Real Girl
Episodes 1-3

by Paul Jensen,

How would you rate episode 1 of
Real Girl ?

How would you rate episode 2 of
Real Girl ?

How would you rate episode 3 of
Real Girl ?

Real Girl's premise is as familiar as they come: awkward otaku guy meets pretty girl, and through some crazy set of circumstances, the two of them end up dating. The guy in this particular case is Hikari Tsutsui, whose love for magical girl anime has made him a social outcast at his high school. His only friend is Ito, a fellow otaku with a habit of wearing animal ears on his head. When Tsutsui first meets the pretty and stylish Iroha Igarashi, he assumes she will be just as nasty to him as the rest of his classmates. Instead, a series of emotionally charged encounters ends with the two of them agreeing to start dating. Of course, that decision leads to its own share of troubles, as both Tsutsui and Iroha struggle to fully understand each other's feelings.

Chances are you've heard this kind of story before, and Tsutsui doesn't exactly help the show's case by making a lousy first impression. He makes a lot of assumptions about Iroha when they first meet, becoming openly unpleasant in most of their early interactions. That doesn't make him the easiest protagonist to like, but fortunately Real Girl is well aware that Tsutsui is kind of a jerk. The story makes a point of lending some context to his perspective and behavior, the most potent example of which involves a former middle school classmate going out of her way to accost Tsutsui at a fast food joint without provocation. It's clear that Tsutsui has taken a lot of crap from other people as a result of his hobby, and he's developed a nasty persecution complex as a result. Crucially, he still wants to be the kind of person who always does the right thing, whether that means awkwardly standing up for Ito or charging in to help Iroha despite the risk of further humiliation. He also overthinks their relationship at every turn, to the point where his stress spills over onto the people around him. It's that desire to improve that redeems Tsutsui in these opening episodes, and supporting characters like Ito and Ishino act as sources of guidance and correction to help him stay on the right track. While Tsutsui's flaws may not make him likable, they do make him more believable.

Iroha is significantly easier to like up front, but she's also harder to get a read on. She's almost impossibly blunt and straightforward in most of her social interactions, jumping straight to the point of every conversation with no regard for how the other person will react. This leads to some very funny scenes, especially when Iroha is able to read Tsutsui like a book in their first encounter. On the other hand, it inevitably means that she doesn't get along well with her peers; guys don't react well to her direct rejections, and we're told (but not particularly shown) that most girls don't like her attitude either. With the eventual exception of Ishino, we never see her with any female friends, and even then Iroha is reluctant to acknowledge Ishino as anything more than an acquaintance. This makes her as much of a social outsider as Tsutsui, and it helps to explain why his clumsy attempts at kindness would resonate with her. Despite that, Iroha isn't exactly an open book. She doesn't volunteer much information about herself, and some key points of her backstory remain vague. We don't yet know what was going on when Tsutsui saw Iroha crying at the hospital, and we have yet to see or hear from her family in any meaningful capacity, let alone get a full explanation of why they will be moving in the near future. (We're told it's for work reasons, but I suspect there's more to the story.)

So these two make for a flawed pair of leads, but that seems to be the point. The story of their relationship is currently one of guarded people slowly trying to open up to one another, and they make plenty of mistakes along the way. It comes as little surprise that Tsutsui isn't a master of romance, and despite her reputation for dating around, Iroha doesn't seem to know what she's doing either. The conflicts that arise between them come across as a natural result of their clashing perspectives and personalities instead of feeling like artificial plot devices, which is a vital quality for a romance series to have. There's also some encouraging progress between them in the second and third episodes, as they start to form a little social group of their own by spending more time with each other. If Real Girl can continue building on that narrative of Iroha and Tsutsui helping one another figure life out, then it could easily be a compelling and worthwhile series.

On the visual front, this show leaves something to be desired. Its bright and cheerful color scheme sometimes feels at odds with the emotionally heavy scenes in these episodes, and the animation quality in general is mediocre. That's a shame, as it sometimes seems like the series could have done more to convey the character's intentions and emotions through facial expressions or body language, if only the production values were up to the task. The background art does at least mask its relative lack of detail with a watercolor palette; if you can't use detail to create a sense of place, the next best thing is using a more artistic style to set the mood.

Real Girl currently occupies an interesting middle ground between the blind optimism of sugary sweet romance and the deliberate dysfunction of a more dramatic story. Its characters can be abrasive or overly reluctant to open up, but there's something compelling about watching them move in a more positive direction. If you can get past the underwhelming visuals, there appears to be a sincere and nuanced story lurking beneath the surface. While I'm not yet in love with Tsutsui and Iroha, I'm excited to see how the two of them grow and change over time.

Rating: B

Real Girl is currently streaming on HIDIVE.

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