The Helpful Fox Senko-san
by Steve Jones,
How would you rate episode 1 of
The Helpful Fox Senko-san ?
How would you rate episode 2 of
The Helpful Fox Senko-san ?
The pampering will continue until morale improves! That might as well be the motto of Senko, a fox goddess who has made it her personal divine mission to make sure salaryman Kuroto Nakano gets some direly needed R&R. Maybe sending an immortal to do some guy's housework is overkill, but such is the spirit of The Helpful Fox Senko-san, a deliberately gentle anime for decidedly ungentle times.
Doga Kobo as a studio have made a name for themselves by applying their loose and bouncy animation style to a number of successful comedy manga adaptations, like Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun and Himouto Umaru-chan. They've more recently made a more infamous name for themselves by producing two adaptations in a row about grown women who creep on little girls. Whether that was by coincidence or design, it didn't leave me with great expectations going into Senko-san, whose elevator pitch alone raises a ton of red flags (love that “she's actually 800 years old!” chestnut). Despite my trepidation, however, I left these two episodes feeling conditionally hopeful about the show's premise and execution. There's a sincerity to its apparent goal of comforting the viewer through soft and fuzzy character interactions, and there's even a nobility to the directness with which it addresses the ills of late capitalism.
Nakano's plight is an insidiously mundane one. He works a nondescript office job for long hours, and by the time he gets home, he's too tired to take care of himself. He lives alone, eats poorly, sleeps sparingly, and then wakes up and does it all over again. It's an all too familiar story for most people working themselves to the bone just to make ends meet, or out of a sense of duty to either their employer or their coworkers. It's a dangerous way to live, and I appreciate the degree to which Senko repeatedly calls this kind of lifestyle unhealthy. To her eyes, it manifests as an ominous black cloud swirling around Nakano's head—a portent of the “ruin” (i.e. death) that awaits him if he continues to overwork himself. Her concern for him (and some unspecified debt to his family) inspires her to insert herself into his apartment to install her one-stop pampering shop for all of his household needs.
That in itself is enough of a premise to build a narrative on, but I think the more important draw of The Helpful Fox Senko-san is its intended functionality as wish-fulfillment for its target audience. In most anime like this, the protagonist is little more than a glorified audience stand-in, often to the show's detriment, but that gimmick is a little more appropriate for this particular show. You're meant to come home after a long day, queue this up on your television or computer, and wind down to the show's gentle acoustics and fluffy aesthetic. Senko-san is at its most honest in its post-credits scenes, where it adopts a first-person perspective as Senko greets and treats you to the same small comforts she showed Nakano in the preceding episode. It's pure wish-fulfillment, but it's some of the most wholesome kind I've seen an anime embrace—granting the wish of having someone in your life to take care of you, or simply having the ability to take care of yourself.
For many people, one or both of those may not be possible right now, so having venues like this where these experiences can be digested in a safe environment can actually be helpful. I also like that Nakano constantly expresses discomfort with Senko's efforts to help him, but Senko gently but firmly rebutts his protests to emphasize that it's okay for him to relax. I know from experience that it's hard to express your own vulnerabilities, and it's even harder when society at large defines our worth by the labor we produce and nothing more. But self-care is important, and there's a huge audience that might need to hear these kinds of positive affirmations. There's an entire library of popular ASMR roleplays on YouTube that attests to this desire, and I see Senko-san fulfilling a similar niche. It's comfort food whose purpose is to tell you that it's okay to eat comfort food.
Overall, Senko-san is a pretty darn comforting anime. It's not the cleanest-looking show I've seen from Doga Kobo, but it nails the softness it's aiming for. By design, Senko is colored to effuse warmth, with reds, oranges, and yellows, so she naturally illuminates the scenes she's in. The pacing is appropriately deliberate, letting the viewer soak in the illustrations of a home-cooked meal or the quiet pauses between lines of dialogue. And when both your OP and ED vamp on the fluffiness of your main character's tail, you had better hope the anime follows through. Thankfully, Senko's fur is drawn with a more-than-acceptable degree of fluff. Azumi Waki's performance indulges all the mannerisms you would expect from an 800-year-old tiny fox goddess, but there's also a gentleness to her register that fits the tone of the show. The always-great Junichi Suwabe injects a surprising amount of personality into the mild-mannered Nakano, but given that his other major role this season is a magical butt-sucking kappa, I don't think this will be his more memorable turn. Senko-san will still lean too heavily into the iyashikei style to entertain some viewers, but for those looking to relax, it should get the job done
Of course, no healing experience is perfect, and Doga Kobo shows that don't elicit at least one “yikes” from me apparently don't exist anymore. By no means is The Helpful Fox Senko-san on the level of “yikes” that UzaMaid and Wataten delivered, but so far its attempts at humor have been bland to just bad. I really don't need “jokes” about Nakano going to prison or Senko's “real” age. These aren't even close to original material, and it feels like the writer going through the motions of barely self-aware humor out of some sense of duty. More importantly, this stuff works against the show's intended purpose as relaxation fodder. Nakano's desire to touch Senko's tail and ears, while mercifully chaste in execution, can still veer into uncomfortable territory. And I haven't even gotten into the implied gender politics of the show's setup or the kinds of labor society expects women to perform for men. If Senko-san leans more into its wholesome and healing elements and throws the tired humor into the trash, it'll be in a much better place.
The Helpful Fox Senko-san has the potential to be this season's gentle balm for a harsh world, combating the scourge of overwork with a soft mantra of self-care. Ideally, we'd all have the option of coming home to a cute fox deity who cooks our dinner and forces us to get a full eight hours of sleep, but just having an anime about that fantasy is pretty good too. I just hope it embraces a tone that doesn't make me pray to the anime gods for no creepiness every time I boot up a new episode.
Steve does 100 push-ups, 100 crunches, 100 squats, runs 10km, and watches 1,000 hours of anime every day. You can read all about it on his Twitter.
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