I don't know why it's becoming a trend that light novel titles mislead me. First, Are You Okay With a (Slightly) Older Girlfriend? tried telling me that a 27-year-old woman is only slightly older than a 15-year-old boy, and now My Friend's Little Sister Has It In for Me wants to flaunt Iroha Kohinata as the heroine, but that sexy babe on the cover isn't even the pivotal character. That honor goes to Mashiro Tsukinomori.
The plot goes like this: Akiteru Ooboshi is trying to leverage his playboy uncle's CEO position at a game development studio to score his dev team full-time positions there. All his brown-nosing's leaning toward paying off, but his uncle's got one condition to satisfy before he takes on the indie start-up—Akiteru has to pretend to be Mashiro's boyfriend until high school lets out. Only problem is that it's tough to act all lovey-dovey when your cousin hates your guts.
Not sure when fake relationships became the go-to romcom plot device, but here we are, with probably the faultiest usage I've seen. Akiteru's uncle's rationale is that Mashiro needs a bodyguard to keep the bullies away, but an actual bodyguard would also keep the friends away, so fake boyfriend is the best of both worlds. But isn't playing the role of boyfriend an unnecessary act? They're cousins. They can go to school as cousins. Akiteru can walk up to his classmates and say, “We're cousins, so don't mess with her or else I'll piledrive you into the asphalt.” It is possible, believe it or not, for a guy to protect a girl without white-knighting as her boyfriend. And despite the agreement that their romance is fake, Akiteru's uncle is also very insistent that he not date his daughter for real, because apparently Mashiro's not an independent woman capable of deciding who she wants for a boyfriend.
I don't mind Mashiro's presence in the story, but it's a bait-and-switch with what you get on the cover and what you get once act I's over. Iroha's not pushed to the sidelines, with her appearances being her blowing in like a hurricane, which is exactly what I was expecting, but Akiteru's only reactive to Iroha, whereas he's proactive with Mashiro, so in some ways, she feels like a secondary character in a series that should be hers. But this paragraph wouldn't exist if Mashiro and Iroha shared the cover and/or the series changed its title to something like My Friend's Little Sister Has It In for Me, And I Have to Pretend I'm Sticking It In My Cousin.
Funnily enough, despite being the plot's driving force, Mashiro herself comes off like a secondary character because her aloof personality doesn't align with the banter of Akiteru and Iroha. Watching them is like watching a two-person comedy act, with Akiteru offering up a quip to almost every trick and crack Iroha has up her short sleeves, and despite his nonstop grumbling of her being a thorn in his side, they interact on practically the same wavelength. You can see those lines overlap perfectly when she tries getting him to nom on a sausage sample at the grocery store. He initially refuses, but when she puts on a pouty act, drawing the ire of the food demonstrator who ships them, he relents, but she's rescinded the offer, unless he begs for her tiny wiener by delivering a proper sales pitch, which he does, statistics, enthusiasm, and all. Obviously, that food demonstrator's rooting for the right team.
Akiteru sampling sausage samples is just one sample of his waggish acuity. He's an unadulterated smartass, delivering witty commentary and snide remarks to the going-ons around him. Give Akiteru a situation and he'll find some spin on it, turning a concerted effort to invite Mashiro to a party a comic panel-like war of attrition. Because he's so liberal with his banter, in both his prose and his dialogue, I suspect that he would get bored of narrating if he didn't try and find the humor in the day-to-day. He continues to impress when he demonstrates his genre knowledge on romcoms, pointing out oversights in its frequent tropes, but shrewd as he seems during these moments, this is also the taper of his intellect.
Like any other work thick in the mire of a genre saturated with the same work reskinned 300 dozen times, My Friend's Little Sister Has It In for Me, And I've Got Something to Put In Her wants to elevate itself out the tar by admitting the shameful overuse of the gratuitous booby contact, which is all dandy and part of the genre life cycle anyway. The problem is, it points out the faults in other series and then thinks that makes it okay to play those faults straight, but acknowledgment doesn't equal justification. That'd be like noting how punching random strangers in the nuts is a no-no, but I go ahead with punching random strangers in the nuts.
Being a nice person is great, but characters in anime have this strange obsession with the quality, going so far as to point out that the protagonist's selfishness is actually a misinterpreted Gandhi-like kindness. Iroha pulls this same stunt partway through with Akiteru, who did technically do a good by guaranteeing his floormates' untapped talents didn't go to waste, but his motives were to secure his own future career. Not exactly sure that'd mark him as a chivalrous gentleman, but since he didn't trounce others in order to obtain his goals, it can safely be said that he's not a psychopath. Though hearing this splurging from Iroha, I can't help but wonder if she hadn't given herself a lobotomy beforehand, because very little of what Akiteru does or think can be considered nice. Just a few scenes earlier, Iroha, who's a shorty, was trying to reach a can of tomato juice from the top shelf at the grocery store, and Akiteru just stood there and watched her struggle. The notion to help didn't even cross his mind. While you can place Akiteru closer on the good side of the karmic meter, I'm not sure he's far enough to reach the nice bracket, but he does sit quite comfortably within the bracket for well-meaning dicks.
Despite Akiteru's nonstop assault of smartassery to the world, his hands are quite delicate when handling drama. He drops the comebacks and allows the mood to settle to a low simmer without dropping it so low that it sits there collecting dust and dead flies. This is when the story holds a magnifying glass over Mashiro, providing us a glance at her psyche similar to what the most recent volumes of Bottom-Tier Character Tomozaki have been doing. Not even small details are spared, so you get a crisp portrait of who Mashiro is and how she thinks, which is a huge transformation from her portrayal throughout the rest of the book, when she's just a right bitch.
It pains me that My Friend's Little Sister Has It In for Me Because She Helped Me Put It In has the flaws and myopia it does, because it's packed with just about everything I salivate for in a romcom. It's hilarious, smart, and considerate, and Akiteru's identity is so prevalent on its pages that this series feels like it's his story rather than a story. It's great all the way through, and it ends with such a beautiful and impactful line that I'm vaguely reminded of the final pages of the Scott Pilgrim comics. After reviewing a string of piddling light novels, it's unbelievable how refreshing it is to have reading material that isn't crap, and a good reminder that the industry isn't just endlessly pumping out mediocrity because it has it in for me.