[Hello all and welcome to Weeb Analysis: a monthly column dedicated to analyzing new anime and seeing which titles are truly the classics in the making and which ones are worthless shlock not worth your time. Sit back, get some sushi or ramen, and get ready to learn about anime.]
As I’m sure many disgruntled high schoolers are all too aware of, popularity is never indicative of overall quality. We’ve all had moments where the world was obsessed with some form of media and all we could do was just shrug our shoulders and wonder why so many people cared. Just because something is popular, regardless of the type of media, that doesn’t make it automatically good.
There was a time where Madden, the Michael Bay Transformers films, and Justin Beiber were the most popular things on the planet, but I have never once heard anyone say those franchises had an enduring quality. In fact, when people are defending them, they’re on their back foot. Somethings are popular because they’re evergreen.
People in America love football, so football video games are always popular. The Bayformers films are loaded with intense special effects and explosions, showing us something we’ve never seen before. Beiber and his Beliebers are devoid of logic but have a purely emotional attachment to each other. They define the rule, but there are examples where popularity does correlate to quality. Just look at the recent success of the MCU films. Call me a cynical bastard, I find those are the exception rather than the rule.
Anime is no different. The majority of popular titles are Shonen action series that drone on and one with no end in sight. I’ve also seen many a time where a publisher or studio forces a franchise onto the unsuspecting masses in an attempt to will it into popularity. Anyone remember the myriad of Tokyo Ghoul sequels or… *shudder*… Sword Art Online? Chalk it up to the disposable nature of most anime titles, which release new episodes over the course of 3 months and quickly fade into the ether.
To see a franchise become popular by word of mouth is exceedingly rare since most shows only pop up for 12 or so episodes before never being heard from again. Not impossible, but definitely improbable. Which brings us to Rent-A-Girlfriend, the surprise smash-hit of the Summer 2020 anime season. It became one of the most-streamed titles on Crunchyroll with consistently high user engagement, especially in comparison to most of the fodder that Crunchyroll was putting out back then.
Almost overnight, it seemed to become the most talked-about anime of the year despite no one in the West having ever heard of the damn franchise before. And, if you couldn’t piece it together from the intro above, you would be correct in assuming that Rent-A-Girlfriend is also flaming trash. It is a dumpster fire of epic proportions that always finds new ways to piss you off and leave you fuming at its entire cast of characters.
And I think I kind of like it?
Kazuya is a college student who just got dumped by his girlfriend, Mami. He was head over heels for her, so in an act of complete self-pity, he decided to rent a girlfriend for one night in order to feel some form of affection from another woman. This rental girlfriend, Chizuru, is nice to him, but of course – it’s just for a job. One waaaaaaacky circumstance after another, Kazuya has to continue to rent her to keep up appearances with his family and friends, all while accidentally falling in love with Chizuru. Chizuru isn’t having any of it and is instead trying to help him get a girlfriend so he can leave her the hell alone. Oh and she starts to fall from him too but has to be a tsundere and pretend she doesn’t love him because DRAMA.
So Rent-A-Girlfriend is the latest example of a harem anime, a genre where there are multiple women who fall head over heels in love with our main character because, gee golly, wish-fulfillment sure is fun! It’s one of the more shameless genres in anime, focused more on creating erotic situations in the guise of a comedy that can easily leave many people uncomfortable. At best, it’s inoffensive and just serves as a cheap way to force character drama to occur. At worst, you have unspeakable nightmares like Eiken, which is the kind of eldritchian abomination that’s too much for most mortals. Don’t look it up. Don’t think about it. Just take my word for it and move on.
For all of the righteous sleaze and anger that the show may generate from me, I have to give Rent-A-Girlfriend some credit. While it is a weird harem show that is wildly immature (and also depicts some truly teeth-gnashing behavior from Kazuya in his quest to not be a pathetic loser), it does some of the most honest depictions of breakups in any media I’ve seen. No really! There are rare moments of emotional maturity that gave me such tonal whiplash that a show like this would even be capable of such sincerity and truth.
The third and fourth episodes of the show don’t hold back at criticizing romance tropes in fiction. Chizuru puts her foot down and says that Kazuya can’t go parading her around as his girlfriend to her friends since they’re not actually dating. Kazuya says that it would be awkward if he did so publically, but Chizuru says that breakups are never easy. One way or another, his friends are going to find out.
Breakups are meant to be messy and while it may suck at the moment, it’s beneficial for positive emotional growth and making Kazuya not reliant on the thoughts of his friends, but the needs of the self. Kazuya was only showing off Chizuru to his friends to try and make his ex jealous (they have similar friend groups) and the resulting argument that breaks out over Kazuya “dumping” Chizuru is hard to watch. But it’s meant to be that way and it works really well.
It’s one of those scenes that is admittingly hard to describe without the proper context but take my word as someone who is ready to shit all over this show: there are good moments here. I mean, the show almost immediately derails itself by having one of the friends guilt Chizuru into continuing to date Kazuya, but you can’t blame the characters for acting in a way when they’re not privy to all of the information.
So then the next episode has Kazuya masturbating to pictures of his ex for a good minute or two! Here’s the mid-roll picture from that episode! Yup! It’s exactly what you think it is.
You almost have to appreciate just how shameless Rent-A-Girlfriend is at being easily digestible smut. Kazuya is the definition of a manchild who can never accept responsibility for his actions, mopes about his lack of sexual prowess, and yet he has several women falling in love with him and guys wanting to be like him. The main conceit of the story is apparent right up front: Kazuya wants a girlfriend. Not a rental girlfriend, a genuine romantic bond.
So it’s confusing when in episode 6, he discovers a girl that genuinely likes him and wants to date him. There, the series is done! Wrap it up, the dilemma of the main character has been solved, role credits. No, the show actively tries to backpedal from its gungho direction and leaves us with a series where the conflict could have been resolved quickly, but instead, sees the latter half attempting to invalidate its beginning arc.
All of this is, of course, an attempt to deliver some jokes. The more ludicrous the situations Kazuya ends up in, allegedly, the funnier it will be. But comedy is one of the hardest genres to nail properly and Rent-A-Girlfriend has a massive uphill battle against it. Not just in terms of subject matter but in delivery as well.
Humor is not something that translates well across cultures. Some types of humor are universal, like physical slapstick comedy. The humor from that derives from the subject receiving physical pain when they weren’t expecting it. It’s a visceral reaction that we react to almost immediately. Intellectual jokes are much harder to get across as you not only have the language barrier but different cultural norms.
In Japan, watching a clumsy girl fall and flash her panties only to be embarrassed by it is seen as funny in most anime. In America, that kind of set-up and punchline really isn’t used for humor. It’s not generally a situation that most Americans would find funny since our sense of humor has developed differently. And that’s really all of the humor that Rent-A-Girlfriend shows off: cringe humor.
Girls in awkward positions? Kazuya lying his way out of problems in increasingly unbelievable ways? Both Kazuya and Chizuru’s grandmothers doing everything in their power to make their grandkids make the beast with two backs -for real, horny grandmas are a thing in this series-? How about an episode where Kazuya’s spends all of his time hanging out with a girl whose only personality is that she’s cripplingly shy? The series has all of that and none of it is ever amusing.
And yet the show found an audience. People were able to find something of worth with Kazuya and his pathetic antics. That is truly something to be admired. Sure, Rent-A-Girlfriend may fall into numerous -and I mean NUMEROUS- pitfalls that other harem comedies also are guilty of, but it has enough unique traits to at least give it an identity of its own.
All of the main characters are college-aged adults. There are no lame high school antics like in most comedies of the genre, but instead, adults having to worry about adult problems. There are still exams to worry about, but Kazuya often wonders how he’s going to make rent. Characters talk openly about career prospects in a way that feels relatable. There’s never any sex in the show (not yet anyway), but at least there are discussions that relationships are more than sex and are dependent on both parties actively trying to come together and solve whatever problems they might have.
Then again, Rent-A-Girlfriend also seems to be aware of how it’s making excuses at every moment to justify the plot continuing. I’m usually someone who hates to excuse the flaws of a movie or show by saying that it’s self-aware. Personally, when a show acknowledges that it’s using a stupid trope and believes that addressing said trope while continually engaging in it is funny, I find it lazy. But Rent-A-Girlfriend outright says that Kazuya is a bad person and that all of his problems are his own making and forces him to come to terms with it. There are no excuses for his actions, just making us watch, sometimes in vain, scene after scene of Kazuya, maybe, hopefully, becoming a better person.
That usually doesn’t happen, but we still watch it because, deep down, we want him to mature. We want him to become a fully functional adult. I went on about this more in my Scott Pilgrim vs. The World piece a month or so ago, but there’s something fascinating to me about watching a movie or show where it outright states that its main character is bad and we end up watching them try to better themselves not for the sake of others, but only themselves. In essence, Kazuya is no different from Scott. They’re both manchildren who need to do better and the journey in watching them do so is one worth getting invested in.
Now, whether or not that’s enough to justify 12 episodes is another story. Like I said, if Rent-A-Girlfriend lasted about six episodes, it would probably make for a better film versus a TV series. But with 12 episodes completed and a second season already greenlit, not to mention over 17 manga volumes in the ongoing serialization, it’ll be a while until Kazuya reaches that emotional maturity. We’re probably going to have to watch more uncomfortable sex jokes, grannies forcing young adults to boink, and countless awkward excuses from Kazuya and Chizuru to justify them totally still dating to their friends, but it may be a journey that’s worth taking.
Oh, it’s not good. Not at all. Despite that, Rent-A-Girlfriend is for those strange souls who want an incredibly flawed show that at least isn’t trying to hide its flaws. I think there’s something to truly admire about that. Or maybe 2020 has beaten me down so much I’m actually giving praise to a show that I would have roasted in any other year. I’m not quite sure which it is at this point. But it’s certainly an experience that will have you talking for quite a while.