My first viewing of Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai (courtesy of Crunchyroll) left me with immensely positive feelings about the series: as the credits of the last episode rolled and knowing that a Blu-ray release was (kind of) imminent, I asked myself: would I pay money for this? The answer was yes. Yet originally, 30 seconds into the first episode, I turned it off – likely I was in the mood for something a bit more boisterous but come a week later and four episodes down I was thoroughly charmed. Now with the MVM collector’s edition out for sale I was lucky enough to not have to splash the cash, having won it in their prize draw and so there was nothing left for me but to see if returning to rascally-ness and bunny girl senpai would leave me with the same feelings.
But for the uninitiated…
As happens to me in everyday life, loner, Sakuta Azusagawa meets teenage actor, and his high school senpai, Mai Sakurajima, in the library – only Mai happens to be wearing a bunny suit and only Sakuta can see her. Recognising that Mai’s trouble is puberty syndrome (defined as “abnormal experiences rumoured to be caused by sensitivity and instability during adolescence”), Sakuta starts to solve the problem of Mai’s growing invisibility to the wider world, and in doing so realises he is starting to fall in love with Mai.
Then stories emerge of girls suffering from puberty syndrome and Sakuta is just the guy to help them!
So far, so very similar in part to the great Bakemonogatari. In some ways the comparison is apt, and though I generally dislike comparing series to series, Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai feels like it exists at an adjacent intersection of Bakemonogatari, March Comes in Like a Lion, with hints of a less salacious Scum’s Wish. All three of those series are superb, in mine humble opinion. Not that Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai ever tries to be any of them, rather it has elements of the supernatural as does Bakemonogatari plus you have a central teenage character who falls for the first woman he helps, and then is surrounded by other women in need of his aid. Nevertheless, Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai hasn’t any of the bloody violence or visual architecture of Bakemonogatari. Its tone I felt was closer to the gentle sincerity of March Comes in Like a Lion, as well as its more muted art style (compared to Bakemonogatari but then what doesn’t?). Where I felt Scum’s Wish came in was some of the honesty about teenage sexual feelings, though never presented quite as explicitly as Scum’s Wish and with more of a humorous smile, and a nod and a wink (which is of course the same to a blind bat).
Essentially, Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai deals with the pains and perils of being a teenager and those tricky all-over-the-shop hormones that lead to falling in love. Though Sakuta is very much in the same situation as the girls he helps: he cannot escape puberty syndrome and the peril of being ostracised.
What centres Rascal is the characterisation and the relationships that are formed. Central to that… um… centre (linguistic powers to the fore once again) is of course Sakuta and Mai. (Dammit I’m going to do it again…) Their relationship reminded me a little of the one in the underrated Mysterious Girlfriend X, where there is an implicit level of trust in the protagonists relationship: yes, there is some uncertainty, but essentially a confidence though always the risk of jealousy; it recognises that causing pain can and will happen, sometimes easily and unintentionally, as well as the concomitant forgiveness that comes from loving the other and that one accepts the other for what they are, pros and cons intact. To put it another way, Rascal cuts out the melodrama.
Of course it takes a while for Sakuta and Mai’s relationship to develop and the storytelling sometimes causes this relationship to falter, for good old fashioned legitimate plot reasons. This has the effect of fleshing out Sakuta’s character: he’s essentially a good ‘un (a bit like Araragi in Bakemonogatari) because he risks his own chance to become closer to Mai to help others. The pacing of this is well done – delayed gratification, for the audience, makes it all the more satisfying when they get together. Not that this is a spoiler, it’s always going to happen.
More than anything I enjoyed the honesty of Sakuta and Mai’s relationship – one scene sticks in the memory of Sakuta being scolded (albeit gently) and he’s grinning like a beatific idiot, to which Mai tells him he shouldn’t be so perversely happy to be told off. Sakuta responds with how could he not be happy? he’s looking at his girlfriend’s legs. (Mai’s sat on the bed edge, swinging her legs, Sakuta is on the floor.) It’s the tone of the exchange that does it; where it could be played as a bit pervy-salacious-boyfriend it’s the opposite; there’s a sense that both characters are starting to know the other so well and they are both falling into roles that they are enjoying playing. They’d not want the other to behave in any way differently. It’s almost serene. There’s a refreshing honesty to their exchanges, too. Though there are frequent and well-aimed innuendo, where other anime slice of life series might go off on plots of confused jealousy, Sakuta and Mai’s relationship avoid these sorts of manic misunderstanding tropes and it’s all the more fascinating for it because it allows the series to really delve into the nuances of their relationship, rather than going for over the top antics. It also provides a sense of closeness to them when you watch the series unfold.
It’s worth considering Sakuta a little more deeply because unlike many male anime leads, he’s never wishy-washy. He’s capable of sly humour (as is Mai), but there’s a beautiful straightforwardness to his character and he frequently displays mature thoughtfulness – he’s not just an I’ll-Help-You machine plot device character. You think that this is what draws Mai to him. After all, Mai is a successful actor and Sakuta is a (reasonably) (ab)normal high school guy. At one point someone observes to Mai that they begin to understand why she likes Sakuta and Rascal could really have fallen down hard here if the relationship felt forced. If anything you feel what’s unspoken between them constantly and that Mai hasn’t fallen for Sakuta because he’s helped her but because of something innate within his character that could kindle devotion. Likewise Sakuta doesn’t just fall for Mai because she’s famous, and good looking (bunny suit or otherwise).
Though initially mainly a loner, Sakuta’s world is widened by the female friends he discovers as he finds and guides them through their brushes puberty syndrome. (Sakuta does have one male friend but he only marginally signifies.) These characters themselves are distinct and the stories Rascal tells us have the effect of both telling contained stories but also of developing the relationship between Sakuta and Mai.
Of these further female characters my thoughts changed in some instances: during my first viewing I felt that the closest any of them came to being a cookie cutter character was Sakuta’s sister, Kaede, who he looks after with considerable devotion. Yet, watching the series the second time Kaede’s story made me realise that her character was pretty much spot on. Watching her from the start knowing where her story would go made me realise just how the series had nailed the character’s behaviour. There’s something immensely pleasurable in returning to a series and having those moments that if not revelatory, if anything improve upon the first viewing.
So how did I feel about it watching it again? Let’s chuck some context in for you: I watched it over a couple of days, after about ten odd weeks into the first lock down, and then with a few days off work and feeling stressed to the gills. Normally when stressed I’ll head the other way from Rascal and watch something heavier like Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, using it as a literal hammer to blitz away everything I’m feeling, so this was an odd choice for me (aside: I started watching Rascal right after Tsukamoto’ short Adventures of Electric Rod Boy). Yet with a bottle of red wine, I watched the first eight or nine episodes non-stop and it flowed by elegantly, a true case of a series insinuating itself under my skin. And for me that’s the mark of a very, very good series (or film), because in many ways I find Rascal to be very low key. There may be brief moments of brash action but these are appropriate to the story and the characters, so Rascal I feel is the kind of series that needs to insinuate itself and it does, mainly by engaging us in caring about the characters. They really are why you’re here because though it looks fine, the animation is fluid and character designs feel appropriately real, nevertheless visually it’s not one of those knock your socks off series. That said I like that, because you see how they’ve worked more with getting the details right, such as when Mai is off on a shoot and Sakuta, searching for her, and seeing her, Mai is standing to the side, swaddled in a puffer-jacket, sheltering from the cold. It has the feeling of someone being on a real film shoot. No glamour just downright professionalism.
The title may be suggestive of rampant fan service, but despite the fact that we first meet Mai wearing a bunny suit, there’s very little in the way of it and what little there is of women in bathing suits is all presented as a natural part of the story being told. Though the title sequence does have a certain amount of Mai bunny suit dancing action - perhaps to suggest there is more bunny girl action than the series ever has – don’t approach the series expecting fan service. If anything you’re more likely to get shots of Sakuta in the bath than any of the women.
Beyond the spot-on dynamics of the Sakuta-Mai relationship, in some ways I struggle to describe why I enjoyed the series so much both times round. I liked the quiet drama and slow burn of the core relationship – there were moments where it could have gone into melodrama and these, happily, were sidestepped. Maybe it’s because the series works both as a slice of life and as a series of fantastical stories. It walks a number of tightropes: humour and seriousness, slice of life and the fantastic, character development and story development, and it’s satisfying on all counts. None of the aspects ever really overtake or overbalance the others. Nothing feels out of place to break the mood of an episode and maybe most of all, you really find yourself rooting for Sakuta and Mai and want them to be happy and in a way that feels appropriate to the tone of the story and the characters. That seems to me to be a sign of a successful series.
Perhaps it comes back to my earlier statement: it’s just one of those series that gets under your skin. It’s not flashy, it’s just a classy piece of work.
But what, I hear you shout, of the collector’s edition? Glad you reminded me. It’s lovingly wrapped up in a slipcase and within you’ll find a series of widescreen postcard artworks and a glossy booklet. The booklet contains the expected character design sketches and several of the locations in the series. The general design of the edition intrigued me because it felt quite low-key and in a way that entirely suits the series, so kudos to MVM for getting that right. Also, the subtitles have been changed from the Crunchyroll version, which had errors like synonymously using “puberty syndrome” and “adolescent syndrome” without deciding on one or the other. In terms of extras it’s just trailers and clean opening, closing credits. Also for those that looking for a dub, it’s subtitles only. No problems there for me, generally being anti-dub and the voice work is very good – I hadn’t realised that the voice of Mai, Asami Seto, also voiced Raphtalia in The Rising of the Shield Hero. Both won best female character in the Crunchyroll awards. Both rightfully so.
Talk about a chance meeting...