Saekano: How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend
by Theron Martin,
One piece has been missing since the first episode: both the last girl to fill out the harem and the person who would take on the crucial role of doing the music for Blessing Software. The opener and episode 0 have always indicated this to be the same person: Michiru, who also fills the role of the sexy female cousin whom the male protagonist has regularly played with since they were little kids. Her formal introduction in this episode reveals that the connection between her and Aki is even stronger than normal, though: they were even born on the same day in the same hospital, and on top of that she apparently has a long-standing habit of winding up at Aki's house whenever she gets fed up with her Dad and runs away from home. Perhaps needless to say, that throws Eriri (who has always seemed to relish the “childhood friend” role) for a loop. Though we don't see it this episode, Utaha will also doubtless be thrown off when she sees that Michiru easily has a figure that is the rival of hers.
That she can provide the background music necessary for the game – which fails to sink in for Aki until he actually hears her play at the end of the episode (and the scene where he realizes how perfectly her music would fit with his vision of the game is a wonderfully-planned and edited one) – is not her only importance here. She also represents the last remaining personality archetype for the harem: the loose and carefree one, the one who – ironically! – is not tied down by the role she has to fill, the one who is playful, casual, and direct in ways the that other girls are not and shows with her body language that she is unconcerned with physically being around Aki or how he might take it. In fact, she is not even fazed by the obligatory scene of Aki stumbling across her in the bath, which is, of course, meant to be a very “meta” and ironic scene since just before that he had been videoconferencing with the girls and the issue of the clichéd “lucky pervert” scene came up. So far she gives the impression of merely being playful with Aki rather than romantically interested in him, but it is still early. And naturally Utaha and Eriri do not take it well when they learn of her existence, while Megumi seems unconcerned for the moment – or at least not threatened to the degree that she initially seemed to be by Izumi.
That “irony” came up more than once in the preceding paragraph is not coincidental, as irony is the driving force of the episode. (That could really be said to be true about the whole series, but it shows more strongly here than in any previous episode.) In addition to the aforementioned, it shows up in Michiru's comments to Aki about how he could be popular with the girls if he just eschewed his otaku ways, and in Aki's seeming agreement that being an otaku and being popular with girls were two mutually exclusive things. It shows up in how Aki has the best of both worlds and is too focused to realize and accept it. And in the episode's biggest gimmick, it shows up in the fan service. The series has always played up the “male gaze” to a literal, almost laughable extent, with the girls sometimes striking sexy poses in unwarranted situations, as if to imply how ridiculous their sexualization is. (Or in some cases it could be looked at as the girls being hypocritical, as they do exactly what they have complained about to others.) Those leering, lingering panning shots and shifts to focus on a girl's stocking-clad legs or properly-covered rear or chest seem entirely exaggerated in this episode, and not until near the end does it finally reveal what it might have been setting up all along: it does the exact same thing to Aki when he's standing clad only in a towel. In fact, the episode culminates with Aki – and not one of the girls – being the one that is fully exposed.
If this really was the joke that was coming all along – and given how deliberate everything seemed, I have to think it was – then it's a play of a level of brilliance that you just don't normally see in harem series. (Sure, you might see the “towel drops and he's accidentally exposed” routine elsewhere, but never so carefully engineered at it is here.) In fact, the humor in general is exactly, bitingly on-target throughout the episode. It may not be intense enough to make you laugh out loud at any point, but it can keep you constantly amused. Combine that with how smoothly it works in the game production commentary and how surprisingly flawlessly the “music fits the story” scene works and you have a story here hitting on all cylinders. The more I see of how this series operates, the more I think that I may have underrated some of its earlier content; in fact, I highly recommend going back and rewatching episode 1 in light of how things are playing out, as it certainly adds new perspective to what, at that point, seemed like little more than common harem antics.
In fact, what Saekano seems to be doing is an approach that I am not sure has ever been done before: it is subtly satirizing both harem series and dating sims and all of their typical trappings, rather than outright parodying them. And despite how contradictory it may seem to apply raw intellectualism to something as tawdry as harem series or dating sims, the effort is working.
Saekano: How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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