Reviewby Theron Martin,
Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai
Sakuta Azusagawa is his school's pariah because of ugly rumors about his past exploits, but he isn't exactly an ordinary high school student for a bigger reason: he's already had personal experience with a mysterious phenomenon called "puberty syndrome," where a teenager's hang-ups can manifest in a physical fashion. It happened to his younger sister, who became a shut-in over bullying, and it is likely responsible for the claw-like scars across his chest. It may also be why he keeps encountering girls who experience their own version of it. The first is Mai Sakurajima, a girl a grade ahead of him who is taking a break from a modeling and acting career, who comes to his attention when she wears a sexy bunny girl costume in public just to see if she can still be perceived by others. Later incidents include time loops, clones, and body swaps, and there's the case of his sister, too. But the biggest mystery may be the case of Shoko Makinohara, whom he met a couple of years before as a high school student but who now appears to be a middle schooler. Can the rascal navigate his way through all of these cases and still keep his newfound girlfriend?
I did episode reviews for this series during is initial run in the Fall 2018 season, so if you want to see a more detailed running commentary about the series, check those out. This review will instead focus more on overall impressions and the particulars of the Blu-Ray release by Aniplex.
While they haven't been common in recent years, stories about a young male protagonist who goes around solving the (oft-supernatural) problems of various cute girls have been a staple of anime over the past couple of decades. This 13 episode title, which is named after the first volume of the light novel series it adapts, is one of the most recent incarnations. While it does not pack the intense emotional appeal of defining titles like Air and Kanon, it offers things that those titles do not: a more compelling male lead, issues resulting from thoroughly contemporary situations that are easily relatable, and - most importantly of all! - a sexy girl in a bunny costume.
Actually, both that statement and the series' full title are somewhat misleading. Outside of the opener, Mai only ever appears in the bunny costume on one occasion past the first episode, and the series has barely any true fan service beyond that. Hence the sex appeal is strictly a flavoring at a mild enough level that it shouldn't be a problem for those normally averse to fan service. Nor are any of the gimmicks involving "puberty syndrome" at all flashy; the emphasis is instead entirely on figuring out why the situation may have come about and how it can get resolved.
That is where the meat of the series lies, and it can be surprisingly thorough and effective. This stems in part because these cases feel less like contrivances and more like problems real teenagers could actually have: bullying through social media, being left isolated and unnoticed by social cliques because of poor timing, the desperate need to navigate through social complexities to stay with the "in" crowd, discomfort with body and self-image, feeling unable to match up to an older sibling, and whatever the hell is going on with Shoko, which is not explained in this series. (It is, instead, the subject of the follow-up movie, Rascal Does Not Dream of a Dreaming Girl, which will be a separate physical release.) The intensity of these problems sometimes may seem like an overreaction from an outside adult perspective, but over the years I have seen many, many teenagers in real life (figuratively) drowning in issues like these. The series just takes those matters and applies supernatural phenomenon like time loops and body-swapping to them, with philosophical points like Schroedinger's Cat and Laplace's Demon or physics concepts like quantum teleportation sometimes mixed in.
Another big part of why it all works is the protagonist. Male leads in series like these often tend to be bland nice guys so that the audience can self-insert, but that's not Sakuta. Early on he can come across as a laconic rascal (which he's often called by certain characters), and that and his deadpan attitude and regular flow of snark certainly turned some potential viewers off on the series when it first aired. However, over the course of the series he also shows that he will deeply and passionately support the few people he genuinely cares about, even at cost or inconvenience to himself. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of his sister Kaede, a girl far more broken even than she initially appears to be. The patience, care, and (later on) emotion he shows concerning her is impressive by any standards.
That being said, Sakuta's neatest relationship - and one of the other big factors which helps sell the series - is his relationship with Mai, the first girl he winds up helping. She initially seems headed in a tsundere direction, but the writing does not settle for so simple and neatly-classifiable a trope. She perfectly understands what kind of person Sakuta is and doesn't give him leeway except on her own terms, yet she unquestionably cares for and is falling in love with him. Their relationship also feels much more earned rather than just settling for something easy like "childhood friends" or "I fell for him when he picked up my eraser." Most importantly, they are a good match for each other as a couple; neither is part of their school's mainstream, they have common experiences with weirdness, and their personalities are perverse in complementary fashion. By comparison, Sakuta's interactions with the other three girls are more typical; each has her own quirks (the Science Club member heats beverages and food using chemistry tools, for instance) and flaws, and each remains to some degree involved in the story after (and in all but one case before) their turns but in much lesser capacities, whereas Mai is a steadier presence. Sakuta also has a male friend who makes appearances from time to time but is never more than peripherally involved in the Puberty Syndrome events and doesn't know about them.
Although the story and characterization merits are consistently solid, the technical merits are more of a mixed bag. At times the production by director Sōichi Masui (Scrapped Princess, Sakura Quest) and his CloverWorks teams shows some ambitious animation, especially in background animation of crowds and scenes where Sakuta is running or other characters are dancing, but the quality control for both that and staying on-model with characters varies some. Background art, on the other hand, is more consistently solid. Except maybe for the bunny suit, nothing about the artistry is especially flashy, with an effort seeming to have been made to promote a more comfortable, laid-back feel. Character designs also stand out; Sakuta isn't Generic Harem Protagonist #3,459 in appearance and all of the girls except Kaede show a good balance between being cute and outright pretty. (Kaede is still more purely cute.) Also notable is that most of the girls get a broader set of different clothing options than normal for a TV series.
The musical score for the series is used sparingly and mostly in a very understated fashion, with light synthesizer or piano numbers composing much of it. It does have one full and a couple of partial insert songs in the segment about Mai's half-sister (who is an up-and-coming idol group member), but there is nothing special about them. The opener and closer, on the other hand, are both stand-outs, though for different reasons. Opener "Kimi no Sei" by The Peggies (who also originated the insert song "BABY!") is a lively song paired with full and fairly ambitious animation, including the aforementioned clips of Mai dancing in the bunny suit. The song for gentler and more wistful closer "Mysterious Chart" remains the same throughout the series but the singer and character featured in it regularly update according to which girl is being featured in a given block of episodes.
Aniplex of America is, disappointingly, releasing the set in subbed-only Blu-Ray form, though with the option to turn the subtitles off and separate English credits. The minibox features Mai, while other girls are featured on the reversible case liner. On-disk extras are sparse, consisting only of clean opener and clean versions of all closer variants. The box includes an exclusive Weiss Schwartz card featuring Mai in school uniform but wearing her bunny costume's ears, a set of five art cards featuring each of the featured girls in one of the series' settings, and a 32-page booklet containing character profiles and concept art for characters, settings, and assorted knickknacks.
If the series has a major weakness, it's its stopping point. How Kaede's series-ending arc ends isn't fully satisfying, and it leaves the situation with Shoko completely hanging. Hence the series isn't going to be complete without the movie, which isn't generally available yet in the States as of this writing. However, what is here is a story which can at times surprise with the depth and quality of its writing, and one which feels a bit fresher than normal for its genre. The first episode is arguably the series' weakest one, so if you got turned away by that then another look at more of it beyond that is recommended.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Sakuta/Mai relationship, deals with more real-world issues for teenagers, more involved storytelling and characterizations than initially apparent.
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