds us of how much these kids are in over their heads – they know nothing about how to properly meddle in adult affairs, and it shows. If there's one thing that helps elevate Domestic Girlfriend's story, it's how much its main characters feel more down-to-earth than expected from such a melodrama. The art and animation is cleaner this week too, which helps the show sell both its comedy and its drama better.
When Hina and her lover Shuu do accidentally wander into Café L'amant, where Natsuo and Rui have come to commiserate in their failures, the drama gets cranked up again. Natsuo is fit to beat Shuu senseless, until Masaki manages to defuse the situation by making everyone pasta, so they can hash out their issues like adults (or slightly more mature children, anyway). This exchange is a surprisingly level-headed one; Shuu explains that he's the one who initiated the affair, so he accepts responsibility for putting Hina in such an uncomfortable position and even expresses what seems like sincere regret over Hina's heartache. Nevertheless, the whole thing ends with Rui dousing Shuu in ice water and storming outside, collapsing in tears into Natsuo's arms. Despite the episode ostensibly being focused on Hina's relationship woes, the real emotional hooks this week are all centered around Natsuo and Rui's increasingly complicated dynamic, which is fine by me. If Natsuo absolutely must commit step-sibling incest with one of these women so the story can continue, Rui is far and away the better match for him so far.
The whole time this drama is going down, the Café L'amant workers are acting as perfectly engrossed audience proxies, working themselves up in anticipation and celebrating the appearance of iconic melodramatic tropes, like when Rui throws water all over Shuu's face. In a genre like this that demands more suspension of disbelief to function, it's risky to get cutesy with the metafictional acknowledgement of the story's tropes. When the whole premise is predicated on people making catastrophically bad decisions on a regular basis, it doesn't help to point out that the characters should be well aware of the soapy romantic nonsense they're getting themselves into. More often than not, Domestic Girlfriend makes it work by managing its tonal shifts from comedy to drama, ensuring that we're invested in the plot while still never taking things too seriously.
The drama cools down significantly after this confrontation. Hina and Shuu have an uncomfortable conversation that acknowledges Natsuo being primarily motivated by his infatuation for Hina, and while she acknowledges Natsuo's feelings, she denies reciprocating them, and she even seems ready to tell Shuu something she's been carrying around for a long time. At home, the unspoken anger between the siblings festers when Hina asks Rui and Natsuo to help find a birthday gift for their mother. Rui rejects Hina altogether, though Natsuo has a more valid excuse: he's visiting his mother's grave. This leads us into a fairly rote flashback where we meet Natsuo's mother, a sweet woman afflicted with Anime Mom Disease, inadvertently stunting her son's emotional growth for decades when she tells him how sad she's going to be in heaven if her son keeps crying all the time. To be honest, I'm not sold on this exploration of Natsuo's backstory. It's too cliché to be interesting on its own, and I don't think it does much to re-contextualize his current situation.
The cemetery is where all three siblings reunite, leading us to the conclusion of Hina's affair. She's broken things off with Shuu, because she values her family's respect more than anything else. While I understand why Rui and Natsuo are at least partially motivated by legitimate concern over Hina's emotional well-being, I maintain that the show should have put more pressure on Rui and Natsuo's selfishness, because the happy resolution to this part of the story feels too neat and tidy. With Hina now single, Natsuo will be more free than ever to pursue his single-minded love for her, which makes me sure this happy family will be headed for stormier waters soon enough.
Domestic Girlfriend is currently streaming on HIDIVE.
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